Mormonism at the Scopes Trial

I read Edward J. Larson’s Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Harvard Univ. Press, 1997) earlier this month, and was surprised to see the Book of Mormon appear in one of Clarence Darrow’s arguments to the court. Funny how little mention there is of the Scopes Trial in LDS discourse, given how often evolution seems to come up. I have some ideas on that. But first the interesting arguments made to the court by Darrow.

The Trial

In 1925, the State of Tennessee enacted the following statute:

Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, 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.

Section 2. Be it further enacted, That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act, Shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred $ (100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($ 500.00) Dollars for each offense.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial

The Scopes Trial was a test case for the statute. The defense filed a preliminary motion to quash the indictment as violating provisions of the Tennessee state constitution granting freedom of speech and religion, barring unreasonable state laws and actions, and supporting science and education. A defense attorney first argued that “evolution is as much a scientific fact as the Copernican theory” and that “the State may determine what subject shall be taught, but if biology is to be taught, it cannot be demanded that it be taught falsely.” The prosecution responded that the state funded the public schools and the legislature therefore had both the right and the duty to direct what should be taught as well as what should be excluded from the curriculum. Few disputed that relevant point (who else could direct what should be taught in or excluded from the public schools?) and the case would likely have been disposed of quickly and quietly had the prosecution been able to restrict the case to that narrow issue.

Spencer Tracy portraying Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind

Spencer Tracy portraying Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind

Darrow then argued (as summarized by Larson) that “the antievolution statute was illegal because it established a particular religious viewpoint in the public schools.” Darrow’s claim that favoring Christianity and the Bible over other religions or other sacred texts violated non-establishment or free exercise was well ahead of the legal precedent of the era, as summarized by the prosecutor: “The laws of the land recognize the Bible. We are not living in a heathen country.”

As Larson relates Darrow’s rebuttal argument:

Hundreds of creeds existed within Christianity alone, he noted, not to mention all the other religions of the world. “The state of Tennessee under an honest and fair interpretation of the constitution has no more right to teach the Bible as the divine book than that the Koran is one, or the book of Mormon, or the book of Confucius, or the Buddha, or the Essays of Emerson,” he snarled. … The Bible itself contained differing accounts of creation, Darrow added. “It is not a book on biology, [its writers] knew nothing about it. … The thought the earth was created 4004 years before the Christian Era. We know better.” [Insertion in original.]

Despite Darrow’s impressive argument, the court denied the motion to quash and the trial proceeded. No one disputed that Scopes had taught evolution in class. On the seventh day of the trial, William Jennings Bryan, who was assisting the prosecution, agreed to go on the stand as an expert witness, where Darrow grilled him for hours. The court eventually cut off that examination and the case went to the jury shortly thereafter, which returned a guilty verdict in all of nine minutes. The judge imposed the minimum fine of $100 on the defendant.

Why Mormons Don’t Care About the Scopes Trial

First, it wasn’t really a Mormon fight. It was conservative Protestants like Bryan, not Mormons, who were out campaigning for antievolution statutes. So when public opinion eventually came around to viewing the Scopes Trial as a debacle, it was a debacle for fundamentalists, not for Mormons. We had our own traumatic events (the Utah War, the antipolygamy crusade that culminated in the Manifesto of 1890, the Smoot trial) that still receive a fair amount of attention, but the Scopes Trial is no more than a footnote to LDS history, whereas it occupies at least a couple of pages, if not half a chapter, in a history of conservative/fundamentalist/Evangelical Protestantism.

Ralph V. Chamberlin

Ralph V. Chamberlin

Second, we had our own much quieter Scopes Trial over a decade before the proceeding in Tennessee. You might call it the Chamberlain Affair — it was not a trial, after all — in which, in 1911, LDS faculty member Ralph Chamberlin (who had been the chair of the biology department at the University of Utah as well as the dean of its medical school before coming to BYU) and two other faculty members were criticized for teaching evolution and some elements of higher criticism at BYU (the evolution issue became the primary point of dispute). The three were called to Salt Lake City and interrogated for five hours by a committee of six apostles. Shortly thereafter they were pressured out of the BYU faculty when they declined to conform to the decision of the committee that they must cease teaching about evolution and conform their teaching as directed by LDS and school officials. The move was highly unpopular with the faculty and student body. You can read the whole story in Gary James Bergera’s “The 1911 Evolution Controversy at Brigham Young University,” a chapter in The Search for Harmony: Essays on Science and Mormonism (Signature Books, 1993).

Third, despite the somewhat public dispute between LDS authorities Joseph Fielding Smith and Brigham H. Roberts over evolution and subsequent anti-evolution statements by Smith and later by Elder McConkie, evolution is simply not an issue for Mormonism as it is for present-day Evangelicals. Evolution courses are taught at BYU (Elder Oaks gets some credit for this). Current general authorities largely avoid the topic. Even religion profs pretty much leave it alone, which is good for both students and religion profs.

I remember a five-minute shouting match between a religion prof and a student about evolution in one of my BYU religion classes. I didn’t think much of it at the time, except maybe that the student was a troublemaker. A few years later, having learned a thing or two about evolution, I looked back on it as evidence of how uninformed some BYU religion profs can be. Now I’ve moved to something of a middle position, recognizing there are some very bright religion profs with important things to say to students and who do good work. Hint to religion profs: the less you say about evolution, the more credible are your statements on anything else.

A couple of points in conclusion. It’s nice that evolution is not a live dispute within the Church and that Utah has not passed antievolution legislation. That’s one issue we’ve managed to avoid. And as Mormons we are fortunate that the broad view of constitutional religious protections voiced by Darrow in his argument did, in the second half of the 20th century, become the legal standard. As a religious minority often viewed by both mainstream and conservative Christians as only marginally Christian at best, we benefit more than we realize from the broad protections that courts now grant. Secularism is a double-edged sword: sometimes it pushes religion out of the public square, other times it prevents larger, more popular religions from pushing around smaller, less popular religions (that’s us). Personally, I’ll take my chances with secularism.

29 comments for “Mormonism at the Scopes Trial

  1. There are many in the church who still believe it is church doctrine that evolution is not true when in fact, it is taught at BYU, as it should be for any facility of higher education. Much of that is residual thinking because of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie’s teachings about it. But David O. McKay made it clear that the opinions against evolution expressed by these two wonderful apostles were simply that: their opinion. He stated that Elder Smith’s book “Man: His Origin and Destiny,” “is not an approved publication of the Church. The author alone is responsible for the theories therein expressed.” He later added the same declaration about “Mormon Doctrine.” In another writing, President McKay said this: “We do not know enough of the facts to take a definite position on evolution, but the concept is certainly not incompatible with faith. After all, the process of creation is going on continuously…”
    Basically, when there is no official church doctrine on a topic such as evolution, the members are free to believe any way they want if that belief helps to increase their faith.

  2. Great post.

    Summer for the Gods was required reading in my Honors American Heritage class at BYU. Would have been 2001 or so. Good stuff.

    In 2006 ago an anti-evolution bill was proposed in Utah and actually passed the Senate. Fortunately Governor Huntsman threatened to veto the bill, and it then failed in the House. A couple of BYU biology professors were involved in countering the anti-evolution bill, and became enemies of a few Utah legislators at this time, as well as enemies of the ultra-conservative Utah Eagle’s Forum.

  3. If evolution is taught at BYU, how strongly is evolution emphasized? Is it a passing thought in a class, i.e., one of “many” theories one could opt to study, or is it taught as fact vs. fiction?

  4. Nice essay, Dave.

    The Church has learned in recent years, often through sad experience, that when its senior representatives make specific doctrinal pronouncements on how the earth was created, if and when blacks will receive the priesthood, the origin of Native Americans, etc., people will remember those statements and question the Church’s credibility when they are proven wrong or called into serious doubt. The Catholic Church began to learn this painful lesson when it clung to its geocentric model of the universe in the face of contrary scientific evidence produced by Galileo. Our Church is going through a similar maturation process, discovering that it is often better to admit that “we don’t know the answer to that question” or “there may be more than one way to interpret that scripture” than to state with conviction something that could expose the institution to ridicule if it is later discredited.

  5. Susan-

    It’s taught as science. It’s discussed in the Intro Biology classes, it’s discussed quite a bit in every Zoology class, and of course it’s discussed in tremendous depth in the Evolution courses that Biology majors are required to take. There are no alternating “theories” taught in any of these classes, although Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design may be briefly discussed in the Intro Biology or Evolution class before being dismissed as non-science.

  6. I was educated in Utah went to BYU and so did all of my siblings (except one). I sent out an email to them a few years back asking if they had ever been taught anything anti-evolution and none of them ever had.
    I do remember about five years ago, sitting in a meeting where Elder Holland was replacing the Stake President, and the brand new 70 who was tagging along was giving a talk and said something to the affect of “We’re a religious people, we believe that we can becomes Gods. We’re not like the evolutionists who believe that we’ll never advanced beyond our current state.” My knee jerk reason was to stand up and shout “No you’re wrong. You got that backwards. It’s the religious people who don’t believe that we’ll ever be more than what we are now. There’s not a single person who understands evolution who would claim that we’ll never advanced beyond our current state”. I think the spirit must have held me down.
    The 70 seemed to be a great guy, but had somehow decided that the church had an enemy that it didn’t actually have.

  7. If the Church had major qualms with evolution I doubt that the First Presidency’s 1909 “The Origin of Man” would have ended with

    so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and aeons, of evolving into a God.

  8. As a BYU student in the 70’s, I endured a purported “Book of Mormon” class with Reid Bankhead that was all about evolution and conspiracy politics. Hopefully those days are over.

    There is no way an accredited university can award degrees in biology without teaching the scientific underpinnings.

  9. I find evolution to be a casual annoyance as a member. I’m annoyed at those who dismiss it outright. I’m also annoyed and members who hurredly preach it as gospel in hopes of acceptance. Perhaps this latter annoyance is more a general annoyance at the belief that we fundamentally understand science and are just filling in details. I think there will be a lot of ‘marveling’ when all is said and done, by all parties.

  10. One has to admit that the church leaves us with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance on this subject. Yes, evolution is taught at BYU in science classes, as it should be, but the “silence” or outright denial of evolution by the GAs makes it difficult for many members to be comfortable with evolution. If our God is truly eternal, then we should not fear where science takes us.

  11. Fascinating. Thanks Dave.

    I had a BYU Rel Professor who told our class all about the “inside conversations” he’d had with Brethren up in SLC. He was very clear that anti-evolution was revealed doctrine, and that the only reason more wasn’t said publicly was fear of folks leaving the church. Similar arguments to what you describe broke out.

    What’s really interesting and worth noting, however, is that Mormonism has had a very popular strain of alternative theology of anti-evolution (which our rel prof was endorsing if I remember correctly – but I’ve heard it lots of other places too). It’s the old Brigham Young idea that being formed from mud is a fairytale, but that embodied Heavenly Parents came down to earth and gave birth to Adam & Eve. It’s often discussed as a sort of compromise with evolution: sure, evolution happens with other animals & species and was a part of the creation of the earth, but humans came direct from the Gods. I suspect that this sort of middle position has also been important in keeping us out of the evolution debates. It’s probably also made it easier for Mormons to accept the idea of evolution wholesale.

  12. Thanks, Dave. Great find.

    James, how popular a worldview is that? I don’t think I’ve ever heard a member advocate that view, though I’ve heard it mentioned small handful of times.

  13. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    James, I suspect your religion prof talked to a Seventy or two, maybe an Apostle, but not “the Brethren” (as if the Big 15 invited him into a meeting and shared their thoughts with him). The problem is that individual Apostles have their own views and their own agendas, not shared by their peers, which some seem to try and further outside corporate channels. Say by meeting with selected religion profs or local leaders to urge courses of action or to support their personal views. I don’t see why any member of the Church should give any credence to those accounts of under-the-table communications. They always tell us to use official channels. It works both ways.


    Mormons have an “out” with the battle between Evolution and Creation because of the the unique teachings and Scriptures that other Christians don’t have. This incompatibility or rejection of one or the other has been culturally thrust on us by outsiders both religious and secular. The teachings by prophets that Evolution is against the Gospel are as right as those who say Evolution is a scientific reality. It depends on what direction you are going with the subject. My own experience is that Mormons who are anti-Evolution are not because prophets have spoken against it, but that there hasn’t been (like my post above tries to do) a theological theory explaining how it fits into God’s plan.

    You can explain all day and night to an anti-Evolutionist Mormon the science behind it and they will still shut you down. Call the Creation accounts complete allegory and you might as well declare yourself an apostate. What does work, and I have seen it with myself and others, is an honest attempt at creative theologizing that doesn’t deny either. I don’t know if that works for those who already believe in Evolution to keep the faith, but it does make the theory less threatening to the “orthodox” members.

  15. “Secularism is a double-edged sword: sometimes it pushes religion out of the public square, other times it prevents larger, more popular religions from pushing around smaller, less popular religions (that’s us). Personally, I’ll take my chances with secularism.”

    Well said, Dave. I concur. I am also very glad that antievolutionism hasn’t taken as strong of a hold on Mormonism as it has evangelical Christianity. While lots of LDS people are certainly antagonistic towards evolution, I’ve never felt a major pushing of an antievolutionist agenda in my Mormon experience.

  16. It is an understatement to say that evolution is merely taught at BYU. I’m well acquainted with a large number of science professors at BYU. I have yet to become acquainted with a BYU professor **whose domain of research lies squarely within the biological sciences** who less than fully-heartedly believes and endorses the traditional scientific viewpoint of common descent (all biological species on earth, including humans, have a common ancestor) and that evolution, as is currently understood, is the best explanation of both the diversity and commonality of life on this planet. They teach it in classes, some of them research it directly, they discuss it in their group meetings, and they persistently use it as an implicit and explicit scaffold upon which to formulate their ideas. None of these professors, of which I am aware, came to that position lightly, and each has examined the doctrinal implications of such a position. Each has found a harmonious reconciliation between evolution and Mormon doctrine, and none feel their position undermines the faith. Rather, that accepting the science merely undermines some popular anti-evolutionary ideas that are clearly the result of an inadequate exposure to the overwhelming evidence that has accumulated across every relevant discipline in support of evolution.

  17. JP (19) I only took a single science class at the Y (had AP credit for the rest) and that was the similar vibe I got from my professor telling me that a stake president became quite upset when they had a conversation about the subject.

    I’m actually a little disappointed in BYU’s science faculty. While I don’t hold support of evolution against them as they’d probably lose accreditation and shrink their network of potential employers and as a consequence the influence of good inspired church members in those sectors if they didn’t, I feel like the real story has yet to be discovered, and lies somewhere in between or in a totally different place than what we have considered. They could be bolder and more avant-garde than they are in terms of questioning dogmatic assumptions in science that really don’t have much evidence to them.

  18. I’m sure one of the most frustrating things for a BYU biology professor–someone who’s spent years and years studying and researching biology and has an excellent understanding of the evidence of evolution–is to hear people who have little or no science background past high school saying “but surely you’re wrong; surely you don’t see the whole picture; surely you’re just accepting dogmatic assumptions.”

    A lot of what many of us consider to be “dogmatic assumptions” have a ton of evidence behind them. And yes, there are some specific areas we don’t know a ton about, but a real scientist, instead of putting up his arms and saying “I don’t know how this happened, therefore it’s an unexplainable miracle from God,” says “I don’t know how but I’m going to figure this out using science.”

  19. “They could be bolder and more avant-garde than they are in terms of questioning dogmatic assumptions in science that really don’t have much evidence to them.”

    Become postmodernists and begin subscribing to a coherence theory of truth, in essence? Yeah, I don’t think the theory of evolution thrives simply because of some tribalistic groupthink, as you seem to suggest. I don’t doubt that many people subscribe to evolution because of groupthink. But the theory of evolution thrives because people are finding overwhelming evidence in support of it. Now, antievolutionism and alternative theories to evolution thrive largely because of groupthink and tribalism.

  20. Cameron (#20): I don’t perceive “dogmatic assumptions” in science per se, in fact a see carefully crafted arguments based on data. But I do see one “dogmatic assumption” frequently made by science writers. That assumption is that evolution confirms a godless universe. I think that some religious readers buy into that argument to such a degree that atheism and evolution are fused in their minds.

  21. Dave, thanks for posting. I’d never heard of Ralph Chamberlin. Thanks.

    It’s my experience that Mormons who are averse to evolution simply don’t care about biology or geology. It’s apathy. I’ve never met a Mormon who (1) reads biology or geology titles, and (2) opposes evolution on doctrinal grounds. Most people just don’t care. I don’t fault them. People just have different interests in life.

    There’s a cave about 2 hours from my home, Darby Wind Cave. You can bring a flashlight down into the cave. It’s marvelous. I’ve taken all my children down into the cave and we’ve looked at the layers of rock. If it’s possible to imagine what millions of years looks like, I imagine it looks like the walls of the Darby Wind Cave. Deep inside there are layers of ancient sea life.

    Q: How did the sea fossils get inside this mountain?

    Apathetic Individual: By God’s power. (read “I don’t really care so long as it doesn’t conflict with my understanding of the universe.”)

    Curious Child: Long ago this must have been an ocean. How long ago? How long does it take a living thing to become a rock? Are these types of creatures extinct? etc. etc.

  22. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    I have been to the wind caves, Josh. And don’t miss Fossil Butte National Monument near Kemmerer.

  23. It looks like I’ll have to plan a trip to Kemmerer, WY this summer. Thanks Dave.

  24. Josh,

    You are right that you and I have never met. My entire life I have had an intense interest in the physical and life sciences. My father is a retired teacher who taught science and math. My mother is a retired nurse. My first two years at BYU my major was pre-med. I later changed to study Latin, Italian, French, Greek and German.

    I have never accepted evolution as the explanation for the creation of Adam’s physical body. I have never accepted science as the last word on anything. To do so would be anti-science. Science is a search for truth, but nearly all of its answers are temporary. Science is not a destination. It is a journey. Therefore, all of science’s answers are subject to change, or at least further refinement. Sometimes science’s answers must be scrapped all together and we must start over. Sometimes there are no answers.

    The gospel contains all truth. Therefore, every scientific truth is part of the gospel. There is no conflict between one truth and another truth. There is only a lack of understanding. So,if Brigham Young, like Luke and Moses, says Adam is the literal son of God, I accept that truth. If science says something else, I put that aside for now and continue my search.

    The mistake I have seen a lot of people make is, upon finding a supposed conflict, they accept the explanation of science and put aside the gospel. If that course is followed too often and too long, in the end that person will lose their salvation and may take their family and friends with them. The proper course, in my view, the one taught to me by my very scientific parents, is to hold on to the gospel, put aside science when necessary, and continue to search for understanding.

  25. “I have never accepted evolution as the explanation for the creation of Adam’s physical body.”


    What about your physical body? Do you accept that within your body is evidence that life changes over very long periods of time?

    Just today at church someone decided that a discussion on addiction was the perfect time to disparage evolution. Apparently people are “intellectually addicted” to evolution. Oh dear.

    … And yet, I’d invite the goof ball who made that comment to dinner at my house. Great guy. But I doubt he has any understanding of evolution, or cares enough to learn about it.

  26. “So,if Brigham Young, like Luke and Moses, says Adam is the literal son of God, I accept that truth.”

    Really? Because Brigham Young believed stuff about the relationship between God and Adam that the church today doesn’t accept.

    I like Henry Eyring’s approach (Senior, not Junior). He believed he should embrace all truth–whether it be the divinity of Christ or the age of the earth. Didn’t matter what the prophet believed about the age of the earth–Henry Eyring knew what he knew because he was an expert in chemistry, something that the prophet at the time had very little background in. And funny thing–Eyring was quite worried about science students losing their faith in the gospel not because of science, but because of members of the church who insist that evolution or an ancient earth are contrary to the gospel.

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