Last Thursday was the 206th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday, as well as the 19th month anniversary of my blog. Today the two are linked together quite strangely, yet perhaps appropriately because I often end up wandering down a path that I had no inkling I’d be traversing earlier. It all began when my genius Pennsylvania cousin who, along with her husband, sport doctorates in chemistry, posted a bust of Darwin on her FaceBook page, with words of adulation. A couple days later I happened to mention this to a friend who concluded our conversation with, “Did you know that Darwin had a deathbed conversion.” I responded, “Really!” but in my mind I thought “BS!” After all, I’d read a copy of the 6th edition of On the Origin of Species (where the scientist first used the word “evolution”) back in college, and I’d studied both evolution and creationism over the years, and the various theories of proponents and antagonists of each, but nowhere had I ever heard of this deathbed conversion.
Rock Star Salvation Syndrome
I imagined this was another case of “Rock Star Salvation Syndrome.” This is the title I’ve given to the universal trait of nearly every human being to seek out and claim famous people whose opinions and positions purport to align with our own – a sort of faith affirmation. I’ve spoken of this in earlier blogs. Unfortunately I see it even among the most dedicated Bible-believing Christians, though it seems that every man and woman has the RSSS virus resting dormant in their subconscious, just waiting for a trigger to activate it. But back to Charles – who, after all, was a rock star of his day.
One could easily be drawn to a “hope” that Darwin “returned to Christ” based on the fact that he had grown up in the Christian faith. When he failed to become a doctor as his father had wanted, he began studies intending to become a country parson. He took theology at Cambridge, where he was so impressed by the logical arguments in support of creation in Paley’s Natural Theology that he memorized them by heart. However, following the loss of a favorite daughter, he gradually drew away from religion and eventually became an agnostic.
Christian writers are often quick to point to statements that Darwin made that indicate he may have questioned his own theory. Statements such as: “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree;” and “Why, if species have descended from other species by insensibly fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms?” But every honest scientist recognizes they don’t have all the answers, so it’s not unusual that Darwin also experienced such moments of soul-searching.
A Plethora of Information
Yet, though the salvation claim seemed highly questionable, my inquisitive nature is such that I just had to investigate it. Under the search title “Charles Darwin’s last days” I was surprised to find a number of articles on the events preceding his death and the interpretation of those events. Several claimed his deathbed acceptance of Christ, even of his recantation of the theory that is so associated with his name. Several counter-claimed such a change of heart as nonsense– included among these were his son Francis and his eldest daughter, Henrietta, who, aware of the importance of the last words of famous men, sat poised with pen in hand to catch every last word of her father as he lay dying. I was amazed that there were even some detailed research studies done on this subject, the most famous being one done by science historian James Moore, who spent twenty years investigating this, with his research and findings published in a 1991 book The Darwin Legend. For this work Moore included for consideration several private letters between Darwin and his friends. If you want to research yourself, here’s a site to begin: http://www.creationmoments.com/content/demise-charles-darwin
Moore and most others credited the legend of Darwin’s conversion to what is called Lady Hope’s letter. Born in Tasmania, Elizabeth Reid Cotton emigrated as a young child to India then finally to England where she became an evangelist. She married the elderly admiral Sir James Hope at the age of 35. Though he died four years later, she retained the title Lady Hope throughout the remainder of her evangelistic career. She met D. L. Moody in America and worked with him during his English campaign.
It was at this time that she wrote her account of her visit to Charles Darwin over thirty years earlier. She was a skilled writer having written 30 books and told her story in a way that led the reader to conclude that she had discovered that Charles Darwin had had a conversion experience. She actually visited Darwin at his home seven months before he died. Darwin’s wife, Emma who attended St. Mary’s Anglican Church in the village, was always concerned about her husband’s salvation and it seems that in order to appease his wife’s concern, Darwin had invited Lady Hope to call upon him.
The letter, later published in Boston’s Watchman-Examiner in 1915, mentions that when she entered the room where Darwin lay sick, he was reading the Book of Hebrews, chapter 6. That chapter of course includes the words of warning: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.” These words would have logically gotten Darwin’s attention, if the story is accurate. Lady Hope thereafter says that she brought up the subject of evolution and cleverly worded her report: “… his fingers twitched nervously and he said that as a young man he had had some foolish ideas.” She went on to say that Darwin had asked her to arrange a prayer meeting in his garden house and talk about Jesus. From this and other statements like it, the reader would naturally conclude that Darwin was a genuine Christian but she had been careful not to actually say that.
Following the publication of this article, Lady Hope immediately became the darling of the Christian talk circuit of the day. The fact remains that Darwin never outwardly recanted his position on evolution, and even after this purported meeting with Lady Hope, he told others that he remained an agnostic.
Does it really matter to anyone but Charles?
While it would be wonderful if Charles Darwin received Jesus as his Lord and Savior and if we actually knew that for certain; unfortunately the facts don’t seem to back that up. But that should have absolutely no bearing on our own personal faith walk. We follow Christ because He first loved us and gave His earthly life that we might have life eternal. We believe that God is our Creator and the One who directs our lives because His Word tells us so, because of the evidence He has revealed and continues to reveal to us in the wonder and complexity of the micro and macro universes about us, and because we know in our hearts that “Once I was blind and now I see.” It’s clear to me that it takes more faith to dispute the existence of God and to follow an evolutionary phantom trail to our existence than it does to believe what God has told me and continues to tell me every day about my past, present and future.