“Didn’t Charles Darwin become a Christian later in life, and denounce his own evolution theory?” (Letter to South Devon’s Herald Express, December 2, 2008)
After his death in 1882, several stories emerged suggesting that Darwin had undergone a deathbed conversion and renounced evolution. Such reports began to be included in sermons as early as May 1882 and still appear in religious tracts in attempts to discredit Darwin and his life’s work.
Darwin died aged 73 at Down House on 19 April 1882.
The best-known story is attributed to Lady Hope, a British evangelist, who claimed she had visited the bedridden scientist at Down House in the autumn of 1881. During their discussions, Lady Hope said that Darwin had been concerned about the implications of his work and had asked her to address his servants, tenants and neighbours on the subject of Jesus Christ. This story first appeared as an article in the American Baptist journal, the Watchman Examiner, and since then has been reprinted in many books, magazines and tracts.
However, Darwin’s son, Francis, wrote to Thomas Huxley in 1887 stating that these reports were “…false and without any kind of foundation”, and in 1917 he confirmed that he had “’no reason whatever to believe that (his father) ever altered his agnostic point of view”.
Francis continued to campaign against the story and in 1918 said:
Lady Hope’s account of my father’s views on religion is quite untrue. I have publicly accused her of falsehood, but have not seen any reply. My father’s agnostic point of view is given in my Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I., pp. 304–317. You are at liberty to publish the above statement. Indeed, I shall be glad if you will do so.
After the story had been revived in 1922, Darwin’s daughter Henrietta Litchfield commented in the London evangelical weekly The Christian:
I was present at his deathbed, Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in the USA… The whole story has no foundation what so ever.
Darwin‘s biographer, Dr James Moore of The Open University spent 20 years researching the anecdote. He found that there was an evangelist called Lady Hope who probably did visit Darwin in October 1881 – while Francis and Henrietta were away, but while his wife Emma was present. He points out that the published account contained some correct details, but also factual inaccuracies. The crucial part, however, is that it does not say that Darwin renounced evolution or became a Christian. It just says that he had been concerned over how his theories had been received and that he spoke in favour of people attending a religious meeting. The narrative that the scientist had abandoned his beliefs, or rejoined the Church, are then exaggerations designed to discredit evolution.
It is also worth noting that, as Emma was religious and disturbed by Darwin’s views, she would likely not have concealed her husband’s conversion if it had occurred.
Charles Darwin’s religious views changed during his lifetime. He was baptized an Anglican and was strongly influenced by his mother’s Unitarianism. Indeed, after he dropped out of medical studies after two years at Edinburgh, his father suggested he become an Anglican clergyman. He later wrote,
I liked the thought of being a country clergyman… I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted.
During his three years of theological studies at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he was greatly impressed by Paley’s Evidences of Christianity and his Natural Theology which argued for the existence of God from design. During the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s belief remained and he quoted the Bible as “an unanswerable authority on some point of morality”. In Buenos Aires, he requested a chaplain to administer the Lord’s Supper before they continued their journey.
However, his faith declined and he began to question the truth of the first chapters of Genesis. His reading on board included Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, an extremely influential book that challenged the accepted belief in an earth created only thousands of years previously. It also gave Darwin a vast time frame for his researches on the evolution of species.
Sir Charles Lyell
Much of the evidence of Darwin’s gradual loss of faith can be found in The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. It was republished by Darwin’s granddaughter Nora Barlow in 1958 and restores various passages edited out by Francis Darwin in the original 1887 edition. Francis had omitted these passages as some of Darwin’s views on Christianity were very critical:
I had gradually come by this time, (1836-1839) to see that the Old Testament was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos or the beliefs of any barbarian.
I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation…Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.
Darwin corresponded with nearly 2000 people during his life – including missionaries, fellow scientists and teachers. It is from these letters that we get a good idea of his views on religion. In 1880, in reply to a correspondent, he wrote: “I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.”
Yet Darwin was not an atheist. In 1879, he replied to a letter asking if he believed in God, and if religion and evolution were compatible. He replied that a man “can be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist”. He said that he had “never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God”, and added that “I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be a more correct description of my state of mind.”
Nevertheless, while some Christians found it possible to reconcile their beliefs with an evolutionary view of nature, many saw Darwinism as a threat to religion. In 2008, the Church of England conceded that it had been defensive and emotional in dismissing Darwin’s ideas. The apology said that Christians, in their response to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, had repeated the mistakes they made in doubting Galileo’s astronomy in the 17th century:
Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends.