A Ringer in the Contest, Part 2

T. T. Martin's stand in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925

What was I maundering about? Oh yes, the Science League of America’s essay contest in 1925, on the evergreen topic, “Why Evolution Should Be Taught in Our Schools Instead of the Book of Genesis,” with a top prize of $50. In part 1, I discussed the contest, its funder the freethought writer William Floyd (who, fifteen years later, attempted to collect $1,000 from the creationist Harry Rimmer for finding scientific errors in the Bible), its judges (including Miriam Allen deFord, the third wife of the Science League of America’s founder Maynard Shipley), and the three winning entries. A fourth entry, which cleverly appealed to the precedent of Jesus’s rejection of tradition to argue for the rejection of the Genesis account, taken literally, in favor of evolution, was published in Shipley’s The War on Modern Science (1927)—but not because it won. Why, then?

I’ll let Shipley tell it. “Under a pseudonym, and with a false address, he submitted an essay in a prize contest conducted by the Science League of America … Unfortunately, Mr. Martin signed his pseudonym in his own handwriting, and later sent a letter in the same hand acknowledging that he was the fictitious ‘J. J. Boyer.’” Who was the underhanded Mr. Martin? Why, T. T.—the initials are for Thomas Theodore—Martin (1862–1939), whom Ronald L. Numbers describes in The Creationists (1992) as “among the earliest and most outspoken critics of evolution…an itinerant evangelist with a reputation for combining doctrinal fanaticism with compassionate Christianity,” perhaps best remembered for his book Hell and the High Schools (1923), which asked: “But what have the High Schools of the land to do with the child spending eternity in hell?”

Here’s Martin’s answer: “Many books being taught in the High Schools teach Evolution that all species or kinds of beings, from the smallest insects up to man, have developed, evolved, from the lower species up to the higher.” Identifying twelve statements in Genesis that apparently conflict with evolution, Martin continues, “If these twelve statements are lies (and they are, if Evolution is true) and the Saviour did not know it when He endorsed Genesis as the word of God, then He was a goody-goody ignoramus and fool, who honestly thought that He was God’s Son, when He was only the bastard, illegitimate son of a fallen woman, and not Deity, not God’s Son, not our real Redeemer and Saviour at all—and we are left in our sins.” Hence “Evolution and the teaching of Evolution in tax-supported schools is the greatest curse that ever fell upon this earth.”

If that was Martin’s view, then why was he entering the Science League of America’s essay contest under a pseudonym? I haven’t seen any documentation, or even any speculation, as to his motives. Shipley reproduces the entire essay in The War on Modern Science, and in my view it’s comparable in quality to the winning essays, so it’s hard to believe that Martin hoped to discredit the contest by winning it with a poorly argued entry. And it’s hard to believe that Martin wasn’t alive to the possibility that, if he were discovered as the author of the essay, it would redound to his discredit—as Shipley hinted when he described it as “excellent thought-provoking material for the consideration of his co-workers and admirers.” Did Martin just want to test how well he understood his opposition? Or could he have just hankered after the $50 prize?

What’s not in question is that Martin was a committed antievolution activist. His 1920 attack on William Louis Poteat for teaching evolution at Wake Forest University is often credited with starting the crusade against the teaching of evolution in North Carolina. (Poteat, in turn, helped to quash the antievolution bill introduced in the state legislature in 1925.) Subsequently, Martin was the field secretary of the Anti-Evolution League of America and editor of its magazine, The Conflict. In 1926, he lobbied the state legislature in his native Mississippi to pass a bill similar to Tennessee’s Butler Act. Although one legislator objected that Martin was not a registered lobbyist and recommended that he accept the prescribed penalty, three years in the state penitentiary, Martin’s efforts were successful: the bill was passed and enacted, and not ruled unconstitutional until 1970.

After he attempted to win the essay contest in March 1925, Martin was himself the victim of a hoax in July 1925, when he ran afoul of the journalist H. L. Mencken in Dayton, Tennessee. In his July 10, 1925, dispatch, Mencken treated Martin kindly, describing him as “a handsome and amiable old gentleman with a great mop of snow-white hair, [who] was a professor of science in a Baptist college for years, and has given profound study to the biological sections of the Old Testament.” Five days later, Mencken blandly reported, “News came the other day to Pastor T. T. Martin…that a party of I.W.W.’s, their pockets full of Russian gold, has started out from Cincinnati to assassinate him. A bit later came word they would bump off Bryan after they had finished Martin, and set fire to the town churches.” Guards were posted, but the Wobbly forces were never spotted.

But what was the source of the alarming news? In “Inquisition,” published as a chapter of his memoir Heathen Days (1943), Mencken reveals that it was him and his colleague Henry M. Hyde. Encountering Martin one morning, “we sought to get rid of his solicitations by hinting that important news was astir. What was it? We hemmed and hawed a bit, and then told him that it was a report from Cincinnati that a gang of Bolsheviki there were planning to come down to Dayton and butcher Bryan.” Mencken claims—and there’s confirming evidence from a contemporary press report—that Martin was so panicked by the news that he forgot its source by the time he warned Bryan of the threat. “An hour later, in fact, when Hyde and I met him again, he imparted it to us as news, and we thanked him very politely.”