The Trial of the Century?

What was the most important trial of the twentieth century? The O. J. Simpson trial? The Paula Jones case? These were two of the candidates proposed when NBC's Today Show surveyed law professors on the subject last year. But for University of Missouri professor Doug Linder, the most important trial of the last hundred years was neither of these, but rather a contest that happened 75 years ago today in Dayton, Tennessee -- the case known as the "Scopes Monkey Trial." That trial, which began on July 10, 1925, had ramifications that continue to this day. In March 1925, the state of Tennessee passed a law forbidding schools "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." Before long, a 24-year-old science teacher was accused of violating the new law. John Scopes's crime might have gone unnoticed but for a New Yorker with a chip on his shoulder. One scholar has said, "Without 31-year-old George Rappalyea there never would have been a Scopes trial." Rappalyea came South on a geological expedition, looking for coal. When it was discovered at Dayton, he became manager of the Cumberland Coal and Iron Company. The chip on Rappalyea's shoulder was due to his distaste for religion. His feelings only intensified after he attended the funeral of an eight-year-old who had been crushed between two coal cars. At the burial, the minister said, "This here boy, 'cause his pappy and mammy didn't get him baptized, is now a- writhin' in the flames of hell." Well, the country preacher could have used a lesson or two on common sense -- as well as theology -- but those words tragically were enough to launch George Rappalyea's crusade. After hearing about the new state law, Rappalyea convinced the American Civil Liberties Union to finance a court case, and he persuaded high-school teacher John Scopes to get himself arrested for violating the law. If you follow this week's media accounts of what happened that summer, you might get the impression that the Scopes trial was about a group of noble seekers of truth confronting the bigotry of Bible- believing Christians. Not so. There were clearly other motives at work. Besides wanting to embarrass Christians, Rappalyea was also looking for a way to boost the economy of Dayton, and apparently the idea worked. At one point, a Dallas News cartoonist portrayed Dayton as an organ-grinder, with his organ labeled "Scopes Case," and a monkey catching cupfuls of coins and publicity. The caption said, "Playing It for All It's Worth." The defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, was a well-known agnostic who took every opportunity to ridicule the Bible. He saw this trial as a platform for his views, and even though he lost the case, he aroused doubts that remain to this day. Over the next few days, the ACLU, People for the American Way, and others will exploit this 75th anniversary of the Scopes Trial to once again spin a secular view of the events and further discredit Christians. Stay tuned and I'll give you more of the real story tomorrow.


Chuck Colson



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