H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)
by Doug Linder (2004)

Journalist H. L. Mencken described himself as “absolutely devoid of what is called religious feeling.”  He attended a Methodist Sunday School as a child but only, he wrote in “The Schooling of a Theologian,” to allow his father—an unbeliever—to have free time for a nap.  The human race is so obviously imperfect, he asserted, that man could not possibly have been the creation of an omnipotent God, but—at best—the bungled effort of “an incompetent committee of gods.” 

Surveying American religious life, Mencken found it to be a nearly endless source of material for his iconoclastic pen.  A recent Mencken biographer calls him “one of the last American intellectuals to speak out forcefully, pungently, and satirically against the follies of religion.” 

The most frequent targets of Mencken’s flamboyant wit were fundamentalists—largely because of their constant efforts to employ the power of government to enforce their moral views.  Like Darrow, Mencken could not tolerate intolerance.  He believed deeply that individuals should be left to pursue happiness as they saw fit, with as little interference as possible from government or anyone else.  In 1922, Mencken declared, “In am, in brief, a libertarian of the most extreme variety, and know of no human right that is one-tenth as valuable as the simple right to utter what seems (at the moment) to be the truth.” 

Fundamentalists, in the view of Mencken, belonged to the great masses of Americans who neither appreciated, nor contributed to, the best of American culture. They, like most people, were ignorant, ignoble, and cowardly. Moreover, fundamentalists lacked the intelligence to understand their own follies and superstitions.  Homo boobiens is a fundamentalist for the precise reason he is uneducable,” Mencken wrote.    Fundamentalists, he believed, found comfort in the imbecilities of their creed and “no amount of proof of the falsity of their beliefs will have the slightest influence on them.”  They accepted Genesis because it offers a cosmogony “so simple that even a yokel can grasp it”—it holds “the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical.” 

Mencken contended that if “Genesis embodies a mathematically accurate statement of what took place the week of June 3, 4004 B.C.” then  “all of modern science is nonsense”   On that point, he had no dispute with most other intellectuals of his time.  Mencken differed from other critics of fundamentalism, however, in his insistence that science and Christianity in general could not be reconciled.  One supernatural event is just as implausible as another, he believed, and once one part of the Bible is rejected the “divine authority of the whole disappears and there is no more evidence that Christianity is a revealed religion than there is that Mohammedanism is.” 

For Mencken, the Scopes trial was the journalistic opportunity of a lifetime.  In a letter from Dayton, the iconoclastic editor of American Mercury and columnist for the Baltimore Sun told a friend that he found the chaotic scene in Dayton almost too good to be true.   “The thing is genuinely fabulous,” he enthused.  “I have stored up enough material to last me twenty years.”  Everywhere he ventured in the Tennessee hill country he encountered faith healers, religious fanatics, ape handlers, medicine men, and conspiracy theorists: all inviting targets for his venomous pen.

Before journeying from Baltimore to Dayton, Mencken worried that he might have to create humorous material for his trial dispatches rather than just wander about and observe.  He and poet Edgar Lee Masters (perhaps best known for his Spoon River Anthology, but also a former law partner of Clarence Darrow) prepared and printed a handbill announcing that an imagined “fundamentalist and miracle worker,” Dr. Elmer Chubb, would be coming to Dayton for a “public demonstration of healing, casting out devils, and prophesying.”  The flyer, complete with numerous made-up testimonials, bragged that “Dr. Chubb will allow himself to be bitten by any poisonous snake, gila monster, or other reptile.  He will also drink any poison brought to him.”  The handbill also declared that Chubb will “preach in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Egyptian, and in the lost languages of the Etruscans and the Hittites.”  Once in Dayton, Mencken hired a boy to pass out the one thousand copies of the handbill, and then waited to see what would happen.  Tennesseans, he soon discovered, found the promises of Dr. Chubb to be much like those of another dozen or more publicity-seeking evangelists roaming Rhea County.  They simply shrugged and went about their business.

Mencken shaped, as well as reported, the Scopes trial.  On May 14, 1925, he met Darrow in Richmond, and—according to one trial historian—urged him to offer his services to the defense.  Hours after discussing the case with Mencken, Darrow telegraphed Scopes’s local attorney, John Randolph Neal, expressing his willingness to “help the defense of Professor Scopes in any way you may suggest or direct.”   After Darrow joined the defense team, Mencken continued to offer advice.  He told defense lawyers, for example,  “Nobody gives a damn about that yap schoolteacher” and urged them instead to “make a fool out of Bryan.” 

Mencken’s active interest in the defense case is surprising in light of his views published in The Nation just a week before the Scopes trial began.  In his Nation column, he insisted, “No principle is at stake at Dayton save the principle that school teachers, like plumbers, should stick to the job that is set before them, and not go roving around the house, breaking windows, raiding the cellar, and demoralizing children.”  The issue of free speech “irrelevant”: “When a pedagogue takes his oath of office, he renounces his right to free speech quite as certainly as a bishop does, or a colonel in the army, or an editorial writer of a newspaper.  He becomes a paid propagandist of certain definite doctrines…and every time he departs from them deliberately he deliberately swindles his employers.”  Mencken argued that states had the right to make curricular choices based what might have the greatest “utility” for students.  “What could be of greater utility to the son of a Tennessee mountaineer,” he asked, “than an education making him a good Tennesseean, content with his father, at peace with his neighbors, dutiful to the local religion, and docile under the local mores?”

After Mencken stepped off the train in Dayton one hot afternoon in early July, he ran into William Jennings Bryan and—to Bryan’s delight—reaffirmed his printed opinion that the Butler Act was constitutional.  The Commoner announced to a crowd that gathered around the two men as they chatted, “This Mencken is the best newspaperman in the country!”  It was an opinion that Bryan would not hold for long.  Following his chance meeting with Bryan, Mencken completed his stroll through town, and then retreated to his hotel room, where four quarts of scotch awaited him.  Stripped to his shorts, he began typing what was—especially by the standards of this Eastern and famously bigoted elitist—a flattering portrait of Dayton:

The town, I must confess, greatly surprised me.  I expected to find a squalid Southern village, with darkies snoozing on the horseblocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria.  What I found was a country town full of charm and even beauty—a somewhat smallish but nevertheless very attractive Westminister or Belair….

Nor is there any evidence in the town of that poisonous spirit which usually shows itself when Christian men gather to defend the great doctrine of their faith.  I have heard absolutely no whisper that Scopes is in the pay of the Jesuits, or that the whiskey trust is backing him, or that he is egged on by Jews who manufacture lascivious moving pictures.  On the contrary, the Evolutionists and Anti-Evolutionists seem to be on the best of terms, and it is hard to distinguish one group from another.

 The tone of Mencken’s reports soon changed as the trial began.  He noted more than once that the conviction of Scopes was a foregone conclusion.  The people of this Christian valley, he wrote, “are simply unable to imagine a man who rejects the literal authority of the Bible.  The most they can conjure up, straining until they are red in the face, is a man who is in error about the meaning of this or that text.  Thus one accused of heresy among them is like one accused of boiling his grandmother to make soap in Maryland.”  A day of watching jury selection convinced Mencken that “it would certainly be spitting in the eye of reason” to call the Scopes jury impartial.  As for trial itself, it seemed to have “something of the air of a religious orgy.”  Judge Raulston, who Mencken noted was a candidate for re-election, “postured before the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent sideshow.”  Thomas Stewart, the chief prosecutor, acted like “a convert at a Billy Sunday revival.”

Mencken saved his most vicious attacked for Bryan.  Bryan’s real fear, he speculated, was education because “wherever it spreads his trade begins to fall off, and wherever it flourishes, he is only a poor clown.”  He dreams of “a world unanimously sure of Heaven and unanimously idiotic on this earth.”  He hopes, Mencken wrote, to become “the peasants’ Pope” and so attempts to “shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses.”  In his cruelest line of all, he said of Bryan: “It is tragedy indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon.”

Observing the trial firsthand prompted Mencken to reconsider the views of the case he had expressed in The Nation.  He wrote glowingly of Darrow’s speech warning that upholding the Butler Act would start the nation down a slippery slope of intolerance.  “If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach in the public schools,” Darrow said, “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 in the hustings or in the churches.”  Mencken complained the following day, “The net effect of Clarence Darrow’s great speech yesterday seems to be precisely the same as if he had bawled in up in a rainspout in the interior of Afghanistan.”  Mencken lamented, “The morons in the audience, when it was over, simply hissed it.”  He had even more lavish praise for Dudley Malone’s powerful (“We stand with truth”) speech in support of the defense’s motion to allow expert testimony.  Striding down the courtroom aisle to congratulate the defense lawyer after his speech, Mencken exclaimed as he wiped his brow, “Dudley, that was the loudest speech I ever heard.”  In print, he called it “the best presentation of the case against the fundamentalist rubbish that I have ever heard.”  In his July 17 report from Dayton, Mencken wrote that Malone’s words “roared out of the open windows like the sound of artillery practice and alarmed the moonshiners and catamounts on distant peaks.” 

Because Mencken’s daily trial reports were reprinted in the Chattanooga News, his constant barrage of insults directed at Bryan and his followers did not escape the notice of “the local primates.”   Resentment against the acerbic reporter built to dangerous levels.  Cries of “Run him out of town!” were heard on Dayton street corners.  Chief Commissioner A. P. Haggard confided to the press, “I hope nobody lays hands on him.”  Haggard revealed to reporters that he was forced to intervene and persuade a mob, bent on tar and feathering the hypercynical reporter, to disperse.  “I stopped them once, but I may not be there to dissuade them again if it occurs to them again,” Haggard commented.  Concerns about Mencken’s safety led Kelso Rice, bailiff for the Scopes trial, to invite Mencken to a meeting at Robinson’s drugstore where a committee of citizens planned to voice their complaints against him, although apparently the journalist never showed up. 

Whether for fear of his own safety, or simply a belief that nothing of interest was likely to happen on the final day or two of trial, Mencken packed his bags and left Dayton on the weekend before Darrow’s dramatic examination of Bryan on the courthouse lawn. “All that remains of the great cause of the State of Tennessee against the infidel Scopes is the final business of bumping off the defendant,” he wrote in his last report.  Then he sounded a dark warning:

Let no one mistake [the trial] for comedy, farcical thought it may be in all its details.  It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience.  Tennessee, challenging him too timorously and too late, now sees its courts converted into camp meetings and its Bill of Rights made a mock of by sworn officers of the law.  There are other states that had better look to their arsenals before the Hun is at their gates.

 Back in Baltimore, Mencken declared the Scopes trial “a great victory.”  A few days later, when news reached him of Bryan’s sudden death, his private words in response were characteristically hard-edged: “Well, we killed the son of a bitch.”  His public statement on Bryan’s passing revealed Mencken’s willingness to turn even the most somber news into an occasion for a joke: “God aimed at Darrow, missed, and hit Bryan instead.”  He continued to launch merciless attacks on Bryan in the weeks following the Commoner’s death. One Scopes trial historian, remarking on the Bryan post-mortems, wrote that Mencken “succeeded in shocking Bryan’s admirers as severely as if he had literally scalped Bryan’s corpse and done a war dance around it, waving his bloody trophy.” 

Mencken never ceased his advocacy for free speech.  A year after the Scopes trial, he and Scopes defense attorney Arthur Garfield Hays traveled to Massachusetts where they attempted—in defiance of local blue laws—to sell banned books in Boston Commons.  He continued to cite the Scopes trial as evidence that civil libertarians must be forever vigilant.  “The evil that men do lives after them,” Mencken declared.  “Bryan, in his malice, started something that will not be easy to stop.”

Mencken's Essays from Dayton