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Butler Act

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The Butler Act was a 1925 law in the State of Tennessee that banned anyone from teaching an evolutionary origin of man in a state-funded university, public school, or teacher training college. It is the most famous early antievolution law, because it was the law under which the State charged schoolteacher John T. Scopes in the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial (Tennessee vs. John Scopes). The court in Dayton, Tennessee, found Scopes guilty of teaching evolution, and the judge fined him the minimum requirement under the law—$100. When Scopes appealed, the court upheld the Butler Act but reversed the conviction because the judge, instead of the jury, had set the fine. The Butler Act was in force in Tennessee until it was repealed in 1967.

Background

The Butler Act got its name from its writer, John Washington Butler (1875–1952), who was a state representative from Macon, Trousdale, and Sumner Counties in Tennessee between 1923 and 1927. Butler was a stocky agriculturalist whose family was well known, well settled, and well liked in the area. They were long-time settlers in Macon County—farming corn and tobacco. The family attended a Primitive Baptist Church, and as a young man John Butler taught a few classes in local schools.

Butler was a fan of fundamentalist congressional representative William Jennings Bryan, and his admiration for Bryan’s work contributed to Butler’s decision in 1922 to run as a Democrat for the State legislature. He promised to represent farmers and strive for more efficiency in government.

Why Butler wrote it

By 1925, Butler was a prosperous 49-year-old community leader. He also ran a 120-acre farm and helped other farmers with their threshing (separating grain from the husks). He served on a legislative committee that supervised state-run schools, and found that the schools used textbooks that taught Darwinian evolution. [1]

John Butler took a strong interest in education and in the textbooks the state schools were using. During a church service Butler attended in 1921, a visiting preacher told of a young woman who lost her Christian faith after studying evolutionary biology at university. [2] Butler later said this got him thinking about the potential dangers of schools teaching the theory of evolution. Could one of his own boys lose his faith? Could his neighbors’ children go the same way as the young biology student?

On January 24, 1925, William Jennings Bryan visited the State capital in Nashville. Butler heard Bryan deliver a speech that strongly condemned the theory of evolution, and knowing that most people in his district had no special love for Darwinism, Butler decided to do something to stop it. A few weeks later, in February 1925, evangelist Billy Sunday came to Tennessee and held a series of revival meetings. He told crowds, "Education today is chained to the Devil's throne." [3]

On Butler’s 49th birthday, shortly after breakfast, he went to his living room and wrote the famous law that became the Butler Act. At the Scopes trial, Butler said, "I wrote it out just like I wanted it, and that’s the way the law stands now, just the way I first wrote it." [4]

The Vote

Butler’s legislation passed through the two houses of the Tennessee legislature with huge majorities. In the House of Representatives, 71 voted for it and only 5 voted against. The Senate had a lively debate about it for three hours, and then passed the Act by a majority of 24 votes to 6. [5] [6]

Facts about John Butler and the Butler Act

  • Media reports of the Scopes trial portrayed rural Tennesseans as ignorant hicks, yet the coverage of the soft and slow-speaking Butler was courteous, noting his kindly manner. [7]
  • John Butler wrote after the Scopes trial, "I am not afraid of investigation. The Truth is mighty and will prevail." The evolution debate, Butler said, is "the controversy of the age" and the "Dayton trial is the beginning of a great battle between infidelity and Christianity." [8]
  • Butler was an excellent baseball player in his youth. [9]
  • Butler attended the Scopes trial as the guest of a press syndicate and had his picture taken with William Jennings Bryan.
  • The New York Times said in an editorial that Butler's beliefs were logical, based on his view that public morals rested on belief in the Bible. [10]

Timeline

January 24, 1924 William Jennings Bryan comes to Nashville and condemns evolution in a powerful speech.

January 21, 1925 John Butler presents a bill to the Tennessee House of Representatives to ban the theory of evolution from state-funded educational institutions. The bill became the Butler Act.

March 13, 1925 The Speaker of the House of Representatives, W. F. Barry, and the Speaker of the Senate, L. D. Hill, sign that the Butler Act has passed initial legislation stage.

March 21, 1925 Tennessee Governor Austin Peay signs the Butler Act, expressing doubt that it will ever be applied.

April 24, 1925 John Scopes allegedly discusses evolution with his students from the textbook Hunter's Civic Biology, according to the original indictment.

July 10, 1925 The Scopes trial opens in the Rhea County Court House in Dayton, Tennessee.

July 21, 1925 The court finds John Scopes guilty of teaching evolution in defiance of the Butler Act and fines him $100.

July 25, 1925 William Jennings Bryan dies in his sleep in Dayton, Tennessee.

January 17, 1927 The Tennessee Supreme Court reverses the John Scopes conviction on the technical ground that the judge, rather than the jury, set the fine. The State Constitution required that juries set the fine.

May 17, 1967 Tennessee repeals the Butler Act.


Text of the Butler Act

Passed by the Sixty-Fourth General Assembly, 1925

Chapter No. 27, House Bill No. 185 (By Mr. Butler)

AN ACT prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals [teacher training colleges] 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.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, 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.

Section 2. Be it further enacted, That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act, Shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred $ (100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($ 500.00) Dollars for each offense.

Section 3. Be it further enacted, That this Act take effect from and after its passage, the public welfare requiring it.

Passed March 13, 1925 W. F. Barry, Speaker of the House of Representatives L. D. Hill, Speaker of the Senate Approved March 21, 1925. Austin Peay, Governor.

Related References

See also