He called it as he saw it

August 13, 1999

This week's decision by the Kansas Board of Education to delete references to evolution from the science curriculum evokes memories of one of the century's most celebrated trials. In the summer of 1925, a Tennessee high school teacher named John T. Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in violation of state law. The prosecution was led by three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, the defense by legendary attorney Clarence Darrow. That most famous of Evening Sun correspondents, H. L. Mencken, was in Dayton, Tenn., to witness it all -- and throughout the 11-day proceeding he skewered the town, the trial and the prosecution. In the spirit of the old saw that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, we bring you excerpts from what Mencken described as "The Tennessee Circus."

On the issue:

"It has been decided by acclamation, with only a few infidels dissenting, that the hypothesis of evolution is profane, inhumane and against God, and all that remains is to translate that almost unanimous decision into the jargon of the law and so have done. ..."

"... it seems to me very unlikely that either of the principal parties will be greatly shaken. The Evolutionists wil go on demonstrating, believing in and teaching the mutability of living forms, and the Ku Klux theologians will continue to whoop for Genesis un-defiled. ..."

"The selection of a jury to try him, which went on all of yesterday afternoon in the atmosphere of a blast furnace, showed to what extreme lengths the salvation of the local primates has been pushed. It was obvious after a few rounds that the jury would be unanimously hot for

Genesis. The most that Mr. Darrow could hope for was to sneak in a few men bold enough to declare publicly that they would have to hear the evidence against Scopes before condemning him. ..."

On the town of Dayton:

"Its people are simply unable to imagine a man who rejects the literal authority of the Bible. The most they can conjure up, straining until they are red in the face, is a man who is in error about the meaning of this or that text. Thus one accused of heresy among them is like one accused of boiling his grandmother to make soap in Maryland. ..."

"When people think of it hereafter they will think of it as they think of Herrin, Ill., and Homestead, Pa. It will be a joke town at best, and infamous at worst. ..."

"I have met no educated man who is not ashamed of the ridicule that has fallen upon the State. ..."

On William Jennings Bryan:

"The old mountebank, Bryan, is no longer thought of as a mere politician and jobseeker in these Godly regions, but has become converted into a great sacerdotal figure, half man and half archangel -- in brief, a sort of fundamentalist pope. ..."

"The fellow is full of such bitter, implacable hatreds that they radiate from him like heat from a stove. He hates the learning that he cannot grasp. He hates those who sneer at him. He hates, in general, all who stand apart from his pathetic commonness. ..."

"The old boy grows more and more pathetic. He has aged greatly during the past few years and begins to look elderly and enfeebled. All that remains of his old fire is now in his black eyes. They glitter like dark gems, and in their glitter there is immense and yet futile malignancy. That is all that is left of The Peerless Leader of thirty years ago. Once he had one leg in the White House and the nation trembled under his roars. Now he is a tinpot pope in the coca-cola belt and a brother to the forlorn pastors who belabor half-wits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards. His own speech was a grotesque performance and downright touching in its imbecility. Its climax came when he launched into a furious denunciation of the doctrine that man is a mammal. It seemed a sheer impossibility that any literate man should stand up in public and discharge such nonsense. Yet the poor old fellow did it. ..."

On the trial's outcome:

"All that remains of the great cause of the State of Tennessee against the infidel Scopes is the formal business of bumping off the defendant. There may be some legal jousting on Monday and some gaudy oratory on Tuesday, but the main battle is over, with Genesis completely triumphant. ... Let no one mistake if for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience. Tennessee, challenging him too timorously and too late, now sees its courts converted into camp-meetings and its Bill of Rights made a mock of by its sworn officers of the law. There are other States that had better look to their arsenals before the hun is at their gates."

Pub Date: 8/13/99

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