In the summer of 1925, Commonweal’s founding editor, Michael Williams, traveled to Dayton, Tennessee, to cover the trial of a high-school football coach and part-time physics teacher who had been charged with teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in violation of state law. For three weeks—from July 22 through August 5—Williams, a Canadian-born journalist, filed dispatches from Dayton chronicling what would later be known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.


Twenty-five years of newspaper experience, however, did little to prepare Williams for the carnival-like atmosphere of Dayton. In the first of his three dispatches, “At Dayton, Tennessee,” he recounted witnessing ludicrous characters—“Holy Rollers” and high priests of “news-sense” alike—playing their parts “amid movie cameras, buzzing aeroplanes, radio installations, clicking Telegraph keys, chattering typewriters and all the apparatus of the up-to-the-last minute publicity.”


Towering over the trial was William Jennings Bryan, the former secretary of state and three-time nominee for president, who took up the state’s case out of a growing concern about the Bible’s dwindling cultural authority. His adversary, Clarence Darrow, one of the country’s most prominent defense attorneys and civil libertarians, used the case as an opportunity to attack religious fundamentalism in the name of progress.


The Scopes trial was as much about sheer spectacle as it was about the clash of science and religion. But Williams spotted in its proceedings “a quality deeper and graver and more disturbing than all the issues of ordinary life”—specifically, the rising conflict in the decade following World War I between religious pluralism and the nativist forces of intolerance and anti-intellectualism that threatened it.


Though less than a year old, Commonweal was already uniquely positioned to address these concerns. Founded by Williams and a small group of Catholic laity, the journal sought to put Catholic faith in conversation with modern life. Or, as Williams himself put it, to express to the whole of the American people “the Catholic outlook and the Catholic philosophy of living.” Unlike some of their coreligionists and many of the Church’s American critics, the founding editors believed that Catholicism was compatible with liberal democracy, tolerance, and the spirit of free inquiry.


Williams succinctly and accurately formulated the question at the heart of the Scopes trial, which the state of Tennessee ultimately won. “The real issue,” Williams wrote, “was so simple that eleven words could express it—namely: Are church and state to remain separate in the United States?”


Though the jurors had granted fundamentalist religion a favored and predominant position—“protected, fostered, backed by the state”—this question was far from settled. And, as an independent journal of Catholic commentary, Commonweal would continue to examine the issue from its religious but non-fundamentalist vantage. To celebrate the magazine’s hundredth year of publication, each of the next eleven issues will feature a representative essay from one decade of Commonweal’s history. Here, we are pleased to present “Summing Up at Dayton,” Michael Williams’s third dispatch, which demonstrates Commonweal’s longstanding concern with the most pressing issues of the day and what our founding editor proudly considered the finest reporting of his career.

Strictly speaking, there was no summing up of the Scopes case. What the judge said to the jury was confined to that aspect of the trial, which was, of course, the reason why there was a trial, and a judge and a jury to try it—the fact that young Mr. Scopes had broken a law of the state of Tennessee.

But that matter could have been disposed of in an hour. That matter was not what brought a hundred newspaper writers to Dayton and for some two weeks made it the center of a tempest of world publicity.

What the press wanted to hear was a summing up by Mr. Darrow for the defense; the summing up by Mr. Bryan for the prosecution. Especially the latter. It was the talk of the town for weeks past that Mr. Bryan had been preparing his oratorical masterpiece, something that would outshine even his famous “cross of gold” effort, which thirty years ago lifted him out of obscurity and made him thrice a candidate for the presidency of the United States. The masterpiece remains unborn. The tragic death of Mr. Bryan forever prevents his plan to speak it throughout the country from pulpits and platforms. Of course, it will be printed. Doubtless it will be widely read, and newspapers will quote bits of it; but lacking the sounding board of Dayton, coldly shaped forth by the printers and not passionately thundered out by the great orator speaking literally to millions by aid of the modern magic of the radio, Mr. Bryan’s summing-up speech, so far as its bearing on the Scopes case is concerned, will be flat as champagne leftover from a banquet board.

But it will have the pathetic appeal attached to the death-bed utterances of famous men. It will be Mr. Bryan’s profession of faith, uttered from beyond the gates of death. It will play its part in the great debate to which the Scopes trial was the prelude; but it will come, not as a part of that case, but as the beginning of a new campaign in which Mr. Bryan will be potently engaged through his message and the influence of his personality.

In Dayton, when the trial closed, the weary reporters gathered to hear Mr. Bryan’s last burning words about Mr. Darrow, and Mr. Darrow’s acid rejoinder. They were courteous—the reporters—but rather listless. The “pep” and “punch” with which they so marvelously banged their typewriters and shaped their ideas through days and nights of sweltering heat were ebbing. Their minds were on their homeward journeys, and not on the fag ends of the “story.” Sensitive antennae of the far-flung web of publicity, they felt the storm was over. Mr. Darrow would have had to bite Mr. Bryan in order to prove his simian ancestry (which, of course, being an agnostic, he does not claim) or Mr. Bryan would have had to stand out in the public square and invoke thunderbolts for the slaying of Mr. Darrow, before they could have been interested again. And, in the latter case, the thunderbolt would have had to obey Mr. Bryan before it would have been worth much more than a paragraph.

The great names that really mattered, and the fundamentalism that was really concerned, were the names of the Fathers of the Constitution and their fundamental principle that no religious body, whether majority or a minority, could or should write their religious tenets into the law of this republic.

What effect the volubility of the press will have on the millions of its readers is a curious problem in the psychology of democracy. The Scopes case was vastly overwritten. A great deal of the writing was merely foolishness. Some of the supposedly “funny” stuff was drivel. The “featuring” of irrelevant topics was done wisely and irresponsibly. That anyone not out of his senses read through the varied columns served up by most of the papers is hardly to be supposed. Some readers read the funny stuff, others the descriptive (and some remarkably good descriptive articles were turned out by the skilled writers on this job) and a few, no doubt, pondered the editorials.

What result this swollen mass of hasty reporting will have, dealing as it did with subjects that were tremendously important, no matter how much their importance may have been distorted or hidden by the incidental buffooneries and circus stunts of the case, would baffle Gustave Le Bon or any other student of mass psychology to determine. The Scopes case was like a hall meant for a great debate on topics of the most serious import: religion, science, human liberty, man’s soul, and God—a hall in which clowns jostled the lecturers and sometimes lectured themselves, while so many gargoyles had been stuck on the walls and ceilings that the assembled crowds could only stare, or guffaw, or shake their heads in bewilderment.

This journal stated before the trial began that the accompaniments of the case, in the way of publicity stunts, circus features, and the preliminary ballyhooing, were most likely to destroy whatever value it might otherwise possess as an agency to turns men’s minds to the serious consideration of the relation between science and religion. The reality of what occurred at Dayton surpassed anticipations. The above opinion still seems a valid one.

I repeat—for the fact requires emphasis—that there has been no conclusion to the trial, as a trial, save in the one rather negligible fact that Mr. Scopes, the teacher who taught evolution, has been found guilty of the offense charged against him by the state of Tennessee. Appeal has been taken against the decision in the Supreme Court of the state. If the Supreme Court upholds the lower court, the case will go to the Supreme Court of the United States.

In the higher courts, will the vast issues of the case have the full hearing properly—or at least legally—denied to them by Judge Raulston in Dayton? Will the Civil Liberties Union, through its attorneys, be permitted to call their “experts”— professors of all the ’isms and ’ologies—and will they be allowed to loose their torrents of special pleading? On this point, opinions differ widely. There are those who say that in higher courts, as in the Dayton circuit court, the issue will be kept to the one point dealt with in Dayton—namely, the specific point of the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Others say that the constitutionality of the Tennessee anti-evolution law can and will be tested in the further process set going. There are, again, others who declare that the state of Tennessee will throw up the sponge by abandoning its case. This, if done, would apparently nullify the anti-evolution law in Tennessee, for it could hardly once again be reenacted, say these wiseacres, because the enlightened leadership of the state will take good care that the legislature shall not for a second time make Tennessee the storm center of the anti-evolution war.

There remain still other observers of the case, however, who say that no matter what action is taken among the possible ones outlined above, the supreme issue of the Dayton case had but barely been glimpsed during the somewhat farcical proceedings marking this fantastic trial. This issue they see as more vitally important by far than the rather trite and factitious issues raised by Darrow, in a somewhat mid-Victorian style about which clung the acrid dust of the justly forgotten pages of Draper and White—the science vs. religion, and the conflict between freedom of thought and dogmatism, out-moded now, but which was in the air when both Mr. Bryan and Mr. Darrow were very young men.

The real issue was so simple that eleven words could express it—namely: Are church and state to remain separate in the United States? Perhaps that was why it was so seldom discussed by the prolix council representing the supposedly embattled forces of freedom. Most of them required thousands of words with which to say that two and two are four. They were orating about fundamentalism and modernism, and about Galileo and Copernicus, or Darwin and monkeys, when the great names that really mattered, and the fundamentalism that was really concerned, were the names of the Fathers of the Constitution and their fundamental principle that no religious body, whether majority or a minority, could or should write their religious tenets into the law of this republic.

There were a few newspapers that discussed this real issue, and at Dayton the minds of those concerned in the trial were veering toward its full consideration before the trial blew up as if it were a giant motor truck thundering along until all its tires burst with a “wow!” of hot air. Had the trial proceeded, however, this real issue would have received attention from both sides. The learned, if somewhat tedious, professors of the ‘isms and ‘ologies would have had to take a back seat. The summing-up speeches, in that case, would have been a real summing up of the real issue of the Scopes case.

Even so, the verdict, no matter what, would not have disposed of the matter. There will be other laws similar in essence to the Tennessee anti-evolution law, the intent of these laws being to give what is called fundamentalist Protestantism a favored and predominant position—protected, fostered, backed by the state. The verdict to be given as to whether the American people will, or will not, tolerate or permit this to come about, cannot be given for a long time yet. But that they will be asked—rather, compelled by the pressure of events—to render such a verdict can scarcely be doubted by any competent observer of the doings at Dayton. That this issue is supremely a political one is obvious.

There remains still another issue, which not only was not summed up at Dayton, but also could not be summed up by any judge, or any counsel, any more than it could be settled by the verdict of any jury. This is the issue which John Henry Newman had in mind when, in his Apologia, he summed up the events and conclusions of his own religious struggle—the issue that comes when each man must face the ultimate realities of self and God.

Despite the crudities—many startling, some most deplorable, other socially dangerous—of the late Mr. Bryan and the fundamentalists, they have shouted, raucously it may be, yet in a way that compels attention, a question which each and every soul must face, as Newman faced it—even if not to the same answering act of faith.

That question is—“What think you of God?”

A score of collateral questions surround or trail after the central one. Is man a mere accident in an accidental universe? Is he a mere chemical cell in a vast agglomeration of chemical cells? Is he an atom of force whirling amid an endless interweaving of blind, undirected forces? Has he no future even save nothingness and oblivion? Has he no real will, no true individuality, no true responsibility, no eternal future? Or is he the child of a Father whose life is love and who sent Christ to tell man so, and to prove it?

Each soul must answer these questions, or ignore them. Upon the way in which the question is answered by individuals depends not merely the fate of this nation, but the fate of the world. The trial at Dayton will increase the pressure of the great question upon the souls of men and women. That fact sums up its chief value. Catholics, inspired by faith, hope, and charity, and following the guidance of the church established by Christ to last till the end of the world, may rest content that the ultimate answer will be—“God is, and he is found by those who seek Him.”

Michael Williams was the founding editor of Commonweal.

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Published in the December 2023 issue: View Contents
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