Note: A correction was made to the spelling of author Ed Larson's name in the 11th and 12th paragraphs to reflect "Larson" not "Larsen".
In 1925, two of America’s most renowned figures faced off in the southeast Tennessee town of Dayton to debate a burning issue — whether man evolved over millions of years or was created by God in his present form.
Today, only one of the two, the Christian orator William Jennings Bryan, is commemorated with a statue on the courthouse lawn. A group of atheists hopes to change that.
Bryan defended the Biblical account while Chicago trial lawyer and skeptic Clarence Darrow defended evolution in the “Scopes monkey trial” — formally, Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes. The case became front-page news nationwide and is memorialized in songs, books, plays and movies.
Nearly a century later, the debate pitting evolution against the biblical account of creation rages on nationally and locally. Nearly all scientists accept evolution, but many Christians see it as incompatible with their faith. Just two years ago in Dayton, professors at a Christian college named for Bryan were fired in a dispute over whether Adam and Eve were historical people.
One might expect a town that reveres Bryan to resist efforts to memorialize his antagonist, but Reed Johnson, managing editor of The Herald-News in Dayton, said that vocal resistance hasn’t materialized. He doesn’t recall angry letters to the editor.
County Commissioner Bill Hollin said he doesn’t think many people are aware of the effort, but he’s against it and thinks others will join him. “I don’t see where it would help the community at all to put it up there,” he said.
Bryan, on the other hand, represents more than the Scopes trial, Hollin said. His legacy in Dayton includes the college that was founded in 1930 and educates many of the area’s young people.
Still, townspeople are resigned to the idea of a Darrow statue, said Christian writer Rachel Held Evans, a Bryan College alumna.
“I think there is a sense that, ‘Oh, it’s only fair. We have our side, and they have their side. We have our statue, and they have their statue,’” she said.
Ed Larson, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the trial called “Summer for the Gods,” said that Dayton has historically been hospitable to both sides, and that outrage over the teaching of evolution in 1925 was manufactured.
The trial is often remembered as the persecution of teacher Scopes for teaching evolution, which Tennessee had outlawed, but it actually began as a publicity stunt for Dayton, Larson said.
Larson explained that locals had responded to a newspaper advertisement by the American Civil Liberties Union looking for someone to test Tennessee’s anti-evolution law in court. No one had complained about Scopes or his teaching; he was recruited to be the defendant, Larson said. Scopes never spent time in jail and was offered his job back after the trial, Larson said — and Bryan even offered to pay his fine.
Evans said part of the trial’s legacy has been negative: a lasting sense that belief in evolution conflicts with Christianity, something she no longer believes.
“I grew up as a conservative evangelical, and we always heard about the trial that William Jennings Bryan was a hero who came in and put everyone in their place,” she said. “Even in college, I was told I could either believe in the Bible or I could believe in evolution.”
But many say part of the legacy is positive: Dayton has seen a stream of visitors to the red-brick courthouse in the town square that still looks much as it did when the judge moved the trial’s action onto the lawn — worried the floor would cave in from the weight of spectators — and Darrow began questioning Bryan’s views on the Bible.
The courthouse basement now holds a small museum. On the trial’s anniversary in July, a festival is held, with a courtroom play re-enacting trial scenes.
At this year’s festival, Dayton resident Richard DeArk sold hand-crafted earrings, some with a monkey theme, on the courthouse lawn near the Bryan statue. Asked about the Darrow statue, he said, “It’s about time!”
Tom Brady, the courthouse maintenance supervisor, said he hasn’t heard objections to the Darrow statue. “The trial helped Dayton,” he said.
Tom Davis, president of the Rhea County Historical and Genealogical Society, was asked to make a recommendation to the county executive about the two statues.
He said in an interview that the group supported the Bryan statue in 2005 but realized at the time “if we do this, we’ll probably face a request for a Darrow statue one day, and we’ll probably have to support that.”
The American Humanist Association is raising money for the statue, but the creative side is the work of Pennsylvania sculptor Zenos Frudakis, who says Darrow is too important to the story to leave out.
Frudakis said he has the county executive’s permission to erect the statue opposite Bryan on the courthouse lawn as long as the county doesn’t have to spend any money on it and it is similar in size and style to the Bryan statue. But Hollin, the county commissioner, said he believes his panel will have to give its blessing first, something he does not see happening.
Frudakis said he is a fan of Darrow but doesn’t want his statue to be controversial.
“Right now they only have William Jennings Bryan there, standing alone,” Frudakis said. “Add Darrow, and it recreates the historical drama of 1925, the way it played out in the public eye and galvanized the nation.”