Oklahoma ratified "anti-Darwin legislation" in 1923, earlier than any other state in the nation. South Carolina (1921) and Kentucky (1922) had failed to pass similar resolutions prior to the Oklahoma enactment. The evolution controversy in Oklahoma came about as a corollary to a popular movement demanding state-purchased textbooks for grades one through eight. The free textbook concept was strongly supported by the Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League and the Oklahoma Farmers' Union.
In 1923 Gov. John Walton signed a free textbook bill (H. B. 197) that contained an amendment reading "provided, further, that no copyright shall be purchased, nor textbook adopted that teaches the 'materialistic conception of history' (i.e.) the Darwin theory of creation vs. the bible account of creation." This bill and the attached amendment, known as the Montgomery Amendment for its creator, Rep. J. L. Montgomery of Anadarko, passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives by a vote of eighty-seven to two. The Senate lowered the amount of appropriations in H. B. 197 but kept the Montgomery amendment by a vote of twenty-nine to seven. On March 26, 1923, two years before the famous Scopes "Monkey" Trial in Tennessee, the governor signed the bill enacting the first sanctioned restrictions of evolution education in the United States. Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas soon followed with their own restrictive anti-evolution measures, and thirty-seven states considered legislation of some variety in the 1920s.
A strong fundamentalist movement gripped Oklahoma throughout the 1920s, focusing not only on anti-Darwinism but on topics such as "blue laws," cigarettes, dancing, and prohibition. Despite the Montgomery amendment, which applied to grades one through eight and did not prohibit classroom discussion of Darwinism, many religious and fundamentalist groups continued to protest the teaching of evolution. These groups urged tougher restrictions on the teaching of Darwinism, especially in secondary schools, where most of the science and history courses resided.
In 1925, because the state could not afford the cost for textbooks, and after the legislature impeached Governor Walton, the Senate repealed the free textbook law. The Farmers' Union, which had championed the bill from the start, introduced a petition to include it in a referendum in the next general election. The evolution amendment raised public sympathy for the measure because many were afraid that repealing the law would actually bring the topic of evolution into the classroom. Between the petition and the voting date, the Scopes trial occurred. Voters defeated Oklahoma State Question 137 by a vote of 187,369 to 120,210 and repealed the free textbook law.
The clamor for a strong anti-evolution law continued through the 1920s. In January 1927 State Rep. W. R. Trent of Hammon introduced House Bill 81, a bill prohibiting the teaching of the evolution theory in all universities, normals, and other public schools of Oklahoma that were supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the state, and providing penalties for violation. Rep. David Logan, a geologist from Okmulgee, wanted the bill stricken because of its potential effect on geology departments in the state colleges, and the legislature removed the bill from consideration. This failure mirrored anti-evolution failures in many states that year. The struggle soon brought many nationally prominent fundamentalist theologians to lecture in Oklahoma. These included Rev. J. Frank Norris of Fort Worth's First Baptist Church, Dr. William Bell Riley, president of the Minnesota-based World's Christian Fundamentalist Association, and Dr. John Roach Straton of New York City's Calvary Baptist Church.
The anti-evolution movement waned in the 1930s. A similar bill met defeat in 1928 and 1929. Other factors contributed: Methodists and Presbyterians pronounced that they did not oppose the teaching of science. William Jennings Bryan, prominent political leader and fundamentalist spokesman who had helped prosecute John Scopes, died. Geologists as a whole were opposed to the prohibition of teaching about evolution. Fundamentalists generally broadened their focus to include other fights.
Nonetheless, throughout the twentieth century conservative Christian activists worked to ban evolution or to have Creationism taught equally, but the Supreme Court closed the door on these measures in 1968 and 1987. Then in 1999 the Oklahoma Textbook Committee voted to include evolution disclaimers in biology and life science textbooks, stating in part that evolution is, "a controversial theory, which some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things." The summer before, the Kansas State Board of Education had voted to remove references to evolution in their science curriculum. Other states flirted with some kinds of restrictions in the 1990s. Attorney General Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma ruled in February 2000 that the Oklahoma Textbook Committee had no authority to require an evolution disclaimer. In June of that year the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case, on appeal from Louisiana, that struck down a school district's placement of a disclaimer used in texts teaching about evolution, in effect banning the disclaimer.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Rudia Halliburton, "Oklahoma's Anti-Evolution Controversy, 1923-1930" (Ph.D. diss., Oklahoma State University, 1959). Elbert L. Watson, "Oklahoma and the Anti-Evolution Movement of the 1920s," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 42 (Winter 1964-65). Edwin Scott Gaustad, A Religious History of America (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper and Row, 1990).
© Oklahoma Historical Society