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Darwin’s missionary endeavour

12 February 2009

For the last 15 years of his life, Charles Darwin sent regular donations to an Anglican mission society, reports Henry Scriven

ONE of the facts not widely reported during this celebration of the bi­centenary of Charles Darwin’s birth is that, from 1867 until his death in 1882, Darwin made an annual subscription to the funds of an Anglican missionary society.

The donations were in recognition of the society’s work among the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego. During the Beagle’s famous voyage, Darwin embarked upon a lifelong friendship with Second Lieu­tenant B. J. Sulivan. As the na­turalist’s career developed, his friend became Admiral Sir James Sulivan, a dedicated supporter of Christian mission. The two men followed different paths, but were in regular correspondence.

In the southernmost latitudes of the Beagle’s journey, Darwin had been shocked by the appearance, language (“scarcely deserves to be called articulate”), and customs of the Fuegians. He dismissed them in A Naturalist’s Voyage: “I believe in this extreme part of South America man exists in a lower state of improve­ment than in any other part of the world.”

At about the same time, another sailor, Captain Allen Gardiner, had the vision of taking the Christian gospel to the Fuegians. Mr Gardiner left the Royal Navy and founded the South American Missionary Society in 1844, becoming its earliest pioneer. He died on the islands, but the ministry of Waite Stirling, Thomas Bridges, and other pioneers led to the setting up of a church among the Fuegians, together with schools and training in farming and useful crafts.

Stirling, who was consecrated Bishop of the Falkland Islands in 1869, was the first outsider to live alone among them, while Bridges’s many and varied achievements in­cluded the compilation of a 321,000-entry dictionary of Yahgan, the main language. (Clearly, the Fuegians were rather more articulate than Darwin had estimated.) Both men corresponded with Darwin, gladly satisfying his appetite for information about the people.

Darwin was impressed by the work of the Society. Sulivan later recalled in a letter to the Daily News of 4 April 1885: “Mr Darwin had often expressed to me his conviction that it was utterly useless to send Missionaries to such a set of savages as the Fuegians, probably the very lowest of the human race.

“I had always replied that I did not believe any human beings existed too low to comprehend the simple message of the Gospel of Christ. After many years . . . he wrote to me that recent accounts of the Mission proved to him that he had been wrong and I right in our estimates of the native character and the possibility of doing them good through Missionaries; and he requested me to forward to the Society an enclosed cheque for £5, as a testimony of the interest he took in their good work.”

This was the first of Darwin’s subscriptions; and in 1870 he wrote to Sulivan: “The success of the Tierra del Fuego Mission is most wonderful, and charms me, as I had always prophesied utter failure. He added: “I shall feel proud if your Committee think fit to elect me an honorary member of your society”.

On his death, the Society’s journal asserted that “a great man has gone from amongst us . . . of most unblemished character, of the highest intellectual power . . . a sincere and persevering searcher into truth . . . never prone to dogmatise or force his conclusion on others with a view to assail their convictions or to attack existing systems.”

Two years later, The Spectator (26 April 1884) called Darwin’s attitude to the Society “as emphatic an answer to the detractors of missions as can well be imagined”.

The South American Mission Society, as it is now known, works alongside the Anglican Churches of the Southern Cone, parts of Brazil, and in Spain and Portugal.

The Right Revd Henry Scriven is the new Mission Director of the South American Missionary Society.

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