A Religious Orgy in Tennessee

Articles originally published in
The Baltimore Sun
are © 1925 and reprinted with the permission of the
The Baltimore Sun
. Permission also granted by Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, in accordance with the terms of the bequest of H.L. Mencken. “In Tennessee” is reprinted from the July 1, 1925, issue of
The Nation
. Permission also granted by Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, in accordance with the terms of the bequest of H.L. Mencken. Permission to reprint “To Expose a Fool” from
The American Mercury
, October 1925, is granted by Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, in accordance with the terms of the bequest of H.L. Mencken.

Cover photo shows H.L. Mencken (upper right with hands clasped behind his back) standing on a table to look over the crowd at the proceedings at the Rhea County Courthouse. This photograph is courtesy of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, H.L. Mencken Collection.

Special acknowledgement is made to Averil Kadis, of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and Tom Davis, of Bryan College, for assistance with research and permissions.

Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, New York 11201

The Library of Congress has cataloged the paperback edition as follows:

Mencken, H. L. (Henry Louis), 1880-1956.
“A religious orgy in Tennessee” : a reporter's account of the Scopes “monkey” trial / H.L. Mencken. — 1st ed.
p. cm.
Articles originally published in The Baltimore Sun, The Nation, or The American Mercury.

eISBN: 978-1-61219-031-0

1. Scopes, John Thomas—Trials, litigation, etc.—Press coverage—Maryland—Baltimore. 2. Evolution—Study and teaching—Law and legislation—Tennessee. 3. Mencken, H. L. (Henry Louis), 1880-1956—Political and social views. I. Title.

KF224.S3M46 2006
345.73′0288—dc22

2006022870               

v3.1

Introduction
By Art Winslow

We have the stage antics of baseball-player-turned-evangelist William Ashley Sunday—Billy Sunday—and the weak ankles of the Tennessee General Assembly to thank for the high theater of the Scopes Trial of 1925. As recounted by Edward J. Larson in his excellent
Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory
, the state senate, considering a ban on the teaching of evolution in public schools, had already rejected the idea in committee when Billy Sunday swept into Memphis for an eighteen-day revival that February.

Long before Elvis was to earn fame with his gyrations, this gymnast for Jesus, Larson tells us, “jumped, kicked and slid across the stage” while denouncing the “tommyrot” of evolution, the possibility “that we came from protoplasm, instead of being born of God Almighty.” When the legislators noticed that Sunday's sermons had drawn an aggregate audience of some 200,000 constituents, the senate committee reversed itself, leading to passage of the Butler Act, signed into law in March by Governor Austin Peay virtually unchanged from the wording crafted by its author, a farmer named John Washington Butler.

“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 stipulated. To transgress it was a misdemeanor, punishable by a minimum fine of $100 and a maximum of $500 for each offense.

Tennessee was not the only state in which sentiment against Darwin's ideas soaked enough ground to seep into public policy. Two years before, in 1923, Oklahoma had banned textbooks that promoted Darwinism, and in 1924 California required teachers to approach evolution as a theory only. Kansas was a seedbed for anti-evolution activists as well, including the lecturer Charles L. Clayton, who tried to blur the boundaries between science and religion by asserting an intelligent force, a “Doctrine of Design,” which can be seen as the forebear of modern-day belief in “Intelligent Design.”

One of the preeminent leaders of the anti-Darwin movement at the time was William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate, two-time Nebraska Congressman and onetime Secretary of State for Woodrow Wilson. Known as the “Great Commoner,” Bryan's 1922 book
In His Image
made clear his feelings on the subject of evolution:

While “survival of the fittest” may seem plausible when applied to individuals of the same species, it affords no explanation whatever, of the almost infinite number of creatures that have come under man's observation. To believe that natural selection, sexual selection or any other kind of selection can account for the countless differences we see about us requires more faith in chance that a Christian is required to have in God.

*    *    *

The Bible does not say that reproduction shall be nearly according to kind or seemingly according to kind. The statement is positive that it is according to kind, and that does not leave room for the changes however gradual or imperceptible that are necessary to support the evolutionary hypothesis.

Bryan also wrote, “If we accept the Bible as true we have no difficulty in determining the origin of man,” and that Darwinian doctrine “has been the means of shaking the faith of millions,” is “absurd and harmful to society,” and further, it “attacks the very foundations of Christianity.” Darwinism “offers no reason for existence and presents no philosophy of life; the Bible explains why man is here and gives us a code of morals that fits into every human need,” Bryan observed.

Bryan's involvement in the Scopes trial had an air of preordainment about it, for the proceeding itself smacked of intentionality from the outset. In early May 1925, the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union publicized its eagerness to find a test case against the newly minted Butler Act by offering to defend any teacher accused under it. George Rappelyea, a manager for the Cumberland Coal and Iron company in Dayton, Tennessee, saw notice of that in the
Chattanooga Daily Times
and, sensing opportunity, brought it to the attention of Frank Earle Robinson, proprietor of a local drug store but also chair of the Rhea County School Board. Before another day had elapsed, a meeting was arranged that included Rappelyea, Robinson, school superintendent Walter White, a pair of the city's lawyers (Sue Hicks and his brother Herbert Hicks, who went on to work for the prosecution), and John Scopes, an athletic coach and substitute teacher who agreed to be the defendant to test the law. Scopes was not the school's designated biology teacher, but he had filled in and perhaps even taught evolution in a way that contravened the law (the defense did not contest the matter at trial).

Generation of publicity was the primary motivation, and that came with a vengeance. A warrant was sworn out, the A.C.L.U. was notified, and so were members of the press. Various parties, including the Christian Fundamentals Association, quickly urged Bryan to join the cause, and in a week he did, saying, “They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it.” Bryan aided lead prosecutor A.T. Stewart, who was attorney general for the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit and a future Senator. Rounding out the team was Bryan's son, the Hicks siblings, and a former Dayton assistant attorney general, Ben McKenzie, and his son as well.

On the opposing side, Clarence Darrow, perhaps the country's best-known trial lawyer, agreed to join the A.C.L.U.'s Arthur Garfield Hays and home-state eminence John R. Neal, a law school dean from Knoxville, in defending Scopes. (“Scopes isn't on trial. Civilization is on trial,” Darrow quipped.) Also brought on board was Darrow friend and prominent divorce lawyer Dudley Field Malone—who had served as Assistant Secretary of State under Bryan in the Wilson administration. Overseeing the trial was the presiding judge of the Eighteenth Circuit, John Raulston, a devout Baptist.

And then there was H.L.Mencken. As an unattributed witticism in Marion Rodgers's
Mencken: The American Iconoclast
put it, “If the Scopes Trial had not existed, H.L. Mencken would have had to invent it.” Scopes himself went so far as to suggest, four decades after the trial, that “In a way it was Mencken's show,” the journalist's lacerating critique of the Bible Belt (a term Mencken coined, along with “booboisie”) garnering most of the lasting attention.

Mencken's exact relation to the defense team in the Scopes trial remains somewhat vague, but it certainly transcended boundaries that would be considered proper for a journalist today. Rodgers reports that Hays asked Mencken to help with the Scopes defense strategy. Mencken's other recent biographer, Terry Teachout (
The Skeptic
), writes that “there is no question that he provided pre-trial advice to the A.C.L.U.,” but Mencken's claim that it was his idea to put Bryan on the stand, and the suggestion that he helped persuade Darrow to join the defense team, may be overstatements. By all accounts, Mencken considered the ruination of Bryan to be a goal that eclipsed the protection of a schoolteacher, fitting for someone who considered his journalistic aim “to combat, chiefly by ridicule, American piety, stupidity, tin-pot morality, cheap chauvinism.”

Mencken was the ultimate crusader, estimating late in his career that he had written more than 5 million words in his nineteen books and as a reporter, critic, columnist and editorialist for Baltimore's “Sunpapers” and the magazines
Smart Set
and the
American Mercury
, the last of which he not only edited but co-founded. Much of his prodigious energy was spent critiquing religion, particularly fundamentalist Protestantism, and its effect on civic life; he felt his own messianic calling in battling ignorance whenever he saw it infecting the public sphere. He was a believer in higher and lower orders of humanity, and penned columns that can be especially startling to encounter today, laced with racist and anti-Semitic or class-based bias.

The great paradox of Mencken is irreducible. The thrilling energy of his prose, the lucidity of his thought, the striking humor, the unabashed honesty and lack of restraint, the fearlessness to say what he thought no matter the offense that might be taken—those created a deeply admiring readership. The biliousness of his attacks, the withering scorn he subjected so many to in various group libels—those created a sense of hatred. Teachout reports that in 1926, a year after the Scopes trial, roughly 500 editorials about Mencken were published in American newspapers, and four-fifths of those were unfavorable.

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