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Was Charles Darwin a Christian?
Some people are under the impression that Charles Darwin, the most well known promoter of evolutionism, died a Christian and renounced his theory. This is mainly due to rumors surrounding his death, and the fact that he studied at seminary as a young man and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Charles Darwin's thinking and writing on the subject of evolution and natural selection caused him to reject the evidence for God in nature and ultimately to renounce the Bible, God, and the Christian faith.
Darwin's Early Religious Influences and Thoughts
Darwin did not lack religious influences in his youth. Baptized an Anglican and steeped in his mother's Unitarianism, young Charles was brought up to pray. He used to run the mile or so from home to school, concerning which he wrote,
- "I often had to run very quickly to be on time, and from being a fleet runner was generally successful; but when in doubt I prayed earnestly to God to help me, and I well remember that I attributed my success to the prayers and not to my quick running, and marveled how generally I was aided."
He had dropped out of medical studies after two years at Edinburgh, and his father suggested to him the calling of an Anglican clergyman. Charles wasn't sure whether he could accept everything in the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. However, he later wrote,
- "I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as 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 argues for the existence of God from design). He recalled, William Paley portrait. William Paley
- “I could have written out the whole of the 'Evidences' with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley,” and, “I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley's 'Natural Theology.' I could almost formerly have said it by heart.”
In a letter of condolence to a bereaved friend at that time, he wrote of “so pure and holy a comfort as the Bible affords,” compared with “how useless the sympathy of all friends must appear.”
His intention to enter the ministry, he wrote, was never “formally given up, but died a natural death” when, on leaving Cambridge, he joined HMS Beagle as an unpaid naturalist. However, the religious influences in his life did not abate. His official position was that of gentleman companion to the captain, and for the next five years Darwin heard the Bible read and expounded on a regular basis. Captain Robert FitzRoy was a deeply religious man who believed every word in the Bible and personally conducted divine service every Sunday, at which attendance by all on board was compulsory.
Darwin later recalled his own doctrinal orthodoxy when, in discussion with some of the officers, much to their amusement he quoted the Bible as “an unanswerable authority on some point of morality.” And at Buenos Aires, he and another officer requested a chaplain to administer the Lord's Supper to them before they ventured into the wilds of Tierra del Fuego.
Despite all of the religious influences in his life, the decline of Darwin's faith began when he first started to doubt the truth of the first chapters of Genesis. This unwillingness to accept the Bible as meaning what it said probably started with and certainly was greatly influenced by his shipboard reading matter--the newly published first volume of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (the second volume, published after the Beagle left England, was sent on to Darwin in Montevideo). This was a revolutionary book for that time. It subtly ridiculed belief in recent creation in favor of an old earth, and denied that Noah's Flood was world-wide; this, of course, was also a denial of divine judgment.
Based on James Hutton's dictum that all natural processes have continued as they were from the beginning (2 Peter 3:4), or 'uniformitarianism', Lyell's book presented Darwin with the time frame of vast geological ages needed to make his theory of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution 'work'. One of Darwin's biographers calls Charles's reading of this book his 'point of departure from orthodoxy'.
And when Lyell died in 1875, Darwin said, “I never forget that almost everything which I have done in science I owe to the study of his great works.”
Inevitably, the more Darwin convinced himself that species had originated by chance and developed by a long course of gradual modification, the less he could accept not only the Genesis account of creation, but also the rest of the Old Testament as the divinely inspired Word of God. In his Autobiography, Darwin wrote,
- “I had gradually come by this time, [i.e. 1836 to 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.”
When Darwin came to write up the notes from his scientific investigations he faced a choice. He could interpret what he had seen either as evidence for the Genesis account of supernatural creation, or else as evidence for naturalism, consistent with Lyell's theory of long ages. In the event, he chose the latter—that everything in nature has come about through accidental, unguided purposelessness rather than as the result of divinely guided, meaningful intention, and, after several years, in 1859 his Origin of Species was the result.
On the way, in 1844, he wrote to his friend, Joseph Hooker, “I am almost convinced... that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.” Concerning this, Ian Taylor writes, "Many commentators have pointed out that the 'murder' he spoke of was in effect the murder of God."
Having abandoned the Old Testament, Darwin then renounced the Gospels. This loss of belief was based on several factors, including his rejection of miracles: "the more we know of the fixed laws of nature, the more incredible do miracles become"; his rejection of the credibility of the Gospel writers: "the men of that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible to us"; his rejection of the Gospel chronology: "the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events"; and his rejection of the Gospel events: "they differ in many important details, far too important, as it seemed to me, to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses."
Summing up the above, he wrote, “by such reflections as these... I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation.”
On another occasion he wrote, “I never gave up Christianity until I was forty years of age.” He turned 40 in 1849. Commenting on this, Darwin's biographer, James Moore, says, "... just as his clerical career had died a slow 'natural death,' so his faith had withered gradually."
One immediate effect of Darwin's rejection of the Bible was his loss of all comfort from it. The hopeless grief of his later letters to the bereaved, contrasts sharply with the earlier letter of condolence quoted above. In 1851, his dearly loved daughter Annie, aged 10, died from what the attending physician called a "Bilious Fever with typhoid character." Charles was devastated, and wrote, "Our only consolation is that she passed a short, though joyous life." Two years later, to a friend who had lost a child, Darwin's only appeal was to "time," which "softens and deadens... one's feelings and regrets"
One major factor that contributed to Charles's apostasy is worth noting--the role model of his father, Robert, and of his grandfather, Erasmus. Both were ' freethinkers', so disbelief was an acceptable trait within the Darwin family--perceived not as 'a moral crisis or rebellion,' but perhaps even as 'a filial duty'. Indeed, in 1838, when Charles had become engaged to Emma Wedgwood, a very devout Unitarian, Robert had felt the need to advise his son to conceal his religious doubts from his wife--other households did not discuss such things.
Surrounded as he was by unbelievers, and having soaked his mind in literature that rejected the concept of divine judgment in earth's history, Charles mused,
- “I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”
In 1876, in his Autobiography, Darwin wrote,
- “Formerly I was led... to the firm conviction of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. In my Journal I wrote that whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, 'it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.' I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind.”
In 1880, in reply to a correspondent, Charles 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.”
In the last year of his life, when the Duke of Argyll suggested to him that certain purposes seen in nature "were the effect and the expression of mind," Charles looked at him very hard and said, "Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force; but at other times," and he shook his head vaguely, adding, "it seems to go away." And about the same time he wrote to his old friend, Joseph Hooker, “I must look forward to Down graveyard as the sweetest place on earth.”
Did Darwin Recant Evolutionism on His Deathbed?
Charles Darwin was a self-acknowledged agnostic in his later years. Charles Darwin died on April 19, 1882, at the age of 73. To some it was deplorable that he should have departed an unbeliever, and in the years that followed several stories surfaced that Darwin had undergone a death-bed conversion and renounced evolution. These stories began to be included in sermons as early as May 1882.
However, the best known is that attributed to a Lady Hope, who claimed she had visited a bedridden Charles at Down House in the autumn of 1881. She alleged that when she arrived he was reading the Book of Hebrews, that he became distressed when she mentioned the Genesis account of creation, and that he asked her to come again the next day to speak on the subject of Jesus Christ to a gathering of servants, tenants and neighbors in the garden summer house which, he said, held about 30 people. This story first appeared in print as a 521-word article in the American Baptist journal, the Watchman Examiner, and since then has been reprinted in many books, magazines and tracts.
The main problem with all these stories is that they were all denied by members of Darwin's family. Francis Darwin wrote to Thomas Huxley on February 8, 1887, that a report that Charles had renounced evolution on his deathbed was "false and without any kind of foundation," and in 1917 Francis affirmed that he had "no reason whatever to believe that he [his father] ever altered his agnostic point of view." Charles's daughter (Henrietta Litchfield) wrote on page 12 of the London evangelical weekly, The Christian, dated February 23, 1922,
- "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… The whole story has no foundation whatever."
Darwin's biographer, Dr James Moore, lecturer in the history of science and technology at The Open University in the UK, has spent 20 years researching the data over three continents. He produced a 218-page book examining what he calls the 'Darwin legend'. He says there was a Lady Hope. Born Elizabeth Reid Cotton in 1842, she married a widower, retired Admiral Sir James Hope, in 1877. She engaged in tent evangelism and in visiting the elderly and sick in Kent in the 1880s, and died of cancer in Sydney, Australia, in 1922, where her tomb may be seen to this day.
Moore concludes that Lady Hope probably did visit Charles between Wednesday, September 28 and Sunday, October 2, 1881, almost certainly when Francis and Henrietta were absent, but his wife, Emma, probably was present. He describes Lady Hope as "a skilled raconteur, able to summon up poignant scenes and conversations, and embroider them with sentimental spirituality."
He points out that her published story contained some authentic details as to time and place, but also factual inaccuracies—Charles was not bedridden six months before he died, and the summer house was far too small to accommodate 30 people. The most important aspect of the story, however, is that it does not say that Charles either renounced evolution or embraced Christianity. He merely is said to have expressed concern over the fate of his youthful speculations and to have spoken in favor of a few people's attending a religious meeting.
The alleged recantation/conversion is embellishment that others have either read into the story or made up for themselves. Moore calls such doings “holy fabrication!”
It should be noted that for most of her married life Emma was deeply pained by the irreligious nature of Charles's views, and would have been strongly motivated to have corroborated any story of a genuine conversion, if such had occurred. She never did.
"What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one but myself. But, as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. … In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind."
- . Addressed to Mr. J. Fordyce, and published by him in his 'Aspects of Scepticism,' 1883.
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