On This Day in History – March 21st, 1925: Tennessee Outlaws Teaching of Evolution


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By Niall McArdle

On March 21st, 1925, Tennessee senator John Washington Butler introduced an act that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools.

That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

The Butler Act was famously challenged later that year in what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, which is discussed at length here.

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The trial was headline news all over the world, and millions followed the prosecution of schoolteacher John Scopes by William Jennings Bryan, and his defense by the legendary Clarence Darrow.

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John Washington Butler (right) with William Jennings Bryan

The trial was reported by many top journalists, none more famous, more satirical or more scathing of the narrow-mindedness of the residents of rural Tennessee than H.L. Mencken. He delighted in calling the locals backward hicks and idiotic religious zealots, and gleefully reported a fundamentalist revival meeting that descended into “barbaric grotesquerie”.

At a signal all the faithful crowded up the bench and began to pray — not in unison but each for himself. At another they all fell on their knees, their arms over the penitent. The leader kneeled, facing us, his head alternately thrown back dramatically or buried in his hands. Words spouted from his lips like bullets from a machine gun — appeals to God to pull the penitent back out of hell, defiances of the powers and principalities of the air, a vast impassioned jargon of apocalyptic texts. Suddenly he rose to his feet, threw back his head and began to speak in tongues — blub-blub-blub, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. His voice rose to a higher register. The climax was a shrill, inarticulate squawk, like that of a man throttled. He fell headlong across the pyramid of supplicants.

A comic scene? Somehow, no. The poor half wits were too horribly in earnest. It was like peeping through a knothole at the writhings of a people in pain. From the squirming and jabbering mass a young woman gradually detached herself — a woman not uncomely, with a pathetic home-made cap on her head. Her head jerked back, the veins of her neck swelled, and her fists went to her throat as if she were fighting for breath. She bent backward until she was like half of a hoop. Then she suddenly snapped forward. We caught a flash of the whites of her eyes. Presently her whole body began to be convulsed — great convulsions that began at the shoulders and ended at the hips. She would leap to her feet, thrust her arms in air and then hurl herself upon the heap. Her praying flattened out into a mere delirious caterwauling, like that of a tomcat on a petting party.

The trial was the basis for the Spencer Tracy film Inherit the Wind.

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