Before, During, and After Scopes

Charles A. Israel

Department of History

Auburn University


First let me thank the editors of the Journal of Southern Religion for the opportunity to participate in this forum; I am especially grateful to the reviewers for their comments, criticisms, compliments. I apologize to them all, as well as to the readers of this wonderful journal, for the length of time that has elapsed between the posting of the reviews and the submission of my reply.


One of the most difficult exercises I experienced in graduate school was sitting quietly as a fellow student summarized what she saw as the major arguments I was attempting to make in my semester's-end research paper on Revolutionary North America.  Now this was not some exercise in southern politeness, mind you; the professor directing the seminar demanded the author's silence during the ordeal.  Some people who know me personally might now insert a knowing glance at each other, suggesting that my not talking was a truly revolutionary moment. But the point of the exercise, however uncomfortable those moments when I wanted to leap to my own defense and explain how she got it wrong and correct her with what I really knew I had written, was that there can be quite a gap between author's intentions and readers' perceptions. While as an author I should carefully craft each sentence, chapter, and book to minimize misunderstandings, as an historian I can also relish the ideas and opportunities encountered in the exchange. Reading reviews of Before Scopes as they have appeared in the past two years has been a larger, lengthier, and longer distance version of that old graduate school exercise; it has also pointed to the creative possibilities of scholarly interactions. Thanks to the interest of the JSR editors and the more forgiving capacities of this electronic medium, I get an opportunity too few authors enjoy: a chance to continue the conversations. Even when I disagree in places with a reviewer's characterizations of my book, I am excited for the opportunity to revisit what I wrote in Before Scopes with such engaged readers.


"The southern churches I found in the early twentieth century were shaped by their culture, but rather than mere captives, . . . they also were continuing to shape their surrounding society."  


I came to the topic that I think is at the center of Before Scopes through a disagreement with the existing historiography on religion in the American South. As Beth Barton Schweiger points out in her astute, searching, and yet generous review, this historiographical concern about the social engagement of southern white evangelicals as framed by Samuel Hill in the 1960s seems perilously out of date to observers of the early 21st century. But when I was reading Hill's Southern Churches in Crisis for the first time in the mid-1990s, I was struck by the disjunction between his generalizations about white evangelicals' historically comfortable acceptance of the existing social, racial, and economic order and what I was reading from Wayne Flynt and others on what John Boles has termed those few "clerical radicals" on the margins of southern society who seemed intent on challenging those generalizations.[1] In my earliest efforts to define a dissertation project, I even proclaimed my intention to dispense with Hill's thesis altogether, promising to find a great number of southern white evangelicals bent on overturning the existing southern social order. What I ended up with, a dissertation that became the nucleus of Before Scopes, was both more and less than promised.  It was not a story of clerical radicals, but instead a much more nuanced story of southern white evangelicals' engagement with their society during the important transition to a modern South in which their numbers and political power grew even as their control over the culture seemed to erode. The southern churches I found in the early twentieth century were shaped by their culture, but rather than mere captives, to use John L. Eighmy's evocatively misleading phrase, they also were continuing to shape their surrounding society.[2]


I feel particularly fortunate to have drawn Professor Schweiger as a reviewer, for both in her written work and in personal conversation she has proven to be a remarkable historian and the best of critics, breaking new scholarly ground while also identifying positive contributions, muddled thoughts, and scholarly shortcomings in my work. Her specific complaints about my omissions in this case are largely indefensible on my part, especially my lack of attention to the changing gender identity of the teaching corps in public schools in the decades preceding the trial. In the book I highlight an incident that evangelical critics thought epitomized the problems with public schools, namely the dangers of poor moral character in too many teachers. After one candidate for a teaching position assaulted another, who in turn shot a pistol at his assailant, the press lamented “It is a sign of serious social demoralization when school teachers go about unlawfully lugging pistols in their hip pockets.”[3] What I did not note was that the two men involved in this altercation were some of the very few non-collegiate teachers explicitly identified as male in this period. While treating the incident in the book as an example of public qualms about the morality of the teaching corps, a gendered analysis of how this imperfect transmission of church and family duties of education into the public school fit with the feminization of the teaching corps would have been a fruitful avenue of analysis I should have pursued.[4]  I was explicit in the book's introduction of my reasons for skirting most questions of racial relations in my reconstruction of the world before the Scopes Trial, but I should have been more aware of the important questions of gender that now seem so obvious.[5]  Schweiger also notes the curious, and seemingly contradictory moments at the turn of the century when first in Nashville and then in Memphis city boards of education rejected proposals to mandate daily use of the Bible in the public schools. I believe the urban environments, and particularly the far more apparent religious diversity of the cities, made it impossible to assume a Methodist-Baptist domination in quite the same way one could in much of the rest of the state. But having struck out in early efforts to make much of significance out of a rural-urban distinction in support or opposition to anti-evolution legislation, I mostly used these incidents to highlight how evangelical support for the Butler bill in 1925 was so different from what had come before. But as Schweiger suspects, and I should have further explored, there is likely much more to the story.[6]


Samuel Hill's interests and influence ranged widely over the field, but his most influential Southern Churches in Crisis gained much of its effectiveness from his choice of a moment of crisis—the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s—and the skill with which Hill blended historical contextualization, sociological analysis, and even prophetic warning into a book that graced the shelves and minds of a wide audience while almost single-handedly catalyzing a new interest in the study of southern religion.  While not pretending to any of Hill's great abilities, I sought to emulate his strategy of choosing a moment of crisis (or, I would suggest, clarity), using it to explore a much longer history of the relationship between evangelicals and southern society. But what moment? What could capture the complex relationship?  I settled on the Scopes Trial of 1925 as the most promising.


I once thought, as a native of Tennessee, I was perhaps overly sensitive in assuming that students in the South and even more elsewhere had images of southern religion as a uniform mass of fanatical, fundamentalist, Baptist, snake-handling zealots. Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews's new work, Rethinking Zion: How the Print Media Placed Fundamentalism in the South[7] admirably shows a much richer version of how and when this image of fundamentalism was fixed on the South, but I have anecdotally seen how it continues to happen in classrooms throughout the country. When preparing for a seminar a couple of years ago, I surveyed the rows of twelve to fifteen U.S. history textbooks burdening the shelves in my office and was alarmed to find that the single account of religion in the South since 1865 that appeared in nearly every one was the Scopes Trial.  Many of the books took more positive notice of some religious aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, though even here mostly confined to mentioning the large number of preachers involved as leaders.  Scopes and the supposed Fundamentalists behind it stood in for all of southern (and in some cases American) religion in these books; even more dishearteningly the trial was variously contextualized with the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Scare, Prohibition, Immigration Restriction, and the Sacco and Vanzetti Case in chapters with subtitles such as "Backlash" and "The Rural Counterattack."[8] The trial proves irresistible for most textbook authors, providing the drama of a spectacular event that also seems to confirm their expectations of a South fervent in a particular type of religious belief or their need for a counterpoint to the emergent modernism of the 1920s America.  Mix in the textbook instructor's guide suggestions for students to read H.L. Mencken's dispatches from the trial or that the basics could be illustrated by a showing of the movie Inherit the Wind and you have a lesson plan almost guaranteed to perpetuate a rather stereotyped vision of the South and its culture, not to mention how it might simplify or obscure the important issues wrapped up in the trial itself.


The attraction of the trial to me was in that political and judicial spectacle of 1925, southern evangelicals seemed to demonstrate something Hill's work suggested I should not expect to see: political engagement. For despite the image of a defeated and chastised anti-evolution movement as presented by Inherit the Wind, the trial resulted from the violation of a law passed with the apparently quite vocal support of many of Tennessee's supposedly anti-political evangelicals. Mencken lumped all the religious supporters of the legislation together under the label of the "holy rollers on Shin-bone Ridge" but I wondered just who was actually supporting the anti-evolution legislation in Tennessee.[9]  This led me to look broadly at the legislative and political history of 1920s Tennessee, and chronologically back in time to explore the significance of evangelical political participation in the anti-evolution fight.  My search yielded two important discoveries, both of which I present in much more detail in Before Scopes. First, I found that support for the anti-evolution legislation among white evangelicals was far from unanimous and actually of quite recent vintage; Tennessee evangelicals had been actively discussing the relationship of science and religion for quite some time before 1925 and they were not, as George M. Marsden seems to suggest in his otherwise excellent survey of American fundamentalism, always Fundamentalists-in-all-but-name and just waiting for the label to be invented and imported from more northern climes.[10]  Second, the history of evangelical social engagement could best be explored by tracking their relationship to a particularly important aspect of society: the education of youth.  For while the education of youth for godliness and preparation for conversion might fit perfectly well with Hill's description of an other-worldly southern religion based on a single-minded obsession with the question "what must I do to be saved?" evangelical support for education in worldly subjects signaled a real interest in shaping the future earthly society as well.[11]


Many American historians shy away from histories of education, undeservedly marginalizing one of the most fruitful objects of social, political, intellectual, and cultural inquiry into the past.  I was extremely fortunate in my last year of graduate school to receive a generous dissertation completion fellowship from the Spencer Foundation, a Chicago-based philanthropy focused on a rather broadly defined mission of research related to education. The fellowship included not only much appreciated financial support, but also a series of extended meetings with other fellows and senior scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines.  While certainly aiding in contextualizing the history of education, the fellowship year had the additional effect of making me consider in a much more explicit fashion the current controversies over evolution in public education. I had submitted my application for the Spencer fellowship soon after the Kansas Board of Education in 1999 had quite publicly altered the curriculum standards to remove requirements that students be examined in their knowledge of biological evolution; I have occasionally thought I should have sent a thank-you note to the Board for their now-reversed decision surely created a sense of current relevance that allowed the fellowship selection committee to look more favorably on an historical project that ended in the 1920s and seemed to ask more questions about religion than education.  Fielding inquiries from the other Spencer fellows, a majority of whom were engaged in research explicitly aimed at current educational practices, forced me to think about the relationship of religion, education, and evolution in our contemporary world.  While interesting, and important, these questions tended to be uncomfortable ones for me; my historical research went backward not forward from 1925 and thus I felt I was standing on unstable evidentiary ground discussing events at the end of the twentieth century and now in the early years of the twenty-first.


But their questions were a good reminder of how the majority of my book's readers, non-specialists in the field of American and particularly southern religious history, were likely to see Before Scopes.  The first word of the title—Before—is often overlooked but I really hoped to signal that the real story happened before the trial turned into a spectacle that has made analysis so inviting yet at times difficult. Like most modern-day journalists who cannot help sprinkling mentions of Dayton, Scopes, and monkeys into seemingly any current story about evolution and education, reviewer James S. Baugess can only find value or fault with the book in how well it does, and in this case does not, fit with his opinions on current policies. I will admit to some blame here, for I did suggest in the book's concluding pages how the events and concerns of the 1920s have continued to echo in the cultural politics of the ensuing eighty-plus years, though I would suggest that in Baugess's rush to criticize what he labels as my "bias" and failure to "give any positive coverage to the creationists or their concerns" in our present age, he suggests that the preceding six chapters were inconsequential despite their sympathetic intent to explain how white Tennessee evangelicals would feel compelled to support Bryan's anti-evolution crusade. Rather than, as Baugess implies I do, blithely agreeing with the imagery and interpretation of Inherit the Wind, I wanted to explain how Tennessee evangelicals debated the issues of science, religion, and education among themselves in the 1920s and before.  In the works of Thomas O. Summers Sr., M.M. Black, and other evangelicals I discuss in Before Scopes, science and theology were not two competing forces but rather complementary parts of the same book of divine revelation.


My intent in Before Scopes was to demonstrate the narrowing of this discussion heading into 1925, a time when the simplistic binary world view endorsed by Baugess, one in which we are seemingly forced to believe exclusively in evolution or in religion, supplanted an emphasis on the potential unity of science and theology, apparently won out.  Indeed, if there is something "tragic" to use Baugess's terminology, it is that we seem unable to escape this view of the relationship as termed by Andrew Dickson White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896). This complex relationship of science and theology, its continuing relevance to current intellectual debates and public policy, and particularly its echoes in places like Kansas or Dover, Pennsylvania, is likewise at the center of Karl Giberson's review.


Giberson argues that in 1925, as much as in 2007, "the debate about evolution is not about evolution at all" but instead "a reaction to the ideological baggage of the theory." At one point Christian explorations of natural theology had yielded knowledge of the physical world that seemed the chief ally of theology in proving the majesty of the divine creator. The books of science and theology were written by the same hand; disagreements had to be errors in the human understanding of one or the other. In the hands of William Paley's Natural Theology (1802), the complexity of humans and their world were proof of god's creative abilities. Scientific naturalism, or the limitation of scientific evidence and explanation to observable phenomena and natural explanation, emerged out of the Enlightenment. With the addition of nineteenth century work in geology, population history, biodiversity and biological development, particularly Charles Darwin's theorizing of what he termed natural, as distinguished from supernatural, selection, the commitment to scientific naturalism seemed more a potent challenge than a complement to other, scriptural forms of divine revelation.  As Giberson suggests in his quotations from writers ranging from Philip Johnson to Richard Dawkins, evolution may be built on the same assumptions of naturalism as other scientific theories—like gravity—but the implications of its naturalism seem far more dangerous.


Finally, I do agree with Giberson's assertion that to some degrees, the Scopes trial was not about evolution at all; the energy expended debating the place of evolution in classrooms is possible because evolution can serve as a focal point for many other concerns whether in 1925 at Dayton, Tennessee, or 2005 in Dover, Pennsylvania. William Jennings Bryan testified that because Clarence Darrow and the other defense attorneys had come "to try revealed religion" he was in Dayton "to defend it." In his pretrial correspondence with prosecutor Sue K. Hicks Bryan, who had often spoken and written against evolution, suggested they should leave science and even religion out of the case. "While I am perfectly willing to go into the question of evolution," Bryan wrote, "I am not sure that it is involved. The right of the people speaking through the legislature, to control the schools which they create and support is the real issue as I see it. If not the people, who?"[12]  The majority of the people in Tennessee in 1925 were at least nominally evangelical Protestants, so understanding their efforts and intentions to shape their world will greatly enrich our understanding of the complex relationship between religion and society in the American South.



[1] John B. Boles, "The Discovery of Southern Religious History," in Interpreting Southern History: Historiographic Essays in Honor of Sanford W. Higginbotham, ed. John B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolen (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 541 (quotation); and Wayne Flynt, "Dissent in Zion: Alabama Baptists and Social Issues, 1900–1914," Journal of Southern History 35 (November 1969): 523–42. Hill's seminal work has been reissued as Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited, revised edition (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999).
[2] John Lee Eighmy, Churches in Cultural Captivity: A History of the Social Attitudes of Southern Baptists, revised edition with introduction, conclusion, and bibliography by Samuel S. Hill (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987).
[3] "A Mortal Wound,” Nashville Banner, January 15, 1896, p. 1; and “A Bad Example,” Nashville Banner, January 16, 1896, p. 4.
[4] Anne Short Chirhart has gone a long way toward correcting my oversight, exploring how the growing numbers of women teaching in Georgia public schools were instrumental in creating a modern South while struggling to establish their role in that emerging world. See Torches of Light: Georgia Teachers and the Coming of the Modern South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005).
[5] Most reviewers have accepted my decision to discount racial considerations, but as Jeffrey Moran has suggested in two recent articles, there is clearly much to that aspect of the story. I hope his work will continue to probe the broader social context of the evolutionary controversy. See Moran, "The Scopes Trial and Southern Fundamentalism in Black and White: Race, Region, and Religion," Journal of Southern History 70 (February 2004): 95–120; and Moran, "Reading Race into the Scopes Trial: African American Elites, Science, and Fundamentalism," Journal of American History 90 (2003): 891–911.
[6] Recently Benjamin Justice has examined the records of many New York local school boards, finding more incidents of compromise on issues of religion in public schools than litigation or boisterous conflict. See Justice, The War that Wasn't: Religious Conflict and Compromise in the Common Schools of New York State, 1865–1900 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005).
[7] Mathews, Rethinking Zion: How the Print Media Placed Fundamentalism in the South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007).
[8] "Backlash" comes from Pauline Maier et al. Inventing America: A History of the United States Vol. 2 (New York: Norton, 2003) p. 746–48; "Rural Counterattack" is from Robert A. Divine et al. America: Past and Present (6th ed., New York: Longman, 2002), pp. 748–53.
[9] Mencken quoted in Ronald L. Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 119.
[10] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism in American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980): 103
[11] Hill details this "central theme" in a group of chapters collected as "The Essence of Popular Southern Protestantism," in Southern Churches in Crisis (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966): 73–115.
[12] Bryan to S.K. Hicks, May 25, 1925, reprinted in William B. Eigelsbach and Jamie Sue Linder, compilers, "'If not the People Who?': Prosecution Correspondence Preparatory to the Scopes Trial," Journal of East Tennessee History (1998): 118.

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