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Summer For The Gods: The Scopes Trial And America's Continuing Debate Over Science And Religion Hardcover – June 26, 1997

ISBN-13: 978-0465075096 ISBN-10: 0465075096

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Editorial Reviews Review

If you haven't seen the film version of Inherit the Wind, you might have read it in high school. And even people who have never heard of either the movie or the play probably know something about the events that inspired them: The 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," during which Darwin's theory of evolution was essentially put on trial before the nation. Inherit the Wind paints a romantic picture of John Scopes as a principled biology teacher driven to present scientific theory to his students, even in the teeth of a Tennessee state law prohibiting the teaching of anything other than creationism. The truth, it turns out, was something quite different. In his fascinating history of the Scopes trial, Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson makes it abundantly clear that Truth and the Purity of Science had very little to do with the Scopes case. Tennessee had passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, and the American Civil Liberties Union responded by advertising statewide for a high-school teacher willing to defy the law. Communities all across Tennessee saw an opportunity to put themselves on the map by hosting such a controversial trial, but it was the town of Dayton that came up with a sacrificial victim: John Scopes, a man who knew little about evolution and wasn't even the class's regular teacher. Chosen by the city fathers, Scopes obligingly broke the law and was carted off to jail to await trial.

What happened next was a bizarre mix of theatrics and law, enacted by William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense. Though Darrow lost the trial, he made his point--and his career--by calling Bryan, a noted Bible expert, as a witness for the defense. Summer for the Gods is a remarkable retelling of the trial and the events leading up to it, proof positive that truth is stranger than science.

From Booklist

Few courtroom dramas have captured the nation's attention so fully as that played out in 1925 when Tennessee prosecuted John Scopes for teaching evolutionary science in the classroom. Seventy years later, Larson gives us the drama again, tense and gripping: the populist rhetoric of Scopes' chief accuser, William Jennings Bryan; the mordant wit of his defender, Clarence Darrow; the caustic satire of the trial's most prominent chronicler, H. L. Mencken. But as a legal and historical scholar, Larson moves beyond the titanic personalities to limn the national and cultural forces that collided in that Dayton courtroom: agnosticism versus faith; North versus South; liberalism versus conservatism; cosmopolitanism versus localism. Careful and evenhanded analysis dispels the mythologies and caricatures in film and stage versions of the trial, leaving us with a far clearer picture of the cultural warfare that still periodically erupts in our classes and courts. Bryce Christensen

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (June 26, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465075096
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465075096
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.8 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (93 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #94,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Edward J. Larson is the author of seven books and the recipient of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. His other books include Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory; Evolution's Workshop; God and Science on the Galapagos Islands; and Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution. Larson has also written over one hundred articles, most of which address topics of law, science, or politics from an historical perspective, which have appeared in such varied journals as The Atlantic, Nature, Scientific American, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, and Virginia Law Review. He is a professor of history and law at Pepperdine University and lives in Georgia and California.

Customer Reviews

Larson's book on the Scopes trial is one of the best accounts I have ever encountered.
tim l stanton
This is a great book and should be required reading in all High School History, Biology, and English classes.
A. Calabrese
Bryan’s legal arguments really had very little to do with the merits of science or evolutionary theory.
A Certain Bibliophile

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

92 of 99 people found the following review helpful By Craig Matteson HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on June 14, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Edward Larson has accomplished something wonderful with this book. In only 266 pages (318 including footnotes and index), he has captured the flow of cultural issues surrounding science, education, and religion in the early twentieth century, the political goals and maneuvering of the parties involved, the actual Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee with the dénouement of the appeal, the falsifying of the events involved in the popular culture, and the ongoing cultural impact of the issues involved in this trial.
As I read I found myself marveling at how Larson so richly captures the cultural forces coming together like tectonic plates and crashing into the Scopes trial. I haven't seen as fair a treatment of the issues involved for all the varying parties (there were many more self-interested folks than Darrow and Bryan) on any other subject. To have that time before the trial captured in such a beautiful way is very valuable.
As others have noted, the notion of the trial started as a publicity stunt to promote the hard luck town of Dayton, TN. The ACLU wanted a narrowly defined test case to overturn the laws forbidding the teaching of evolution. Darrow and his crowd wanted to attack religion more than work out the civil liberties issues involved, Bryan cared more about the rights of the parents as taxpayers to control what their children were taught. Remember, universal public education was still a rather new thing in 1925 and parents then, as now, want to have the education support them in raising their children. The education establishment then, as now, feels a responsibility to teach what they think best.
Bryan and many others were also concerned about the political uses to which evolution had recently been put in the name of survival of the fittest.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Publius on September 9, 2006
Format: Paperback
The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 combined two great American virtues: 1.) Individual Rights and 2.) The need to make a quick buck. One of the aspects of Larson's book that really comes through is how staged the whole trial was. From the initial meeting of the town fathers with Scopes to convince him to be a Defendant, to the State's decision to nolle prosse the conviction after it was overturned on a technicality, most everything was merely thespian. One of the most insightful stories that Larson relates is when the team of ACLU defense lawyers arrived in Dayton for trial preparation, a young man started to help them with their luggage out of the trunk. One of the lawyers shouted: "Hey boy, what are you doing with those suitcases!" Little did the lawyer know that that boy was John Scopes, the teacher that was charged with teaching evolution in a Tennessee public school. As Larson writes: "The defenders, along with everyone else, had forgotten the defendant." The author writes in this great concise book that the Scopes Monkey trial was less about Scopes, Darrow or Bryan and more about emerging fundamentalism versus a growing American concern of individual rights and liberties. As such, Dayton and John Scopes were essentially bit players in a staged battle between forces that still determine how Americans feel and think to this day. Not only does Larson concern himself with the broader sociological effects of the trial, he also talks about the ACLU's and the prosecutions trial strategy, which, as a lawyer, I found fascinating. Contemporary history has interpreted the Scopes Trial as the high water mark of Fundamentalism, being that the Butler Act and other similar legislation has been struck down as unconstitutional.Read more ›
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 500 REVIEWER on September 21, 2005
Format: Paperback
This Pulitzer Prize winning book is a careful attempt to dispell the myths surrounding the Scopes Trial. As Larson points out, these misconceptions stem largely from popular accounts of the trial, such as the play Inherit The Wind, which tend to present the conflict as one between dogmatic and oppressive fundamentalist religion and enlightened liberal rationalism. History, as usual, is much more complex, as shown in the nuanced and fair minded account. The book is essentially divided into 3 parts; a description and analysis of the social and intellectual currents that lead to the trial, a narrative of the trial itself, and an account of the short-term and long-term impact of the trial.

All sections are very well written with ample documentation from primary sources and a nice combination of the author's narrative and quotations. This book is relatively short but covers all the important features and a lot of telling detail in thorough manner. Perhaps the most interesting portions are the initial chapters describing the genesis of the trial. Far from being a straightforward conflict between dogmatic religion and liberal rationalism, the trial occurred because of a nexus of semi-independent currents. One important feature was the existence of strong conflicts within American Protestantism between so-called modernizers and more traditional elements, though these traditional elements developed some aspects of a more radical reaction. The foes of evolution were far from dogmatic literalists. William Jennings Bryan, for example, espoused non-literal interpretations of key aspects of Scripture and a theistic view of evolution, several of whose key features he accepted as true.
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