ABOVE: Charles Darwin at age forty, when he was struggling to come to terms with his father’s death. Lithograph by Thomas Herbert Maguire (1849), Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.
For many people today, the details of Darwin’s religious journey from Christianity to agnosticism, and its relationship to his theory of evolution, take on much importance. For some, such as those who have transformed his visage into a secular Christmas ornament, Darwin has become an icon for atheism—even though Darwin refused to identify with atheism himself. For others, he has become a prophet of scientific racism, or a plagiarizer who did little original work of his own, or even “a devil’s chaplain”—a phrase that Darwin did apply to himself on one occasion when reflecting on the evolutionary picture of nature he was painting (and that has since been co-opted by Richard Dawkins).
The “real” Charles Darwin is notoriously difficult to pin down. He often thought about God, even near the end of his life, but not always with consistency. He wrote some interesting things about God’s relationship to nature, not all of them equally lucid. Consequently, the range of scholarly opinion about his religious faith and its implications for his theory of evolution—and vice versa—is wider than many culture warriors want to admit. History has a way of confounding political zeal and refuting over-simplification.
Full disclosure: I’m no expert on Darwin myself. What follows (in this column and the next) is my own analysis of Darwin, evolution, and God. I’m probably wrong about some of this, but the same can also be said of many analyses offered by experts—or there would be no Darwin industry in the historical community. I hope that readers will at least grant me the right to be wrong.
Darwin’s Religious Journey
Darwin’s personal religious journey was complicated. Historians differ significantly on the important details and timeline, but at least the endpoints are clear. When he set sail on his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands in 1831 he was a sincere Christian who had prepared for pastoral ministry in college. By the time of his death in 1882, he was happy to call himself an “agnostic”—a word invented by his friend Thomas Henry Huxley to denote an inability to reach certainty about the existence or non-existence of God. The abundant evidence of Darwin’s own utterances, both public and private, allows a variety of interpretations of the rest of the story.
Many experts believe that he never entirely abandoned his religious faith, though it’s hard to be more precise with much confidence. You won’t get that impression from most popular accounts, whether in print, on the internet, or in the cinema. For instance, Jon Amiel’s ambitious film Creation (2009) tried hard to depict one important piece of Darwin’s religious story, namely, the conversations he often had with his wife about God and religion, yet his doubts about his own doubts are not depicted. I cast my lot with those who think that Darwin continued to entertain serious thoughts about God throughout his life—and that those thoughts were not merely window dressing.
Two crucial pieces in the puzzle of Darwin’s faith were the deaths of his father in 1848 and his 10-year-old daughter Annie (perhaps from tuberculosis) three days after Easter in 1851. His father’s death hit him hard, even though he inherited the very large sum of £45,000, a genuine fortune at the time. Reflecting on this decades later, Darwin wrote, “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the [New Testament] text seems to show that the men who do not believe, & this would include my Father, Brother & almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” His wife was so distressed by this passage in his autobiography that she excised it from the first published edition of that work.
The death of Annie, his favorite child, was even worse for Darwin’s faith. She first fell ill not long after his father’s death, just as Darwin was becoming enthusiastic about the hydrotherapy treatments he was receiving from Dr. James Manby Gully. He believed those treatments helped him recover from his father’s passing. As Annie’s health steadily worsened, he took her for similar treatments—Emma Darwin was pregnant again and could not accompany them. The letters they exchanged as she slipped slowly away are heartbreaking to read, even at this distance. It all but broke his heart.
Charles and Emma Darwin had ten children, eight of whom survived infancy. Their daughter Annie, born in 1841, was Charles’ favorite. This daguerreotype (image source), taken shortly after her seventh birthday, became an object of deep affection on his part, a bittersweet reminder of the little girl whose life slipped slowly away from him at Easter in 1851.
I first heard that poignant story in full detail from the mouth of James Moore at a conference nearly thirty years ago. “Of Love and Death,” he called the paper, and I vividly remember that another Darwin expert, the late John C. Greene, was literally moved to tears during the session by Moore’s sensitive rendering of the sad details. As Moore later wrote, “After years of backsliding, Darwin finally broke with Christianity (though he continued to believe in God). His father’s death had spiked the faith; Annie’s clinched the point” (Galileo Goes to Jail, cited below, pp. 146-7).
Darwin became increasingly agnostic in the last three decades of his life. Surprisingly, there is a persistent story that Darwin actually came back to Christian faith shortly before his death—and that he also denied the truth of evolution. Moore devoted a well-documented book to tracing the history of this claim, which he regards as “a grotesque gloss on real historical events” (The Darwin Legend, p. 23). He traces it to an evangelist named Elizabeth Cotton, who called herself “Lady Hope.” In August 1915—more than thirty years after Darwin died—a Baptist newspaper, the Watchman-Examiner, published an account of the explosive story she had told a few days earlier at a Bible conference in Northfield, Massachusetts. Lady Hope said that she had visited Darwin on his deathbed and found him reading the biblical book of Hebrews. When she mentioned the Genesis creation story, he was distressed and babbled a little about how “unformed ideas” of his youth had spread like “wildfire” and how some had “made a religion of them.” Then, he invited her to preach the gospel to his servants, tenants, and neighbors in the summer house on his property—and he would leave the window open to join the singing.
Is there any basis for this story, other versions of which were later told by Lady Hope herself? Darwin’s family wanted nothing to do with it, but Moore thinks that certain details ring true, especially her detailed knowledge of that part of the house where Darwin spent much of his final days. In his opinion, Lady Hope probably did have at least one conversation with Darwin, but not one that led Darwin to embrace the gospel and repent of his evolutionary sins. Moore’s conclusion was vigorously challenged in a book by creation scientist L. R Croft, Darwin and Lady Hope: the Untold Story (2012). Croft argues that the Darwins acted in conspiracy to undermine Lady Hope’s credibility and that he did indeed recover his lost Christian faith.
Whom to believe? A few years ago, creation scientist Russell Grigg thoroughly reviewed the information in the books by Moore and Croft. Even though he accepts at face value the original version of Lady Hope’s story, he does not think that Darwin had a deathbed conversion. Likewise, a prominent creation scientist who knows quite a bit of history, Todd Wood, finds Croft’s argument wholly unpersuasive; so do I.
Even in death, Darwin becomes the stuff of legend.
Looking Ahead: Darwin, Evolution, and God
If Moore’s interpretation is correct, then Darwin was still a theist in the early 1840s, when he wrote the earliest versions of On the Origin of Species. In that case, the question arises: did the vestiges of Darwin’s theism have any influence on his conception of evolution, as it developed? If you want to know what I think, you’ll have to read my next column.