Some state legislatures in the more conservative southeastern part of the country passed laws making it a crime to teach evolution theory. In nineteen twenty-five, a young science teacher in the southern state of Tennessee challenged the state's new teaching law.
The teacher -- John Scopes -- taught Darwin's evolution ideas. Officials arrested scopes and put him on trial. Some of the nation's greatest lawyers rushed to Tennessee to defend the young teacher. They believed the state had violated his right to free speech. And they thought Tennessee's law againt teaching evolution was foolish in a modern, scientific society. America's most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow, became the leader of Scopes' defense team.
Bryan and other religious conservatives also rushed to the trial. They supported the right of the state of Tennessee to ban the teaching of evolution.
The trial was held in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. Hundreds of people came to watch: religious conservatives, free speech supporters, newsmen and others.
The high point of the trial came when Bryan himself sat before the court. Lawyer Clarence Darrow asked Bryan question after question about the bible and about science. How did Bryan know the Bible is true. Did God really create the earth in a single day. Is a day in the Bible twenty-four hours. Or can it mean a million years.
Bryan answered the questions. But he showed a great lack of knowledge about modern science.
The judge found Scopes guilty of breaking the law. But in the battle of ideas, science defeated conservatism. And a higher court later ruled that Scopes was not guilty.
The Scopes evolution trial captured the imagination of Americans. The issue was not really whether one young teacher was innocent or guilty of breaking a law. The real question was the struggle for America's spirit between the forces of modern ideas and those of traditional rural conservatism. The trial represented this larger conflict.
American society was changing in many important ways during the early part of the twentieth century. It was not yet the world superpower that it would become after World War Two. But neither was it a traditional rural society of conservative farmers and clergy. The nineteen twenties were a period of growth, of change and of struggle between the old and new values.