October 15, 2010
The Darwin Conversion Legend
You hear the story pop up from time to time: Darwin converted to Christianity just before he died! The theme of “death bed conversions” of famous people is a subset of Christian urban myths, or evangellymyths, as I like to call them. These are wacky stories that some Christians feel the need to propagate because they seem to provide eyebrow raising confirmation of the strength of our cause. Unfortunately, they usually backfire and make us look credulous and naïve.
The answer to the question of Darwin’s deathbed conversion is that he almost certainly did not accept Christ moments before expiring. Or better put: We don’t have any evidence that he did anything like that. But it’s actually more complicated than that.
James Moore’s Darwin Legend does a great job of putting the question of Darwin’s conversion into context. Darwin was born in the 19th century, which has a time of great conflict between religion and science. People in the scientific world were growing more and more skeptical of religious claims. There were also political and social activists who were promoting atheism and reason alone as the standard by which society should be ordered. It probably sounds a lot like today. But the difference was that back then the religious worldview still held all the power. So, for example, the atheist Charles Bradlaugh, “Was secularism incarnate. He prowled the country, defying God and debating churchmen.” (The Darwin Legend, p. 47). But when he eventually got himself elected to Parliament he was not even allowed to enter the building because of his views. There were also blasphemy laws and people would get sent to jail for speaking out too publicly about their anti-religious views. This was a time in which the secularists were the underdogs and the fruits of the age of reason (the 18th century) were just beginning to ripen.
So if you were a young scientist at this time and you were thinking radical thoughts, you had two options: You became a radical and brace yourself for a life of conflict, or you talked about your scientific views in ways that did not directly confront the powers that be.
Darwin actually began his education with a view to becoming an Anglican priest. But he had too many doubts. Before he could officially receive his credentials he signed on as naturalist on his famous 5-year trip around the world on the Beagle. When he came back he pretty much gave up on the idea of being in the ministry and he started to formulate his theory of evolution. But he actually sat on it for about 20 years; first because he was still clinging to some kind of religious hope, and second, because he was afraid of what kinds of problems his theory would land him in.
Break with religion
His final break with faith had to do with the death of two of his family members. The first was his father, who died an unbeliever. Darwin knew Christianity and he knew that if his father died an unbeliever, he must have been going to hell. He didn’t like that doctrine. A few months later his 10-year-old daughter died and this sealed the case: There was no way he could believe that his innocent little daughter was suffering in the fires of hell. It was all too cruel and absurd to him (although most Christian theologies would not say that she was in hell. Also her mother was a devout believer and it would seem likely that she would have instructed her daughter, so this point is a bit confusing). But these deaths were not the only issue. Darwin’s scientific theories were the other half. When the two came together, he finally embraced agnosticism.
The interesting thing was that he still remained non-political and non-polemical. He didn’t start attacking religion. Even in the Origin of the Species he avoided drawing theological implications, leaving the door open to differing interpretations. Of course the radicals loved his work and very eagerly brought out the atheistic implications. But Darwin always remained on the sidelines. Here’s a good example from the book:
…in 1877 Bradlaugh and his comrade Annie Besant (an atheist mother-of-two who had left her parson-husband) had actually published do-it-yourself birth control advice, only to be put on trial for obscenity.
At this point Bradlaugh subpoenaed Darwin, supposing that the author of the Descent of Man would back them. Had he not written freely about the reproductive instinct and liberated mankind from superstition? Darwin replied instantly that he was in fact opposed to contraception, not just because it would interfere with natural selection by checking the struggle for existence, but because the practice would “spread to unmarried women.” Without the fear of pregnancy, they would become wanton and “destroy chastity on which the family bond depends.” Darwin’s social sympathies lay, as usual, with Christians, not atheists. (pp 49-50).
So Darwin was a respectable agnostic who did not want to cause a stir. He didn’t have anything against Christian morality, only against some Christian beliefs. His reticence to get involved in this kind of public conflict may have also been a result of his family life. His wife was a traditional Christian who was concerned for he husband’s soul. For some time Darwin even went to church and supported it financially. But he quit when an annoying preacher took over the parish. He admired some aspects of Christianity, but he just didn’t believe it was true.
In light of all this we can see how it might have been possible for Darwin to confess Christ on his deathbed. Perhaps after all those years of doubt and internal conflict he gained a new insight in old age. It would not be inconceivable. But the problem is that there is no clear evidence that he did. There are no eyewitnesses, no authoritative accounts. The only story that has some credibility is the account of “Lady Hope” a Christian activist against drinking and other social problems, whom Darwin seems to have had a little history with and may even have admired. Lady Hope described meeting with Darwin several months before his death,
It was on one of those glorious autumn afternoons, that we sometimes enjoy in England, when I was asked to go in and sit with the well-known Professor, Charles Darwin. He was almost bedridden for some months before he died. I used to feel when I saw him that his fine presence would make a grand picture for our Royal Academy; but never did I think so more strongly than on this particular occasion.
He was sitting up in bed, wearing a soft embroidered dressing gown, of rather a rich purple shade. Propped up by pillows, he was gazing out on a far-stretching scene of woods and cornfields, which glowed in the light of one of those marvelous sunsets which are the beauty of Kent and Surrey. His noble forehead and fine features seemed to be lit up with pleasure as I entered the room.
He waved his hand toward the window as he pointed out the scene beyond, while in the other hand he held an open Bible, which he was always studying.
“What are you reading now?” I asked, as I seated myself by his bedside.
“Hebrews!” he answered–”still Hebrews. ‘The Royal Book,’ I call it. Isn’t it grand?”
Then, placing his finger on certain passages, he com¬mented on them.
I made some allusion to the strong opinions expressed by many persons on the history of the Creation, its grandeur, and then their treatment of the earlier chapters of the Book of Genesis.
He seemed greatly distressed, his fingers twitched ner¬vously, and a look of agony came over his face as he said:
“I was a young man with unformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything; and to my astonishment the ideas took like wildfire. People made a religion of them.”
Then he paused, and after a few more sentences on “the holiness of God” and “the grandeur of this Book,” looking at the Bible which he was holding tenderly all the time, he suddenly said:
“I have a summer house in the garden, which holds about thirty people. It is over there,” pointing through the open window. “I want you very much to speak there. I know you read the Bible in the villages. To-morrow afternoon I should like the servants on the place, some tenants and a few of the neighbors to gather there. Will you speak to them?”
“What shall I speak about?” I asked.
“CHRIST JESUS!” he replied in a clear, emphatic voice, adding in a lower tone, “and his salvation. Is not that the best theme? And then I want you to sing some hymns with them. You lead on your small instrument, do you not?”
The wonderful look of brightness and animation on his face as he said this I shall never forget, for he added:
“If you take the meeting at three o’clock this window will be open, and you will know that I am joining in with the singing.”
How I wished that I could have made a picture of the fine old man and his beautiful surroundings on that memorable day!
The first thing to notice is that this is not a deathbed experience, just a bed experience. Darwin is several months from expiring. Also notice that he does not claim to be a Christian or to believe in creation – though one might draw that conclusion. Many people have taken the implications of the story to an extreme. The reason we ended up with an actual death bed conversion is probably that there were already many stories of famous atheists and radicals having death bed experiences in circulation at that time.
But a couple problems lead one to doubt the total accuracy of the account even if something like the meeting did occur. We have several version of Lady Hope’s story and they did tend to grow with embellishments as time went by. She was also a novelist and tract writer who was good at writing emotively, as Moore puts it, “Years of tract and novel writing had made her a skilled raconteur, able to sum up poignant scenes and conversations, and embroider them with sentimental spirituality.” (p. 94) The account does seem to fit that description. Also, if Darwin was a Christian several months before his death, and he was that passionate about it, it is strange that we have no other record of it. On the other hand, the story has many authentic details, from the layout of Darwin’s property to the clothing he wore; the bed he was sitting on and the view he was taking in.
One can see how Lady Hope might have exaggerated what had been said and given it a twist that lent itself to misinterpretation if you didn’t understand Darwin’s life long struggles with religion. For example, he might have read the Bible and commented on it favorably – but perhaps in less extreme language. Also, his distress over what had become of his theories need not be interpreted as belief in biblical creation. The agnostic but socially conservative Darwin could also have been distressed about it.
As with many historical questions, the answer is complicated and may be irresolvable. But if we take Lady Hope’s story as containing some truth, it seems that Darwin was interested in spiritual things towards the end of his life. As a Christian I hope that he did finally turn in faith to Jesus, not because it would win me any points in any cultural battles, but because I think it would have made a great deal of difference for him personally. However, we don’t really have any clear evidence that he did.