For more than 80 years, Dayton, Tennessee has had a monkey on its back. That monkey is the English naturalist Charles Darwin, whose 200th birthday will be celebrated on Thursday in hundreds of cities around the world. Darwin’s treatise On The Origin of Species was instrumental to the town’s famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted noted trial lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan against each other in a fight to determine whether evolution should be taught in Tennessee public schools.
Though Bryan and the creationists initially won this fight, the law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools was eventually overturned in the 1960s. And while most in this town of 7,000 have been content to move past history, a Wisconsin-based atheist group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation rubbed it in by purchasing a 12-foot-by-25-foot billboard on the Southern side of town to remind them of Darwin’s legacy and his milestone birthday. “Praise Darwin,” the billboard reads. “Evolve Beyond Belief.”
That stirred up some of the old feelings. The group’s co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor says it was not allowed to purchase a billboard in the city limits of Dayton once the head of the local advertising company found out what would be on the sign. “Once we sent one advertising group our artwork for the sign, [the firm] cut off all communications with us,” Gaylor says, adding that a company representative told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he was a Christian and would not take money for any sign that supported Darwin or his birthday. Ultimately the FFRF purchased a billboard on the outskirts of town from a company that was not Dayton-based.
This is not the FFRF’s first foray into Dayton. In 2002, they were a plaintiff in a court case that ultimately banned Bible classes in Dayton’s public schools. “For us, this billboard was really symbolic,” Gaylor admits. “We didn’t really expect Dayton to be a fertile recruiting ground for us. It’s just our statement that they should not suppress knowledge by teaching religion in schools. Their belief is holding them back.”
Locals, however, say the whole billboard contretemps is more amusing than controversial. “The billboard right next to it says ‘My friend’s got mental illness,'” jokes Tom Davis, the public information director at Bryan College, who has lived in Dayton for 17 years.
An overwhelmingly Christian and conservative small town located less than an hour’s drive north of Chattanooga, Dayton landed the Scopes trial in 1925 after the American Civil Liberties Union announced a search for a teacher willing to challenge a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. Town leaders, eager to boost the local economy with the media attention a trial would bring, came up with a 24-year-old science teacher named John Thomas Scopes, who was willing to teach Darwinist theory instead of creationism.
Once Scopes was indicted and the July trial began, hundreds of newspaper reporters descended on the town to cover the circus-like event, which featured fully-clothed chimpanzees performing on the courthouse lawn and a fair bit of ridicule from newspaper columnist H. L. Mencken, who declared that local residents were little more than backwards “yokels.”
“I think some outsiders still view us as a bunch of anti-intellectual monkeys,” says Ann Bates, a lifelong resident whose grandfather owned the drugstore where locals dreamed up the plan to bring the trial to town.
Meanwhile Davis, who has been the director of the town’s annual Scopes Trial Week, says the festival will not take place this year. While some locals have wondered whether it’s because of pressure from outside groups during this 200th anniversary year, Davis says no, it was more of a staffing issue. “Simply put, the people who played Darrow and Bryan decided to retire this year and they were kind of the driving forces behind all this,” Davis explains.
Instead, at the end of the month the local Bryan College will be holding a symposium called “War and Peace: 150 Years of Christian Encounters with Darwin.” The symposium will explore how Darwin’s Origin of Species challenged creationist views. Retired professor Dr. Dick Cornelius says the town is committed to hearing all sides of an argument, “even if it doesn’t favor our position.” The motto of Bryan College is “Christ Above All.”
While Gaylor insists that Dayton locals have gotten more and more backward over the years, Davis swears that’s not so. “We have a public school system that’s accredited by the state,” he says with a smirk. “Our kids seem to score appropriately on state tests. We even have some people with college degrees. So the H. L. Mencken attitude is tiresome. It’s as ignorant as we’re proposed to be.”
In the end, Cornelius says, there is nothing wrong with a little bit of belief. “Evolve beyond belief There is always belief,” Cornelius says. “After all, every time you sit down in a chair you have to have the belief that it will hold you up.”