John Washington Butler

by Doug Linder (2004)

The visiting preacher, addressing the congregation in the Primitive Baptist church, told of young woman in his Tennessee community who enrolled in a biology course at a nearby university.  When the woman finished the course and returned home, the preacher said, she was no longer a Christian.  The theory of evolution destroyed her faith in God.

John Washington Butler, a rugged, thickset, corn and tobacco farmer, listened to the preacher’s sermon and, according to his later account of the story, got to thinking.  Butler asked himself whether evolution could turn one his own three boys into an atheist.  Could this happen to his neighbors’ children?  During the winters, when not working his hundred-and-twenty acre farm or doing custom thrashing for other farmers, Butler had taught a few sessions in local schools. He grew more worried realizing that the danger might not be even as far off as the universities: evolution was taught in the high schools of his own Macon County.  It just wasn’t right, Butler thought, that parents could bring their children up to be God-fearing, only to have a taxpayer-supported biology teacher rob them of their faith.  Evolution fit into a strong concern he had about education: it replaced the solid, land-based values of his neighbors with more cosmopolitan and irreligious values.

John Butler ran as a Democrat for state representative the following year, 1922.  In his campaign fliers, Butler promised voters in his district, three counties northeast of Nashville along the Kentucky border, that he would work to protect schoolchildren from the effects of the godless doctrine of evolution.  Three years later, when the Scopes “Monkey” Trial came to Tennessee, Butler told an interviewer that the dairy farmers and sheep ranchers of this rural district overwhelmingly supported his stand against teaching evolution.  “Ninety-nine people out of a hundred in my district thought just as I did,” Butler said.  “I say ninety-nine out of a hundred because there may be some hold different from what I think they do, but so far as I know there isn’t a one in the whole district that thinks evolution—of man, that is—can be the way scientists tell it.”  

Butler's opposition to evolution, unlike that of most critics of the theory, did not stem from evangelistic fundamentalism.  In fact, the small Primitive Baptist sect (72,000 members nationally in 1960) of which Butler was a member was as anti-evangelistic as Tennessee denominations came, adopting the view that God has chosen who will be saved, and that nothing can be done to change his mind.  Butler’s Primitive sect therefore eschewed revival meetings, missionary work, and even Sunday schools. The key distinction with the more popular Missionary Baptist beliefs, as Butler saw it, was that Primitive Baptists did not believe that accepting God’s message was a precondition to entering Heaven: “Now I don’t believe, and no Primitive Baptist believes, that God would condemn a man just because he never heard of the gospel.”

Butler won his race.  Two years later, William Jennings Bryan came to the state capital in Nashville, a city he called “the center of modernism in the South,” to denounce the theory of evolution before Butler and his colleagues. 

On the morning of his forty-ninth birthday, just after finishing breakfast, Butler sat down in the living room in front of his stone fireplace and wrote the law upon that John Scopes would be charged with violating.  “I wrote it out just like I wanted it,” Butler said at the time of the trial, “and that’s the way the law stands now, just the way I first wrote it.” The law, as Butler drafted it, made it “unlawful for any teacher” in state-supported schools “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.”  Teachers who violated the law were subject to a maximum fine of $500.

Six days after Butler introduced his anti-evolution bill, the House passed it on a vote of seventy-one to five.  Some members voted for the bill because they agreed with it; others supported it because they feared the reaction of their constituents. No public hearings preceded the vote, and the action was taken with almost no discussion.  Answering one member’s request to hold the bill over for debate, Butler replied, “I do not see the need for any further talk, as everyone knows what evolution means.”

Not everyone in Tennessee agreed with Butler’s view on the value of debate, however.  News of the House action on the Butler bill sent evolution’s supporters scurrying for their pens.  Letters poured into the editors of state papers.  Many compared the proposed Tennessee legislation to the position taken by the Catholic Church that led to the scientist’s 1633 trial for publishing his allegedly heretical view that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa as the Bible seemed to suggest.  One letter writer joked that there was “no better proof” to be found of the “truthfulness of Darwin’s theory than to visit Capitol Hill and view some of its occupants.”

After a Tennessee Senate committee voted down Butler’s bill, anti-evolutionists counterattacked.  In public letters, supporters of the Butler bill stressed the duty of a state to make sure that the content of its public education wasn’t doing more harm than good.  Fundamentalist evangelist Billy Sunday came to Memphis in February 1925 to tell a rapt crowd,  “Education today is chained to the Devil’s throne” and to hear him praise the Tennessee House for having the courage to take  “action against that God forsaken gang of evolutionary cutthroats.”  By the time Sunday’s crusade ended, after a “Men’s Night” speech and a “Ladies Night” speech and a “Negro Night” speech and even an unofficial “Klan Night” speech, 200,000 Tennessee residents turned out to hear Sunday’s flaying of evolution.  The public tide turned decidedly in favor of Butler’s bill.

An aroused Senate—ignoring the heckling of Vanderbilt students who crowded the galleries during debate--approved Butler’s bill on a vote of twenty-four to six.  In so doing, it rejected the arguments of a Republican legislator who blamed the whole controversy on “that greatest of all disturbers of the political and public life from the last twenty-eight or thirty years, I mean William Jennings Bryan.” 

Opponents of Butler’s bill held out the hope that Governor Austin Peay, considered a progressive in most circles, would veto it.  They were, however, disappointed—taking at most small consolation in the Governor’s opinion that “nothing of consequence in the books now being taught in our schools” would offend the new law.  “The people must have the right to regulate what is taught in their schools,” Peay said in explaining his decision to sign the Butler Act.  He offered his additional opinion that the law would never be enforced.

When the ACLU lawyers put his new law to the test in the Scopes trial, John Butler journeyed 175 miles to Dayton to report the confrontation in his new role as trial commentator for a press association.  He got the job in part because of his background as a frequent writer of satirical pieces for local papers back on Tennessee’s hilly highland rim. 

As the day for the start of the trial approached, Butler expressed his views on the subject of evolution often and willingly.  His law, he said, protects “our children from infidelity.”  He called evolution “only a guess” and contended that there was “no controversy between true science and the Bible.”  (Ginger, 82-83)


It is Monday, July 13, 1925.  John Butler sits in his front row seat in the Rhea County courthouse to hear argument on the defense motion to quash the indictment of Scopes on the grounds that the Butler Act violates either the Tennessee or United States Constitution.

Representing the State of Tennessee, Attorney General Thomas Stewart argues that the law is a straightforward exercise of the right of the state legislature to determine what is taught in public schools.  The law is a legitimate exercise of the state’s power to control and direct the curriculum, Stewart says.  “That is what it is and nothing else.”  (T, 67) 

Sue Hicks, a local member of the prosecution team, ridicules the defense claim of unconstitutionality.  It is “perfectly ridiculous to say,” Hicks says, “that a teacher…can go in and teach any kind of doctrine he wants.”  What if, he wondered, a teacher hired to teach arithmetic decided he would rather teach architecture?  (T, 60)

Arthur Garfield Hays, speaking for the defense, contends that the state’s argument goes too far.  Surely, Hays argues, Tennessee could not prohibit teaching the Copernican theory that the earth revolves around the sun, and put to death any teacher who dared to violate the law.  “Evolution is a much a scientific fact as the Copernican theory,” Hays asserts, and just as the “Copernican theory has been fully accepted…this must be accepted.”  (T, 57)

Ben McKenzie, another local member of the prosecution team, finds Hays’s analogy to a ban on Copernican theory too much to stomach.  He assures Hays that the possibility of such a prohibition has never “passed the fertile brain of a Tennessean.”  He adds, shaking his head and looking at the New York defense attorney in apparent amazement, “I don’t know what they do up in his country.”  (T, 57)

Clarence Darrow takes up Hays’s argument.  He insists that curricular decisions must be “within reason” to satisfy constitutional standards.  Could Tennessee tell its teachers they were “only to teach religion”?  Could it drop from the curriculum all mention of arithmetic, geography, and writing?  Could it require teachers to tell students “that the Christian religion, as unfolded in the Bible, is true, and that every other religion…is false”? (T, 75)

Darrow is just warming up.  Ignoring the small matter that the author of the Butler Act espoused no fundamentalist views, Darrow says John Scopes is in the courtroom today “because the fundamentalists are after everybody that thinks.”  The theory of evolution is, Darrow asserts, “believed by every scientific man on earth.”  (T, 79-80)  The Butler Act is “as brazen and bold an attempt to destroy learning as was ever made in the Middle Ages.”  (T, 75)  John Butler and the legislature of Tennessee tried to “grab science by throat and throttle it to death.” (T, 83)  The attempted murder of science must fail, Darrow says, because the Constitution stands as “the flaming sword to protect the rights of man against ignorance and bigotry.”  (T, 83)

Darrow ends his argument dramatically, with words that will—in slightly condensed form—thirty-five years later come from the mouth of Spencer Tracy, when he plays Darrow in the first movie version of “Inherit the Wind”:

“If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day, the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.”


As the Scopes trial continued, the slow-spoken Butler expressed his views more often than he reported those of others, and his remarks often surprised many eastern reporters.  He explained in one interview that he had no objection to the teaching of evolution in schools that are not taxpayer-supported: “If a man wants to put up his own school, let him teach all the evolution he wants.”  He even indicated that he wanted his own nineteen-year-old son to “learn about evolution”—but by reading about it at home where he can find out “for himself how untrue it is.”  He himself, he told reporters, had read both of Darwin’s two chief books on evolution.  When defense attorney Dudley Malone, pleading that defense experts be allowed to testify on the meaning of evolution, thundered, “We feel we stand with science; we feel we stand with intelligence; we feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America,” Butler called it “the finest speech of the century.”  And when Judge Raulston ruled that defense experts would not be allowed to take the stand, Butler sided with the defense.  “I used to be a great baseball player,” Butler explained to an interviewer between sips of Coca Cola.  “Anyone who has played baseball likes to see things done fair.  And I think the judge should have let those experts testify if Darrow wanted ‘em. I am not afraid of expert testimony.”  “It would have been fair to everybody,” Butler contended, so long as “Bryan could have cross-questioned ‘em and brought on expert Bible witnesses too and made his points.”


On July 21, 1925, after Judge Raulston adjourns the Scopes trial for the last time, John Butler writes a final dispatch in his role as correspondent.  “I am not afraid of investigation,” the legislator pens, adopting the words of defense attorney Malone. “The Truth is mighty and will prevail.”  The evolution debate, Butler declares, is “the controversy of the age” and the “Dayton trial is the beginning of a great battle between infidelity and Christianity.”