Was Darwin a Christian? Did he believe in God? Did he recant evolutionism when he died?
Editors note: Many 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. This article reveals the truth.
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 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 marvelled 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,
“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 above 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.”
The descent into darkness did not stop there. 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.”
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." [The Darwin Legend]
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'. [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.[The Darwin Legend]
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." [The Darwin Legend]
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.
It therefore appears that Darwin did not recant, and it is a pity that to this day the Lady Hope story occasionally appears in tracts published and given out by well-meaning people.
Charles Darwin was a tragically mistaken man who drifted from a childlike trust in One who helped him run to school on time into an abyss of hopelessness and agnosticism. While the spiritual journey of a Christian is a journey out of darkness into Christ's marvelous light, that of Charles Darwin was a slippery slide out of Gospel light (although not saving spiritual sight) into the sheer "blackness of darkness for ever."
Darwin's unbelief, like that of so many people today, had its roots in a mind which first rejected the revelation of God in the Bible and then was unwilling to accept the revelation of God which God Himself has given in nature. This religion of revelation, of the Bible, of the Lord Jesus Christ, will keep us tuned to truth, hope, and life in God, and away from evolutionism, humanism, and atheism, only as we allow it to exercise its power in our hearts. The tragedy of Charles Darwin is that he never did.
prayed earnestly - Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, D. Appleton and Co., New York, 1911, Vol. 1, p. 29. return to text
point of departure - Glass, Bentley, Editor, Forerunners of Darwin. 1745-1859. Chapter by Francis Haber (The Johns Hopkins Press, 1959), p.259, quoted by Bolton Davidheiser, Evolution and Christian Faith, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., New Jersey, 1969, p. 60. return to text
any barbarian - ibid, Vol. 1, p. 277. Note: the words 'or the beliefs of any barbarian, in Charles's original Autobiography (written in 1876 for his family) were deleted by his son, Francis, at the insistence of his widow, Emma, in the version published after his death, as were his views on the Old Testament, namely, what he called, "its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc. etc." (ref. 8, p. 317). The uncensored version of the autobiography, published by Charles's granddaughter, Lady Nora Barlow, in 1958, contained some 6,000 words expunged by Francis and Emma, much of which related to Charles's irreligious nature, and which 'might embarrass the Darwin name'. (Source: Ian Taylor, In the Minds of Men, TFE Publishing, Toronto, 1984, pp. 115 and 449, note 1.) return to text
unguided purposelessness - See Carl Wieland, 'Darwin's real message: have you missed it?', Creation magazine, Vol. 14 No. 4, September-November 1992, pp. 1618; also Don Batten, 'Darwin's Contribution', Creation magazine, Vol. 17 No. 4, September November 1995, p. 25 return to text
Origin of Species - Charles Darwin wrote many other monographs and books, of which the most well known is probably The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, which deals inter alia with human evolution, published in 1871. return to text
murder of God - Ian Taylor, In the Minds of Men, TFE Publishing, Toronto, 1984, p. 126. return to text
disbelieve - p. 278. Curiously, Darwin continued, "But I was very unwilling to give up my belief; I feel sure of this, for I can well remember often and often [sic] inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans, and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere, which confirmed in the most staking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress."return to text
forty years of age - Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, Michael Joseph, London, 1991, p. 658. return to text
withered gradually - James Moore, The Darwin Legend, Baker Books, Michigan, 1994, p. 46. return to text
Erasmus - Although Erasmus died seven years before Charles was born, Charles undoubtedly was familiar with both his liberal views and his writings about evolution. Charles read Erasmus's book Zoonomia twice, once in his youth and "a second time after an interval of ten or fifteen years" (Ref. 1. Vol. 1, p. 34).return to text
Down graveyard - For an account of Darwin's almost-life-long illness, see Russell Grigg, 'Darwin's Mystery illness', Creation magazine, Vol. 17 No. 4, September-November 1995, pp. 28-30. return to text
Darwin deathbed conversion stories - James Moore, The Darwin Legend, Baker Books, Grand Rapids,Michigan, 1994, pp. 94, 113-114, 117, 144-146, 167. return to text After the death of Admiral Hope in 1881, Lady Hope married T. A. Denny, a “pork philanthropist,” in 1893, but preferred to retain her former name and title (pp. 85; 89-90).
Down House retained the spelling of the old name of Darwin's village, which was changed to Downe in the mid-nineteenth century to avoid confusion with County Down in Northern Ireland. Source: Ref. 1, p. 176.return to text.
Watchman Examiner, Boston, August 19,1915, p. 1071. Source: Ref. 1, pp. 92-93 and 190. return to text.
Author: John M. Brentnall and Russell M. Grigg. Provided by Creation Ministries International.
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