Letters Archive
Spring 1996, Vol. 4, No. 2
  • The South, Religion, and the Scopes Trial
  • The Earlier Millennium
  • The Cosmology and Eschatology of the Ghulâlt
  • The South, Religion, and the Scopes Trial

    Charles Reagan Wilson

    Last November the Robert Penn Warren Center for Humanities hosted a symposium entitled "Religion and Public Life: Seventy Years after the Scopes Trial." Ten visiting speakers presented papers on the various implications of the 1925 trial, in which John Scopes was convicted for teaching evolutionary theory in a Dayton, Tennessee, high school classroom. The conference sessions were widely attended and prompted lively debates throughout campus. The Center also sponsored a high school teachers workshop in conjunction with the conference. Interdisciplinary teams of teachers from the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and the conference speakers took part in the workshop. The symposium attracted much interest from the national media; articles appeared in the New York Times and the Atlanta Constitution, among many others.

    Seventy-one years after the trial of John Scopes, the issue is still alive and well. This past February an act was introduced in the Tennessee State Legislature that would penalize any teacher or administrator who teaches evolution as a "fact" rather than simply a "theory." The proposed act reads, in part, "any teacher or administrator teaching such a theory as fact commits insubordination. . . and shall be dismissed or suspended."

    The following article was originally presented by Charles Reagan Wilson at the November conference. Professor Wilson is Professor of History and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. His most recent book is entitled Judgrnent and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis (University of Georgia Press. 1995); he is also the co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

    H. L. Mencken wrote that thc Scopes Trial was tragic, representation of an outcrop of religious ignorance against enlightened knowledge. Of course, we should note that he also reflected after the trial that he had seldom had as much sheer fun in his life as when he had covered the trial and editorialized about it.

    Mencken was the premier critic of the South in the early twentieth century and few people have enjoyed that role more than he did. He took a special satisfaction in ridiculing southern religion. He claimed to see a tyranny of the "Baptist and Methodist barbarism below the Mason Dixon Line." He described the 1920s South as "a cesspool of Baptists, a miasma of Methodists, snake charmers, phony real estate operators and syphilitic evangelists."

    Mencken made thc South itself the issue in reflecting back on the Scopes Trial. Mencken not only offended orthodox religious Southerners but also progressive young Southerners as well. They were appalled by the Scopes Trial but even more by the national media's caricatures of their region. They were proud of the progress the region's people had made in the aftermath of World War I, which had drawn the region closer to the nation.

    Tennesseans were especially proud. The National Association of Manufacturers began the decade of the 1920s by electing a Southerner to be their president. John E. Edgerton, a textile manufacturer from Lebanon, Tennessee, became a major spokesman for American business in that decade. His presence symbolized that the South had reached a new stage in its economic and social modernization. A northern reporter saw the changes in Dixie summed up by the appearance of a new social type for the South: the business joiner. He observed that "the rattling knives and forks and pepful jollities of Rotarians, Kiwanians, Lions, and Exchange clubs are filling the erstwhile wisteria scented air with such a din these days that every visitor must recognize immediately a land of business progress."

    Such talk was in some ways simply intensified talk of a New South, bolstering a mentality that had taken hold of southern news paper editors and businessmen in the 1880s and reappearing in a different guise every generation since. But the 1920s surely represented a quickening of that spirit. The economic development associated with increased industrial activity brought the growth of cities as a tangible sign of modernization. During the 1920s, the South's urban population grew more rapidly than any other regions, from 24 percent to 32 percent. Five of the seven fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country were in the South.

    Kingsport, Tennessee, in east Tennessee, not far from the Dayton of Scopes Trial fame, was an unusual example of an entire town built by industrial promotion, combined with community planning. Kingsport was a sleepy mountain village in the Holston Valley until 1909, when the Clinchfield Railway went through to tap the Kentucky coal fields. Kingsport gained brick and cement plants the following year. The Kingsport Improvement Corporation, a group of investors, hired a professional engineer to plan the city. Eight years later the city had a power plant, a hosiery mill, pulp and paper factories, and a wartime cellulose plant.

    Dayton was small but prosperous, the county seat of Rhea County. The town had 2,000 citizens, paved roads, city-owned water and electric plants, and a thriving Protestant church life. Civic leaders boasted of their Progressive Club. No Ku Klux Klan had appeared at a time when it was active elsewhere in the South. About half of Rhea County's people farmed, mostly on small lots of less than 100 acres. Half of the county's people worked in non farm employment, in sawmills, textile mills, construction, or mining. It was not an isolated community but part of a growing economy.

    Amid the bustle of places like Dayton in the 1920s, one journalist offered a new definition of the Southerner. "The average Southerner," he wrote, "is a born booster, and the mood is contagious." A traveler was impressed with that mood. "Down in Dixie they tell you . . . that the South is a new frontier. Everywhere are new roads, new automobiles, new hot dog stands, tea shops, movie palaces, radio stores, real estate subdivisions, and tourist camp grounds."

    One needs to pull back and recall that the South, of course, was not transformed in the 1920s. Despite industrial growth in the decade, more commercial activity, and urban expansion, most Southerners continued to live in the countryside and to work in an agricultural economy that did not boom in the 1920s. Traditional southern ways concerning race relations, male patriarchal dominance, and countless other customs held sway for many decades after the 1920s. After a boom in World War I, the cotton economy went into dramatic re cession in the early 1920s and never recovered in the decade.

    Nonetheless, in understanding the reactions of those religious people who would spearhead a campaign to limit the teaching of evolution in the public schools, we surely must recognize that they lived in a time of perceived change. Change might offer many Southerners new economic opportunities, but it also threatened society as they had known it. The social changes associated with economic development seemed to threaten the hegemony that religion had long held in southern life.

    The anti-evolution campaign was a national movement, but held a special meaning in the South. Anti-evolution laws were introduced in eight Northern and Western states but did not pass any legislative house. Every southern state except Virginia, however, seriously considered laws to restrict the teaching of evolution, and Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Oklahoma passed such laws. As historian Kenneth K. Bailey has observed, "Especially in the rural South, unusual anxieties were generated by World War I and its aftermath, then later by a variety of secularistic intellectual trends, by a burgeoning technological revolution, by urbanization, and by drastic departures in common outlooks and behavior."

    The energizing force of anti-evolution in the South was religion. By the 1920s, the distinctiveness of Southern religious life was clear, defined by its own predominant patterns and their contrast with those in other parts of the United States. Above all, the region stood out for its Protestant dominance. One hundred years earlier, North and South looked similar in regards to religion, both dominated by evangelical groups, especially the Baptists and Methodists who had quickly risen to influence in the early nineteenth century. The Civil War was tinged with the crusading righteousness of evangelical Protestantism, albeit in northern and southern varieties.

    But in the late nineteenth century, as immigration remade American society, religion was transformed as well. The Roman Catholic church became the largest American church group and Judaism became a major American faith. But few immigrants came south because the region offered little economic opportunity for them. The South remained overwhelmingly protestant. To be sure, significant differences existed between the Presbyterian church in the United States and the Assemblies of God, the southern Baptists and the Methodists, and black and white Methodists. But beneath these differences was a broad, interdenominational tradition of shared Protestantism within an American culture that had become much more religiously diverse.

    Southern religion in the 1920s was distinctive because of its predominant evangelical nature. Evangelicalism holds that the important aspect of faith is experiential. The central theme of southern religious history is the search for conversion, for redemption from innate human depravity. With a Calvinist-inspired dim view of human nature, it is a religion of sin and salvation. Evangelicalism offers assurance to the faithful through direct access to God. Sinners can be born again, touched by the Holy Spirit and cleansed, washed white as snow, as the old hymn says, by the "Precious Blood of the Lamb." That experience then be comes the foundation for a new, transformed life.

    Evangelical groups existed, of course, in other parts of the United States and in other societies as well. The distinctiveness of southern religion by the 1920s was that this tradition had held hegemony over southern life for so long, its reign identified with the good society itself. As historian John Lee Eighmy wrote, the southern churches were in cultural captivity to the southern way of life, as religious folk seemed almost unconsciously to blur the distinction between their church ways and their cultural ways associated with being southern.

    The defense of regional orthodoxy had long been a key part of the southern way of life, which religious people had buttressed. White Southerners in the Old South had launched a vigorous pro-slavery argument that saw the regions peculiar institution as a missionary agency ordained from God to bring Christianity to the slaves. Abolitionists caught in the South were lucky if tar and feathers were the only marks left on them before they left the region.

    White Southerners rallied around the Confederate States of America when their leaders seceded from the Union, and after the war, they tried to define an ideology that all "good" Southerners should affirm. The Lost Cause movement honored the Confederacy in spiritual terms: Robert E. Lee was a saint, Stonewall Jack son a martyr. The United Daughters of the Confederacy be came the first Southerners to organize and campaign before school textbook committees to ensure that only orthodoxy was represented in school books, in this case the orthodoxy of regional tradition. For example, the president of the Florida Daughters of the Confederacy told a textbook committee that as a girl "hot blood came to my cheeks" when reading American histories written by Northerners. She and her sisters ensured it would not happen again.

    The concern for regional orthodoxy even affected a topic as seemingly alien as mathematics. Daniel Hill, a math professor in North Carolina, before becoming a Confederate general, had included this problem in his post war book, Elements of Algebra: "A Yankee mixes a certain number of wooden nutmegs, worth 4 cents a piece, and sells the whole assortment for $44, and gains $43.75 by the fraud. How many wooden nutmegs were there?" The number of nutmegs was only one point of knowledge conveyed through the problem.

    Although this example is amusing, the spirit of southern orthodoxy often was not. W. J. Cash coined the term "the savage ideal" to label the traditional southern intolerance toward differences that seemed threatening. "Tolerance," he wrote, "was .pretty well extinguished in the mid-nineteenth century and conformity made a nearly universal law."

    For religious people in the South as throughout the rest of the United States, World War I heightened fears of modernism, and modernism became increasingly a target of regional orthodoxy. As early as the late nineteenth century, modern thought evoked deep anxieties in a region dominated by traditional ways in general, especially in religious matters. Modernism appeared before and during the war mostly as an external threat in the South. In a triumph of orthodoxy, advocates of biblical higher criticism and scientific evolution ism had been effectively removed from positions of influence in southern seminaries during the late 1800s.

    Looking at the American religious picture persuaded Southerners that they remained the last stronghold of Protestant orthodoxy, which they identified as the heart of traditional Americanism. Southern Protestant ministers in the World War I era complained of northern cities, of the predominance of the foreign born, and, at the center of their religiously based fears, the rise of the Roman Catholic church. The two pre dominant southern denominations, the Baptists and Methodists, began as sectarian groups and dissenters. They were attuned to issues of religious liberty and still feared persecution without this protection. World War I highlighted what Baptists, for example, saw as a contrast between Baptist democracy and Ro man Catholic autocracy. Baptist churches are radically congregational, vesting autonomy in local churches, with little centralized hierarchy. The Catholic hierarchy, with its seemingly autocratic Pope, disturbed them. Southern Protestants feared the Catholic church and sometimes spoke as if Woodrow Wilson's crusade for democracy should target the Pope as well as the Kaiser.

    World War I drew the South out of its isolation and into greater contact with Northerners. By comparing themselves to the North, Southerners now saw their region as the nation's best hope for preserving and extending evangelical faith. The South was to be the sanctuary for orthodox Protestant values, values em bedded in a hegemonic culture. This faith was significant because true believers felt it had always been the basis of "pure American ism." "Americanism" was a construct that evoked the idea of a special American nationality, the concept that, in this context, brought together regional and national ideas of religious national ism. For Southerners it meant an American version of Anglo-Saxonism. Anglo-Saxonism involved race. "The South above any other section represents Anglo-Saxon, native-born America," claimed Episcopal Bishop Theodore Du Bose Brattan. "No race ever had more passion for liberty than the Anglo-Saxon," wrote Baptist minister Victor I. Masters. In the United States, Masters concluded, "the love for freedom of this race found its fullest expression, and in the South their blood has remained freest from mixture with other strains." The Reverend R. Lin Cave had observed in 1896 that "Southern blood is purely American," by which he meant that the South and Southerners had had less contact with recent immigrants than was true in other American regions.

    Finally, though, the religious aspect of Anglo-Saxon American ism was what most firmly linked southern destiny to American destiny under God. Masters summed up the connection, noting that in the South, "the Anglo Saxon's devotion to evangelical religion has been less interfered with than in other sections." His Episcopal colleague, Bishop Brat ton, agreed: "Should this great body of Anglo-Americans ever cease to be Christian, or become less Christian than it is, the effect upon our entire nation would be disastrous beyond the power of thought to conceive."

    By the 1920s, then, Southerners perceived that rationalistic intellectual forces were threatening their evangelical stronghold. State universities seemed infected by this plague and even seminaries seemed not to have evaded the threat. Now their children's text books spoke of apes and humans in the same paragraphs. The complex issues involved became simplified into a dramatic social movement against Darwinism. William Jennings Bryan became the crusader Southerners needed, articulating the deeper issues than just textbooks. "The whole modernistic propaganda rests on evolution," Bryan wrote. "They first reject the miracle and then every thing in the Bible that is miraculous or supernatural. As this includes the virgin birth, the deity of Christ and the resurrection, nothing of importance is left...."

    Bryan visited Atlanta in 1923 to deliver a fiery plea to the Georgia House of Representatives to restrict "the teaching of Darwin ism as a fact." Representative Hal Kimberly soon proclaimed his response: "Read the Bible. It teaches you how to act. Read the hymnbook. It contains the finest poetry ever written. Read the almanac. It shows you how to figure out what the weather will be. There isn't another book that is necessary for anyone to read."

    The events in Dayton in the summer of 1925 brought out the fears of the faithful and dramatized the gap between southern orthodoxy and the advanced ideas of the nation's intellectual and cultural centers. Except for the litigation at Dayton, the anti evolution laws passed in the South during the 1920s were dead letters, but the lack of enforcement did not necessarily signify a retreat by the forces of orthodoxy.

    Privately controlled religious schools in the South continued to forbid the teaching of evolutionary theory, and in rural public schools, community opinion and local boards of education saw to it that the Genesis narrative was not impugned. This persistence of religious orthodoxy over scientific naturalism went beyond the South, too. Historian Howard Beale concluded in 1941 that more than one out of three teachers across the nation were "afraid to express acceptance of the theory of evolution." State textbook committees remained cautious in consideration of biology texts for schools, and fundamentalists remained vigilant in expressing their concerns.

    The evangelical attitude to ward evolutionary theory in the schools in the 1920s was part of a broader redefinition of southern religious attitudes toward law and society. Through the nineteenth century, rural and small town evangelicals had used church discipline to ensure that a pure church would exist as a bastion of morality in society, a utopian institution separate from the corruption of the world. The pure institution kept itself pure and left the rest of the world to its ways.

    The early twentieth century saw the church turning to moral legislation. Evangelicals were now increasingly a part of the modern world, through improved communication and transportation, and through schoolbooks that taught Darwinian science. Evangelicals seemed unable to avoid the corruptions of this larger world. They used moral legislation to try to discipline society, most dramatically in outlawing alcoholic beverages through Prohibition. Anti-evolution laws rep resented the same orthodox impulse toward using legislation to keep not only individuals but society pure, as the faithful understood purity. But this new technique represented a truly dramatic social difference: wanting to deny drink to anyone in society, for example, was a radical step beyond simply discouraging anyone in one's church from drinking. In the latter case, the faithful were part of a small community, trying to preserve their limited world from danger. In the former, the faithful were part of a larger world, and they were trying to change the meaning of that world.

    In more recent times, American religious people have again mounted crusades against symbols of a changing society. We are now all part of a larger world, a world whose context is not just southern nor even just American. It is too easy to say that conservative evangelicals of the 1920s were simply backward and ignorant. History would suggest that they were correct that modernism, whether in religion or in general culture, did promote a radical insecurity, as old standards toppled and modern people learned to live with an increasingly relative world view. The fears of the southern religious faithful facing a changing society in the 1920s have been replicated in an even more modern world, what we would call a postmodern world, but one with continuing anxieties about even the possibility of maintaining moral certitude.

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