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In the United States today, the word “Evangelical” is nearly synonymous with political beliefs. How did we get here? In this episode, a story connecting the dots between fundamentalism of the past and American Evangelicalism of the present. This episode is in partnership with the Truce Podcast.



#78: Fundamentalism on Trial

Note: The Love Thy Neighborhood podcast is made for the ear, and not the eye. We would encourage you to listen to the audio for the full emotional emphasis of this episode. The following transcription may contain errors. Please refer to the audio before quoting any content from this episode. 

ANNA TRAN: Hey listeners, it’s Anna. Before we get started, I wanted to remind you that this podcast is made possible by listeners like you. Your generosity allows us to keep making this type of content. To support us, go to or support us on Patreon by going to Your support allows us to continue telling stories about following Jesus in modern culture.


AUDIO CLIPS: Love Thy Neighborhood… Discipleship and missions for modern times.

JESSE EUBANKS: Every day former president Donald Trump is in the news – still, years after his presidency. And of course, the reason that he’s in the news is that he’s facing multiple indictments on accusations of criminal charges. And this is the first time in U.S. history that a former president has been charged with crime. For me, it’s a really strange experience to think about how many people in the future are gonna look back and analyze this exact moment in time because one way or another – it’s gonna be a crossroads. And however you feel about these trials and these court cases, whether you feel like the evidence is solid or weak, whether you are feeling numb or frustrated or full of grief, the reality is this – trials like this make history. Whether it’s through news outlets or around our dinner tables, through social media, conversations over cups of coffee, moments like this – they’re shaping our culture in real time. So how do history making trials like this one connect to our faith? Well, for those of us who live in the U.S., we have felt how the polarization in politics and government has deeply divided the church. More specifically for evangelical Christians, the lines between political allegiances and faith have become really blurry. The word evangelical in the U.S. is now closely related to being a conservative Republican voter, but we’d be fooling ourselves to think that our moment in history is unique. And of course, if people in the future are gonna look back at this as a crossroads moment that’s led them to where they are, we have to wonder – what crossroads moment in our past put us where we are now? So today, we’re gonna go back almost a hundred years to one crossroads moment that reshaped Christianity in America and set us on the course to where we are today.


JESSE EUBANKS: You’re listening to the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. I’m Jesse Eubanks. 

ANNA TRAN: And I’m Anna Tran. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Today’s episode – “Fundamentalism on Trial.” We’re partnering with the podcast Truce and their host Chris Staron, who recently has been exploring the question – how did fundamentalist Christianity become more known for what it’s against than what it’s for? Hey, welcome to the show, Chris. 

CHRIS STARON: Thank you so much for having me. 

ANNA TRAN: Chris will be guiding us through the historic Scopes trial and how it kicked off modern fundamentalism in the U.S. as we know it. 

JESSE EUBANKS: And ultimately, we’re gonna explore how those events that took place 100 years ago are still influencing things today. Welcome to our corner of the urban universe.


JESSE EUBANKS: Okay, so Chris, the Scopes trial – I wanted to note first off that these episodes are a part of a bigger series that you did about Christian fundamentalism. These days, you know, the term “evangelical” gets thrown around all the time, but not so much fundamentalism. I mean, you’ll hear it mentioned, but it’s not anything like it used to be. So at what point did you start to realize what fundamentalism was? 

CHRIS STARON: Oh, yeah, well, partially it was asking the experts, and it’s a lot of what I do on the show is trying to find out what, what is this thing actually. Fundamentalism – there’s a guy named George Marsden who studied this. He was one of the first people to kind of crack the nut on studying fundamentalism, and he defined it as militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism, which is a mouthful. It’s really big. Uh, but one of the, you know, key things in there is militantly anti-modernist, and I really wanted to understand – what, what does that mean? Because it, it’s a movement that’s defined about being against something. And then of course you have to understand what is it they’re against, which was this kind of liberal theology that said you can kind of pick and choose what you want with the Bible – that Jesus was a good man, a good teacher, maybe a little bit of a prophet, but not God. So it took a lot of the miraculous out of the Bible and you still see people say that a lot today and that reaction, that fundamentalism that we have today, is still very much like that. It is very much militantly against something, and it’s defined by being against.

ANNA TRAN: So fundamentalism is something that’s super present today, right? But there’s a moment in American history where the intensity really gets turned up, and for us to understand why Christians are against so many things today, we have to go back to this key moment in history where that first began.

AUDIO CLIPS: You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven’t you, Mr. Bryan?… Yes, sir. I have tried to… Well, we all know you have. We are not going to dispute that at all. Uh, but you have written and published articles almost weekly and sometimes have made interpretations of various things… I would not say interpretations, Mr. Darrow, but comments on the lesson. 

CHRIS STARON: This reenactment is from what may be the most famous court case in United States history – at least the 1900s – what’s known as the Scopes trial or the Scopes Monkey Trial. A small town in Tennessee hosts a court case that turns into the OJ verdict of its day. Hundreds of people gathered to watch it live while millions more listened on the radio.

AUDIO CLIPS: But you have studied the question of course… Of what?… Interpretation of the Bible…

CHRIS STARON: The man asking the questions – Clarence Darrow, a controversial figure, perhaps the most renowned lawyer of the 1920s, a hardened gruff atheist, a determinist. He’s on the defense, representing a young school teacher accused of teaching evolution in a time and place where such a thing was illegal. The man on the witness stand is William Jennings Bryan. Bryan ran for President of the United States three times under the Democratic ticket, losing all of his attempts. Former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, former Secretary of State, and one of the people responsible for enacting the law in question, barring teachers in Tennessee from discussing evolution in the classroom. This was Rocky versus Apollo Creed – two of the most famous, maybe most infamous, men in the country duking it out. You may know this story, the stakes, the ramifications. This event is taught in schools across the country. Your ideas about it are probably colored by your upbringing, your religion, your politics, and I don’t care who you are – they’re probably wrong. Let me tell it to you the wrong way first, how we normally hear it.

The court case was over a week old already. Bryan and the prosecution had basically won. It was proven that the young teacher, John Scopes, taught evolution in the state of Tennessee. His own students testified to that fact, ratting him out. Scopes faced real jail time and fines for his crime, a young man imprisoned for science, a martyr for his cause. The whole thing was pretty much wrapped up when in a surprise, spur of the moment stroke of brilliance Clarence Darrow, the godless big city lawyer, called the populist Bryan to the stand. Once there, he grilled the old man about his religion. Darrow asked him –

AUDIO CLIPS: Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?

CHRIS STARON: Bryan was a fundamentalist, or at least the fundamentalists looked to him in this moment as their guy on the ground fighting on behalf of God himself. To them, he was a man of God. Darrow the atheist wanted nothing more than to reveal Bryan as a bigot, a sham, and a fool. In this telling of the story, the false one, Darrow makes Bryan out to be a sputtering idiot – a man stuck in the past in superstition that no longer belonged to the industrialized world. He does so on national radio. Millions of people hear it live. As a result, teaching evolution goes mainstream in the schools, and fundamentalists like Bryan become a dying breed. Thanks to this one performance, Darrow single-handedly brings down fundamentalism until it’s revived in the 1970s, just in time for the moral majority, Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan. That’s the story we’ve been told anyway – one of religion and superstition making way for modernist thought and enlightenment. Or if you’re from a Christian background, maybe you summarize it as a lone man standing up against godless theories that say we emerged from apes. The truth, as is often the case, is far more complex. A lot of the popular ideas around this event are just plain wrong. It wasn’t the death of fundamentalism. Instead, the pressure of this battle over Darwinism didn’t extinguish the movement. It forced fundamentalism to evolve.

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay, so you mentioned that a lot of us have come to believe, you know, a lot of false ideas about the nature of this trial, the outcomes of this trial, the influence of the trial. When did you start to realize that a lot of what we were believing about this trial was actually totally wrong? 

CHRIS STARON: Oh yeah. When I interviewed Ed Larson, who is in the episodes about the Scopes trial – uh, I, I read his book, Summer for the Gods – which is just fantastic, won a Pulitzer Prize in history – and, uh, he lays it out very clearly. I started the season without necessarily knowing how it was gonna end. Uh, so it came as a surprise to me – as these things often do (laughs) – but it, it came as a surprise, but it also shouldn’t have been a surprise, uh, because so much of sort of our folklore telling about what happened in the past in Christianity – it has elements of truth in it but also has elements of untruth in there, things that get bent or twisted with emotion. And so I think it’s been part of the fun of diving into these things to, to learn all these things, to be surprised even months after researching something. Uh, and it, it consistently happens with the show, which makes it really a joy to produce. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay, so to get to the true story, uh, the first episode actually talks about a drugstore where this whole thing kicks off. Uh, tell us a little bit about this drugstore where everything started. 

CHRIS STARON: Oh, sure. And if you ever get a chance, uh, you should definitely go to Dayton, Tennessee, and they’ve got kind of a walking tour you can take and you can visit all of these sites. But what happens is that, uh, there’s this law passed in Tennessee that you cannot teach evolution as fact in public schools. And, uh, the ACLU wants to test this law, and this is kind of how things get changed in the United States. Uh, there’s a law that’s passed. Somebody does not like that law, so they break it and then they go to trial to, to test the boundaries of the law. 

ANNA TRAN: Okay, so the next clips – Chris sets the scene of the trial and introduces some of the main players.

CHRIS STARON: The drugstore sold ice cream and drinks, but also stuff you probably wouldn’t expect – like textbooks, including the one that would become central to this battle over evolution. Dayton is a charming, quintessential small town – a square, statues, its own brewery – but in the 1920s, it seemed like Dayton was on the way out. 

ED LARSON: Actually reducing in size as the old blast furnace had closed. Ray County was a farming community. Strawberries shipped by rail up to the cities in the north. 

CHRIS STARON: By the way, the voice you hear is the ever interesting Edward Larson. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his excellent book on the trial and teaches at Pepperdine University. This piece of Tennessee was different than the rest of the state.

ED LARSON: Whole state is Republican now, but back then Tennessee being a southern state was predominantly democratic and therefore pro-Bryan. Bryan, remember, had been the Democratic nominee for president. 

CHRIS STARON: That’s William Jennings Bryan, three-time nominee for president by the Democratic Party. He lost all three times, then became Secretary of State under President Wilson. He’d earned the nickname Mr. Fundamentalist. 

ED LARSON: But East Tennessee, historically –

CHRIS STARON: – where Dayton is located –

ED LARSON: – that was the Republican end of the, the state. 

CHRIS STARON: Republican back then meant they were pro-abolition, against Jim Crow laws. Bryan was a democrat. For a long time, the Democrat. Naturally, Dayton didn’t vote for him. The trial though was years after Bryan stopped running for office. He turned his attention to other causes, like slowing the spread of social Darwinism. To do that, he and a bunch of other Christian leaders, like William Bell Riley and Billy Sunday, campaigned to outlaw the teaching of evolution in Tennessee.

ED LARSON: And again, he was very precise. He didn’t care about the evolution of animals or plants. He probably accepted those things to happen. What he cared about was humans. The Bible is very clear that Adam and Eve are specially created by God, so he can go out and convince people that there was a danger in teaching students as true that, that they had been created through a Darwinian process of evolution, and so the Tennessee law that he ended up championing and he went to the Tennessee legislature and helped get it passed simply says that you can’t teach the, the Darwinian theory of human evolution. It doesn’t deal with other sorts of evolution. The ACLU published a notice in the state saying that they would be willing to defend any school teacher in the state who wanted to challenge the law.

CHRIS STARON: The ACLU. The American Civil Liberties Union, you may know, is now almost a cuss word for some evangelicals. In 1925, they put out this advertisement looking for someone to challenge the law. What they needed was an educator willing to teach evolution, get caught, and go to trial, someone to test the validity of the law in a courtroom who would be bold enough, brave enough, or so desperate for attention that they would take on a controversial law in the public eye. Perhaps Dayton?

ED LARSON: The town was struggling for business at this time because, as I said, the local blast furnace had closed and they were losing population and they, they come up with this idea.

CHRIS STARON: An idea for how to boost the notoriety of the town. 

ED LARSON: “Let’s have a test case here.” 

CHRIS STARON: “Let’s try this law and see if we can’t get people to take notice.” It’ll spark a media circus, looky-loos, folks from all around who want to take part in history and spend their money in local stores and hotels. Imagine the crowds at the soda fountains, the restaurants. This, btw, is one way that laws get tested in the United States. An organization wants to test a law, they find someone willing to break it, and then they take the case to court so they can argue that the law should not exist. Think Rosa Parks or even Carrie Buck from my eugenics episode. A small group of citizens met in the soda fountain at a table about the size of a large pizza with the hope of drawing some much needed attention to Dayton. The only problem is – who were they going to get to do it? The biology teacher, the person you’d expect to teach evolution, was also the principal of the school. They couldn’t sacrifice the principal. But, okay, what about the young guy, John Scopes? 

ED LARSON: He was the football coach, and he was the middle school science teacher.

CHRIS STARON: Someone found him playing tennis, called him to the drugstore, and laid out their plan. Would he, John Scopes, be willing to get arrested for teaching evolution? 

ED LARSON: Now, granted, he hadn’t, but that was a minor technicality. 

CHRIS STARON: He hadn’t even taught evolution. One of the most famous crime stories in American history and there wasn’t even a crime committed, but the young man certainly fit the bill. Scopes wasn’t particularly religious, and he was well liked and a composed guy – not a bad defendant.

ED LARSON: They assured him of his job back. They assured he’d never go to jail. They were very – they, they could pay his fine if there was one. 

CHRIS STARON: There wasn’t much to lose. Right there in the drugstore, they arrested John Scopes. With all the major players in order, they contacted the ACLU to tell them they had their test case. 

ED LARSON: And so the trial began literally as a publicity stunt. How American can you get?

JESSE EUBANKS: Talk to me a little bit about how William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were, uh, selected to represent the prosecution and defense. 

CHRIS STARON: Well, these two guys were basically the most famous lawyers in the country. And, you know, Clarence Darrow had, uh, prosecuted this trial Leopold and Loeb – that I had gone into also in this season – uh, these two young men who murder a boy basically to try to prove that they are the Superman. It’s this big case. It’s already a media sensation. They broadcast that on radio across the country. So Clarence Darrow is famous, that they know this guy. And so this is the guy you want if you’re trying to draw attention to your town to get people to know about Dayton, Tennessee. And then you have on the other side, uh, William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president three times under the Democratic ticket. So obviously very famous. He was on the radio. He was an early adopter. They’d also had been sparring in the newspapers. And Darrow had been kind of provoking, uh, Bryan on the papers to be like, “No, I want you to, like, tell me what you think about the evolution. I want you to give me your proof that this is not science,” you know. If you want to have a showdown to draw attention to your town, you want the two big guys, and they got both guys.

ANNA TRAN: Okay, so the next clips – Chris tells us how Clarence Darrow ended up coming onto the defense team and how Scopes became known all around the U.S.

ED LARSON: Darrow had in mind of using the trial not only to promote academic freedom, but really to debunk Christianity, which of course the ACLU didn’t wanna get anywhere near that third rail. 

CHRIS STARON: They wanted to make the case for the right of teachers. Bringing Darrow on would change the narrative. 

ED LARSON: He knew the ACLU would never want him there. He went straight to John Scopes. 

CHRIS STARON: Scopes liked Darrow. So, what could the ACLU do? Their defendant wanted to bring the big guns. Of course Scopes did. Getting Darrow involved would mean even more publicity to challenge the law he disagreed with and bring tourism to Dayton. 

ED LARSON: Basically they pull their people from the trial and the leaders of the ACLU don’t even go down and attend and they basically turn it over to Clarence Darrow to, to run because they’re sort of forced out. 

CHRIS STARON: The plan was to find the best experts possible to prove the existence of evolution and to make sure the whole country was paying attention. To do that, they had to get Scopes out in the public. 

ED LARSON: Scopes never went to jail. Indeed, after the trial was launched and it became front page news, he went on a publicity tour around America. He went to Chicago. He went to New York. He spoke at the American Museum of Natural History. He went to Washington, D.C. He went on a publicity tour around the country. And the ACLU put together an advisory board that included the presidents of Harvard, University of Michigan, University of, uh, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley. And they pulled together this star-studded expert, list of expert witnesses – all Christian, mind you – from the top universities around America like Princeton and Chicago and Vanderbilt to come down and testify. This was not some sort of scene where you had this poor, um, school teacher looking for a lawyer as it appears in Inherit the Wind.

CHRIS STARON: The Broadway play turned movie that presented a fictionalized version of the trial.

ED LARSON: Rather, the lawyers found him. 

CHRIS STARON: The town was about to get more than it bargained for. Remember, they were hoping for some publicity and to frame this as a test case.

ED LARSON: Where the two sides would come together and debate the merits of this law without Scopes’s neck being on the line. What happened was that America loves its story, and the best story is that there’s this benighted hill town in the benighted south enraged by fundamentalism that arrests one of their own teachers. That’s just too good a story to pass up because America likes conflict. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Let’s talk about this. You know, this is all happening roughly a hundred years ago. Talk to me a little bit about what the U.S. was like during this time. 

CHRIS STARON: Oh, sure. Women have just gotten the vote, which is very exciting. So there are lots of changes going on in the political arena. You know, prohibition is going on. Uh, radio is becoming a new big thing. Technology’s changing. More and more houses are getting electrified. Things are changing rapidly, and that’s sometimes, you know, difficult for us to understand. But if you think about, you know, maybe a hundred years earlier, people had no electricity. There aren’t these massive cities like you have in the 1920s. Uh, so things are changing. And that, of course, is frightening if you like the way things were and if you have sort of traditional ideas about how, you know, family structures should be or the relationships between men and women should be. Uh, so there, there’s a lot going on. So if you are a fundamentalist, it was kind of a scary time to be alive. 

ANNA TRAN: Okay, so next Chris gives us more context about what the culture was like at the time of the trial and why this small town really needed this trial to be a big deal. 

ED LARSON: We’re talking about the middle of the 1920s, which were a celebrity era, and we’re talking about the jazz age.

CHRIS STARON: Think The Great Gatsby, prohibition, speakeasies, the ubiquity of the automobile, and the economy was booming. 

ED LARSON: They thought that thousands of people would descend on the town to watch the trial.

CHRIS STARON: Even toying with the idea of holding court in the baseball stadium so more people could watch. They expected thousands of people to come to Dayton for this. Locals rented out their homes, and the press arrived on the train. The courtroom fit a lot of people, but there wasn’t enough space for everyone, so they ran speakers outside so that people could listen on the courthouse lawn. H.L. Mencken, the famous journalist, had suspected the town to be backwards, but found it – at least initially – warm and friendly. The carnival atmosphere also teased out negative stereotypes of the north and the south. 

ED LARSON: This was a day when you did have lynching in the south, when you did have, um, segregation in the south. Northerners were not moving to the south. It was before air conditioning, was before the development of the interstate highway system or any of that.

CHRIS STARON: People were leaving the countryside to go to the cities, so there was an element of seeing rural areas as backwaters. “Let’s go to Dayton and watch the hicks fight against science,” that kind of thing. 

ED LARSON: Even though the reality doesn’t match the legend, you could easily play on the rural/urban and emphasizing that the anti-evolution movement was squarely rooted in the cities. This wasn’t truly a north/south, urban/rural, but if you cast it that way from a propaganda point of view, making it north/south, rural/urban worked.

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay, so then, uh, eventually all the right players get into town. Talk to me about the beginning of the trial. How does it kick off? 

CHRIS STARON: Oh yeah, it’s, it’s surprisingly dull, which is kind of an interesting thing. You know, it’s broadcast across the country on radio and it’s kind of a carnival atmosphere, but inside the courtroom, you know, people are packed in there – and you can go and visit the courtroom today, and I would recommend it if you’re in the region. It’s a big courtroom with, you know, wood floors and creaky furniture. So you go in there, and, uh, they, they think they’re gonna have the, the, the trial of the century. But again, William Jennings Bryan is not showboating a lot at this time. He’s not doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Other people are doing it because they realized that essentially, uh, it’s easy to prove that Scopes did what he did – “He broke the law, and that’s all we really have to prove here.” And so that’s what the prosecution is going for. 

ANNA TRAN: Okay, so the next clips, when the trial gets kicked off, Chris tells us about one of the central battles of the trial. 

CHRIS STARON: But the central battle in the trial was the question of whether or not to allow expert testimony to be heard by the jury.

ED LARSON: Both sides had said they were gonna bring in expert witnesses to debate the merits of the statute. 

CHRIS STARON: That was one reason Darrow paraded Scopes around the northeast – to find experts who would testify to the legitimacy of teaching evolution in the classroom. 

ED LARSON: Bryan instead and the, the prosecution moved to exclude all expert witness, saying it’s irrelevant because the only thing relevant is whether Scopes taught evolution. The ACLU was not gonna object to that because they wanted this law judged. If Scopes was convicted, they could then appeal to the State Supreme Court and then ultimately the United States Supreme Court to try to get the law struck down as unconstitutional. That was their goal. They didn’t let Scopes take the stand because he would’ve had to admit that he hadn’t taught evolution and he actually coached his students to say that he had taught evolution.

CHRIS STARON: In other words, the ACLU wanted Scopes to lose. That’s the only way that the case could climb its way to the higher courts where the law could be removed. Yet Darrow and the defense fought to keep the expert witnesses in the trial. Day after day, this was the big concern. All the while, the jury sat out of the proceedings as the lawyers haggled over what they could and could not hear. There were no empty seats, and I can tell you from personal experience, it gets really hot and muggy in Dayton.

ED LARSON: The trial went on for over a week, but what they did is they debated whether you could admit witnesses. They debated whether the law was constitutional. So the jury was excused for all of those portions. If you narrow the case down to “Did Scopes teach evolution?” then there’s really not much of a case. That’s why the actual trial – that is, when the jury’s involved – took only two hours. There wasn’t much, much to, much to debate. 

CHRIS STARON: They removed all of the sensational stuff. Without the experts giving testimony, this was just a simple case establishing if a small town teacher taught evolution – not something that sells newspapers. Instead, the defense admitted that their client broke the law.

ED LARSON: Darrow literally tells the jury, says, “You have no choice. You’re gonna have to convict my defendant.” 

CHRIS STARON: What kind of battle is that? The defense attorney told the jury to convict. Telegraphs had transmitted 20,000 words a day. Special lines were strung. People were listening all over the country. Friday, the evening before closing arguments were scheduled, reporters started leaving, thinking there was nothing to see, no battle royal. In fact, some of the prosecutors even went swimming with Scopes during a recess midweek. Where was the throwdown? Only the closing arguments remained. Darrow knew that William Jennings Bryan had prepared a doozy. Bryan was one of the best orators of his time. Darrow did not want Bryan to give his grand address to influence the minds of the country. What he did was hatch a plan to use the legal system to keep Bryan from giving his prepared closing statement, but simply preventing his opponent from speaking wasn’t enough. He wanted to crush religion. The best way to do that wasn’t by silencing Bryan, but by calling him to the stand. The resulting testimony would eclipse all the rest of Bryan’s legacy in the eyes of many. It became the thing he’s most known for today – that moment when the accused was ignored and the prosecutor was on trial. What happened next came to define the career of William Jennings Bryan and completely shaped the way we see fundamentalism today.

JESSE EUBANKS: Well, when we come back, we’re gonna hear how the closing statements of the trial turn the tide on fundamentalism. Stay with us.


JESSE EUBANKS: Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. Jesse Eubanks. 

ANNA TRAN: Anna Tran.

JESSE EUBANKS: We’ve been hearing the story of the famous Scopes trial, featured on the podcast Truce. It’s a story about how a small town in Tennessee in 1925 harnessed this legal trial as a publicity stunt that brought hundreds of people to town. But instead of a knockdown, drag out legal battle about teaching evolution in schools, so far, most people have been disappointed. In fact, media has already begun to leave, but there’s a little bit of hope that things might change because we’re getting to the closing arguments. Chris, why do the closing arguments really matter for this trial? What are people hoping for? 

CHRIS STARON: Well, you’ve got two of the greatest speakers in, in the country gathered into this one courtroom, on, on the radio, so people are expecting these guys are gonna just like burn the place down because it’s gonna be so good. Uh, but, of course, you know, Clarence Darrow has, has a little trick up his sleeve.

Both men were at the top of their game. The closing arguments were supposed to be exactly what the public wanted – a duel between the two juggernauts – but Darrow had a trick up his sleeve. 

ED LARSON: He knew that under Tennessee jurisprudence if the defense waives its closing argument –

CHRIS STARON: – If Darrow were to give up his closing argument –

ED LARSON: – then under Tennessee law, the prosecution cannot give a closing argument.

CHRIS STARON: – Bryan can’t give his either. Thus, Darrow could avoid giving Bryan an open stage, essentially silence his opponent. Bryan had barely spoken all week. He mostly left that up to the local prosecutor. This final speech was going to be his big chance, and it was stolen from him. Darrow, on the other hand, sprinkled his opinions throughout the past week. The nation heard lots from him and relatively little from Bryan. This was a master stroke. Darrow wanted to keep him on his toes.

ED LARSON: So when that last day comes, Darrow – who always has a plan, a very clever lawyer – he’s gonna waive his closing argument, and therefore he’s gonna leave Bryan unable to speak.

CHRIS STARON: Darrow wants to pick a fight.

ED LARSON: And therefore he had come up with the idea that, “At the last minute I will call Bryan to the stand as an expert witness.” Now, Bryan qualifies in a way as an expert witness because he had a weekly column in newspapers about the Bible that was published throughout the country and he published books on biblical interpretation and he spoke widely about the Bible. He also knew that Bryan was a very proud man, and so he had spent the whole week in the courtroom and speaking to reporters after the trial just belittling Bryan – “He’s too scared to talk. He’s not participating in this trial. He’s just sitting there and letting the prosecution do everything. He’s afraid to defend his cause before the public.” So he kept needling him in this way, and his hope was that at the last minute he says, “Look, you won’t take my other witnesses. I have one more witness I wanna call.”

AUDIO CLIP: “The defense desires to call Mr. Bryan as a witness.” 

CHRIS STARON: To keep Bryan from sensing his intention, Darrow had one of the other lawyers call him to the stand. Bryan was no dummy. He decided that if he could be called, so could Darrow. 

AUDIO CLIPS: If Your Honor, please, I insist that Mr. Darrow can be put on the stand and Mr. Malone and Mr. Hayes… Call anybody you desire. Ask them any question you wish… Then, we will call all three of them…

CHRIS STARON: Bryan now had the right to call Darrow and the other lawyers to the stand as well. Forget hearing the case. Forget the fact that the prosecution had already basically won. Darrow and Bryan wanted their showdown. Yet Bryan had different expectations then Darrow did.

ED LARSON: He thought he’d be asked questions about the theory of evolution and about laws restricting the teaching evolution and majoritarian democracy, all things like this, things that were relevant to the case. 

CHRIS STARON: Maybe he could borrow from his prepared comments a bit, not have to wing it completely, but the chief prosecutor objected. Because really what business does Bryan have being called as a witness? He wasn’t there to see Scopes teach evolution. He wasn’t anywhere nearby when the crime was supposedly committed. Didn’t know Scopes before the trial, didn’t have anything really to contribute to the case. He was a prosecutor, not the defendant.

ED LARSON: The judge says, “You don’t have to come up to the stand, Mr. Bryan,” but Bryan says, “I want to.” 

CHRIS STARON: The prosecutor objected over 20 times, but against the advice of his team, Bryan went anyway.

ED LARSON: He moves it onto that bandstand that they’ve built on the side yard so that the whole town can come and hear it. 

CHRIS STARON: The judge actually moved the venue outside, saying that the floor in the building was too weak to hold so many spectators. Why not go to the bandstand? 

ED LARSON: Two thousand people – they pour out from all the venues, they pour out from the towns. Uh, the women, children come out, the people hawking beverages, selling beverages and selling food come out and start going among the crowd like it’s a football game. And they’re all outside for this, this, what they thought were closing arguments, and instead Bryan takes the stand. 

CHRIS STARON: Darrow practiced this moment with members of his staff. They rehearsed the whole thing. Bryan came in cold. 

ED LARSON: One thing any lawyer will tell you is you never ask a question of a witness unless any answer he gives can’t help your cause. So he’s not gonna ask whether evolution’s right or he’s not gonna ask whether anti-evolution laws are good.

CHRIS STARON: Because that plays right into Bryan’s strong suit, the kind of stuff he would’ve talked about if he’d had closing arguments. 

ED LARSON: He instead asked the various, typical, age-old village atheist questions.

CHRIS STARON: Asking about things like the story of Jonah. 

AUDIO CLIPS: But do you believe that he made them, that he made such a fish and that it was big enough to swallow Jonah?… Yes, sir. Let me add – one miracle is just as easy to believe as another… 

CHRIS STARON: And prosecutor Stewart, Bryan’s teammate in this joust, objected throughout. 

AUDIO CLIP: I object to that as augmentative.

CHRIS STARON: But the questioning kept going – Darrow digging into just how literally Bryan took the Bible. 

AUDIO CLIPS: Do you believe Joshua made the sun stand still?… I believe what the Bible says. I suppose you mean that the earth stood still?… I don’t know. I am talking about the Bible now… I accept the Bible. Absolutely… Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?… No. I believe that the earth goes around the sun…

CHRIS STARON: And a lot of other questions along those lines.

AUDIO CLIPS: Now, Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened to the earth if it had stood still? 

ED LARSON: “Do you believe the world was created in six literal days? Where did Cain get his wife?”

CHRIS STARON: And then it came to downright name calling. 

AUDIO CLIP: These gentlemen have not had much chance. They did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it, and they can ask me any question they please. 

CHRIS STARON: This may seem like bluster. But remember that Clarence Darrow did go there to try a religion. That was the whole reason the ACLU hesitated to ask him to join, why he went around them to John Scopes himself, because Darrow wanted to make a spectacle of Christianity.

AUDIO CLIPS: Great applause from the bleachers… From those whom you call yokels… I have never called them yokels… That is the ignorance of Tennessee, the bigotry… You mean who are applauding you?… Those are the people whom you insult… You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion… 

ED LARSON: These questions have been asked for generations. Darrow knew that there were no good answers to them. Either you’re gonna sound sort of strange, or you’re gonna deny it. You’re gonna say, “Well, I don’t believe in the Earth was created in six days within the last 10,000 years.” And of course he knew Bryan didn’t believe that. He knew Bryan believed that the earth was very old, eons old, and the days of creation symbolized ages of geological history ’cause Bryan had written all those things. And then he’s gonna sound like, “Well if you can interpret some things in the Bible, then why can’t we interpret other things? Why can’t we say that evolution is the means of God’s creation?” He had Bryan any way he went. 


AUDIO CLIPS: You believe that all the living things that were not contained in the ark were destroyed… I think the fish may have lived.

CHRIS STARON: – kind of stumbled through while Darrow kept berating him.

AUDIO CLIP: Are you the only human being on earth who knows what the Bible means?

CHRIS STARON: Bryan was in a tough place. As Edward Larson said, he didn’t actually believe in a young earth. He thought it was old, but admitting that might feel like a betrayal of the fundamentalist community that followed him. He was Mr. Fundamentalist after all, and some fundamentalists, not all, believe in a literal six day creation of the earth. Either he was going to lie about his own beliefs, or he was going to upset his base.

ED LARSON: He, he’s torn because there is the local town out there within his hearing, within his sight, and accepted a very literal reading of the Bible, but he also knew this was being broadcast nationwide on the radio and being reported in every newspaper in the country from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times to the, you know, you name it. He cared about people’s faith. He cared that people believed in Christ and he cared about Christianity and he cared about morality. And so he, he was in that difficult position of having to speak to a local audience or a national audience and to both of them defend Christianity. On the spot, he couldn’t do it.

CHRIS STARON: For him, it was agony.

JESSE EUBANKS: Let’s talk a little bit about the cultural fallout of the public listening to this trial live as it happened over the radio. 

CHRIS STARON: Sure. Well, it’s funny. It’s another one of those ways that we talk about the Scopes trial kind of incorrectly, uh, because in the moment, in 1925, people listen to this, they listen to William Jennings Bryan kind of stutter and stammer and, and Clarence Darrow grill him and it’s this big moment, you know, that we’re still talking about a hundred years later. But in the moment, in 1925, it’s a draw. As far as the country, like they’ve, they’ve decided that really nobody won, nobody lost. I mean, who wouldn’t crumble when Clarence Darrow is grilling you on the stand? So in the moment it’s a draw. There’s a book that comes out, uh, in, uh, 1931. Uh, it’s called Only Yesterday and, you know, it comes out in the midst of the Great Depression, but it’s trying to call back, to hearken back to – “Remember how good it was last decade before there were these food lines and, and when people had jobs and the flappers and all that kind of stuff?” It basically portrays the Scopes trial as a failure of the fundamentalists, uh, that they, they got it wrong and, boy, didn’t William Jennings Bryan look dumb up there on the stand when, again, that’s not what happened. He, he stuttered and he stammered, but it wasn’t that big a deal and people saw it as a draw. But in the book, it’s shown to be a failure, and it’s shown to be one of the things that quote unquote “kills fundamentalism.” But it, it didn’t kill fundamentalism. Actually fundamentalism just kind of had its own ecosystem already. It had its own radio, its own publishing houses, its own schools. It basically went underground, uh, where it was already kind of going anyway. 

ANNA TRAN: Okay, so these next clips – we hear how the trial winds down. 

CHRIS STARON: The trial ultimately wrapped up with Bryan’s testimony on the stand being expunged from the record by the judge, but by then it had already been broadcast to the nation and transcribed in print. Everyone already heard it. And because Bryan’s testimony was kind of a fiasco, the judge did not let Darrow and the defense take the stand. Bryan never got his opportunity to cross examine the defense. After the trial, Bryan still gave speeches and sermons in town. He got his message out, but so had the defense and the ACLU. 

ED LARSON: Two other states quickly passed laws much like the Tennessee law, one in Mississippi, one in Arkansas. 

CHRIS STARON: What the Scopes trial did primarily was help to drive fundamentalism out of the mainstream. The battle had been on the radio and in newspapers. It wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t the win they’d hoped for. 

ED LARSON: While it was already there, I think that the Scopes trial did contribute to a sense of division that our ideas will no longer be taken seriously and we, we fundamentalists will be ridiculed in the way that Bryan was ridiculed by Darrow on the witness stand, and therefore there was this sense that among some Christians and amongst some evangelicals and fundamentalists is to pull out and to, um, form their own subculture. 

CHRIS STARON: It helped push fundamentalism underground. The fundamentalists had been doing things by the D.L. Moody Handbook, building their own schools, colleges, radio shows, conferences, publications, and more. Christian fundamentalists didn’t really need secular society to love them. Instead, they had their own society.

JESSE EUBANKS: You know, when we look out into the landscape today, right now – we get online, we get on social media, we look at our media outlets, we interact with our neighbors – connect what is out in the atmosphere here in America right now with this event from a hundred years ago. What lessons can we learn or what things can we observe?

CHRIS STARON: Oh, yeah, yeah. I would say ask your non-Christian friends, “What do you think an evangelical is?” (laughs) Or listen to the news and, and, and see what, what are they connecting evangelicalism to today because evangelicalism is in the news, used as sort of a, a stand in for fundamentalism, even though they’re, they’re different movements technically. But in the news, they’re portrayed as the same thing. They’re really not, which is why so many people have wanted to create a new word for evangelicalism, but I, I think, yeah, I would encourage you to, like, talk to your non-Christian friends, see, like, “What do you think evangelicals believe?” And you’re, you’re gonna hear a long list of, of what they’re against and probably not a lot of what they’re for. I don’t know if you find yourself sharing your faith, uh, but, uh, when, when the Lord opens up that opportunity for me, so often I’m trying to undo what other people have done and a lot of anger and anxiety. And the Scopes trial, I think, on the Christian side, on the fundamentalist side, is, is with us as part of our founding myth of who we are. And it’s like, “Oh, it began in this, at the Scopes trial, and now it’s beginning with, uh, you know, wokeism, or whatever you want. Uh, you know, they’re, they’re always trying to push things into the schools that counteract traditional ideas of the Bible.” We’re kind of living through that thing, especially in education. It, it is constantly coming up, uh, when we talk about, you know, banned books or what should kids be reading in classes. It is, is very much in the air. It sets the stage for, for all of those discussions of who gets a voice in the United States, um, and who, who doesn’t.


JESSE EUBANKS: Well, special thanks to our guest Chris Staron and his podcast Truce. Chris, thank you for coming on the show and for sharing your work with us. Where can people go to listen to the whole series? 

CHRIS STARON: Absolutely. By the way, it’s a huge pleasure to be here. I’m thrilled that you would ask me to do this. But you can hear Truce anywhere you get podcasts or at 

JESSE EUBANKS: Well, we’ll put a link in our show notes as well, so you can click there to hear more.


JESSE EUBANKS: Senior producer and host is me, Jesse Eubanks. Anna Tran is our producer and editor for this episode, and yesterday, as she was leaving the office, I saw her riding down the street on her bike, screaming at the top of her lungs –

AUDIO CLIP: I object to that as augmentative.

ANNA TRAN: Music comes from Blue Dot Sessions and Murphy DX.

JESSE EUBANKS: This show is brought to you by Love Thy Neighborhood. If you want a hands-on experience of missions in our modern times, come serve with Love Thy Neighborhood. Love Thy Neighborhood offers summer and year-long missions internships for young adults ages 18 to 30. Bring social change with the gospel by working with an innovative nonprofit and serving your urban neighbors. 

ANNA TRAN: Experience community like never before as you live and do ministry with other Christian young adults. Grow in your faith by walking in the life and lifestyle of Jesus and being part of a vibrant, healthy church. Apply now at 

JESSE EUBANKS: Which of these was a neighbor to the man in need? The one who showed mercy. Jesus tells us, “Go, and do likewise.”


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Listen to the full series on Fundamentalism. Start with Season 5 Episode 1.
Clips featured in this episode are originally from the following episodes:

S5:E1 What is an Evangelical?
S5:E29 The Scopes “Monkey” Trial Part 1
S5:E30 The Scopes “Monkey” Trial Part 2
Connect with Chris Staron.


Senior producer and host is Jesse Eubanks.
Anna Tran produced and edited this episode.
Music is from Blue Dot Sessions & Murphy D.X.