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God in America: "A New Light"
[The words spoken by the actors in this film are from transcripts, sermons and personal journals of the characters they portray.]
NARRATOR: For decades, Americans had been consumed with the battle over slavery, unmindful of profound changes taking place in their country.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: A lot of Americans are not paying close attention to the fact that we've got waves of immigrants coming, and they're not predominantly Protestant. They're Jewish, they're Catholic, and they're coming from Europe. And they're going to really fundamentally reshape the religious landscape.
NARRATOR: Five million immigrants had arrived on America's eastern shores between 1820 and 1860. Among them were thousands of Jews. America offered opportunity and freedom, but it also challenged an ancient faith. In many parts of Europe, authorities controlled Jewish life, restricting where Jews could live, prohibiting their ownership of land and limiting their interaction with non-Jews.
In America, Jews could settle where they wanted and partner in business with whomever they liked. Some even adopted the ways of gentiles, socializing and marrying them. Jewish leaders worried American Jews were losing their identity. "In the wilds of America," warned one, "you will forget your religion and your God."
JEFFREY S. GUROCK, Historian, Yeshiva University: There's a great desire to act and look and behave like the Protestant majority without abandoning their faith. And that's one of the critical crises for Jews, "If we must make changes in order for Judaism to survive, how far do we want to go?"
NARRATOR: This struggle would consume one young German Jew who settled in Albany, New York, in 1846. From the moment he took a job as a rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise would embrace America's spirit of opportunity.
HASIA R. DINER, Historian, New York University: There's some question if he was ever actually ordained. From the American point of view, it made absolutely no difference, and he could be Rabbi with a capital R.
Rabbi LANCE J. SUSSMAN, Historian: He was a builder and a mover. It was a new country, and he was eager to jump into the fray and be part of that building process.
NARRATOR: Wise's synagogue was one of fewer than 40 Jewish congregations in the entire country. It was the spiritual home of peddlers and storekeepers.
JEFFREY S. GUROCK: They are poor. They're immigrants. And the Judaism that they brought with them from Europe is a traditional form of Judaism.
NARRATOR: Traditional Judaism requires strict adherence to ancient laws dictating how to pray, dress, and even what to eat.
JONATHAN D. SARNA, Historian, Brandeis University: Jews talk about commandments, and in traditional Judaism those mitzvot - those commandments - are actually more central in many ways than beliefs.
NARRATOR: In Albany, Wise was dismayed to discover that members of his congregation were working on the Sabbath, proof, he felt, that America's Jews were neglecting beliefs that were at the heart of their faith.
JEFFREY S. GUROCK: He sees American Judaism as a mess. It's poorly organized, very few leaders, and significantly, large numbers of Jews falling away from Jewish practice and tradition.
NARRATOR: Before leaving Germany, Wise had heard scholars call for reforms to traditional practice. Judaism, they believed, should change to fit a modern world. Wise came to believe that if Jews kept to the core tenets of the faith - fearing God, loving man and observing the Sabbath - then traditional laws governing everyday life were negotiable. And America could be the Promised Land, a perfect setting for reform.
HASIA R. DINER: American ideas were so powerful and so seductive and so welcoming that if they had to choose between Judaism without an American quality to it and America, they were going to opt for America. And so he saw reform as a way to preserve Judaism.
Rabbi ISAAC MAYER WISE: We are almost the first generation of Israel in America. We must prepare the future of our faith. There rests upon our shoulders the future development of Judaism in this country.
NARRATOR: According to Jewish tradition, men and women sit separately in synagogue and pray in Hebrew. Wise introduced a co-ed choir, and since few in his congregation understood Hebrew, he led prayers in English and German.
JEFFREY S. GUROCK: Wise wants to help them. He wants to create a ritual which combines many of the elements of the traditional faith of the past, but with some adjustments in terms of language, in terms of ritual, which will be appropriate for people becoming more Americanized.
NARRATOR: Many members of Wise's congregation charged that his efforts to modernize Judaism were diluting it.
Rabbi LANCE J. SUSSMAN, Historian: When he was criticized, he didn't say, "I'm sorry." He pushed harder. He pushed his line harder.
NARRATOR: After four years, Wise's critics had had enough of his reforming zeal. Just before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Wise was fired. But two days later, he showed up at the synagogue to conduct services anyway. When Wise reached for the Torah scrolls, the president of the congregation pushed him aside and punched him. A fight broke out, and the sheriff was called to the synagogue.
JEFFREY S. GUROCK: Who's in charge here? Is it the congregants who are in charge, or the rabbi? And this is not necessarily a Jewish story. It's an American religious story. Is the pastor in charge, or is the laity in charge?
NARRATOR: Undaunted, Wise held services the next day in the parlor of his house for those who welcomed his reforms.
HASIA R. DINER: You don't like it? You leave and you start your own congregation. Just as the United States seceded from England, you can start your own.
NARRATOR: No longer accountable to anyone, Wise's ambitions were unleashed. He traveled the East Coast raising money and spreading his vision of an American Reform Judaism. At Har Sinai in Baltimore, Wise promised a packed house that he would throw "bombshells" on orthodoxy.
Rabbi ISAAC MAYER WISE: I am a reformer as much as our age requires because I am convinced that none can stop the stream of time. None can check the swift wheels of the age.
Rabbi LANCE J. SUSSMAN: Wise believed that the direction in which Judaism was going and the direction that America was going in would ultimately converge, and that Reform Judaism would not only be the vanguard of Judaism, but it would be the religious vanguard of the United States itself.
NARRATOR: From the industrial cities of Buffalo and Detroit in the North, to small towns like Davenport in the Midwest and further South to Chattanooga, Wise traveled the country delivering the same call- America's Jews must unite.
Rabbi ISAAC MAYER WISE: The future greatness of Judaism in America depends upon the union of congregations. We must be united in form of worship in order to have no element of discord among us.
NARRATOR: In 1873, in Cincinnati, Wise founded the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, then started the Hebrew Union College to train America's first rabbis.
Rabbi ISAAC MAYER WISE: Those who believe that the Jewish citizens of this country will creep back into narrow Jewry, wear a long beard, veil the face and cover the hair of his wife, are horribly mistaken. That time has gone and happily will return no more.
NARRATOR: But many Jews, however, had no wish in unify nor any interest in Wise's reforms, and their numbers were growing. By the 1870s, thousands of conservative Jews from Eastern Europe were arriving every month. Traditional congregations were springing up, dedicated to bringing Jews back to the ancient faith.
JEFFREY S. GUROCK: Traditionalists say very simply that in America, we can make no real changes in the theological underpinnings or the basic ritual of Jewish tradition.
NARRATOR: They believed the laws laid out in the Torah, the core of the Jewish bible, were absolute and unchanging.
Rabbi LANCE J. SUSSMAN: If you believe that the Torah was divinely revealed to Moses, then you have no choice but to obey those commandments, those laws, those mitzvot. There's no room for negotiation.
NARRATOR: But Wise's ideas had caught on. By 1880, 90 percent of America's synagogues had adopted Reform Judaism.
On July 11, 1883, the moment he had dreamed of since coming to America arrived. The aging leader presided over the ordination of his college's first class of rabbis.
RABBI LANCE J. SUSSMAN, Historian: For decades, he had struggled to unite congregations, to create a rabbinic school. Now it's all working, and this is the great crowning moment.
NARRATOR: After the ordination, Wise hosted a dinner at Highland House, Cincinnati's most exclusive restaurant. Two hundred guests attended, including distinguished rabbis and scholars from across the country.
HASIA R. DINER: The first thing that the waiters bring out were littleneck clams.
Rabbi LANCE J. SUSSMAN: Littleneck clams, an American delicacy.
JEFFREY S. GUROCK: Clams are shellfish. Shellfish is biblically prohibited in the Torah.
Rabbi LANCE J. SUSSMAN: And then from there, they begin to roll out other things- shrimp-
JEFFREY S. GUROCK: Shrimp salad, same story.
Rabbi LANCE J. SUSSMAN: -beef that is in a cream sauce-
JEFFREY S. GUROCK: Milk and meat products together.
Rabbi LANCE J. SUSSMAN: -and lobster bisque.
HASIA R. DINER: From the start of the meal to the end, a kind of observant Jew's nightmare.
JEFFREY S. GUROCK: If you believe in those biblical traditions, it's God-given that there's certain animals you should not eat. And now they're serving us these foods. Very simple. This dinner is saying, "We have no concern about the biblical teaching."
HASIA R. DINER: They had to take it as a slap in the face to traditional Judaism. This man, who claimed to have given ordination to people who will be teachers and rabbis in America- it would have been a spit in the face.
NARRATOR: The Jewish Press called it the "Trefa Banquet," after the Hebrew word for un-kosher. "Princes and emperors have respected the laws which the strictly ritualistic Jew has to obey," observed one editorial, "and the liberal Israelites of Cincinnati could not do the same?"
Rabbi LANCE J. SUSSMAN: Those who opposed Wise and those who opposed Reform Judaism saw this as their moment, as a rallying call that Wise's union and Wise's college could not represent their religious goals.
JONATHAN D. SARNA: Wise's dream of union, of Jews coming together under one synagogue organization, with one seminary, that dream is shattered.
NARRATOR: Wise refused to apologize. His college, his practices, were the future.
Rabbi ISAAC MAYER WISE: I do not call it a sin to eat that which civilized people generally eat. There is no reference to food in the Ten Commandments. In religion only we are Jews. In all other respects, we are American citizens.
Rabbi LANCE J. SUSSMAN: He was a fighter. He didn't take criticism. "That's what you're going to criticize me about? I created a national structure for Judaism in this country. I have ordained competent rabbis. You're worried about shrimp?"
NARRATOR: After Wise's banquet, the split within American Judaism only widened. Reformers went one way, traditionalists another.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER, Professor of American Religious History: The attempt to have a unified Judaism as expressed in Reform Judaism ultimately collapses. There's something about the American context that seems to encourage particular expressions of the faith, rather than any one unified expression of the faith.
NARRATOR: America was modernizing, and all its religions would now have to confront a changing world.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY, Historian: This conflict within Judaism - "Are we going to embrace modernity or are we going to reject modernity?" - that's happening in every religious group in America. They're all struggling with that question.
Rev. CHARLES AUGUSTUS BRIGGS: When a new light dawns from above, most men cling to the old and cannot believe any new light possible. But the world needs new views of the truth.
NARRATOR: In 1859, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species shook old truths to the core. An intense debate renewed between reason and belief, and the center of the debate was in Berlin. And that is where Charles Augustus Briggs, a young Presbyterian minister from New York, had felt compelled to come.
MARK S. MASSA, S.J., Theologian, Boston College: He is somebody who's gifted intellectually and realizes that he wants to go to the place where, intellectually, it was all happening. And that place is Germany.
NARRATOR: Paleontologists and geologists had recently uncovered fossil records that showed life on earth was hundreds of millions of years old. Astronomers had conceptualized the creation of galaxies from swirling gasses.
And then there was Darwin. Published just seven years before Briggs arrived in Germany, Darwin's theory of evolution argued that life evolved through natural selection, not created by God as told in the Bible. Like most evangelicals, Briggs had been taught that the Bible contained the literal word of God.
MARK S. MASSA: Evangelical Protestants placed an extraordinary importance on what they called the perspicacity of Scripture- that is, that Scripture is self-evident, that the Bible means what it says and says what it means, and everyone, from the most illiterate farmer to the most literate college professor, could pick up the Bible and have God's word addressed to them directly.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: Scientists go, "Wait a minute. There's things that happen in the Bible that violate natural law, when time stops, when Jonah is swallowed by the whale." And a number of scientists say, "These things just couldn't have happened the way they're described in the Bible."
NARRATOR: For nearly 2,000 years, Christians had accepted that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Now scholars pointed out that Moses couldn't have been the author.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: The first five books were supposedly written by Moses, but Moses makes reference to his death. So if Moses didn't write those first five books, who did?
NARRATOR: And there were other inconsistencies. There were two accounts of God's creation of the world.
MARK S. MASSA: And the first account, which is in the first chapter of Genesis, took seven days, and the second account took one day.
NARRATOR: Had David actually written the Psalms?
MARK S. MASSA: David couldn't have written the Psalms because this Hebrew word didn't exist when David was writing the psalms, so David couldn't have used this word.
NARRATOR: Looking beyond these inconsistencies, Briggs probed more deeply into the text of the Bible. If, for instance, Jonah was not swallowed whole by a whale, what did God mean to teach with this story? Briggs still fervently believed the Bible was divinely inspired, but now he would argue the Bible and scientific reason could illuminate each other.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: Every word may not have come from God himself. That doesn't create a problem. That means I'm closer to the Truth, with a capital T, that God wanted me to get at, rather than farther away. So if you want to have a better understanding of God, then you have to incorporate these new truths.
Rev. CHARLES AUGUSTUS BRIGGS: I feel a different man from what I was a few months ago. The Bible is lit up with a new light.
NARRATOR: Just as Isaac Mayer Wise had been inspired by what he had learned in Europe, so Charles Briggs arrived back in New York inflamed by the ideas he had encountered in Berlin. But Briggs proceeded cautiously.
MARK S. MASSA: Like many very, very smart and talented people, Charles Briggs operated on two levels. Above the neck, I think he was deeply committed to spreading the new ideas about the Bible. Below the neck, in his heart, I think he remained a fairly conservative evangelical Protestant.
NARRATOR: He realized little had changed in America while he had been away. Most Protestants remained certain the Bible was the literal word of God. As a minister in New Jersey, he seldom spoke out about what he had learned. And when he joined the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he shared his ideas only with a close circle of colleagues. But Briggs grew increasingly frustrated by traditional ways of thinking.
Rev. CHARLES AUGUSTUS BRIGGS: The Bible has been treated as if it were a baby, to be wrapped in swaddling clothes, nursed, and carefully guarded lest it should be injured by heretics and skeptics.
NARRATOR: In January 1891, when he was appointed chair of the new Department of Biblical Theology and invited to give a public speech, Briggs decided his moment had arrived.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER, Barnard College, Columbia University: Briggs wanted to be intellectually honest. He wanted to talk about these new and big ideas that he had encountered and had become part of his understanding of the faith. And in the end, what he decides is to cut loose.
Rev. CHARLES AUGUSTUS BRIGGS: So far as I can see, there are errors in the Scriptures that no one has been able to explain away. Men cannot shut their eyes to truth and fact.
MARK S. MASSA: He laid out the idea that the Bible, like everything else, evolved and changed. The Bible had to be approached in parts, and interpreted to be understood what it meant.
Rev. CHARLES AUGUSTUS BRIGGS: Let the light shine higher and higher, the bright, clear light of day. Truth fears no light. Light chases error away.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: Briggs thought he was giving a calm, rational speech that would be persuasive to people, that would set out the case for why the traditional interpretation and reading of the Bible was not accurate, and how we had to make it more accurate.
Rev. CHARLES AUGUSTUS BRIGGS: True orthodoxy seeks the full blaze of the noontide sun. In the light of such a day, the unity of Christendom will be gained.
NARRATOR: When Briggs was finished, only his students applauded. Everyone else sat in silence.
STEPHEN PROTHERO, Professor of Religion, Boston University: In some ways, what was troubling about the speech for people was the content. But I think in other ways, it was the tone. It wasn't that he was looking at the Bible and saying, "I have this problem that," you know, "I don't think Moses really wrote the five books. I don't know what to do about that." It was more like, "Isn't this great? Like we're learning more and more about the Bible."
NARRATOR: Briggs had set off an ecclesiastical bomb.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: Anybody in America who cares about the Bible - which is to say, virtually everyone - is interested in this question. Is it necessary for Christians to believe that every sentence, every word in the Bible is true, or can we just believe that the Bible is divinely inspired?
NARRATOR: As far as the leaders of the Presbyterian Church were concerned, the Bible was God's word. Any other interpretation violated the core tenets of their faith. They charged Briggs with heresy. "The Christian Church," wrote one critic, "has no room for the likes of men who make out that the Holy Bible is full of errors."
For two years, the Presbyterian hierarchy wrangled over Briggs's future in a series of highly publicized trials. Finally, in May 1893, the church ruled in Briggs's case.
GENERAL ASSEMBLY: This General Assembly finds that Charles A. Briggs has uttered, taught and propagated views in violation of his ordination vow. This General Assembly does hereby suspend Charles A Briggs.
NARRATOR: Briggs lost his job, but he had started a revolution among American Protestants. "Probably no man," wrote The New York Times, "is doing more than Briggs is for the new construction of Christianity."
Briggs's trial was one in a series of upheavals within American churches. The theologian Borden Bowne was charged with showing a "lax view of Scripture" and put on trial by the Methodists. When Reverend Algernon Crapsey denied the Virgin birth, the Episcopalians convicted him of heresy.
Far from stopping new ideas from taking hold, the heresy trials only increased interest in them.
MARK S. MASSA: People had grown up believing that the Bible meant what it said and said what it meant, and suddenly, you had preachers and scholars from your own denomination saying, "Not so."
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: A number of Christians say, "Finally! Whew! We do not have to accept the entire Bible as a book that has no errors in it. When our brain tells us that this story conflicts with this story, we can say, `Yes, the Bible is an imperfect document.' " These Christians feel liberated by embracing the modern. "We don't have to leave reason at the door when we go to worship."
NARRATOR: But for many Protestants, this new interpretation of the Bible threatened the nation's special relationship with God. Evangelical America would fight back.
William Jennings Bryan, a two-term congressman from Nebraska, believed that Protestant religion must be returned to the center of American life.
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: I would rather speak on religion than on politics. I offer no apology for speaking upon a religious theme, for it is the most universal of themes.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: Bryan is the most radical Christian politician of the late 19th century. I don't think anybody else, even up to our own time, has used the Bible and the kind of morality that he saw in the Bible as a basis for governing.
NARRATOR: Bryan hearkened back to a different America, the mostly rural America of his Illinois youth.
MICHAEL KAZIN, Historian, Georgetown University: In religious terms, he was evangelical and his theology was pretty conservative. He did believe that the Bible was literal truth.
RANDALL M. MILLER, Historian, St. Joseph's University: Bryan was an unabashed believer in the authority of the Bible. God acted in history, and God had a purpose in history that America had a purpose in history, and it was to be God's instrument.
NARRATOR: Bryan looked on in despair at what was happening to his country. By the 1890s, millions of Americans had migrated from farms and small towns to teeming cities.
RANDALL M. MILLER: The pace of work is different. The organization is going to be much more bureaucratic, much more impersonal. That sense of community isn't going to exist there.
NARRATOR: Between 1880 and 1900, nearly 10 million immigrants arrived in the United States.
RANDALL M. MILLER: Even the workers themselves are going to be different They're not going to be of the same religious background, the same ethnic background.
NARRATOR: Slums began to overflow. By the turn of the century, one in eight Americans lived in poverty.
RANDALL M. MILLER: Evangelical Protestants could look out and see a world that was rapidly changing, that needed explanation. There was a great introspection, and one could even say a kind of self-doubt, that was emerging. Are they losing their dominance, their place in what they thought was their special charge, this chosen nation, this redeemer nation?
NARRATOR: And William Jennings Bryan would lead the fight to restore America as a nation with a special relationship to God.
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: Jesus gave a new definition to love. His love was as wide as the sea. Its limits were so far-flung that even an enemy could not travel beyond its bounds.
NARRATOR: In 1896, Bryan became the Democratic Party's candidate for president. Criss-crossing the country, he campaigned furiously, accusing bankers and industrialists of controlling the government for their own interests, advocating for the farmer, the miner, the common man.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: His faith shaped the way he viewed policy. You lift up the weak. You take care of the oppressed. You cherish the poor.
NARRATOR: Bryan lost the election but gained a national reputation. He became a professional speaker, drawing huge crowds of adoring fans wherever he went.
MICHAEL KAZIN: He was often compared to a good preacher, using metaphors from the Bible, quoting directly from the King James Bible, and wove those lines into political messages. He had a really loyal following among evangelical Protestants, who saw him very much as their standard bearer, bringing to politics a much more Christian outlook.
NARRATOR: Bryan's message struck a chord with a growing number of Americans unhappy with the direction their country was headed. To some, the situation was so grave that the Apocalypse, as described in the book of Revelation, seemed close at hand.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: There's a number of Protestants who are thinking that America's covenant relationship with God is in peril. We're not progressing towards some Christian perfected state, that we're regressing, and that God will have to intervene.
NARRATOR: In 1914, the End Days seemed to have arrived in the form of the world's first modern war. Never before had so many been killed by human innovation and technology. Many believed the forces of modernity were to blame.
RANDALL M. MILLER: From the traditionalist point of view, this war was a demonstration of all that had gone wrong, and a warning because God, they believed, gives warnings. He visits his wrath upon the unrepentant people. The world seemed to be coming apart. How can we pull these things all back together?
NARRATOR: Some conservative Christians joined together under a new banner: America must be brought back into the embrace of God through a literal reading of the Bible. They called themselves fundamentalists.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: They take that name from this series of books called The Fundamentals. Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the literal word of God and it has no errors in it. They believe in the virgin birth. They believe in Jesus' miracles. They believe that Christ died on the cross for all of humanity's sins.
MICHAEL KAZIN: More and more conservative Protestants are beginning to call themselves fundamentalists, based themselves on a general sense that if we give away the truth of the Bible, we are giving away what's most important about being Christian.
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: Man must be brought back to God, to a belief in the Bible as the Word of God, and to a love of Christ as the Son of God.
NARRATOR: In 1921, fundamentalists secured a powerful new ally.
STEPHEN PROTHERO, Professor of Religion: Bryan wants to defend traditional Christianity. He wants to defend fundamentalism against the onslaught of modernity because he believes that if the modernists win in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that Christianity is going to go under, and then American society will go under with it.
NARRATOR: Nothing posed a greater threat, Bryan and the fundamentalists believed, than Darwin's theory of evolution, which undermined the idea that humans were God's special creation.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: Darwin represents a really important challenge because Darwin says we can make sense of the most basic piece of human existence, like where did we come from, without any recourse to God.
HASIA R. DINER, New York University: A core religious belief was that human beings were the crown of creation. And in very American terms, the American was also the crown of creation. But now, reading these accounts of Darwin, one couldn't say that any longer. Darwinism undermined the notion of what it means to be an American.
NARRATOR: With Bryan leading the charge, fundamentalists launched a nationwide campaign to ban the teaching of evolution in America's schools.
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: I object to Darwinian theory because I fear we shall lose the consciousness of God's presence in our daily life if we must accept the theory that through all the ages, no spiritual force has touched the life of man.
NARRATOR: The opening battle between fundamentalists and liberal Christians would take place in Tennessee in July 1925. The small town of Dayton was the backdrop for what reporters dubbed the "trial of the century."
RADIO ANNOUNCER: For the next few weeks, the forces of science will be arrayed against the performance of religious fundamentalism.
NARRATOR: Two months earlier, a young biology teacher named John Scopes had been arrested after defying a new state law that banned Darwin from the classroom.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: To Dayton to conduct the prosecution came he of the silver tongue, William Jennings Bryan, three times-
NARRATOR: Bryan came to Dayton to prosecute Scopes and, he hoped, to defeat Darwinism once and for all.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: Opposing Bryan before the awed local gentry was America's most dazzling criminal lawyer, Clarence Darrow.
NARRATOR: Clarence Darrow, a lawyer from Chicago famous for his advocacy of free speech and workers' rights, agreed to defend Scopes.
EDWARD J. LARSON, Historian, Pepperdine University: He opposed the idea of fundamentalist religious law-making, basing modern laws on old scripture. And he viewed the Scopes trial as a prime opportunity, to expose the folly of doing so, and therefore undermine religious law-making.
NARRATOR: And Darrow had the support of many liberal Christians, who saw nothing incompatible between Darwinism and religion.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: Science is something they can embrace because science shows us how brilliant God was, and how amazing this world he made is. So they're not threatened by Darwin. Liberal Christians feel like America's going to be set back. You know, the rest of the world is moving forward. Why should American children not have the received wisdom of science?
NARRATOR: The Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton would be where Darrow would put fundamentalist Christianity on trial.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: If Darrow can bring Bryan down, he can make significant inroads into knocking down fundamentalism.
NARRATOR: People from across the country streamed into town to be part of what became known as the "Monkey Trial." Big city reporters descended from New York, Chicago and Baltimore. Radio station WGN would broadcast the proceedings live nationwide.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: As the world waited, hundreds jammed the courtroom to see if man's intelligence and belief could be controlled by law.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER, Barnard College, Columbia University: All of America is transfixed by this confrontation. What was at stake was, for many people, the integrity of the Bible.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: Calico and coveralls packed the courtroom to protect the faith against the foreigners and find out what this new evolution was all about.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: The question is about authority. And the question is whether religion, Bible, God have authority, or whether reason, humans, science have authority.
NARRATOR: As was customary in Tennessee courtrooms, a local preacher opened the trial with a prayer. "We come this morning, our Divine Father," the preacher intoned, "that we may seek from thee that wisdom to so transact the business of this court." Every day, there would be a new prayer. Every day, Clarence Darrow would object. Every day, the judge overruled him.
When Darrow moved to have the indictment against Scopes thrown out, declaring that religious liberty must be defended, the judge rejected the motion. Darrow's strategy centered on calling expert witnesses who could testify on the meaning of evolution and its compatibility with the creation story in the Bible.
MICHAEL KAZIN: Darrow had wanted to put a whole array of scientists on the stand to testify about Darwinism, about evolution- a lot of whom, by the way, were liberal Christians. They didn't want agnostic, atheist scientists. They wanted Christian scientists who would say you could be a Christian and believe in evolution at the same time.
NARRATOR: But once again, the judge appeared to be on Bryan's side and refused to allow Darrow's experts to testify. The defense seemed in tatters and the trial appeared over. But Darrow had one more card to play. He asked permission to call an expert witness on the Bible.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: He proposes that since William Jennings Bryan, who has been for the last what, decade, out there as the public spokesman of fundamentalism. Surely no one knows the Bible better than the Great Commoner. Let's put Bryan on the stand.
NARRATOR: The judge was reluctant, but Bryan insisted that he was happy to take the stand. And the "Monkey Trial" took a dramatic turn.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: Bryan knows the Bible. He's studied it all his life. He's read it a bunch of times. Darrow's going to ask him questions about the Bible. What could be easier than that?
CLARENCE DARROW: You've given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you, Mr. Bryan.
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: Yes, sir. I've tried to.
CLARENCE DARROW: Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as is given there.
CLARENCE DARROW: When you read that Jonah swallowed the whale - or that the whale swallowed Jonah - excuse me, please - how do you literally interpret that?
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: I believe it.
CLARENCE DARROW: You believe the big fish was made to swallow Jonah?
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: I'm not prepared to say that. The Bible merely says it was done.
CLARENCE DARROW: You don't know whether it was the ordinary run of fish or made for that purpose?
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: You may guess. You evolutionists guess.
CLARENCE DARROW: But do you believe he made them, that he made the fish, and it was big enough to swallow Jonah?
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: Yes, sir. And let me add, one miracle is just as easy to believe as another.
CLARENCE DARROW: It is for you. Does the statement "The morning and the evening were the first day" and "The morning and the evening were the second day" mean anything to you?
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: I do not think it necessarily means a 24-hour day.
CLARENCE DARROW: You do not?
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: No.
CLARENCE DARROW: Then when the Bible said, for instance, "And God called the firmament heaven, and the evening and the morning were the second day," that does not necessarily mean 24 hours?
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: I do not think it necessarily does.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: If you believe, as fundamentalists purport to believe, that the Bible is the literal truth and every word in it is true, then a day has to be a 24-hour day, or now you're doing what the liberal Christians are doing, which is saying, "Oh, a day doesn't mean a day. A day is a metaphor for something."
CLARENCE DARROW: Do you think it does or not?
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: I do not think it does.
MICHAEL KAZIN: Bryan was a very worldly Christian, but he was being asked questions one would ask of a theologian, someone who really had been involved in debates about how you- how you defend, you know, specific passages in Christianity. He'd never done that.
CLARENCE DARROW: You think these were not literal days?
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: I believe in creation as there told, and if I am not able to explain it, I will accept it.
CLARENCE DARROW: The creation might have been going on for a very long time?
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: It might have continued for millions of years. I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer his questions. I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world. I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee-
CLARENCE DARROW: I object to that!
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: -to slur at it. And while it requires time, I am willing to take it.
CLARENCE DARROW: I object to your statement. I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes!
NARRATOR: The judge had heard enough and adjourned the court.
Darrow was mobbed by supporters. Reporters rushed out to file stories about the epic confrontation. Most declared Darrow the clear winner. But the next day, the judge had Bryan's testimony erased from the record.
John Scopes was found guilty. Teaching evolution remained illegal in Tennessee and in several other states. But in the court of public opinion, the outcome of the Scopes trial was quite different.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: The way the media played it out, it was this huge defeat for the rural, stupid, country bumpkin kind of fundamentalism. This is old-fashioned, ancient religion that's not suitable for the modern world.
Rev. RANDALL M. MILLER: The whole world has now seen not just the ignorance but the stupidity of the so-called fundamentalists, represented by William Jennings Bryan. How could any intelligent person believe in this kind of stuff?
NARRATOR: Clearly upset by his role in the trial, Bryan threw himself into preparing for an upcoming speaking tour. He would use the publicity of the "monkey trial," he said, to continue the national crusade against evolution and the threat posed by science.
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: Can any Christian remain indifferent? Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morality. If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene.
NARRATOR: But William Jennings Bryan never embarked on his planned speaking tour. Less than a week after the Scopes trial ended, he died in his sleep.
With their national spokesman now gone, fundamentalists decided to abandon Bryan's public crusade.
EDWARD J. LARSON: The Scopes trial was such a visible repudiation of the fundamentalists by the mainstream media and mainstream culture that there was a sense that, "Our ideas are no longer welcome. Rather than participating in the larger society, we should build our own subculture."
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: The great divide in America in the 19th century was about slavery. Scopes marks a different religious divide, between people who believe in a literal and traditional reading of their sacred texts, and people who don't, between the fundamentalists on the one hand, and the modernizers on the other.
NARRATOR: America's journey into the modern era had forced its people to view their relationship with God in a different light.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: You have this sort of wedge that's pushing us, where we're forced to identify ourselves not so much as Jews or as Catholics or as Protestants or as Presbyterians or as Baptists, but as conservative or modernist religious people.
NARRATOR: The divide between liberals and conservatives, between modernists and traditionalists, would come to dominate American religious life.
Published October 11, 2010
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