Florida’s Greatest Menace I: Improper and Subversive

(This is the first part in the Florida’s Greatest Menace series. For an introduction to the series, go here.)

Our Florida story begins quite appropriately in the hands of one of the most prominent figures in the national evolution/creationism battle: William Jennings Bryan. The Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee featured the competing wits of Bryan, who was a well-known antievolutionist, and Clarence Darrow, who was the lawyer defending teacher John Scopes against the charge of violating the state law forbidding the teaching of evolution. Before the 1925 trial seized the nation’s attention, Bryan had retired to Florida with his wife, Mary. They had bought land in Coconut Grove in 1912 and had their home, called “Villa Serena”, built there. It was originally intended as just a winter home, but when Bryan resigned his post as U.S. Secretary of State in 1915, the Bryans made it their permanent home. Bryan officially made Florida his legal residence in 1921.

Bryan was a popular public figure in the area. He entertained U.S. presidents, foreign dignitaries, and other famous people of the time at his own home. This Florida “retirement” was more like setting up a new headquarters for his still-energetic life. He frequently gave public lectures and Sunday Bible talks with hundreds and sometimes thousands of people in attendance. And he was in high demand by organizations hoping to take advantage of his high profile to push their own causes, with antievolution and prohibition chief among them.

Antievolution sentiment had been growing for a few years. For instance, the St. Petersburg Times noted in May 1922 that the Southern Baptist convention met in Jacksonville and that the organization wanted science textbooks “free from erroneous statements on evolution.” The Baptists made it clear that “no man can rightly understand evolution’s claim as set forth in the textbooks of today, and at the same time understand the Bible.”

Another news report, this time from the Evening Independent in May 1923, demonstrates Bryan’s commitment to antievolution efforts. The article reported that he turned down a committee chairmanship in the Presbyterian Assembly because he preferred to stay in an education committee. He would have had to drop the education role in order to fulfill the other chairmanship. According to the article, he was going to devote all his time to the fight “against the Darwinian theory.” Bryan was quoted as saying: “I believe that the doctrine that man is descended from a beast, a doctrine unsupported by any scientific fact, and directly contrary to the Bible account of the creation, is the greatest menace facing the church today …”

The political connections that Bryan brought to the antievolution fight where invaluable. While in Florida, he made many friends in the state legislature. At about the same time that he declared war on evolution in the Evening Independent article, he was prodding his lawmaker friends to introduce an antievolution resolution. He was in contact with other states’ legislators on behalf of antievolution, but since he lived in the Sunshine State he had considerable influence here. Representative of Franklin County, S. L. Giles, offered the following to his fellow lawmakers:

That it is the sense of the legislature of the state of Florida that it is improper and subversive to the best interests of the people of this State for any professor, teacher or instructor in the public schools and colleges of this State, supported in whole or in part by public taxation, to teach or permit to be taught atheism, agnosticism, Darwinism, or any other hypothesis that links man in blood relation to any other form of life.

There was some opposition to the resolution, so Bryan made a personal appearance before the legislature May 11, 1923 to help usher it along. At Bryan’s urging, the words “or to teach as true” were slipped in before the word Darwinism, and the resolution then passed both the House and Senate with little trouble.

The “or to teach as true” phrase reveals something interesting about Bryan’s feelings on the evolution subject. He accepted the “day-age” creation theory, which meant that he believed that when the Bible outlines what was created on each day, those days could have actually lasted millions of years each. Evolution might not be all bunk, either, Bryan thought. It might apply to other living things, just not humans.

Bryan’s crusade against evolution came about when he heard from many concerned parents who attended his religious speeches that their children in college were turning away from the Bible. Upon investigating why this may be, Bryan determined that the teaching of evolution as fact was the root cause. Keep in mind, though, that evolution in general was just fine to Bryan. He had no problem with the subject being taught as “a theory.” But he did have a big problem with it being taught as a factual explanation for man’s origins. Another factor driving his antievolution efforts, and a big reason why he took on the Tennessee case, was that he felt that public school teachers were employees of the communities in which they worked. If the parents in those communities didn’t want subversive subjects like evolution taught, then teachers better comply.

Imagine going about your daily life doing your run-of-the-mill job and then suddenly finding out that your job was actually reviled by a passionate, angry public. Dr. C. Francis Byers, a new biology professor at the University of Florida in the 1920s, remembers being in exactly that situation. “As a trained biologist I never even realized that there was anything controversial about evolution. It came as a surprise to me to be suddenly, as a young instructor, introduced into an environment where it could be even a fighting word, let alone a dangerous one,” he said.

Not only did Byers experience the controversy in his daily profession, he met Bryan in person and saw firsthand the conviction behind the antievolution drive. “I was convinced, after talking to Bryan himself about this, that Bryan was absolutely intellectually honest. This wasn’t a gimmick with him. He really meant it. And when he showed posters of a good-looking girl in the upper left-hand corner of the poster, let us say, and a chimpanzee or primate down in the lower right-had corner and banner across it saying, ‘Did your daughter come from this?’ he really meant it.”

Bryan was realistic and calculating when advocating for the resolution. He felt that establishing a punishment for teaching evolution would rouse too much opposition and threaten its passage, so he recommended against it. Another reason for not establishing repercussions was that he felt the resolution was directed at “an educated class that is supposed to respect the law.” Beside, if the law is not obeyed, penalties could be imposed during the next legislative session, he thought. To Bryan’s consternation, though, the resolution was largely ignored. Newspapers didn’t give it much attention and so most people didn’t even know about it. Bryan was forced to remedy that on his own as best he could. The St. Petersburg Times ran a story on June 20, 1923, that told of Bryan’s frustration with a Chicago Tribune editorial that took him to task for his particular interpretation of the Bible. Bryan fired back, making sure to mention and directly quote the new Florida antievolution resolution.

Bryan’s war on evolution seemed to consume him at this time in his life. It was so dominant in his mind that he went on endlessly about it in his syndicated newspaper column, Bryan Bible Talks. His editor, Guy V. Viskniskki, warned him that his obsessive opposition to evolution was driving away readers.

Byers recalls that he had concerns about what needed to be done to ride out this antievolution storm. He approached his college president, Albert A. Murphree, about the problem. Byers remembers that Murphree had said that he would comply with whatever the law directs since the school was state supported. On the other hand, he knew that the professors considered evolution to be a vital part of their instruction. As Byers and Murphree talked, they worked out a compromise. Instead of using the word evolution, the college could refer to the concept as “progressive development.” Murphree was okay with that, but wanted to know if human “progressive development” would be taught. Byers said yes. According to Byers, Murphree replied, “Well, I wish that you wouldn’t stress that part.” Byers understood and so a deal was struck.

“So that’s the way it was done,” Byers said. “There was not real trouble here. Nobody that I know of got arrested and nobody was kicked out of the university that I know of for involving himself in the evolution thing.”

Dr. John Henry Davis was also a biology professor at UF, but he recalls that the evolution storm didn’t really blow through the classroom that much. “That was an issue that was brought up, but never taken below the level of the present heads of the department,” he said. “We had decided that the less we talked about it, the better. We just went on and taught it.”

For Bryan and the other ardent antievolutionists, that was a problem. They saw that the 1923 resolution wasn’t being taken seriously, and so they decided to do exactly as Bryan had suggested earlier: pass new legislation with some bite to it. Their next opportunity was the 1925 legislative session. However, Bryan’s influence was notably absent since he had boarded a train bound for Tennessee that year. He died shortly after the Scopes “Monkey Trial” while still in Tennessee.

Despite the loss of Bryan, Florida’s antievolutionists were still going strong. Representatives Albert W. McLeran, of Suwannee County, and Shelton Philips, of Levy County, introduced the following bill in 1925:

House Bill No. 691:
A bill to be entitled An Act prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all Universities, Normals, and all other public schools of Florida, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violation thereof.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Education. That committee tweaked the language so that the bill then read:

A bill to be entitled An Act to prohibit the teaching in any college, university, normal school or other school in this State, supported in whole or in part by the public funds of the State or any subdivision thereof, as fact, any theory which denies the divine creation of man, and to provide penalties for the violation thereof.

However, the bill wasn’t brought up again during the session and so died. (Unfortunately, I have no idea what penalties the lawmakers had in mind, as those details are not mentioned in the 1925 House Journal.)

The bill’s demise was just a temporary setback, though. Antievolution grew into a burning passion, prompting the creation of organizations like the Bible Crusaders of America and the Florida Purity League. A new bill was introduced in the 1927 legislative session, too. But unlike its ill-fated 1925 version, the controversy surrounding this bill created a raucous, circus-like atmosphere. You’ll read about those fireworks in the next installment of Florida’s Greatest Menace series. Stay tuned!

4 Responses to “Florida’s Greatest Menace I: Improper and Subversive”

  1. PatrickHenry Says:

    This is a great article! I’m looking forward to future installments.

  2. S.Scott Says:

    Wow! Brandon!!

  3. Bruce Martin Says:

    Excellent article! I look forward to more installments!!

  4. Ryan Schmidt Says:

    Interesting. Thanks!