Review: Summer for the Gods

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, 1925When I started reading “Summer for the gods: the Scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion” I thought that I knew something about the Scopes trial. As the author points out, most Americans feel that way. Edward J Larson, the author, is a professor at Pepperdine University. He has both a PhD in history and a law degree which should make him very qualified to write this book. For me the most important part of of the book was the “before” and “after” sections, the actual events of the trial turn out to be less surprising, and less important, than why it happened and what the results were.

The events prior to the trial was most surprising to me. Religious fundamentalists writing for social justice? That surprised me even considering that the society they wanted justice for was lily white and strictly Christian. Evolution was, by the 1920s, a settled issue with most churches. The modern leaning churches accepting science and the pentecostal churches, those that came into being during the First Great Awakening when Europeans and Africans worshiped together as bondsmen to the wealthy English planters, rejecting science as an evil influence that would destroy morality. Outlawing the teaching of evolution was a dead idea until William Jennings Bryan began to advocate for it. As an experienced politician he was quickly successful in attracting conservative fundamentalists to the cause.

The trial was instigated by the American Civil Liberties Union in an attempt to protect teachers freedom of speech and freedom from government sponsored religious influence in the classroom. Unfortunately they soon lost control of the trial when Bryan and Clarence Darrow, two of the era’s biggest headline makers, were recruited to argue the case. The prosecution and the ACLU wanted to focus on the law itself, Bryan and Darrow both wanted religion introduced into their arguments. As we all know Bryan and Darrow prevailed.
Scopes was convicted, giving the ACLU a chance to appeal to the state supreme court. This was partially botched by a local attorney who had latched on to the trial as a chance redeem his reputation. Since the appeal was on a very limited point the ACLU expected to lose in Tennessee State Supreme Court and was planning strategy for an appeal to the US Supreme Court when Tennessee pulled the rug out from under them by overturning the conviction on a point they had not been asked to look at. With no conviction there was nothing to appeal effectively ending the legal battle.

After the trial both sides felt they had won. The anti-evolution forces managed to get laws passed in more states, southern and western states but failed in the north and midwest. The ACLU was unable to recruit any teachers to serve as another test case. But when the anti-evolution forces stopped trying to pass laws outside their areas it appeared to many that the fundamentalists had accepted defeat. As we know from current events they only turned inward to regroup. Bryan’s legacy suffered from his association with the trial. To his liberal friends it appeared that he had suffered from bad judgement in his later years and deserted them. To the anti-evolutionists he went from a hero leading their cause to a traitor for his testimony that perhaps Genesis described eras not 24 hour days.

Larson is a good writer, he is intelligent enough to dispense with polysyllabic words meant to impress rather than inform and he did the work to explain the era that colored the trial and how the trial colored the era that followed. His book provides a window to help us understand current events.

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Filed under Book review, History, Science

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