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Darwin’s Deity

24 August 2012

Michael Wheeler on the great man's family and piety


Never an atheist: Charles Darwin in a photograph dated 1 January 1854

Never an atheist: Charles Darwin in a photograph dated 1 January 1854

"Till The Peoples All Are One": Darwin's Unitarian connections
Clifford M. Reed
Lindsey Press £7.50

Darwin and Lady Hope: The untold story
L. R. Croft
Elmwood Books £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT501 - free postage on UK online orders during August)

THE contrast between these two responses to Darwin could hardly be greater: one a coolly rational survey of a recognised and significant subject, published on behalf of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches; the other, a polemical firecracker on a puzzling topic, published by a small independent publisher and aimed at those Darwinians for whom Down House is the "Nazareth of Evolution", as Sir Arthur Keith called it in 1927.

Clifford Reed, a Unitarian minister, reminds us of Darwin's Unitarian family heritage, and of his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood Darwin. Emma, herself a Unitarian, attended services at the parish church, but never turned east at the Creed. In the 1850s, the decade of On the Origin of Species, Darwin read Francis William Newman, brother to the future Cardinal. Whereas Emma and the leading Unitarian James Martineau shared Newman's repulsion from the "dreadful doctrine of the Eternal Hell", and saw the promise of eternal life in a "full sympathy of our spirit with God's Spirit", Darwin found Newman unsatisfactory. Newman still located the origin of the "religious instinct" in God, whereas Darwin was increasingly convinced that it had evolved with human society.

Twenty years later, Darwin received a radical Unitarian pamphlet from the United States which he could accept wholeheartedly: Francis Ellingwood Abbot's Truths for the Times. Here was a religion that was humanistic, optimistic, post-Christian, and free of all the dogma that Darwin had rejected. He became an overseas member of the Free Religious Association. He also supported Evangelical missions late in life. So perhaps today's New Atheists should think again when adopting Darwin as their patron saint. He was something of a Unitarian, never an atheist, and often what his "bulldog" Huxley called an "agnostic".

L. R. Croft is a former university lecturer whose most important research was on the eye, an organ that seems to defy evolutionary explanation. His previous book on Darwin, and his study of Philip Gosse - a member of the Plymouth Brethren and the David Attenborough of his day - are also from Elmwood. It was late in Darwin's life that he was visited by a widely admired evangelist, Lady Hope, née Elizabeth Cotton, who wrote an account of their conversation, during which Darwin is said to have regretted the direction and later influence of some of his ideas, and to have spoken movingly of Christ and the Bible. Creationists have hailed this as a conversion, while most evolutionists have dismissed the story as bunkum.

Darwin and Lady Hope attempts to demolish Professor James Moore's argument in The Darwin Legend (1995) that Lady Hope and her testimony are fraudulent. Croft locates Moore's work in a tradition of denial and evasion which began in the Darwin family during the First World War, when her testimony came to light. He may have a point; and Lady Hope's narrative is certainly of compelling interest.

A pity, then, that Croft writes so defensively at one moment (he was rebuffed by the journal Nature) and so over-assertively the next, and always without an editor.

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton.

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