Before Scopes: Evangelicalism, Education, and Evolution in Tennessee, 1870-1925

By Vinzant, Gene | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Before Scopes: Evangelicalism, Education, and Evolution in Tennessee, 1870-1925


Vinzant, Gene, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Before Scopes: Evangelicalism, Education, and Evolution in Tennessee, 1870-1925. By Charles A. Israel. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. Pp. x, 252. Preface, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95, cloth; $19.95, paper.)

Many Americans think that the seemingly endless battle over the teaching of evolution in public schools began with the famous Scopes trial of 1925, but Charles A. Israel demonstrates that the "monkey trial" was in many ways the culmination of controversies that had been brewing for over fifty years. Israel broadens his study to trace the larger story of the involvement of Tennessee's white evangelicals, specifically Baptists and Methodists, in the state's education system.

Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, most evangelicals opposed the creation of a public school system, believing that it would undermine the central role of the family and church as instillers of faith and education. By the 1880s, however, evangelicals embraced public schools as long as "home rule," that is, local control of curriculum, prevailed. Evangelicals believed that local control of elementary schools, combined with denominational control of secondary and post-secondary education, would ensure the faithfulness of Tennessee's children. This belief that denominational colleges would safeguard the hearts of young people was deeply shaken by the bitter split between Vanderbilt University and the Methodist church in 1914. According to Israel, the "loss" of Vanderbilt awakened the state's evangelicals to the danger of creeping secularism and spurred them to reexamine the "religious content of all levels of public education" (p. 65).

Relying largely on denominational newspapers, Israel argues that battles over temperance and prohibition revealed the growing desire of evangelicals to legislate morality in the public arena. Although they narrowly failed to implement statewide prohibition, Tennessee's anti-liquor forces did succeed in implementing a "Four Mile Law" that kept the sale of alcoholic beverages at least four miles away from any school building. As the public school system became more entrenched and home rule gave way to centralized control, evangelicals concluded that the state needed to establish a more overt Christian presence in the classroom. This drive resulted in the 1915 law requiring the daily reading of the Bible in public schools. …

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