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John Washington Butler (1875-1952)

John W. Butler, state representative from Macon, Trousdale, and Sumner Counties (1923-27), wrote the Tennessee Anti-Evolution Act, better known as the Tennessee Monkey Law. The son of a long-settled farming family in Macon County, as a young man Butler taught school briefly. By 1925 he was a prosperous middle-aged farmer, thresher operator, and community leader.

A Democrat and great admirer of William Jennings Bryan, Butler ran for the state legislature in 1922 promising to represent farmers' interests and work for economy in state government. Appointed to serve on a state legislative committee that oversaw schools run directly by the state, Butler discovered that such schools used textbooks teaching Darwinism. A Primitive Baptist, Butler shared with other conservative Christians the belief that teaching Darwinism would destroy belief in the Bible and undercut the moral system upon which democracy depended. This led him to write the famous "Monkey Law."

With the passage of the bill, Butler received national attention. He attended the Scopes Trial as the guest of a press syndicate and had his picture made with his hero Bryan. While national media coverage of the Monkey Trial depicted rural Tennesseans as ignorant hicks, the coverage of Butler himself was rather respectful, noting his kindly demeanor. The New York Times commented editorially that Butler's beliefs were logical, if one accepted his original premise that public morals depended on a belief in the Bible. After the trial, Butler finished out his term as state representative and left politics, resuming his life as farmer and thresher.

Suggested Reading

Jeanette Keith, Country People in the New South: Tennessee's Upper Cumberland (1995).

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010