Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals

Article excerpt

When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals. By Paul K. Conkin. American Intellectual Culture. (Lanham, Md., and other cities: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., c. 1998. Pp. xii, 185. $24.95, ISBN 0-8476-9063-6.)

Readers may wonder whether another book about the Scopes trial is needed in the wake of Edward J. Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Summer of the Gods (New York, 1997). Paul Conkin's When All the Gods Trembled, however, is a very different kind of work. Its central chapter does retell the story of the infamous 1925 trial, and many will find this compact yet thorough treatment of the event quite useful. Yet the real contribution of Conkin's book lies elsewhere, in the chapters that examine the profound issues at stake in the conflict between religious faith and scientific naturalism that the Scopes trial came to symbolize.

Rather than analyze the trial decade in terms of its popular beliefs and cultural conflicts, Conkin examines how leading intellectuals of the period construed the relationship between science and religion. Preliminary chapters cover the impact of biblical criticism, the Darwinian revolution, and the emergence of modernist and fundamentalist factions within early-twentieth-century American Protestantism. Especially helpful in these discussions is Conkin's insistence on precise definitions of terms. A favorite rhetorical device is to follow a reference to "Darwinism," "evolution," "fundamentalism," or even "God," with the phrase "whatever that means" (p. 125), thus preparing the way for the sort of conceptual clarification that the historical actors themselves seldom achieved.

The second half of the book focuses on a group of prominent American thinkers. Not all of these figures commented on the Scopes trial itself, yet all of them did respond, at least indirectly, to the legal strategy used to defend John T. …

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