The Darwin Legend

Author: James Moore
Date: 1994
Publisher: Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan
ISBN: 0801063183
Reviewed by: Allan H. Harvey, steamdoc@aol.com


The Author

James Moore is lecturer in the history of science and technology at The Open University in the United Kingdom. He is co-author of the biography Darwin, published in 1991.

Preliminary Comments

Some stories never die. No matter how many times the falsehoods are corrected, there will still be people who believe Walt Disney is cryonically frozen or that a friend of a friend bought a small dog in Mexico that turned out to be a giant rat (two fairly harmless stories) or that Procter and Gamble is run by Satanists (a destructive lie). Such stories are known as "urban legends," and unfortunately the Christian church is not immune to them.

One of the most common legends in Christian circles concerns Charles Darwin. As the story is usually told, Darwin on his deathbed both returned to Christ and renounced his theory of evolution. While the story has been vehemently denied by Darwin's family and others over the years, it continues to circulate. Historian and Darwin biographer James Moore set out to investigate the origins of this legend and to determine whether it had any basis in fact. What he uncovered is an interesting tale of how not only some Christians, but also some atheists and Darwin's own family, distorted Darwin's legacy for their own ends.

Summary of the Book

After an introduction describing the legend and the questions to be answered, Moore devotes the first two chapters to a summary of relevant aspects of Darwin's life. Particular attention is given to the progression of Darwin's religious beliefs. Darwin's journey was a steady slide from a marginally Christian mixture of Anglicanism and Unitarianism to an agnosticism hostile to Christian doctrine. This slide seems to have had little to do with his scientific work; the main factor was what he called the "damnable doctrine" of eternal punishment for nonbelievers. Another important theme is Darwin's desire to be a respectable gentleman. He went out of his way to keep himself and his family out of controversy, even delaying publication of his Origin of Species and putting in theistic statements in order to lessen the offense he feared it would cause. While there were many atheists who wanted to claim Darwin as an ally, he consistently refused to endorse them. This appears to reflect partly an aversion to controversy, but also a sincere dislike of their extrapolation of his ideas outside the realm of science.

At the time of Darwin's death in April 1882, he had successfully cultivated an image as a statesman of science and a good-hearted gentleman who supported Christian causes. His own agnosticism was kept in the background, and he received a church funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey.

It was this image that Darwin's family sought to maintain after his death, but it was not to be. A militant, rabble-rousing brand of atheism was afoot in England at the time, and some from that movement seized on a few things Darwin had written, sometimes in private letters, as proof that he was on their side. Chapter three describes these events and the reaction of Darwin's family. Ultimately, the family published a Life and Letters, which was intended to be the final word on Darwin's life, including his religious views. They omitted his more severe anti-Christian statements, and produced a sanitized and respectable Darwin who had "moved with the times to a polite agnosticism."

In the years after Darwin's death, there were occasional rumors of a deathbed conversion. Such stories are apparently not uncommon when a prominent "enemy" of Christianity dies. These rumors remained very sporadic until 1915, over 30 years after Darwin's death.

In chapters four and five, we are introduced to Lady Elizabeth Hope. Lady Hope was associated with revival and temperance movements, first in England and later in America. It was in 1915 that Lady Hope first publicly told, then wrote down, a story of a visit with Charles Darwin in the year before his death. It is noteworthy that the story as first told does not report a conversion (though it seems to portray Darwin as a Christian) or a renunciation of evolution (though it has Darwin upset that some have "made a religion" of his theories). While this story was somewhat embellished in later versions, the deathbed conversion and rejection of evolution only appear in secondary accounts, primarily tracts, that further distorted whatever truth might have been in Lady Hope's original account.

Moore concludes that the amount of truth in that account is, contrary to the denials of Darwin's family, greater than zero. While it misrepresents Darwin's religious views and contains some elements that cannot be true, other elements appear to be accurate. The author concludes that it is likely that Lady Hope was received by the Darwins sometime in the Fall of 1881, and that Darwin might well have said kind words about her work in the community and expressed distress at the use of his theories to promote radical atheism.

Chapter six describes the further spread of the legend, and the attempts of Darwin's descendants to stop it. It also describes how some of those descendants continued to reinvent Darwin to make him fit their own philosophical agendas.

The final third of the book consists of several appendices in which the sources of both the legend and its denials are reproduced, and its spread is chronicled. Particularly interesting is Appendix E, where the author analyzes the probable timing of Lady Hope's visit to the Darwin home. This analysis points to a coincidence which would explain a lot, but I won't spoil the story by revealing it here.

Evaluation

This is surely the definitive work on the Darwin deathbed legend. Moore, already a Darwin expert, has ferreted out seemingly every bit of information available on Lady Hope and on the various manifestations of the legend. The information is woven together in a way that keeps the reader's attention while packing much history into a relatively few pages.

While the book tells a complete story, I wish it had gone into more depth about the use of the legend by opponents of evolution. While there are passing mentions of its use (and sometimes disavowal) in the "creationist" movement, this material is treated superficially. An interesting passage tells how William Jennings Bryan refused to use Lady Hope's story, in part because he doubted its authenticity but also because portraying Darwin as a Christian at the end of his life would be a powerful counterexample to Bryan's contention that evolution must lead to atheism. I would have liked to see more such material; I would be particularly interested to know what the infamous Harry Rimmer (who used other science-related legends like "Joshua's long day" and the sailor swallowed by a whale) thought of this story.

The preceding criticism is also a testimony to the quality of the book; it made me want more of the same. Page for page, this is an extraordinarily educational book. I thought I knew most of what there was to know about this story before I started reading, but I was wrong. I had dismissed "Lady Hope" as just another sleazy evangelist who was willing to lie for the glory of God and/or herself. The real story is more complex and more interesting.

The striking theme of this book is the way that everybody has tried to exploit Charles Darwin. Lady Hope wove a story out of her visit that made Darwin into a Christian at the end of his life, which he almost certainly was not. Her story has been further distorted by others who don't seem to mind bearing false witness as long as the result serves their purpose. For over 100 years now, atheists have been trying to claim Darwin's support for their philosophical extrapolations of his theories, though he hated such efforts in his own lifetime. Even Darwin's own descendants tried to remake him into the respectable patriarch they wanted for their family.

Perhaps there are some lessons for us here. The first is the false lure of the authority of celebrity. Darwin was a great scientist, but no theologian. His opinions on religion should carry no more weight than anyone else's. Yet, because of his celebrity, everybody has tried to enlist his legacy for their own positions. Whether the subject is famous or anonymous, it is wrong to distort another's views to advance your own, especially when the subject is dead and cannot defend himself. Second, it strikes me that at the root of this mess is the automatic association people make between evolution and atheism. It was the atheists who first advocated the lie that evolution implies the truth of atheism, and it is one of the great tragedies in church history that so many Christians have accepted this proposition, effectively playing the game by the atheists' rules. Much of the incentive for spreading this particular legend would vanish if we all recognized, as even Darwin did, that his explanation of how species developed does not rule out God's status as Creator. Finally, we should be disturbed by the way some Christians have been willing to uncritically accept and spread such legends because they fit in with what they want to believe. We need to be more careful about repeating stories like this, lest we besmirch the Gospel by associating it with lies.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this review are the opinion of the author of this review alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Review originally written May 1997.
Page last modified September 2, 2000