Recently an incredibly brief letter of Charles Darwin has come up for auction with an asking price of £50,000. It was previously up for sale 20 years ago when my attention was drawn to it by the great-great-grandson of Darwin’s first girlfriend, Fanny Mostyn Owen. Great names dropping!! Fanny’s letters to Darwin still exist, but none to Fanny.
This letter was written to a lawyer in 1880 about the same time as he wrote his Autobigraphy. As the letter was private and the Autobiography was not written for publication, they give us a better window into his beliefs than his circumspect public statements.
Here is the letter
I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not
believe in the Bible as a Divine revelation and
therefore not in Jesus Christ as the Son of God .
Whatever Darwin thought about god has attracted lots of nonsense. Some want to prove that he repented on his death bed and rejected evolution, and look to Lady Hope’s garbled account of her visit to Downe. Jim Moore scotched that in The Darwin Legend.
One can hardly say that Charles came from a godly family! Both grandfather Erasmus and father Robert belonged to the radical wing of Unitarianism and the Wedgewood side were less radical. The religious ethos of the family home was far removed from the burgeoning evangelicalism of his day. The variety was immense, Charles was baptised an Anglican, then went to a Unitarian school and on to the Anglican foundation – Shrewsbury School. After that it was to train to be a doctor at Edinburgh where he came across the radical ideas of Robert Grant. But the gore and screams were not for him, and after a break, much in the company of Fanny, off he went to Cambridge to get a degree and settle down as a country parson.
Despite his claims Darwin studied hard and made copious extant notes on Paley’s Evidences of Christianity. He also got to know Rev Johns Henslow, professor of botany and previously of mineralogy – and the best geologist we never had. Under his guidance Darwin learnt so much and respected his quiet, but definite Anglican faith. Henslow, in turn, introduced Darwin to the Revd Adam Sedgwick, the Woodwardian Professor of Geology. Sedgwick was an evangelical , who did not endear himself to the more rigid evangelical as he pilloried them for silly views about a young earth. His reward was to be called “an infidel”, but so have I! Sedgwick took Darwin on a geological trip to Wales in 1831 and taught him more than the rudiments of geology. On his return at the end of August 1831 a letter awaited inviting him to join the Beagle.
Darwin set sail with the intention of ordination on his return and taking a nice country living giving plenty of time to continue his natural history and geology. But during his voyage his ardour lessened. On his return he wrote up various aspects of the voyage, including three magnificent volumes on the geology. At the same time his Christian faith, if it was ever strong, declined. In the 1840s he read some radical works like F.W. Newman’s Phases of Faith, which shows how Newman had travelled from Anglican evangelicalism to a vague Unitarianism. Jim Moore reckons that the death of 10 year old Annie finally killed off his Christian faith, but I am unconvinced.
Over the next few decades Darwin supported the parish church at Downe but rarely attended. He was good friends with one vicar and disliked the next. (That still happens, as I was told today!) He was great at supporting good works and even the South American missionary Society.
Religion itself took a back seat and Darwin’s thoughts were often less than profound, even reckoning Ussher’s date of 4004BC for the date of Creation was part of the biblical text.
In 1859 The Origin of Species hit the press, but I shall ignore the responses. He made no reference to God, but in the 2nd edition he added the words “by the creator” to the words “originally breathed” in the last sentence, giving a possible theistic slant.
In last few years as he contemplated worms of Downe and their future diet, he wrote privately on religion. Most well-known are his musings in his Autobiography where he flipped between theism and agnosticism. At best he was a general theist but rejected most of the “peculiar” doctrines of Christianity. This was only apparent decades later when his Autobiography was published.
And so to this letter which could not be more terse;
I do not believe in the Bible as a Divine revelation and therefore not in Jesus Christ as the Son of God .
This is not a rejection of theism as he simply did not mention God – for this we must go to the Autobiography. With extreme brevity he is simply stating that he does not believe in all the basic doctrines of Christianity – the aberglaube as Matthew Arnold called them. The Bible was not revelation and Jesus was not the Son of God – and implicitly claims on his atoning death and resurrection were rejected too. It would be wrong to draw too much out this letter as he was so reticent, and hence many good churchmen still thought him a Christian.
He hovered agnosticism and theism, but did not consider Jesus Christ as redeemer or Son of God. I would suggest he saw Jesus as a great moral teacher as Darwin was a highly moral person with a great concern for the plight of others as seen in his abhorrence of slavery and support for the welfare of chimney sweep boys.
Yes, Darwin wrote this letter, but it could have been written by so many, Huxley or Tyndall for a start as well as many more in recent years, and probably most people we know – at least in Britain. My own father could have written that letter, but I would remove the “not”.