Evolution Debate in North Carolina in the 1920s

Written By Adrienne Dunn

Anti-evolutionist sentiment in North Carolina became prevalent in the 1920s. On the national level, William Jennings Bryan, three times a presidential candidate, emerged as a leading anti-evolutionist figure. When in 1925 he argued for the banning of teaching evolution in public schools in the “Scopes Monkey Trial.”  Meanwhile in North Carolina, legislator D. Scott Poole evolved into the state’s leading anti-evolution spokesman.

Religious leaders and educators heavily debated evolution during the 1920s. Conservatives criticized William Louis Poteat, president of Wake Forest University, for openly accepting the theory of evolution.  Conservatives and evangelical leaders also censured The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an institution that allowed evolutionary theory in the classroom.  The issue became political in 1924, when Governor Cameron Morrison, ex- officio chairman of the State Board of Education, banned a biology book that included the theory of evolution.

As the debate continued in 1925, Representative D. Scott Poole introduced a resolution that required public school educators to teach evolution as a hypothesis and not as fact.  Historian William S. Powell notes that the bill’s supporters argued that the resolution did not infringe on freedom of speech, for the legislation, they contended, required that theory not be taught as truth.  The bill’s opposition interpreted the bill differently, and they considered the legislation an attempt to regulate religious views.

The Poole Bill reached a vote in the House with unfavorable results. The bill was defeated by a vote of sixty-seven to forty-six.  The reintroduction of the Poole resolution produced lackluster results. It received another unfavorable report with a final vote twenty-five to eleven against.