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In God’s Country
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Dayton, TN

By Cathy Newman Photographs by Vincent J. Musi

Gospel music, biscuits with gravy, and high school football games define this quiet community 75 years after the infamous Scopes “Monkey” trial.

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In Dayton you can spend practically every night worshiping: the Wednesday night prayer meeting, the gospel sing on Thursday, a Friday night “Jesus Jam” (Jesus is an “awesome dude,” one teen explained), and a performance by the Dayton Christian Ballet on Saturday.

To the question “Why are folks in Dayton so passionately religious?” Daytonians would answer: “Why is everyone else not?” There are places to live, and there are communities. Dayton is a community. It’s a town where generosity is a given, whether in the form of a casserole or a grant for a local college, a place where kids grow up without the threat of drive-by shootings. It is founded on the rock-hard conviction that the world—not to mention Dayton, Tennessee—runs by the grace of God.

This is Bible Belt country. The defining question is not “What do you do?” but “What church do you belong to?” Dayton is the county seat of Rhea (pronounced ray) County, where there are some 130 churches for 28,000 people, from small rural wood frames to the mainstream big brick First Baptist downtown.

There’s a lot to give thanks for. First, the setting. Dayton snuggles in the Tennessee River Valley between the Smoky Mountains and the long slow roll of the Cumberland Plateau. Then the salt-of-the-earth people—about 6,000 of them—who work and pray hard. There’s a healthy economy, based on manufacturing plants like La-Z-Boy, which assembles 3,000 recliners a day, and a near-record low unemployment rate of 4.4 percent. Last, but far from least, is the Rhea County High School football team. To bear witness to a victory of the Golden Eagles is the closest thing to heaven on earth.

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In 1925 Dayton teacher John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee state law that forbade teaching evolution in public schools. As the trial closed, the judge announced that the statute had established a fine of between $100 and $500, and he immediately set Scopes’s penalty at $100. Some six months later Scopes and lawyer Clarence Darrow appealed the conviction to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Although the court found that the antievolution statute was clearly written and not in violation of the state constitution, the court overturned Scopes’s conviction on a technicality: The Tennessee constitution required that any fine above $50 be imposed by a jury, so the judge had erred when he established the $100 fine.

—Patricia Kellogg

Rhea County
Visit the Rhea County site to find out what’s going on in Dayton. The site has government, commercial, and recreation listings, along with economic and demographic statistics.

Tennessee Anytime
The Tennessee state government site offers statistics, history, and government links. Use its online vacation guide and trip planner to customize your visit.

Famous Trials
University of Missouri—Kansas City Law School professor Doug Linder has assembled an enormous site that tells the stories of more than 20 famous trials through a combination of primary documents, transcripts, essays, illustrations, and news clips. Lots of links to additional related material.

The Constitution, Censorship, and the Schools: Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes
This teaching unit for high school students, developed and presented by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, includes a detailed account of the events in Dayton that led to the Scopes trial and of the trial itself. Although no web links are offered, there is a lengthy bibliography of published sources.

Bryan College Historical Resources
Bryan College, opened in Dayton in 1930, took its name as a memorial to William Jennings Bryan, the leader of the prosecution team at the Scopes trial. The site offers a biography of Bryan and material about the trial.


Cherny, Robert W. A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. Little, Brown, and Company, 1985.

Manchester, William. Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken, 2nd ed. University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

Weinberg, Arthur, and Lila Weinberg. Clarence Darrow: A Sentimental Rebel. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980.


Phillips, Angus. “ZipUSA: Ocean Grove, New Jersey,” National Geographic (August 2001), 122-128.

Westenberg, Kerri. “Up With Country,” National Geographic Traveler(March 2001), 140-142.

Fisher, Ron. America’s Back Roads and Byways. National Geographic Books, 2000.

Berger, Lee R. In the Footsteps of Eve: The Mystery of Human Origins. National Geographic Books, 2000.

Cobb, Charles E., Jr. “Traveling the Blues Highway,” National Geographic (April 1999), 42-69.

Garrett, Wilbur E. “Where Did We Come From?,” National Geographic (October 1988), 434-437.


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