Charles A. Israel.  Before Scopes: Evangelicalism, Education, and Evolution in Tennessee, 1870-1825.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.  272 pp. ISBN 0-8203-2646-1. Reviewed by Beth Barton Schweiger for the Journal of Southern Religion. 

In his ambitious new book, Charles A. Israel argues that we should rethink what the Scopes Trial was really all about.  Long cast as a dramatic clash between science and religion, Israel sees it as something else: the culmination of a century-long change in attitudes towards education among Tennessee evangelicals.  Scopes happened, he argues, because white southern evangelicals decided that public schools were important, a decision neither inevitable nor quickly made.  And in making it, Tennesseans did not foresee its consequences.  They supported public education because they believed they could control it.  Instead, Israel shows how their decision to hand control of education over from families and local communities to a formal bureaucracy ultimately politicized moral questions in ways that they never anticipated.  In the end, Israel's account concurs with that of Edward J. Larson, who saw the trial at Dayton as an example of the perennial clash between individual liberty and majoritarian democracy in the United States.  Yet Israel demonstrates that this clash was, and remains, a question of religion.

Israel leaps a full century back in time to tell us how Tennessee evangelicals . . . ultimately came to pin their hopes on William Jennings Bryan.  


Context is everything in this book.  Israel leaps a full century back in time to tell us how Tennessee evangelicals (here comprising white Methodists and Baptists) ultimately came to pin their hopes on William Jennings Bryan.  And the context of Israel's own thinking about this issue is also critical.  He frames the study with the work of two very different scholars, Bernard Bailyn and Samuel S. Hill, concurring with the former, respectfully disagreeing with the latter.  Bailyn's definition of education as “cultural transmission” allows Israel to write his story concerning “debates about the process, content, and control of education” rather than simply of the growth of educational institutions (157). Throughout the book, he disagrees with Hill's well-known view that southern Protestants were southern to the degree that they focused on the salvation of the individual at the expense of a wider social consciousness.  By contrast, Israel finds that their interest in education revealed a “growing social consciousness and mission” as their relationship to public education changed from “opposition to accommodation to efforts at control” (157). 

In important respects, Israel tells a story of continuity rather than change.  From the beginning, Tennessee evangelicals insisted that religion was the basis of all education.  Methodist and Baptist academies, with informal ties to their denominations, numbered among the earliest schools in the state.  Antebellum free schooling was associated in the South with pauperism.  Even the most modest schools charged something of their students.  Lack of enthusiasm for public schools in this rural society did not mean that parents scorned education.  On the contrary, it meant only that they lacked the resources to send their children to school.  Children were educated at home and in church, where they learned rudimentary reading skills, and sometimes how to cipher and write as well.   According to the census of 1850, more than ninety percent of white Tennesseans could read, yet only a small minority had attended school.

During Reconstruction, Republicans planned a centralized state school system that was quickly dismantled by the Redeemer legislature.  Postwar evangelicals certainly feared integrated public schools.  But they also believed that such schools would necessarily be irreligious.  They did not oppose education, they opposed secular and integrated schooling, a point that put them in the mainstream of opinion in the late nineteenth century.  Even Southern Methodist Bishop Holland McTyeire, the first president of Vanderbilt University, asserted that public schools were by definition “godless institutions” (27).

How then did public schools gain widespread support among evangelicals by the turn of the twentieth century? The turning point came in what Israel terms the “home rule principle.”  Church leaders and laypeople realized after the Civil War that their denominations simply could not educate all of the state's children.  Public funding was necessary to accomplish so great a task.  Oscar Penn Fitgerald, editor of the Nashville Christian Advocate, offered a solution.  “The state could provide elementary education for all citizens but should leave any further schooling to parents and the churches” (33).  The state, he argued, should stay out of secondary and higher education; denominational schools would “pick up where the state elementary schools left off” (34).  When debates arose as to whether the Bible should be used in state primary schools, Fitzgerald again had an answer: the principle of home rule. “Let the State keep hands off.  No legislation is called for one way or the other” on the question of the Bible in the schools (36).  Public primary schools in postwar Tennessee, then, were non-sectarian rather than secular, and evangelicals pushed ahead with ambitious plans for their colleges and universities.  Yet even this proved to be more troublesome than they imagined in the stormy context of late nineteenth-century higher education.  The Methodists' prized Vanderbilt University, for example, formally broke with the church in 1914.  These troubles, combined with a new consciousness about moral education cultivated by the temperance movement, only reinforced the pressure on public schools to train up children in the way they should go.  By the turn of the twentieth century, evangelicals had given their blessing to public schools as the seat of moral education in the state. 

Here is where Israel's story takes its most interesting turn.  It was the very success of evangelical support for public schools that created the tensions that were ultimately played out in Dayton.  As evangelicals invested heavily in formal public education, they centralized schooling and destroyed the old home rule principle that had kept controversy at bay since the 1870s.  Schools in Tennessee, as elsewhere in the country, relinquished strict local control to teachers' colleges and the state board of education.  They turned their attention to secondary schools and raising standards for teacher training.  One might teach reading, writing, and ciphering in primary schools without challenging the authority of the Bible, but by the early twentieth century, it was impossible to teach high school biology without raising at least some hackles.   

Yet widespread evangelical support for public schools helped to pass a 1913 compulsory education law in Tennessee.  This, Israel ingeniously suggests, marked a revolutionary change in evangelical attitudes towards the patriarchal family.  Evangelicals who supported compulsory education did so because they believed that children had a right to be schooled whether their parents agreed or not.  Evangelical reformers were clear that if children were not being trained religiously in the home or in the Sunday school, then the church must reach them in the public school.  By the twentieth century, evangelical leaders, and many in their churches, had more confidence in state-controlled schools than they did in the parents in their pews.

All of this played out in the context of Progressive era reforms.  Although Israel does not say so explicitly, evangelicals' growing confidence in the state was rooted in their own growing political power.  But this was accompanied by a deep pessimism about the declining morality and growing secularism among Americans, which, in turn, was nurtured by premillennialism.  The more evangelical power waxed, it seemed, the more evangelical confidence waned. 

The story of the Scopes Trial is familiar and will not be rehearsed here.  Israel adds admirable breadth and depth to the event, explaining how the Butler bill passed and where it garnered support and opposition.  Ultimately, the trial failed to dislodge the Butler bill, which remained on the books until 1967.  In 1925, Tennessee evangelicals still believed what they had in 1872: “there can be no education without religion” (29). Yet evangelicals' insistence on the importance of public schools was a tacit admission that their churches had failed.

Good histories always leave readers wanting more, and this book is no exception.  No book can include everything.  But the absence of women's voices from this story is particularly striking, given that they were taking over professional teaching in this very period.  As the pulpit gave way to the teacher's desk as the seat of moral instruction, male pastors also turned over a great deal of influence to women, and it is important to know what difference this made, particularly given the importance of the family in this book.  There are also some fascinating hints that the story might be even more complicated than Israel suggests.  In 1882, a majority of Tennessee Baptist leaders voted to keep the Bible out of schools because they refused to ask the state to promote religion.  Likewise, in 1896, the Nashville Board of Education refused to pass a bill that mandated daily Bible reading in the schools and a similar provision was defeated in Memphis in 1902.  There is little in the book that might explain why.

Yet this study persuades far more than it perplexes.  By framing his work with Bailyn's definition of education as “cultural transmission,” Israel hits at the heart of the matter.  A critical issue in Dayton was the question of control of public schools.  In 1925, most Tennesseans apparently supported a ban on the teaching of evolution, raising questions that remain relevant today: if the majority says evolution should not be taught, then should the majority prevail?  What is the relationship between majority rule and interpretations of truth in American democracy? 

Finally, this book highlights an odd disconnect between historiography and history in the story of religion in the American South.  In the political environment of the early twenty-first century, it seems intuitive that Tennessee evangelicals believed they should determine what was taught in public schools.  Israel wisely reminds us that they came to this view neither quickly nor inevitably.  Yet he frames his own study with the work of Samuel S. Hill.  When Churches in Crisis first hit the shelves in 1966, Hill argued that the scandal of southern white evangelicals was that they turned their back on politics.  Hill's prophetic call for action ran hard against the grain.  Then, most white evangelicals' refusal to engage openly in the civil rights movement was in itself a pointed political stand.  Yet, forty years on, American evangelicals have reinvented themselves (and some would argue their world) through their political activism.  When Israel's book demonstrates that white evangelicals did indeed engage in social action, the point is muffled by the context in which it is read.  The gulf between Hill's jeremiad and Israel's history suggests that historians have somehow not kept up. Yet Israel is right to join others in revising Hill's influential thesis.  Indeed, the story he tells in his book is welcome precisely because it challenges any claim that southern white evangelicals were aloof from politics, or that Christianity rightly practiced does not have political consequences.  In the end, Israel's book admirably underscores what is already clear to readers of this journal: the history of American religion in any place or time is not the icing on the cake of political and social history.  It is the cake.

Beth Barton Schweiger, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


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