This Day in Church History: Nestorius and the Scopes Trial
09 July 381 Nestorius, first Patriarch of Constantinople, is born in what is today Maras, Turkey. Nestorius was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Ephesus in 431 for supposedly teaching that Christ had two natures in two persons (rather than the orthodox teaching of two natures in one person). I say “supposedly” advisedly. Church historians are not sure that Nestorius actually taught the heresy that bears his name. Several prominent church historians considered Nestorius confused rather than heretical–and I remember my teacher, E. Glenn Hinson, saying that he thought Nestorius’ problem was that he was a poor communicator (which is quite a problem for Patriarch, but not heresy).
09 July 1925 the trial of John Scopes in Dayton, TN began. Scopes, a science teacher in a public high school was charged with violating the state of Tennessee’s ban on the teaching of biological evolution. The case received global (and sensational) headlines and became known as “The Monkey Trial.” Prosecuting Scopes was William Jennings Bryan, famed lawyer, fundamentalist lay-preacher, former Secretary of State (who resigned in protest at U.S. involvement in World War I) who combined his fundamentalist theology with progressive and pacifist political beliefs. Defending Scopes was the equally famous Clarence Darrow, maybe the most famous U.S. defense attorney of the day (for you British readers, the U.S. system combines the roles of solicitor and barrister). Darrow was also famed as a religious skeptic and freethinker. Once a supporter of Bryan politically, the two had long since fallen out–and all these personal issues played into the trial. Bryan won, Scopes’ firing was upheld and he had to pay a fine. But in the process of the trial, Darrow had managed to place Bryan on the stand and his ignorance of science tainted the entire fundamentalist movement–which went into cultural isolation for over two generations. Sadly, today, the false choices of creation or biological evolution are still a part of U.S. culture.
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