The Historiography Of The Scopes Trial: A Critical Re-Evaluation -- By: Paul M. Waggoner

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 05:2 (Fall 1984)
Article: The Historiography Of The Scopes Trial: A Critical Re-Evaluation
Author: Paul M. Waggoner

The Historiography Of The Scopes Trial:
A Critical Re-Evaluation

Paul M. Waggoner

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

The Scopes trial of 1925 has for over half a century been the focus of popular understanding and appraisals of the religious force in America known as fundamentalism. No other incident involving fundamentalism can rival the name recognition of the Tennessee anti-evolution trial of so long ago. As Ernest Sandeen noted in his landmark study of a decade ago, “No stereotype of the Fundamentalist dies harder than the picture provided by the Scopes trial.”1

The evangelical heirs of the original fundamentalist movement have most certainly been embarrassed by the stigma attached to Christian orthodoxy by the attitudes displayed at the trial. These evangelicals (as well as most secular commentators) have generally found the 1955 play and subsequent movie entitled Inherit the Wind to be the modern culprit in perpetuating distasteful, not to mention inaccurate, stereotypes of the Scopes trial and of fundamentalism. This understanding of the issue, while useful enough to merit attention later in this essay, is at best only part of the story.

What shall be attempted here is a full accounting of both popular and scholarly evaluations of the Scopes trial, particularly the trial’s relationship to the course of American fundamentalism. We shall begin with the accounts immediately following the trial and continue the story on up to the most recent scholarly appraisals, considering the accounts of each decade in turn.

In evaluating the historiography on the Scopes trial one finds that typically the trial has been considered important in that it marked “the high point of the American Fundamentalist and anti-evolution crusade.”2 In effect the events of July 1925 are believed to have been a turning point in fundamentalist fortunes, a historical watershed; worse still, a rout, fundamentalism’s “Waterloo.”

This view, the orthodox one in an historical sense, presupposes that prior to 1925 the fundamentalist movement was progressing victoriously with its denominational and cultural agendas, a debatable proposition in itself. Here, however, we shall examine only the lee side of the equation, i.e. the notion that fundamentalism’s decline can be dated with some precision to the summer of 1925.

Our analysis shall show three distinct trends in historical investigation of the trial. During the first phase (late 1925 to early 1931) most critical observers did not regard the Scopes trial as a turning po...

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