In 1928, an Arkansas Baptist minister named Ben Bogard helped pass a measure banning the teaching of evolution in state schools, presenting it as a bulwark against atheism.
Four decades later, Presbyterian teacher from Arkansas, Susan Smith Epperson, successfully challenged the law, taking her case to the United States Supreme Court.
In a 9-0 decision, the nation’s highest court overturned Arkansas’ anti-evolution law, one of only two still in effect nationwide.
At the time the complaint was filed, critics suggested that Epperson, a grade 10 biology teacher at Little Rock Central High School, was doing the devil’s work.
“I received letters telling me I was going to hell,” Epperson, 80, recalled in a recent interview.
Rather than refuting her criticisms, her instinct, she said, was to pray for them.
“I kind of knew who decides who goes to hell. And that’s not the person who wrote that letter,” she said.
Bogard, who helped direct the measurement of the ballot, died in 1951; the anti-evolution law survived him 17 years.
He believed evolution and the gospel were at loggerheads, according to his biographer, J. Kristian Pratt.
“You can either believe in Darwin’s point of view or believe in the Biblical point of view,” said Pratt, author of “The Father of Modern Landmarkism: The Life of Ben M. Bogard” and professor of religion at Spartanburg Methodist College. in South Carolina. . Attempts to reconcile Christianity and Darwinian science were wrong, Bogard believed.
“He would have used the word ‘heresy’.… He didn’t hold it back,” Pratt said.
As fundamentalists tried to eradicate Darwinism, Epperson embraced the theory of evolution.
A native of Johnson County, Epperson had spent his Sundays at First Presbyterian Church in Clarksville, worshiping alongside his father and mother.
His father, TL Smith, was employed for decades by the College of the Ozarks (now University of the Ozarks), which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.
“My parents were strong Christian believers. My father was a biology teacher and a church elder,” she said. “I basically grew up in a house where there was no conflict between science and faith.”
Epperson was a 24-year-old bride, barely out of college, when she challenged the law, which made it a crime “to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind is descended from or descended from. a lower order of animals “or” to adopt or use in such an institution a textbook which teaches “this theory.
The ban applied to teachers at any publicly funded school or university.
The Arkansas Education Association was seeking to challenge the law. Epperson, a member of the Little Rock Second Presbyterian Church, agreed to be the applicant.
His lawsuit, filed in December 1965, made national headlines. The dispute was not resolved until November 1968.
Epperson was not the first teacher to challenge an anti-evolution law in the state. She was also not the most famous – the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 had already immortalized the name of John Scopes, the Dayton, Tenn., A professor convicted of teaching evolution, in violation of the laws of that. State.
In the meantime, the anti-evolutionary laws were almost gone. By the time Epperson’s appeal reached the United States Supreme Court, only two states – Arkansas and Mississippi – still had the so-called “monkey” laws in their books.
Writing for the court, Justice Abe Fortas argued that the law essentially seeks to strengthen a particular religious point of view, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
“In this case, there is no doubt that Arkansas sought to prevent its teachers from discussing the theory of evolution because it is contrary to the belief of some that the Book of Genesis must be the exclusive source of the doctrine as to the origin of man, “he wrote. “No suggestion was made that Arkansas law could be justified by considerations of state policy other than the religious views of some of its citizens. It is clear that the fundamentalist sectarian belief was and is the purpose of the law. “
By the time the case reached the United States Supreme Court, Epperson was a stay-at-home mom, living in the Washington area, while her husband, Jon Epperson, served in the United States Air Force.
They sat quietly in the Capitol Hill courtroom as lawyers presented their oral arguments to the nine judges.
“We were just anonymous tourists, basically. I don’t remember it being particularly crowded,” she said.
Two months after the decision, she had the opportunity to visit another former high school biology teacher – she and John Scopes met in January 1969, a meeting hosted by a Presbyterian minister named Jerry Tompkins.
In addition to being a pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Monticello, Tompkins had also written a book on the Evolutionary Battle of Tennessee in 1925 titled “D-Days at Dayton: Reflections on the Scopes Trial”.
Due to her husband’s duties in the Air Force, the family moved across the country before finally settling in Colorado Springs, Colo., Home of the US Air Force Academy.
Jon Epperson, the son of a Presbyterian minister from Oklahoma, taught mathematics for years at the academy before retiring.
Susan Smith Epperson would continue to teach science classes at Pike’s Peak Community College and then at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
More than half a century after the historic case of Epperson v. Arkansas, Epperson, and her husband remain faithful Presbyterians.
“We are a member of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Colorado Springs. We have been for a long time,” she said.
Her son, Mark, served as a university pastor for about 15 years; he currently performs and sings in New York. His daughter, Elaine, has a doctorate in molecular biology.
“She too is a strong Christian,” said Epperson.
Covid has made in-person worship a challenge, she said.
“Fortunately the church is available online which is really lovely. I mean, throughout this pandemic we’ve been able to sit here at our kitchen counter with the laptop and go to church. “she said.
Due to her role in a landmark Supreme Court case, she regularly receives speaking engagements. She gave a keynote address at the University of the Ozarks in 2016, and she even spoke at Dayton, site of the first monkey essay.
“Whenever I speak, I speak of my faith,” she said. “You are talking to a group of science teachers or scientists. Some of them may be believers, some may not, but the door is open to me because of the [Supreme Court] Case. And so I can just stand there and talk about my faith and say I don’t see any conflict. “
“If I have a mission in life, it’s to try – and you really bang your head against a brick wall, I think – to … convince people that evolution is not anti. -biblical, it is not anti-Faith [or] anti-religion, ”she said.
There are many people in the scientific community who view science and faith as complementary, she said.
“Francis Collins, the scientist who has just retired [as] director of the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC. He’s a devout Christian and he’s a great scientist, ”she said.
Epperson believes in global warming.
“I am very worried about this. I think we could unfortunately lose our planet,” she said.
“In Genesis God tells us to be the stewards of the earth. It doesn’t mean abusing the land and resources and I think we have,” she said.
When asked how she viewed the Bible, Epperson referred to a passage from II Timothy 3:16: “All scriptures are inspired by God and are useful for teaching, for convincing, for correcting, and for training. to justice.
“I try to read the Bible almost every day and have time with the Lord,” she said.
As she turns to the scriptures for guidance, “I certainly don’t view Genesis as a book of science,” she said.
When it comes to covid-19, the Eppersons trust science.
“[We’re] fully vaccinated, with the booster, “she said.
Randy Moore, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, is a longtime friend of Susan Smith Epperson.
Scientists, educators and students are indebted to Epperson for the position she took in Arkansas, he said.
“In terms of teaching biology, evolution is the basic idea. Thanks to it, it has become, in some cases, legal to teach it,” he said.
“In terms of teaching biology, I think it’s royalty,” he said. “For my profession, very few people have done as much as she and it took courage.”