Summer for the Gods by Edward J. Larson is a history of the Scopes trial of 1925. This trial pitted populist former politician William Jennings Bryan against famed defense attorney and atheist Clarence Darrow in a battle over the teaching of evolution. The Scopes trial was one of the early so-called “Trials of the Century” (there have been a lot of them besides O.J.). The trial resulted because the state of Tennessee was the first to pass a law banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. The ACLU wanted to challenge this law, so they found someone – Scopes—who had taught evolution (sort of, anyway – he was a substitute teacher, not a biology teacher) and was willing to go along with the suit. The drive for anti-evolution laws was led by William Jennings Bryan, who helped make it a crusade for the growing Christian Fundamentalist movement.
First, a word about fundamentalism. It’s vital to understand fundamentalism to understand the creation-evolution debate and the Scopes trial in particular. It’s also my background, so I want to understand where I come from. In American Protestantism, it started as a reaction to modernism, especially as embodied in higher criticism. In the early years of the 1900s a wide range of theologians wrote a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals, which is where the name came from. These pamphlets stressed the vital points of Christian belief, acting as a conserving force opposed to the drifting away they saw in modernism. They affirmed five “fundamental” beliefs:
- inerrancy of the Bible (because it was inspired by the Holy Spirit)
- Christ’s virgin birth
- Christ’s death on the cross atoned for sin
- Christ’s bodily resurrection
- Christ’s miracles are historical fact
Incidentally, two of the contributors to the pamphlets, B.B. Warfield and James Orr, espoused or were open to evolutionary ideas in biology (Larson 20).
The higher criticism that the Fundamentalists opposed is a type of literary criticism consisting of source, form, and redaction criticism, among others. It’s often referred to as the “historical-critical” method. Criticism in this sense is not negative, but merely the application of critical analysis to the text, with the goal of understanding the meaning of the text in the original context. This sounds good, but an example would be an analysis of vocabulary and style to determine if a text has been woven together from more than one source. This is essentially the documentary hypothesis Wellhausen proposed for the Pentateuch, that the first five books of the Torah were not composed by a single author but stitched together from other sources. Fundamentalists had a problem with this denial of Moses’ authorship naturally, and all that stemmed from it. It tended to lead to the denial of the miraculous events recorded and to accepting errors in the text. Practitioners of higher criticism tended to have naturalistic presuppositions (i.e. disbelieving the supernatural out of hand, opting for a rational explanation instead). The feud between Fundamentalists and modernists split more than one denomination apart in America. In fact, the two categories of churches, mainline and evangelical, go back to these disagreements.
I grew up in an evangelical church but now I attend a mainline Episcopal church. I’ve crossed over, though I can’t say that I’ve completely left everything fundamentalist behind. Looking at the list of “fundamentals” above, I can still positively affirm the four about Christ. In fact, I don’t know how I could give up those beliefs. They feel intrinsic to the idea of who Christ is, and without Christ there is no Christianity. The first fundamental, about Biblical inerrancy, I have questions about. I’m not sure that “error” and “fact” are meaningful categories to apply to the Bible, given the genres of the original books and their context (for a fuller discussion on this, see these two posts by Josh Way). [I plan to talk more about how I’ve “strayed” from fundamentalism in future entries.]
It seems that in some ways the higher criticism has won out, even in academic fundamentalist circles. When I was an undergraduate at a fundamentalist Bible college, I was taught to practice a version of the historical-critical method, just with different presuppositions. We were trying to understand the original meaning of the text to the original audience in historical context, but we believed that it was all true. In fact, we believed that there was no error in the original text because it had been inspired by the Holy Spirit. We added to the method by also trying to ascertain what the text means for us today. Or, how can we apply the lessons of the Bible to our own lives and situations? I still think this is the way to approach the Biblical text, and it is hard for me to change my presuppositions as well. I still believe it is true. But as I change some external beliefs, such as my stance on evolution, it changes how I interpret the truth of the Bible. Where once I understood the words of Genesis as literal truth, now I read the first chapters and consider their genre and the poetic structure to understand the truth they are trying to convey.
These personal observations on my experience touch on some deep issues that I’ll be returning to, probably many times, in the future. I’m still figuring myself out (and myself is still changing). Any readers who want to share their experiences and observations are more than welcome to in the comments. I’d be interested in hearing about them. Now, back to the history lesson.
Fundamentalists such as William Jennings Bryan had many reasons, both moral and theological, to object to evolution. Bryan focused on the moral objections. It was what evolution implied that made it unacceptable, “a survival-of-the-fittest mentality that justified laissez-faire capitalism, imperialism, and militarism” (Larson 27). Bryan was a populist politician who fought against these excesses in his career. He stood up for the weak against the strong (e.g. his famous “Cross of Gold” speech was a defense of Midwestern farmers and their economic situation). Evolution was also used as support for eugenics, which was a popular idea in the 1920s, leading to sterilization laws in many states for the mentally challenged, epileptics, and habitual criminals. These moral objections against social Darwinism are forceful, but to direct them at evolution is a mistake of categories. Natural selection, the mechanism of evolution, is not moral or immoral. It simply postulates that within the variety of a population, traits that enhance reproductive success in an environment will be passed on more often. Its cousin, artificial selection, or selective breeding, is the bogeyman of these moral objections. Most people do not object to breeding dogs for certain traits, but it becomes macabre when humans are the subject of breeding programs.
The theological objections to evolution relate to humanity’s relation to God. In Genesis 1 and 2, humans are created separately from the rest of the animals “in the image of God.” Whatever this “image” might mean, it appears to be something humanity has that the rest of the animals don’t. So if the Bible has no errors, then humans cannot be related to other animals. Some people then and now have a hard time accepting the idea that chimpanzees are their relatives. Perhaps even more troublesome than the “image” problem is the doubt that evolution puts on a historical Adam and Eve. Again, if the Bible is infallible, then Adam and Eve were real people created by God from dust and a rib, respectively. They didn’t come from earlier hominids.
Okay, enough of the background for now.
Summer for the Gods is a fascinating book that tells the story of the trial from all sides. It won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1998 and got positive reviews from Mark Noll (history professor, formerly at Wheaton, currently at Notre Dame) and Philip Johnson (lawyer and author of Darwin on Trial), among many others. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in American history, religion, or science.
Stay tuned for part two where I talk about my personal intellectual journey with the idea of evolution…