March 21st, 1925 – Tennessee Bans Evolution

On March 21st, 1925, the Butler Act prohibits the teaching of human evolution in Tennessee.


The Butler Act was a 1925 Tennessee law prohibiting public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of man‘s origin. It was enacted as Tennessee Code Annotated Title 49 (Education) Section 1922, having been signed into law by Tennessee governor Austin Peay. The law also prevented the teaching of the evolution of man from what it referred to as lower orders of animals in place of the Biblical account.

The law was challenged later that year in a famous trial in Dayton, Tennessee called the Scopes trial which included a raucous confrontation between prosecution attorney and fundamentalist religious leader, William Jennings Bryan, and noted defense attorney and religious agnostic, Clarence Darrow.

The law, “An act prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof” (Tenn. HB 185, 1925) specifically provided:

That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, 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.

butler3It additionally outlined that an offending teacher would be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined between $100 and $500 for each offense.

By the terms of the statute, it could be argued, it was not illegal to teach evolution in respect to non-human creatures, such as that apes descended from protozoa or to teach the mechanisms of variation and natural selection. The bill also did not touch on, or restrict the teaching of prevailing scientific theories of geology or the age of the Earth. It did not even require that the Genesis story be taught, but prohibited solely the teaching that man evolved, or any other theory denying that man was created by God as recorded in Genesis. However the author of the law, a Tennessee farmer named John Washington Butler, specifically intended that it would prohibit the teaching of evolution. He later was reported to have said, “No, I didn’t know anything about evolution when I introduced it. I’d read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mothers that the Bible was all nonsense.” After reading copies of William Jennings Bryan‘s lecture “Is the Bible True?” as well as Charles Darwin‘s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Butler decided the teaching of evolution was dangerous.

The law was challenged by the ACLU in the famed Scopes Trial, in which John Scopes, a high school science teacher who agreed to be arrested on a charge of having taught evolution, and was nominally served a warrant on May 5th, 1925. Scopes was indicted on May 25 and ultimately convicted; on appeal the Tennessee Supreme Court found the law to be constitutional under the Tennessee State Constitution, because:

We are not able to see how the prohibition of teaching the theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship. So far as we know, there is no religious establishment or organized body that has in its creed or confession of faith any article denying or affirming such a theory. — Scopes v. State 289 S.W. 363, 367 (Tenn. 1927)

Inherit the Wind

Despite this decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the conviction on a technicality (that the jury should have fixed the amount of the fine), and the case was not retried. During the trial, Butler told reporters: “I never had any idea my bill would make a fuss. I just thought it would become a law, and that everybody would abide by it and that we wouldn’t hear any more of evolution in Tennessee.”

The law remained on the books until 1967, when teacher Gary L. Scott of Jacksboro, Tennessee, dismissed for violation of the act, sued for reinstatement, citing his First Amendment right to free speech. Although his termination was rescinded, Scott continued his fight with a class action lawsuit in the Nashville Federal District Court, seeking a permanent injunction against enforcement of that law. Within three days of his filing suit, a bill for repeal of the Butler Act had passed both houses of the Tennessee legislature, signed into law May 18th by Governor Buford Ellington.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


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