Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Darwin's Deathbed Confession?

In 1915, an interesting article appeared in the Baptist Boston-based journal Watchman-Examiner.  It was written by one Lady Hope, and read as follows:

‘It was one of those glorious summer 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 [sic] 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 commented 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 nervously, 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 article ended with a word from the Editor: ‘The remarkable story…will give to the world a new vision of Charles Darwin.  We should like the story to have the widest publicity.’

This wish they were granted.  The account of Darwin’s deathbed confession spread through space and time, such that a young boy in the 1990s in southern Ontario would be told that Darwin renounced evolution on his deathbed.  It is amazing to me how many other Christians were told the same thing in their childhood. Whether I’m in Ontario, Alberta or Nova Scotia, I always find people who are surprised when I tell them that Darwin’s deathbed confession is not true.

For the story from the Watchman-Examiner was a lie.  According to James Moore in ‘Darwin – A Devil’s Chaplain?’ the Lady Hope who wrote the account was one Elizabeth Cotton, a widower driven out of London by the shame of bankruptcy brought on by lavishly living above her means.  Writes Moore, ‘Such stories vouched for themselves and evangelicals were inured to them. Lady Hope tapped a huge voyeurs’ market. Had Darwin not been her subject, her story would still have sold. Shrewdly crafted, it reported neither a death-scene nor a repentance, but it aped such tales to perfection by playing up the drama and playing down the date of her alleged interview, some six months before Darwin died. It was a brilliant counterfeit. Bankrupt abroad, Lady Hope sought spiritual credit in the States and got it in abundance.’

Tales of a deathbed confession were not novel to her – a preacher in Toronto told his congregation that Darwin had ‘sought safety in the blood of the Saviour’ – but her account was the one to spread.   Evangelicals soaked it up, and it has remained a peculiarly evangelical invention. 

Writes Moore in ‘Evangelicals and the Darwin Legend’: ‘[Evangelicals] know from Bible stories that God saves lost souls.  His power is real to them because they believe the stories are true.  The Darwin-Lady Hope story gives further proof of God’s grace and is read in the same way.  It moves the heart even as it cuts to the heart of evangelicalism.  It exposes a hermeneutic raw nerve.’

As well intentioned as Lady Hope’s story may have been (and as well-detailed – she had either visited Darwin or had heard some intimate details about his homestead from others), there were certain discrepancies, not the least of which was that this portrait of Darwin was not the one recorded by Darwin in his autobiography, nor was it one remembered by his family.

Darwin’s daughter Henrietta said in 1922, in an article for The Christian, ‘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. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in the U.S.A. ... ...The whole story has no foundation what-so-ever.’

Moore, for his part, is convinced that Hope did in fact visit Darwin six months before his death, and greatly embellished the account of her visit when she arrived in the United States.  That she was not present at his death bed is certain, and that he was not reading Hebrews and expounding on biblical passages is equally certain.  Wrote Darwin in his autobiography: ‘I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many fake religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wildfire had some weight with 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, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.’

Darwin’s deathbed confession is an evangelical legend that must be expunged from the church.  There is a troubling pattern here when it comes to evangelicals and evolution: those very people who claim to carry Truth, who believe that they hold the key to the greatest mysteries of the human condition, are unwittingly spreading falsehood about things that could be easily researched.  A few minutes on Google is all it takes to discover these lesser truths.  But if we Christians can’t be bothered to check our facts concerning historical matters and things that can be seen, then how much less will we be trusted over those things that aren’t?  Faith is a tricky enough matter to explain; must we make the Gospel message more difficult by riddling it full of conjecture and myth?

To their credit, Darwin’s deathbed confession is number one on CMI and AiG’s ‘Arguments Creationists should definitely not use.’  But 96 years after the legend began, I fear it is too little, too late.

A final thought
Even if Darwin had recanted evolution on his death bed, what significance would that hold for science today?  Absolutely none.  When I was told the story, it was offered as one more proof that evolution is a great lie.  If even the founder believed it to be false, then how false must it be!  But the logic here does not hold.  People who discover great truths are still human, and are prone to error.  Who could say, without examining the physical evidence, whether the man who discovered a scientific principal was in error when he made the discovery, or was in error when renouncing it?  I think immediately of two modern day examples: Stephen Hawking has renounced some of his earlier work on singularities, in favour of a new theory, and in biology E.O. Wilson has recently recanted his theory on the evolution of altruism via kin selection.  Both men have been attacked by researchers who are following their older ways of thought.  The academic battles are currently raging, but the victor will not be decided by the whims of the theory’s originator.  No, the theory that emerges victorious will be the one that is the most consistent with the physical world.  With evolution, no amount of recantation on Darwin’s part could ever influence evolutionary theory.  Only a theory with greater explanatory power could do that, and to date none has been found.


Keith Shields said...

Thank you for the reminder to check our facts. I heartily agree that "those very people who claim to carry Truth, who believe that they hold the key to the greatest mysteries of the human condition, are unwittingly spreading falsehood about things that could be easily researched." All truth is God's truth (a quote attributed to various authors) and we must maintain our credibility by being seekers of truth.

Matthew said...

The evangelicals in 1915 certainly had an excuse (and their willingness to believe in this legend is a testament to their desire to believe the best for all people), but today, when we can do a Google search from the comfort of our own couch, there is no reason, beyond laziness, for this myth to be persisting.