There has never been a stranger trial in the history of American jurisprudence than the famous Scopes “monkey trial” that took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. This trial pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow in a classic confrontation over the teaching of evolution and creation in the public schools. Regrettably, much confusion about the important issues raised in this trial has been perpetuated by the frequent production of the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play Inherit the Wind (and its many film and television versions). Inherit the Wind is clearly based on the Scopes trial, but takes considerable theatrical liberties to portray the trial as a moral triumph of “science” (evolutionism) over Christian “fundamentalism” (creationism).
The gist of the play is that a young biology teacher is jailed and tried by local businessmen and clergy for daring to teach evolution in the high school. Bible-believing Christians, (especially the “fundamentalist” prosecuting attorney) are portrayed as ignorant, mean-spirited, and close-minded hypocrites who seek both legal and divine vengeance against the teacher for his great “crime.” They are opposed by a defense lawyer (a brilliant, broad-minded, and kindly agnostic) who fights courageously to spare the young teacher from this army of ignorance. This is all pretty typical “Hollywood” fare, and would hardly merit our examination were it not for the fact that this scenario has come to be perceived as essentially an historical account of the Scopes trial. The facts show otherwise.
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