No Dominion for Creationism, Part 1

House Bill 207, prefiled in the Virginia House of Delegates on December 27, 2013, and referred to the House Committee on Education and thence to the subcommittee on elementary and secondary education, enjoys the dubious honor of being the first antiscience bill in the 2014 legislative season. Although its sponsor (or “chief patron,” to use the General Assembly’s term of art) Richard P. “Dickie” Bell (R–District 12), told the Staunton News-Leader (January 8, 2014) that it wasn’t intended to promote creationism or climate change denial, he also told the newspaper that it was based on a Tennessee law, namely the so-called monkey bill, as former Speaker of the House Jimmy Naifeh dubbed it, enacted in 2012 as Tenn. Code Ann. §49-6-1030. A section of the monkey bill described “biological evolution”—as well as “the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning”—as a topic that arouses “debate and disputation.”

So it’s a little hard to take Bell’s protestations seriously, especially when a newspaper in his district, The Recorder, recently (January 23, 2014) reported that “Bell accepts creationism in his personal belief system, and is not convinced the theory of evolution has been scientifically upheld,” and quoted him as saying, “Some people accept global warming, some don’t. You can’t discount everything; it’s all theory at this point.” Small wonder that, as I told the newspaper, “These bills have been consistently and vehemently opposed by practically every national scientific and science teaching organization.” No doubt there will be plenty of discussion of HB 207 in the Old Dominion—if, that is, Bell pursues it. Although he’s the chair of the subcommittee now considering it, he acknowledged that it would be hard to advance without any evidence that Virginia’s science teachers need the protections that it supposedly offers.

What’s interesting, though, is that HB 207 seems to be the first antievolution bill, not only in the nation in 2014, but in Virginia ever. When I first heard about the bill, I looked in NCSE’s electronic and print files to see what precursors there were. There was nothing. I looked in the standard sources, such as Richard David Wilhelm’s 1978 dissertation “A Chronology and Analysis of Regulatory Actions Relating to the Teaching of Evolution in Public Schools,” which contains a useful (if not quite complete) summary of legislation from the 1920s to 1978. There was nothing. But there was something in George E. Webb’s The Evolution Controversy in America (1994), in which I found, “Antievolutionists in Virginia began their campaign in the late summer of 1925, but the legislature that convened in early 1926 proved unwilling to consider the matter seriously. The proposed legislation was withdrawn before a vote could be scheduled.”

Webb cited Norman Furniss’s The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918–1931 (1951) as his authority for the claim about Virginia. Not having Furniss at hand, I combined a visit to my barber with a trip to a local research library. At the latter, I found Furniss’s book, according to which, “Throughout the period of greatest national excitement over evolution the political and denominational leaders in Virginia made no concession to fundamentalist appeals for a law. Although a bill to make teaching conform to the Bible’s account of creation did come up before the legislature during 1926, it was withdrawn without a vote.” As his authority, Furniss cited Howard K. Beale’s Are American Teachers Free? (1936), which described the bill and its fate in the same way, citing, as its authority, documents in the ACLU’s archives on academic freedom from 1926. Those archives are available on microfilm—but I hate squinting. So I looked elsewhere.

A story from the Associated Press, dated August 12, 1925, from Richmond, Virginia, reported that a committee was formed there to support a bill “to forbid the teaching of any theory of the evolution of man ‘in conflict with the Bible,’” to be introduced in the next session of the Virginia General Assembly. According to the story, “members of the Ku Klux Klan,” as well as the women’s auxiliary of the Klan, were represented on the committee. A post on the blog of the Encyclopedia Virginia notes that a Catholic newspaper in Arkansas sarcastically commented the following month, “One not well informed about the strength of undercurrents in the United States would be inclined to thin[k] on reading the above impressive roster of organizations supporting the proposed Virginia statute that the movement which put itself in the limelight at Dayton was gaining in momentum and power.”

Then what? The Associated Press appeared to be silent. Maynard Shipley to the rescue! The founder of the Science League of America back in the Scopes era, Shipley devoted a few pages of his The War on Modern Science (1927) to the Virginia bill. After noting the Associated Press story, he says that the committee was scheduled to meet on August 29, 1925, but that no action was then taken. He then quotes a letter from the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, according to which “the Virginia legislature had before it for a month an antievolution bill which was withdrawn in March [1926].” But the letter turns out to have been wrong. Shipley wrote to the State Librarian of Virginia, who replied, on April 20, 1926, “I wish to state that you have been misinformed. No anti-evolution bill was offered in our legislature at the last session of the legislature; nor is there any impending anti-evolution legislation in Virginia.”

Shipley investigated further. In the aptly named Virginius Dabney’s article “Virginia” (PDF), published in the American Mercury in 1926, he found the following: “A Methodist clergyman in the Assembly announced his intention of sponsoring a bill outlawing the hideous and nefarious doctrine of evolution. He never introduced it, for he soon found on investigation that it was certain to be defeated.” Dabney added, “educators in Virginia are free to embrace Darwinism, and they do not hesitate to do so, even in the sectarian institutions. Anyone who attempts to hamper scientific research by an appeal to Scripture receives only loud guffaws and is speedily laughed out of court.” (Dabney was a journalist at the Richmond News-Leader; he would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1948.) So HB 207 really seems to be the first antievolution bill in the state. It wasn’t the first state-level controversy over evolution there, though, as I will reveal in part 2.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.