howard: What’re yuh skeered of? You was a worm once!
melinda: (Shocked) I wasn’t neither.
howard: You was so! When the whole world was covered with water, there was nothin’ but worms and blobs of jelly. And you and your whole family was worms!
Outside the courthouse in the small Southern town of Hillsboro, a boy named Howard carries a fishing pole and scours the ground for worms. A girl, Melinda, calls out to him. Howard holds up a worm, and Melinda expresses disgust, but Howard tells her she shouldn’t be scared because she herself was once a worm—in fact, her whole family was once worms or blobs of jelly. Melinda threatens to tell her father what Howard has said and warns him that he’ll get his mouth washed out with soap. Howard calls Melinda’s father a monkey, and Melinda runs away.
Rachel, the Hillsboro minister’s daughter, enters. She watches Howard hold up a worm and ask it what it wants to be when it grows up. Mr. Meeker, the bailiff, comes out of the courthouse and greets Rachel. Rachel asks Meeker not to tell her father that she visited the courthouse. She asks to see Bert Cates. Meeker comments that Cates, a schoolteacher, is a more dignified guest than most people usually held in the town jail. Meeker brings Cates up to the courthouse to talk to Rachel.
Cates reminds Rachel that he told her not to visit him. She gives him some clothes from his room at his boarding house. She pleads with him to tell the authorities that his alleged crime—teaching evolution in the local school—was meant as a joke and to promise them he’ll never break that law again. Cates changes the subject and speaks about Matthew Harrison Brady, a famous political figure who is due to arrive in Hillsboro to act as a prosecutor in Cates’s trial.
Rachel asks Cates why he can’t admit he was wrong. Cates says he merely taught his biology class straight from a textbook about Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Rachel points out that what Cates did was illegal and that everyone thinks he is wrong. Cates admits that he broke the law but says that his actions are more complicated than simple good and evil. Rachel scolds him for trying to stir things up and asks him why he can’t do the right thing. Cates asks whether she means she wants him to do things her father’s way. Upset, Rachel runs away. Cates catches up to her and they embrace. When Meeker enters, Rachel breaks the embrace and departs. Meeker marvels at Brady’s imminent arrival and asks Cates about his lawyer. Cates explains that a Baltimore newspaper is sending a lawyer to represent him. After joking for a bit, Meeker and Cates exit.
At the general store, the storekeeper opens up for business. He and a woman from town discuss the heat. Rachel’s father, the stern Reverend Brown, enters. Two workmen arrive to put up a banner welcoming Brady to town. Reverend Brown says that he wants Brady to know how faithful the community is as soon as he arrives. The workmen start to raise the banner. A local man rushes in and says that Brady’s train has arrived. The workmen unfurl the banner, which displays the words “Read Your Bible!” The crowd applauds.
E. K. Hornbeck, a journalist, enters. Townspeople approach him and try to sell him things, but he rebuffs them with sarcastic jokes. Elijah, an illiterate mountain man hawking Bibles, asks Hornbeck whether he is an evolutionist. Hornbeck identifies himself as a journalist from the Baltimore Herald. Hornbeck spots an organ-grinder carrying a monkey. In jest, he asks the monkey if it has come to town to act as a witness in the trial. Melinda hands the monkey a penny, and Hornbeck points out that the monkey’s greed is the best evidence yet that it is the ancestor of the human race.