Hello and welcome back to the “Church of Christ Celebrities” blog for our first post of the new year! Since the blog returned in September 2020, we’ve featured entries on Hugh Hefner, Lark Mason, Claude Jarman, and Bobby Riggs, spanning a rather wide array of professions and fields. (If you haven’t yet checked those posts out, feel free to do so now; this one will, of course, still be waiting for you when you get done!)
Today’s entry takes us to yet another realm as we explore the possible religious affiliation of the famed attorney Clarence Darrow (1857-1938). Darrow, an Ohio native, is perhaps best known for his participation in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial (1925), in which he defended Tennessee teacher John T. Scopes and cross-examined rival attorney William Jennings Bryan (a fascinating religious figure in his own right, as works like Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan remind us). Darrow also served as defense attorney in the Leopold and Loeb murder trial and debated English writer G.K. Chesterton on the topic of “Will the World Return to Religion?” Too, Darrow engaged in debates with other prominent religious figures, including, as religious historian E. Brooks Holifield notes, “the Unitarian John Haynes Holmes and the University of Chicago theologian George B. Foster, who traveled with him by train to fifteen large cities.” (1)
Although Darrow is best known for his agnosticism rather than for any proactive religious affiliation, I decided to write an entry on the attorney after coming across an interesting claim in a church history discussion group on Facebook a few months ago. The writer of the post mentioned coming across a pamphlet by Churches of Christ preacher A.B. Barret called “Agnosticism and Evolution,” which was a response to Darrow’s famous speech “Why I Am An Agnostic.” According to the poster, the back page of the pamphlet asserts that Darrow was “brought up in a camp of Campbellites or Disciples in Northern Ohio.” To be clear, I have not seen the pamphlet, but I also have no reason to doubt that that is what the pamphlet says. Is the pamphlet itself correct, though? Let’s see what we can find out.
First, a pair of scholarly articles provides us with some useful background on Darrow’s family’s religiosity. Writing in Midwest Bioscene, Laddie J. Bicak mentions that Amirus Darrow, Clarence’s father, “graduated from the Meadville Theological Seminary and had been offered a parish by the Unitarian Church.” Amirus had been a devout believer prior to seminary, but he began to lose his faith along the way, and even though he graduated, he ultimately “rejected the life of a minister.” (2) While there are several important historical connections between the Stone-Campbell, or Restoration, Movement and the Unitarian theology of Meadville, Amirus’s time in seminary doesn’t do much to link Clarence with the Restoration Movement in any way, even though it does tell us a fair amount about the religious tenor of the house he grew up in.
Ray Ginger, writing in the Antioch Review, gives us some additional details about the impact of Amirus’s theological training on young Clarence:
His father, Amirus, was a cabinetmaker and undertaker, scratching out a scanty living for his large family. The youthful training of Amirus at a theological seminary hurt his chances, paradoxically, at Kinsman, since it had inclined him strongly toward agnosticism. Even when the penalties of ostracism were visited upon his children, Amirus would not accommodate his ways. He was a lettered, other-worldly man, who lived most fully when cloistered of an evening with his books on European philosophy.” (3)
Clarence Darrow’s own autobiography, The Story of My Life, confirms Amirus’s past connections to Unitarianism along with his loss of faith:
On one hill in Meadville stood Allegheny College, sponsored by the Methodist Church. On another elevation was a Unitarian seminary, and in the town was a Unitarian Church. Both my parents must have strayed to this church, for when my father’s time had come to take a theological course he went to the Unitarian school in Meadville, on the other hill from the Methodist college, where he took his first degree. In due time he completed his theological course, but when he had finished his studies he found that he had lost his faith. Even the mild tenets of Unitarianism he could not accept…. When it came my turn to be born and named, my parents had left the Unitarian faith behind and were sailing out on the open sea without a rudder or compass, and with no port in sight, and so I could not be named after any prominent Unitarian.” (4)
Darrow also notes, though, that his father was “born into the Methodist Church” and that Amirus had moved to Meadville originally because of the presence of the Methodist college, which he and two of his daughters graduated from. (5)
Whatever the relationship between Amirus, Methodism, and Unitarianism may have been, it seems clear that by the time young Clarence was in the picture, the head of the family was agnostic, and nowhere along the way have I found evidence of any connection between the attorney and the Restoration Movement. So unless other evidence comes to light, my best guess is that the back of the pamphlet is incorrect, and that there was no meaningful link, even in Clarence’s youth.
I did find one other detail worth mentioning, though, since it ties in nicely to the Darrow-Bryan rivalry mentioned above. Another Churches of Christ preacher, J.D. Boren, traveled from Texas to Tennessee to attend the trial. As Boren’s entry on Scott Harp’s site notes,
“He financed the trip by writing a song about the trial. Sheet music sales along the way made the trip possible. During his visit to Dayton he had the opportunity to interview both William Jennings Bryan, prosecution lawyer, and Clarence Darrow, defending attorney for Mr. Scopes. He also interviews [sic] Mr. Scopes and others directly connected to the trial. Due to the notoriety he received from the song, he was given an honorary seat in the courtroom just behind the chair of William Jennings Bryan.” (6)
Another entry on the same site includes an interview with Boren, in which he gives the history behind the song, titled “Darwin’s Monkey Trot.” Although I have not yet found any recording of the song, the interview contains the lyrics, and without spoiling too much, I’ll simply say they probably aren’t what you would expect. (7)
Thanks as always for reading, and be sure to check back in a month for the next entry here at the “Church of Christ Celebrities” blog!
(1) E. Brooks Holifield, “Theology as Entertainment: Oral Debate in American Religion,” Church History 67, no. 3 (September 1998): 517.
(2) Laddie J. Bicak, “Clarence Darrow and Critical Thinking,” Midwest Bioscene 14, no. 3 (November 1988): 92. http://www.acube.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/1988_3.pdf
(3) Ray Ginger, “Clarence Seward Darrow, 1857-1938,” Antioch Review 13, no. 1 (Spring 1953): 53-54.
(4) Clarence Darrow, The Story of My Life, with an introduction by Alan M. Dershowitz (Boston: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1996), 10-11.
(5) Darrow, The Story of My Life, 9-10.
(6) “John Darrell Boren,” The Restoration Movement, accessed December 28, 2020, https://www.therestorationmovement.com/_states/texas/boren,jd.htm .
(7) “The Scopes Monkey Trial: An Interview With Someone Who Was There In 1925,” The Restoration Movement, accessed December 28, 2020, https://www.therestorationmovement.com/_states/tennessee/scopestrial.htm .