In 1929, noted American attorney Clarence Darrow wrote an essay titled “Why I am an agnostic,” explaining his doubts about the Bible, Christianity and religion in general.
By then, Darrow, a native of Ohio, had participated in several high-profile cases of national interest, and especially in the 1920s. Among them was the State of Tennessee vs. Scopes, in which Darrow argued against the Butler Act, which forbade teaching the theory of evolution in state-funded educational institutions. The Butler Act also disallowed teaching any beliefs or theory contrary to the story of creation taught in the Bible.
“If you have got to believe that story (in the Bible) to have your soul saved, you are bound to get rid of your intelligence to save the soul that perhaps doesn’t exist at all,” Darrow wrote in 1929. “You can’t believe a thing just because you want to believe it and you can’t believe it on very poor evidence. … The errors and foolish things that men have known instinctively are so many we can’t talk about them.”
On Christmas Day 1936, the locally written editorial in the Grand Forks Herald specifically addressed Darrow’s beliefs. Although Herald editorials then and now are not signed by a specific writer, newspaper editorials generally reflect the direct opinion of an editorial board and/or the publisher — whether written by the publisher or a writer on the publisher’s behalf.
At that time, the Herald’s publisher was M.M. Oppegard.
Here is the Herald’s 1936 Christmas Day editorial:
To most of us, Christmas Day is the greatest holiday of the year. It is, of course, essentially a Christian holiday that commemorates the birth of the infant whose manhood exemplified all that is finest in character and whose gospel was the gospel of love.
But to Mr. Clarence Darrow, eminent Chicago attorney, Christmas “is a nuisance” and as a holiday, Fourth of July “has it beat by a mile.” The attorney, a professed agnostic, declares he does not know what Christmas is all about and he thinks “it is a humbug.”
We have no thought to censure Mr. Darrow; we can only pity him. When he awakened today, likely it was not to the joyous shouts of little children, exclaiming in rapture before a lighted Christmas tree, or exploring gift-laden stockings hung by the fireside. To Mr. Darrow, such interruption of sleep would surely be a nuisance.
We feel sorry for Mr. Darrow, now grown old and gray, that he must have kept foreign to himself all knowledge of that surging of happy hearts in the spirit of Christmas that brings goodwill toward man.
We know, Mr. Darrow, that materialism and disbelief scoff at the way we observe this day as representing a survival of a superstition. We grant it is a survival, but Christmas has survived because associated with it is the spirit that recognizes that man does not live by bread alone; that the things of joy and beauty are as precious as the more prosaic necessities of life.
It survives, Mr. Darrow, and it rises above all the assaults of materialism because it is an expression of realities which lie beyond the field of human vision and material perception.
It is not our purpose to argue about theological concepts with Mr. Darrow and others who share his beliefs and attitude. Dispute as we may about theological concepts, the fact remains that the life of the child whose birth is commemorated today has been the most important influence in the world for 1,900 years.
Jesus formulated no economic policy, Mr. Darrow. He gave to the world no discovery of science.
He carried no commercial enterprise nor was he a captain of industry. He marshaled no armies and set up no secular kingdoms.
But the words and example of Jesus have inspired men and women in every line of human endeavor to better thinking and better living, and they have been the direct inspiration for the finest things in art which speak directly to the soul of man.
The spirit of Christmas touches the heartstrings as nothing else can do, and the song the angels sang above the fields of Judea will continue to ring throughout the ages.
And so, Mr. Darrow, to you we may know this is just another drab, dreary day. To us, thank God it is Christmas.