The 1925 Tennessee v. John Scopes case - the Scopes ""Monkey Trial"" - is one of America's most famous courtroom battles. Until now, however, no one has considered at length why the sensational, divisive trial of a public high school science teacher indicted for teaching evolution took place where, and when, it did. This study ranges over the fifty years preceding the trial to examine intertwined attitudes toward schooling and faith held by the politically dominant white evangelical Protestant Tennesseans. Those decades saw accelerating social and economic change in the South, writes Charles A. Israel. Education, long the province of family and community, grew ever more centralized, professionalized, and isolated from the local values that first underpinned it. As Israel tells how parents and church, civic, and political leaders at first opposed public education, then endorsed it, and finally fought to control it, he reveals their deep ambivalence about the intangible costs of progress. Lessons that Evangelicals took away from failed adult temperance campaigns also prompted them to reexert control over who and what influenced their children. Evangelicals rallied behind a 1915 bill requiring the Bible to be read daily in public schools. Then, the Butler bill of 1925 criminalized the teaching of evolution, which had come to symbolize all that was threatening about theological liberalism and materialistic science. The stage for the Scopes trial had been set. Delving deeply into the collective mind of a people in an age of uncertainty, Before Scopes sheds new light on religious belief, ideology, and expression.
Charles A. Israel is an associate professor of history and Chair of the History Department at Auburn University. His current research addresses religion and social reform in the nineteenth and twentieth century American South.