Scopes Trial: Interpretation 1

Edward Larson

Summer for the Gods

For historian Edward Larson, whose Summer for the Gods remains one of the standard interpretations of the Scopes trial, the trial itself really symbolized two larger conflicts in American culture. First, the prosecution of John Scopes for teaching evolution in a public school represented the division between fundamentalist and progressive America, religion and science. William Jennings Bryan stood in for the America who read the Bible literally, that believed in Creationism, and who was suspicious of science. In contrast, Clarence Darrow’s America rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible and was much more comfortable with science.

Second, the trial highlighted two different interpretations of the constitutional rights, one favoring majority rights, and the other promoting individual rights. While the trial represented a change in American attitudes about the rights of the majority versus the rights of the individual, Bryan is cast as the champion of majority democracy. Since most of America was uncomfortable with evolution as a scientific principal, rules forbidding the teaching of evolution to schoolchildren were merely the application of majority rule. On the other hand, Darrow’s defense of Scopes signaled a new concern with the rights of the individual to say, or teach, what he or she wished, as well as society’s obligation to protect those rights.

Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).