October 29, 2022 | Last updated May 30, 2023

Flashback Friday: “Scopes Wasn’t the First”: Nebraska’s 1924 Anti-Evolution Trial – Adam Shapiro

The waning days of the 1924 presidential campaign found William Jennings Bryan back in his former home state of Nebraska. On Friday evening, October 17, 1924, the man known to newspapers as The Commoner spoke to an audience of hundreds at the high school auditorium in Fremont. It was one of many campaign stops he made across the state. In fact, he had already made two appearances in smaller towns earlier in the day. It was a frenzied tour by train. By the next morning he would be fifty miles south, in his former hometown of Lincoln where he would address thousands in a “packed house at the Lincoln auditorium.”

Bryan told Nebraskans of his worry that votes might be split between the Democratic ticket and the third-party candidacy of “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, handing an easy electoral victory to the Republican nominee, Calvin Coolidge. It was the fear of losing the votes of Western farmers that had prompted the Democratic Party to nominate William’s brother, Nebraska governor Charles W. Bryan, to be their vice-presidential candidate. William himself had been dispatched on a speaking tour to Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas, which was what had brought him to Lincoln seventeen days before the election.

The long arc of Bryan’s public life and his career in national politics began in Lincoln over thirty years earlier when he was elected to represent the area in the U.S. Congress. It would end in little more than nine months’ time with his death on July 26, 1925 — just after the end of the Scopes antievolution trial in Dayton, Tennessee. By 1924, the three-time Democratic nominee for U.S. President was also America’s best-known anti-evolutionist. His 1922 book In His Image attracted the ridicule and rebuttal of some of the nation’s most prominent biologists. It was also sold widely and gained a following among Fundamentalists. In 1923, he successfully guided a resolution reaffirming the “truth of the Bible” through the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. He had already successfully inspired Florida (where he had moved in 1913) to pass a resolution condemning the presence of evolution in schools. Bryan had even gained the ear of textbook publishers who were just beginning to adapt their books to mollify the antievolution movement.

But Bryan didn’t talk about evolution in his speeches that October. The teaching of evolution was an issue in some states, but it was not a federal matter and it did not figure in the national election. And yet it’s ironic that no one asked him about evolution when he spoke that Saturday in Lincoln because less than half a mile away America’s first anti-evolution trial had concluded only a few hours earlier. In district court presided over by Jefferson Hoover Broady (the son of Bryan’s first campaign manager), a schoolteacher accused of being “mentally and morally unfit” to teach because he believed in “Darwinism” had just won a civil lawsuit against his slanderers.

The civil lawsuit of David S. Domer against William A. Klink and eight residents of Rising City, Nebraska (in Butler County, about forty miles northwest of Lincoln) is an enigma. It has been completely unknown to historians and received almost no public attention or press coverage when it happened. There’s a stark contrast between the public spectacle that took place just nine months later with the Scopes trial in Tennessee and this earlier case that had much the same potential.

This suggests that there were important differences in the way that the evolution controversy was understood in Nebraska in 1924 and Tennessee in 1925 and that the trope of an “evolution trial” as a convenient way to understand these cases (and the many that have come later) is not unchanging. Indeed, the anonymity of Domer v. Klink et al. shatters one of the pervasive myths about the later Tennessee trial. In 1925, participants in the Scopes trial and the journalists reporting on it tended to describe the trial not in terms of the local politics of Tennessee, but as the natural expression of an unavoidable conflict between Darwin and the Bible. They gave the impression that the epic debate between science and religion had to turn into a great public debate. Even though the Scopes trial’s creators went out of their way to promote the event, and celebrity figures like Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan co-opted the court case in order to engage in a public debate, there was still a consensus, forged by that trial’s creators, that the media attention and the spectacle were inevitable.

What happened in Lincoln was quite different. In 1922, Domer was the superintendent of the Rising City school. He applied for a new job teaching English at Midland College, a small school in Fremont affiliated with the United Lutheran Church in America. William Klink was the pastor of the ULCA-affiliated church in Rising City at the time, and along with eight other members of the congregation, wrote a letter to the dean and president of Midland, alleging that Domer would bring the school into disrepute, in part because he was a Darwinist. Domer lost the job. The following year, Domer sued for damages because of the loss of salary and his continued difficulties finding a job in the state due to the damage to his reputation. The jury awarded him $5,675.

 

The entire essay appears in the Fall 2013 issue.

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