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Darrow Destroys Bryan - Chesterton Destroys Darrow

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Showing 1-17 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 3, 2007, 5:09:04 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Nov 3, 2007, 5:31:12 PM PDT
Almost everyone remembers learning about the Scopes Monkey Trial in which the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow pretty much wiped the floor with a southern fundamentalist Christian politician by the name of William Jennings Bryan. As usual, fundies don't have a leg to stand on, and Darrow showed this all too well.

But what a lot of people don't know is that six years later Darrow had the opportunity to debate a non-fundamentalist Christian, someone who was a much more worthy opponent--G.K. Chesterton. I got the following from Dale Alquist's website. He's the head of the Cheserton Society and a nice all around guy. I don't think he'll mind my reposting it. You can find this same article at his site here:


Dale has a section of his site called "Challenge The Quotemeister" where he takes on questions about GKC, so that's what the 'Quotemeister' bit is referring to at the end.

BTW, if you haven't yet discovered Chesterton, do youself a favor and browse through "The Everlasting Man". CS Lewis said this was the book that helped him most spiritually. It's easily GKC's best non-fiction work. You can find it online in several locations including this one:



In January of 1931, during his second trip to America, Chesterton did indeed debate with Clarence Darrow, at New York City's Mecca Temple. The topic was "Will the World Return to Religion?" There is no known transcript of the proceedings, but perhaps the following clippings will give you the flavor.

THE FOLLOWING is a passage from "Chesterton As Seen by His Contemporaries," complied by Cyril Clemons, Webster Groves: International Mark Twain Society, 1939, pp. 66-68.

Mr. Joseph J. Reilly attended a debate at Mecca Temple in New York City, between Chesterton and Clarence Darrow, which dealt with the story of creation as presented in Genesis.

It was a Sunday afternoon and the Temple was packed. At the conclusion of the debate everybody was asked to express his opinion as to the victor and slips of paper were passed around for that purpose. The award went directly to Chesterton. Darrow in comparison, seemed heavy, uninspired, slow of mind, while G.K.C. was joyous, sparkling and witty .... quite the Chesterton one had come to expect from his books. The affair was like a race between a lumbering sailing vessel and a modern steamer. Mrs. Frances Taylor Patterson also heard the Chesterton-Darrow debate, but went to the meeting with some misgivings because she was a trifle afraid that Chesterton's "gifts might seem somewhat literary in comparison with the trained scientific mind and rapier tongue of the famous trial lawyer. Instead, the trained scientific mind, the clear thinking, the lightning quickness in getting a point and hurling back an answer, turned out to belong to Chesterton. I have never heard Mr. Darrow alone, but taken relatively, when that relativity is to Chesterton, he appears positively muddle-headed."

Although the terms of the debate were determined at the outset, Darrow either could not or would not stick to the definitions, but kept going off at illogical tangents and becoming choleric over points that were not in dispute. He seemed to have an idea that all religion was a matter of accepting Jonah's whale as a sort of luxury-liner. As Chesterton summed it up, he felt as if Darrow had been arguing all afternoon with his fundamentalist aunt, and the latter kept sparring with a dummy of his own mental making. When something went wrong with the microphone, Darrow sat back until it could be fixed. Whereupon G.K.C. jumped up and carried on in his natural voice, "Science you see is not infallible!" Whatever brilliance Darrow had in his own right, it was completely eclipsed. For all the luster that he shed, he might have been a remote star at high noon drowned by the bright incandescent light of the sun. Chesterton had the audience with him from the start, and when it was over, everyone just sat there, not wishing to leave. They were loath to let the light die!

"Clarence Darrow wrote the author shortly before his death, "I was favorably impressed by, warmly attached to, G.K. Chesterton. I enjoyed my debates with him, and found him a man of culture and fine sensibilities. If he and I had lived where we could have become better acquainted, eventually we would have ceased to debate, I firmly believe."

THE FOLLOWING is excerpted from the February 4, 1931, issue of The Nation. Here Henry Hazlitt gives his impressions of the debate:

In the ballot that followed, the audience voted more than two to one for the defender of the faith, Mr. Chesterton of course, and if the vote was on the relative merits of the two debaters, and not on the question itself, it was surely a very just one. Mr. Chesterton's argument was like Mr. Chesterton, amiable, courteous, jolly; it was always clever, it was full of nice turns of expression, and altogether a very adroit exhibition by one of the world's ablest intellectual fencing masters and one of its most charming gentlemen.

Mr. Darrow's personality, by contrast, seemed rather colorless and certainly very dour. His attitude seemed almost surly; he slurred his words; the rise and fall of his voice was sometimes heavily melodramatic, and his argument was conducted on an amazingly low intellectual level.

Ostensibly the defender of science against Mr. Chesterton, he obviously knew much less about science than Mr. Chesterton did; when he essayed to answer his opponent on the views of Eddington and Jeans, it was patent that he did not have the remotest conception of what the new physics was all about. His victory over Mr. Bryan at Dayton had been too cheap and easy; he remembered it not wisely but too well. His arguments are still the arguments of the village atheist of the Ingersoll period; at Mecca Temple he still seemed to be trying to shock and convince yokels.

Mr. Chesterton's deportment was irreproachable, but I am sure that he was secretly unhappy. He had been on the platform many times against George Bernard Shaw. This opponent could not extend his powers. He was not getting his exercise.

A NOTE ON THE VOTE from an article by Timothy S. Goeglein in Catholic Heritage, Jan-Feb, 1996, p. 28.

At the debate's close, those in the hall were asked to vote for the man they thought had won the debate. Darrow received 1,022 votes. But Chesterton received 2,359 votes, a decisive win.


The Quotemeister recalls listening to a brief report on the debate delivered sometime in 1953 by a Jesuit priest at Marquette University. Father Madigan, who had been in the audience for the debate, recalled that Chesterton's rebuttal began with, "It may come as a surprise to you, Mr. Darrow, and perhaps to all of you in the audience, but I agree entirely with everything you have said." According to Madigan, this approach threw Darrow into utter confusion. - The "Quotemeister"

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 3, 2007, 8:44:12 PM PDT
B. D. Weimer says:

Thanks for this post. I knew that Chesterton was an intelligent man and a great writer, but did not realize he was such a good debater. It makes me want to read more about him! Is there a biography of Chesterton you would recommend?

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 3, 2007, 8:50:25 PM PDT
Yeah, Dale's. I'd have to dig it out of my closet, but I think it was called "The Apostle of Common Sense". It's just a couple of years old.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 3, 2007, 9:00:58 PM PDT
B. D. Weimer says:
Thanks ... I just ordered a copy -- from amazon of course!

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 3, 2007, 9:06:59 PM PDT
Cool. Dale will eat for another day. His wife will be pleased. (I hope!)

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 24, 2011, 10:58:13 AM PDT
If you read the transcript, Darrow clearly did not destroy Bryan. Bryan got the better of Darrow. Alan Derschowitz (sp?) also holds that opinion. Darrow's reputation was clearly overblown.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 24, 2011, 1:10:43 PM PDT
Mickey says:
Few people actually "win" debates and an audience vote is not a reliable source since most people vote the opinion they started with. And debates between creationists and evolutionists commonly end with both sides claiming victory. I wouldn't count that a victory for creationism.

Posted on Oct 24, 2011, 1:37:54 PM PDT
Rev Otter says:

"Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."
--GK Chesterton

/completely unrelated to this thread, but still awesome

Posted on Oct 25, 2011, 5:58:58 AM PDT
Brian Curtis says:
Especially if the "victory" came in the form of agreeing with everything Darrow said. That doesn't sound much like Darrow being "destroyed."

Posted on Oct 25, 2011, 11:32:47 AM PDT
Chesterton also said Mussolini was a great man, and that Jews were 'treason personnified' and should wear identifying insignia so they 'couldn't pass for loyal natives' - several years before Hitler passed the Nuremberg laws.

Perhaps not someone to be followed blindly.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 25, 2011, 12:33:37 PM PDT
Thanks for the post!

Recommended reading:

G. K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense

Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton

Wisdom & Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 16, 2012, 2:23:09 PM PDT
Rizzuto says:
If having being, complementary toward Mussolini (prior to WWII mind you) is an unforgivable sin for Chesterton, we must also indict HG Wells who claimed progressives should become "enlightened Nazis", George Bernard Shaw, Will Rogers, poet Wallace Stevens, W. E. B. DuBois, and countless others.

As for the charge of anti-semitism, I would direct you here: http://insightscoop.typepad.com/2004/2008/07/was-g-k-chester.html

"He's been absolved of that one too many times for us to count - from the tribute by Rabbi Stephen Wise to the official statements of the Weiner Library (the archives of anti-Semitism and holocaust history in London). Mr. Gopnik has added a new technique to making the charge stick - declaring that Chesterton's admirers should not defend Chesterton against the horrible accusation. Hm. That is certainly one way to end the debate. I would meekly suggest that a better way would be for people to stop repeating charges that have already been dropped."

None of these accusations against Chesterton are even remotely enough to bury his legacy as one of the greatest minds the 20th century produced.

Posted on Jun 16, 2012, 2:31:33 PM PDT
GK is a presumptuous empty headed fraud leading the equally arrogant into the pit.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 16, 2012, 2:40:02 PM PDT
mrs exp says:
C Scanlon,
Loved your story of the Puzzle Ball. Hope that kid will be able to use that skill somehow.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 16, 2012, 2:41:05 PM PDT
I pray he will, and have every confidence in him, all things being equal, which they are not.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 16, 2012, 2:43:57 PM PDT
mrs exp says:
C Scanlon,
Unfortunately you are correct. All things are not equal.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 16, 2012, 2:45:41 PM PDT
I just cannot figure out why my glowing and careful review of The Gospel of Cesar Chavez: My Faith in Action (Celebrating Faith: Explorations in Latino Spirituality and Theology) went NOWHERE, well, same with over a thousand other reivews, but really . . .
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Discussion in:  Christianity forum
Participants:  11
Total posts:  17
Initial post:  Nov 3, 2007
Latest post:  Jun 16, 2012

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