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H. L. MENCKEN AND THE SCOPES TRIAL –
A PORTRAIT OF PURE EVIL!

(AN INTRODUCTION TO A SERIES ON THE BOOK OF GENESIS)

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached on Saturday Evening, July 7, 2007
at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles

“Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21-22).


These verses in the Book of Romans refer to the degeneration of religion in the ancient world. Concerning these verses, Dr. J. Vernon McGee said,

Although they had a knowledge of God, they moved away from Him. “They glorified him not as God.” They did not give Him His rightful place…they simply turned their backs upon Him… “Neither were thankful.” Ingratitude is one of the worst sins… “Became vain in their imaginations” – they even concocted a theory of evolution. “Their foolish heart was darkened.” They moved into the darkness of paganism… “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” The wisdom of man is foolishness with God. Man searches for truth through logical reasoning but arrives at a philosophy that is foolish in God’s sight (J. Vernon McGee, Th.D., Thru the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983, volume IV, p. 653).

The degeneration of ancient world religion, pictured in the first chapter of Romans, has been duplicated by modern man in the Western world. But with this difference: instead of sliding into pagan idol worship, as the early civilizations did, the West has descended into materialism, the philosophical doctrine that says matter is the only reality and that everything in the world can be explained in purely physical terms, without any reference to spiritual reality, without God in the equation. Thus, it can also be said of our civilization,

“Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21-22).

One of the great turning points in the downward slide into naturalistic darkness occurred in 1859 when Charles Darwin published his book, On the Origin of Species. This was followed by The Descent of Man in 1871. These books presented the basic theory of evolution, a materialistic philosophy that has been propagated by the public school system for the past eighty-some years. Although many of Darwin’s ideas have been repudiated, and a growing number of scientists are now challenging several of its core tenets, Darwin’s theory is still accepted today as unquestioned dogma by the educational establishment of the Western world.

A second great turning point in that downward slide into the materialistic philosophy of Darwinism occurred in America in August, 1925, at the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Author Terry Teachout gives the following summary of the case:

On March 21 [1925] the Tennessee senate passed a bill making it a misdemeanor for any public school teacher in the state to teach “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man had descended from a lower order of animal.,” punishable by a maximum fine of five hundred dollars. Six weeks later, John T. Scopes, a science teacher…at the Rhea County High School in Dayton, was served with a warrant that charged him with violating the Anti-Evolution Law… Clarence Darrow, the best-known defence lawyer in the country, represented Scopes at the trial; William Jennings Bryan, a two-term congressman from Nebraska and three-time Democratic presidential candidate who served as [President] Woodrow Wilson’s first secretary of state, appeared [as an attorney] for the prosecution [of John Scopes]. The jury found Scopes guilty as charged, and Judge John T. Raulston fined him one hundred dollars. But history is not always written by the victors, and the losing side in Tennessee v. Scopes wrote the version of the case that made it into most of the history books – with more than a little help from H. L. Mencken (Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: a Life of H. L. Mencken, HarperCollins Publishers, 2002, pp. 212-213).

“With more than a little help from H. L. Mencken.” That phrase from Mr. Teachout needs to be examined if one wishes to know why the Scopes Trial ultimately turned out to be a near-national repudiation of William Jennings Bryan and the Biblical account of creation. “With more than a little help from H. L. Mencken.” Let us see what Mr. Teachout means by that sentence.

H. L. Mencken became the editor of the American Mercury in 1924. It was a very influential magazine among intellectuals during the twenties. Mencken was a satirist rather than a true critic. He represented the viewpoint of extreme atheism and was a critic of the “lower classes,” which he often called “Boobs.” Mencken’s ideas came from his reading of the German social Darwinist philosopher, Nietzsche. The “survival of the fittest” thoughts of Nietzsche led Mencken to feel that the strong “would prevail over their inferiors unless blocked from doing so by…Christianity and democracy” (Teachout, p. 124). Thus, Mencken sought to overthrow the Bible and Christianity and replace them with the materialistic philosophy of Darwinism. His writings also include a strong note of anti-Semitism, and he wrote favorably of Hitler, as the dictator rose to power.

It is well known that Mencken wrote about the Scopes Trial, bashing and belittling Bryan, and that his columns in the Baltimore Sun, a famous newspaper of the time, were largely instrumental in discrediting Bryan. What is less known is hinted at by Mr. Teachout’s statement that Mencken’s caustic attacks against Christianity and Bryan were only part of his involvement in the trial, and that the version of Scopes that made the history books did so “with more than a little help from H. L. Mencken.”

Mr. Teachout shows how deeply Mencken was involved in the trial from the very beginning. Teachout says, “We have…Mencken’s word to show that it was his idea to put Bryan on the stand [and make a “fool of him before all the world”]… [Mencken] also claimed…to have persuaded Darrow to join the defence team…There is no question that he provided pretrial advice to the ACLU. He made no secret of it. [He said] ‘I got myself involved in the Tennessee evolution trial, as a consulting man of vision to Darrow and Dudley Field Malone [another anti-Christian attorney involved in the Scopes trial], both good friends of mine.’…He then talked the [Baltimore] Sun into sending him down to Dayton to report on the trial, “not as an interested party [!] but as a reporter – though it was no secret which side he was backing” (Teachout, p. 218). In all America, there was no more voluble opponent of religion…And like Bryan, he understood that Darwinism was more than a scientific theory: It was [to Mencken] a hammer with which to beat in the heads of the yokels [those he considered the ‘backwoods boobs’ who believed the Bible]. Neither abstract theory nor journalistic ethics would stop him [from wielding that hammer against them]” (Teachout, pp. 217-218).

If Mencken’s own written words are to be believed, and I see no reason not to believe them, then H. L. Mencken was the “power behind the throne” at the Scopes Trial. It was he who conceived the idea of putting Bryan himself on the stand, cross-examining him and “making a damned fool of him before all the world.” It was he who persuaded Clarence Darrow to join the case as the chief attorney for the defence. It was he who was the “consulting man of vision” behind Darrow. It was he who then talked the Baltimore Sun into sending him to report on the trial as a so-called “uninterested” party! I think it is safe to say, based on Mr. Teachout’s research, that the whole thrust of the trial was Mencken’s brainchild. I think it is fair to say that the trial pitted Mencken against Bryan, and that Darrow was the clever mouthpiece, and fount, of Mencken’s ideas on the case. No wonder Mr. Teachout said that the version of the trial that reached the history books “did so with more than a little help from H. L. Mencken” (see Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: a Life of H. L. Mencken, ibid., pp. 217-218 for Mencken’s involvement in the trial from the beginning).

Knowing as we do now that Mencken was the originator of so many things in the trial, as well as being its guiding light from behind closed doors, we should be aware of just who this man Mencken was, and what he believed.

Mencken was an anti-Semite. For instance, he said, “The sharp, unyielding separateness of the Jews, based on their assertive racial egoism, marks them off as strangers everywhere…the Jews, who are the most intolerant people on earth…interpret tolerance to mean only an active support of their own special interests…He is Jewish before he is a man, and presses the fact home with relentless lack of tact” (Teachout, pp. 289-290). He said that the Jews in Hitler’s Germany “were at least partly responsible for their present plight” (Teachout, p. 286). Mencken’s biographer Terry Teachout said, “That he was an anti-Semite cannot now reasonably be denied” (Teachout, p. 290).

Mencken was also a racist. For instance, he said, “The Negro is held back by the fact that every time a superior member of his race obtains a right a dozen imbeciles [of his race] take a free ride on his shoulders” (Teachout, p. 289). “Blacks he regarded as congenitally inferior to whites” (Teachout, p. 16). “The posthumous publication of his diary, with its caustic remarks about blacks, Jews and Roosevelt, triggered an avalanche of criticism” (Teachout, p. 13). Mencken said, “The masses are animals, beyond salvation” (Teachout, p. 16). He said that the Jews are “inherently incapable of civilization” (Teachout, p. 16). He called the Japanese, “the Asiatic barbarians…the Japs” (Teachout, p. 308). He wrote approvingly when the atom bomb was dropped on Japan, saying, “Large numbers of the victims, I was proud to note, were women and children. They were slowly fried or roasted to death like people burned by radium” (Teachout, page 308). These thoughts were expressions of the materialistic social Darwinism Mencken drew from Nietzsche, the man who said, “God is dead,” the man who envisioned a super-race of Germanic people that would rule the world.

Not long before he was forced into retirement by a stroke, a student reporter asked Mencken, “Did you really dislike Franklin Roosevelt as much as you said you did?” Mencken replied, “Every bit of it. In my book that man was an unmitigated S.O.B… Any other questions?” (Teachout, p. 9). During World War II Mencken said, “Anyone silly enough to believe in such transparent quacks as…Roosevelt and Churchill leaves the world little the loser by departing from it” (Teachout, p. 9).

Mencken poured as much ridicule on Roosevelt as he had on Bryan. When Roosevelt died Mencken wrote in his diary (now public) that the President “had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes” (Teachout, p. 9). The reason for his poisonous words against Bryan and Roosevelt was that they both appealed to the common man, the “little man” in American life.

When Mencken first encountered country people, the poor farmers and laborers who called both Bryan and Roosevelt their leaders, Mencken said, “I had never been on close terms with country people before. I set out laughing and returned shivering…The job before democracy is to get rid of such canaille [such a pack of dogs]. If that fails, they will devour it” (Teachout, pp. 220-221).

Mencken feared and even hated the common man in American life. That is undoubtedly the reason he orchestrated the Scopes trial for, as he said, “Smearing Bryan would be good for a long while” (Teachout, p. 221). Mencken’s reason for wanting to “smear” Bryan was simple: he wanted to destroy him as a leader of the common man, which he saw as nothing but a pack of wild dogs! The same motivation lay behind his attacks against President Roosevelt, the champion of the “little man” in the Great Depression, the common man that Mencken so feared and despised.

This, then, is the ugly picture which emerges as we study the life of H. L. Mencken: he was an anti-Semite, a racist, a bigot who said that Christians were a pack of dangerous wild dogs, a man who hated the social reforms that would help laborers and farmers and, thus, spoke evil of President Roosevelt and of Bryan, who had originated and proclaimed the social reforms which were later picked up and put into practice by Roosevelt. It is indeed a shocking picture of Mencken, the Nietzsche-inspired social Darwinist, the atheistic materialist who orchestrated the Scopes Trial.

But who was Bryan? And why did he go to Dayton, Tennessee to defend the Bible? Garry Wills, author of Under God: Religion and American Politics (Simon and Schuster, 1990) compared Bryan to Martin Luther King: “For Dr. King, it was racial hatred that was crucifying his people. For Bryan, it was the gold standard insisted upon by Eastern bankers that was turning American prairies into deserts” (Wills, p. 67). You see, the poor in the West had access to a lot of silver, but very little gold. Yet silver was not accepted as “money” (not accepted backing for the dollar). Only gold was acceptable. This made the Wall Street moguls rich, but it starved the farmers and the common man in general. William Jennings Bryan came forth as the champion of silver and the little man in American life.

Bryan was only thirty-six years old when he addressed the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Wills calls it, “the greatest speech at any political convention” (Wills, p. 67). Bryan came to the Democratic Convention with bold proposals – a graduated income tax, recall of corrupt elected officials, abandonment of the gold standard insisted on by the big bankers of the East. He spoke for the common man, the “little” man that Mencken despised. Bryan so embodied the working man that he classed himself with them, saying “we.”

We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked us when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!...You come to us and tell us that our great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country…With a zeal approaching the zeal of the crusaders who followed Peter the Hermit, our silver Democrats went forth from victory unto victory until they are now assembled, not to discuss, not to debate, but to enter up the judgment already rendered by the plain people of this country…Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold (W. J. Bryan, the “Cross of Gold” speech, Democratic National Convention, 1896).

One of [Bryan’s] followers who was sitting in the gallery reported the behavior of a nearby gold Democrat who had been sneering at every friendly reference to the silver cause. When Bryan finished his appeal the gold Democrat lost control of himself and literally grabbed hold of me and pulled me up from a sitting to a standing position on my chair. He yelled at me, “Yell, for God’s sake, yell,” as Bryan finished his speech (Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition, Vintage, 1948, p. 186).

Bryan spoke against the “big money” gold standard bankers of the East just as Dr. Martin Luther King spoke against those who oppressed the Blacks, and as President Reagan spoke against the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, the Communist oppressors of the common man in Eastern Europe. Throughout his life Bryan spoke out on behalf of the plain people, the working man, against the bankers, corrupt politicians, and Republican-backed newspapers of his day. The poet Vachel Lindsay described the power of his message:

When Bryan speaks, the town’s a hive.
From miles around, the autos drive.
The sparrow chirps. The rooster crows.
The place is kicking and alive.

When Bryan speaks, the wigwam shakes.
The corporation magnate quakes.
The pre-convention plot is smashed.
The [common man] full-armed awakes.

When Bryan speaks, the sky is ours,
The wheat, the forests, and the flowers.
And who is there to say us nay?
Fled are the ancient tyrant powers.
   (“When Bryan Speaks” by Vachel Lindsay, 1879-1931).

He was Jimmy Stewart speaking up for the working man in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” representing the plain people in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” He was Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” – was an echo of Bryan’s voice for the common man. He was President Reagan in Berlin, speaking on behalf of the Communist-oppressed citizens of Eastern Europe. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” is pure Bryan! No wonder Mencken hated him!

And when it came to evolution, Bryan saw it as an enemy of the common man, just as he had seen the gold standard decades earlier. Bryan believed that a wide acceptance of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” would mean that the poor would be trodden down by the wealthy through “social Darwinism.” Garry Wills said,

For the forces of the ACLU, the Scopes trial was what Mencken labeled it – the monkey trial. For Bryan, it was the superman trial, a defence of the populace against secular experts [the “supermen” of Nietzsche and Mencken]. Darrow and Mencken departed thinking they had won a victory…that was the greatest error of all (Wills, page 107).

Jeffrey Hart said that Bryan’s view,

Expressed a human aspiration to the spiritual and to goodness, however imperfect. What Darrow and the modernizers stood for is the culture we have, Penthouse, Madonna and Trump… And, adding up the score today, Bryan was right and Darrow, Mencken and the rest were wrong (Jeffrey S. Hart, “Bryan Was Right, The Rest Were Wrong,” King Features Syndicate, 1990).

Yes, Bryan won the trial, but Mencken, Darrow and the ACLU won the culture war in the popular media. Gary Wills said Darrow and Mencken thought they “won a victory…that was the greatest error of all,” for the victory they won gave us the degenerated society in which we live. Indeed, their “victory” took us back to the jungle, with its broken homes, drugs, promiscuity, and the killing of over fifty million American children in the Abortion Holocaust, all of which have their roots in the social Darwinism held by H. L. Mencken and his cohorts. It was a victory of the super-race of Mencken and Nietzsche over the little man. It was a victory for social Darwinism’s “survival of the fittest.” It was a victory for raw materialism in the Western world. But it was a hollow “victory”! It was a tragic triumph of pure evil!

“Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21-22).

I have given this message as an introduction to a series of sermons on the Book of Genesis. I hope that what I have said will help to remove any prejudice you may have, as a result of the Scopes Trial, against the Genesis account of creation. And let us always remember that, in the end, God will triumph in the long war against the “supermen” of social Darwinism, entrenched though they be in the educational establishment of our culture. The little man will yet prevail by the grace of God.

Just as the seemingly impregnable Berlin Wall fell, just as the apparently invincible power of Fascism crumbled – so also the ostensibly unassailable system of Darwinism will fail in the end. Our God and His Christ will triumph. As Julia Ward Howe put it, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…Glory! Glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on” (“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910).

“And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east…and the Lord my God shall come, and all the saints with thee” (Zechariah 14:4, 5).

“And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS”
      (Revelation 19:16).

“And the Lord shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and his name one” (Zechariah 14:9).

“And the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low: and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:17).

On that future Day of Reckoning, Nietzsche, Mencken, Darrow and the others will be revealed as charlatans, promoters of the “survival of the fittest” hoax, men who deceived our nation and the world. But, on that coming Day, Bryan will be seen as a prophet and martyr, a life-long champion of the common man, Christian charity and Biblical truth. Future historians will say with Jeffrey Hart, “Bryan was right, the rest were wrong.” That will be the final verdict.

(END OF SERMON)
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