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Jerry Summers: John W. Butler - Scopes Trial

  • Thursday, May 23, 2024
  • Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

This is the next in the line of several articles to follow that relate to the 99th and 100th anniversaries of the famous July 1925 Scopes evolution trial in Dayton, Tennessee, to be held in 2024-2025.

The member of the Tennessee General Assembly who is introduced the Tennessee Anti-evolution act that “prohibited the teaching of any theory of creation in the public school system of the state other than its account in the book of Genesis in the Bible” was John Washington Butler (1875-1952).

House Bill No. 1851

(by Mr. Butler)

AN ACT prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universitis (sic), Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

SECTION 2. Be it further enacted, that any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred ($100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($500.00) Dollars for each.offense.

SECTION 3. Be it further enacted, that this act take effect from and after its passage, the public welfare demanding it.

Passed March 13, 1925

WF Barry,

Speaker of the House of Representatives

LD Hill

Speaker of the Senate

Austin Peay

Governor

Butler served in the state legislature for four years representing Macon, Sumner, and Trousdale counties.

He was a member of a prominent farming family and a leader in his community. Butler had been elected on campaign promises to represent farming interests and to also work for economy in the Tennessee government.

The national controversy over the evolution issue had become a hot topic in several other states across America.

The recently created American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was allegedly eager to become involved in another liberal cause.

Butler had been appointed to a committee in the House of Representatives that had supervision over public schools run by the state and in that capacity discovered some schools were using textbooks that taught a non biblical version of evolution (Darwinism)

As a Primitive Baptist in the South, his conservative beliefs dictated that teaching such theory would destroy belief in the Bible and adversely undercut the moral system upon which democracy depended.

In “Six Days or Forever: Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes” (1958- Oxford University Press) author Ray Ginger quoted representative Butler:

“In the first place, the Bible is the foundation upon which our American government is built…The evolutionist who denies the biblical story of creation, as well as other biblical accounts, cannot be a Christian… It goes hand in hand with modernism, makes Jesus Christ a faker, robs the Christian of his hope, and undermines the foundation of our government.”

This book is one of many that addresses the historical legislation and trial of 1925.

Butler was a supporter of three time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who would join the prosecution team to defend the constitutionality of the statute.

Butler would attend the trial of Scopes and would allegedly escape much of the ridicule by some news media reporters that were directed towards some of the fundamentalist defenders of the law question. However, he was also a “press commentator” during the trial.

(On Jan. 27, and Feb. 3, 2024 a two part series on the trial was presented by University of Maryland Professor Michael Ross on C Span 2 which presents his interpretation of the Butler Act and the Scopes Trial.)

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If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)
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