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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Blow-Hard Bias of Inherit the Wind

"I'm frustrated!"

The plea came in from a girl who was taking a required undergrad English course where the professor assigned an analysis of the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, which presents a fictionalized account of the famous Scopes "Monkey" Trial held in Tennessee thirty years earlier. For those of you that don't know, substitute teacher John Scopes was put on trial for violating Tennessee's Butler Act, a law prohibiting any state-funded school from teaching that "man has descended from a lower order of animals."1

Inherit the Wind – Not History

The play (and the subsequent 1960 movie with Spencer Tracy) proved immensely popular at the time. However, there are some real problems with the events in the way the play presents them. While the broad points are the same, the play changes so many details that the authors acknowledged their play isn't history. In the play's preface they wrote:
Inherit the Wind is not history. The events which took place in Dayton, Tennessee, during the scorching July of 1925 are clearly the genesis of this play. It has, however, an exodus entirely its own.

Only a handful of phrases have been taken from the actual transcript of the famous Scopes Trial. Some of the characters of the play are related to the colorful figures in that battle of giants; but they have life and language of their own - and, therefore, names of their own.2
While this disclaimer may help, I don't think it makes things clear enough. Most people don't realize just how slanted and biased the caricatures are in the play when one compares it to the real-life events. Therefore, I would like to take a bit of time to explore some of the misconceptions that usually occur when the play or movie is viewed.

Inherit the Wind – How the Bias Shows

In both the play and the film, Christianity and its proponents are nothing more than straw men that authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee knock down with ease. Lawrence and Lee state, "Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre. It is not 1925. The stage directions set the time as 'Not long ago.' It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow."3 Lawrence in an interview stated the motivation for writing the play wasn't religion versus evolution, but the intellectual stifling he saw in the anti-Communist movements of the 1940s and 1950s, ""We used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control. It's not about science versus religion. It's about the right to think."4 Yet, it's more than clear that Lawrence and Lee place those who hold to something other than an evolutionary account of human origins into the "mind control" camp. For example, take two characters Lawrence and Lee create who didn't exist in the actual trial, Reverend Brown and his daughter Rachel, who is engaged to the Scopes character, named Cates in the play. During the play, Rachel, explains "You see, I haven't really thought very much. I was always afraid of what I might think, so it seemed safer not to think at all" but then sees that she must change and begin to see things Cates's way.

In her very comprehensive article that takes down many of the foibles in the play, Carol Iannone observes "While Inherit the Wind remains faithful to the broad outlines of the historical events it portrays, it flagrantly distorts the details, and neither the fictionalized names nor the cover of artistic license can excuse what amounts to an ideologically motivated hoax."5

Inherit the Wind – More Factual Errors

Other factual errors abound, and all of them are strategically created to make those who want the Butler Act upheld to look bad. Dr. Richard M. Cornelius, who is one of the foremost experts on the Scopes trial wrote the book William Jennings Bryan, The Scopes Trial, and Inherit the Wind. Below, he provides a quick overview of some of the pore egregious errors perpetrated by the play:
Here are some of the instances where Inherit the Wind differs from the historical facts of the trial record and the events surrounding it. (For convenience, the names of the historical characters which the play supposedly involves are used.)6
  1.  The trial originated not in Dayton but in the New York offices of the American Civil Liberties Union, for it was this organization that ran an announcement in Tennessee newspapers, offering to pay the expenses of any teacher willing to test the new Tennessee anti-evolution law.
  2. When a group of Dayton leaders decided to take advantage of this offer, their main reason was not so much defense of religion as it was economics, for they saw the trial as a great means of publicity that would attract business and industry to Dayton.
  3. Others responsible for the trial were the media, who worked hard to persuade Bryan and Darrow to participate in the trial.
  4. John T. Scopes was not a martyr for academic freedom. Primarily a coach of three sports, he also taught mathematics, physics, chemistry, and general science. He agreed to help test the law even though he could not remember ever teaching evolution, having only briefly substituted in biology. He was never jailed, nor did he ever take the witness stand in the trial. The people of Dayton liked him, and he cooperated with them in making a test case of the trial.
  5. William Jennings Bryan was not out to get Scopes. Bryan thought the Tennessee law a poor one because it involved fining an educator, and he offered to pay Scopes' fine if he needed the money.
  6. Bryan was familiar with Darwin's works, and he was not against teaching evolution—if it were presented as a theory, and if other major options, such as creationism, were taught.
  7. The trial record discloses that Bryan handled himself well, and when put on the stand unexpectedly by Darrow, defined terms carefully, stuck to the facts, made distinctions between literal and figurative language when interpreting the Bible, and questioned the reliability of scientific evidence when it contradicted the Bible. Some scientific experts at the trial referred to such "evidence" of evolution as the Piltdown man (now dismissed as a hoax).
  8. The defense's scientific experts did not testify at the trial because their testimony was irrelevant to the central question of whether a law had been broken, because Darrow refused to let Bryan cross-examine the experts, and because Darrow did not call on them to testify. But 12 scientists and theologians were allowed to make statements as part of the record presented by the defense.
  9. The topic of sex and sin did not come up in the trial. Neither did Bryan believe that the world was created in 4004 B.C. at 9 a.m.
  10. Instead of Bryan being mothered by his wife, he took care of her, for she was an invalid.
  11. Scopes was found guilty partly by the request of Darrow, his defense lawyer, in the hope that the case could be appealed to a higher court.
Tomorrow, I will explore the background behind the original trial and show why it isn't the draconian groupthink it's portrayed to be.


1. "House Bill No. 185 – Butler" Public Acts of the State Of Tennessee Passed by the Sixty-Fourth General Assembly, 1925. 1925-3-21.
2. Lawrence, Jerome, Robert Edwin Lee, and Alan Woods. The Selected Plays of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1995. Print. 9.
3. Lawrence, Lee, and Woods. 1995.
4. "Garfield Center Announces Open Auditions for Inherit the Wind." The Garfield Center for the Arts at the Prince Theatre. Garfield Center for the Arts at the Prince Theatre, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
5. Iannone, Carol. "The Truth About Inherit the Wind." First Things. First Things, Feb. 1997. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.
6. "Inherit the Wind" (2002). Theatre Productions. Book 25.

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