*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 12th of November 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
When it comes to 20th-century supreme court cases pertaining to religion and politics I am like a moth to a flame. And because this is the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in Epperson v. Arkansas on this day in 1968 let’s take a look at a case over 40 years in the making and one that finally put the kibosh on the fight over teaching evolutionary theory.
You probably remember the Scopes Monkey Trial: Dayton, Tennessee, the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, the play “Inherit the Wind” etc… in the 1920s the conversation regarding the teaching of evolution was bananas. Hear William Jennings Bryan:
“All the ills from which America suffers can be traced back to the teaching of evolution. It would be better to destroy every other book ever written, and save just the first three verses of Genesis”
Evolution and Atheism were the watchwords as the new Soviet Union was trumpeting itself as an empire without a deity and the social change of the 1920s caused some to want to pump the brakes.
Different states dealt differently with laws pertaining to the teaching of evolution in public schools, but Arkansas was a particularly thorny case. One bill was presented that would ban the teaching of anything in public schools contrary to the Bible. This bill would be assumed into a new one that sought to ban the particular teaching of the evolution of humankind from a lower order of animals. The state Senate refused to vote on the bill once it was passed by the house and this lead to bickering. Becoming part of the culture wars a group called the “American Antievolution Association” helped push for a referendum to vote in the bill by popular vote. And it worked! This was the only state to decide its stance on evolution in the public schools with a popular vote.
But then the fuss just kind of disappeared. First, the law was wonky in that it banned any book that taught the theory of evolution (even as just one theory) which, some noted, would include encyclopedias. The Great Depression and World War 2 took the air out of a lot of the controversies, but once that was settled America got back to doing what it does so well: ginning up the culture wars.
In the late 50s and again in the early 60s a few Arkansas legislators attempted to remove the law that had been dormant for decades. Schools would teach according to new national standards which included the teaching of various accepted theories of human origins. But the attempt to quietly do this caused a firestorm and in one case some 1600 people came out to one school board meeting in Little Rock. And because the law was voted in by popular referendum it would need 2/3 of the legislature to overturn it. That became too politically risky and “the Monkey trials” would be reborn.
Instead of John Scopes, the teacher who volunteered to test this law was Susan Epperson a newly married biology teacher. Her husband was in the Air Force and her father was a biology professor at a Presbyterian college. She saw no problems teaching various theories of human origin and sought a declaratory judgment that the Arkansas Antievolution law was unconstitutional and that it abridged her 1st amendment right to free speech. A lower court ruled in her favor but a new Arkansas DA decided that this could be his ticket to higher office. This DA appealed the case to the Arkansas Supreme Court which ruled against Epperson.
The case was taken to the Supreme Court but by the time of its hearing in 1968 the old Arkansas DA was replaced by a man of a more temperate spirit. The new DA had to, by law, argue for the state but had no desire to. Before the court he routinely surrendered his time, using as little as 30 minutes to make arguments that usually took hours.
It was on this, the 12th of November in 1968 that the court swiftly released its ruling and voided the Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. One justice quipped that they could have released a one-sentence judgment. While there were a few disputes between the justices in their concurring opinions, the main point was clear: the court wanted nothing to do with these theological arguments. The era of Christians, Culture Wars, and the Supreme Court wasn’t over but it seemed that the question of banning the teaching of this theory was over with the ruling of Epperson v. Arkansas on this day in 1968
The last word for today comes from Genesis 1- King James style!
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 12th of November 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite monkeys include Curious George, Peter Tork, Chim Chim, and Grape Ape. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man whose oldest son could be nicknamed Supreme. I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.