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It has been widely held among many sincere and well-meaning Christians that Charles Darwin on his deathbed not only renounced evolution, but also accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. The tale of this deathbed conversion has been passed down over the years as fact. This “event” has even been used as “evidence” that evolution is false. The overzealous have, at times, boldly proclaimed, “See—even Darwin knew that this theory was not true!”
What is the basis for this story? As often as it is repeated, there must be credible evidence that these events actually took place, right? Surely, the tale would not have continued though the years if it were a lie? Sadly, when evidence is sought, there is little to support this story.
Charles Darwin died in April 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Within days of his death, reports of a conversion experience began to circulate. The first report supposedly came in a sermon preached in South Wales by a gentleman identified as “Mr. Huntingdon.” Some weeks later there surfaced a report about a letter sent to John Eadie, a divinity professor in Glasgow, in which Darwin indicated, “He can with confidence look to Calvary.”1 Curiously, when examined, Darwin’s existing correspondence (which totals over 14,000 letters) contains no communication between these two men.2
The most often cited evidence for the alleged conversion of Darwin comes from a woman known as Lady Hope. She was born Elizabeth Reid Cotton in December 1842 and was the daughter of General Sir Arthur Cotton. She and her father were active evangelists in Kent, very near Charles Darwin’s home. In 1877, she married Admiral Sir James Hope and thus became Lady Hope, a title she continued to use even after remarrying subsequent to Sir James’s death a few years later.3
While traveling in America in 1915 she attended a conference in East Northfield, Massachusetts. While there she apparently told the story of a visit she had with Darwin before the scientist’s death. She recounted this tale during a devotional service and was later persuaded to write an account of this visit, which was then published in the Watchman-Examiner, a national Baptist magazine, on August 19, 1915.4
Here, Lady Hope claimed to have visited Darwin on an autumn afternoon. She noted that Darwin had been bedridden for several months before his death, and at the time of her visit she found him sitting up in bed. Lady Hope indicated that Darwin was at the time reading the Bible, which she claimed he was always studying. When asked what he was reading he replied, “Hebrews . . . the Royal Book.” Darwin also supposedly commented, “I was a young man with unformed ideas.”
Lady Hope further claimed that before her departure she was asked by Darwin to return and speak to his servants in his summerhouse. When asked about the subject on which she should speak, Darwin was said to have replied “Christ Jesus!”
When the full text of the report is examined, there are many inconsistencies that make the story untenable.Unfortunately, when the full text of the report is examined, there are many inconsistencies that make the story untenable. While it is possible that Lady Hope did visit Darwin’s home in late 1881, this was almost seven months before his death.5 He was certainly not bedridden for six months before his death. Further, there was nothing to indicate that he was always studying the Bible.
On the Down House property, there was a small summerhouse, but it was too small to accommodate 30 people. There is nothing in his writings to indicate that Darwin ever asked anyone to speak about “Christ Jesus.”
Further, it is fascinating what Lady Hope’s story does not say. It does not say that Darwin renounced evolution. It merely says that Darwin speculated over the outcome of his ideas. He never backed away from evolution. Nor does the Lady Hope story say that Darwin actually became a Christian. The story, even if true, merely claims the Darwin was reading the Bible and made a statement about Christ. Nowhere is there a claim of a saving relationship with the Savior.
As soon as this story became public, the denials from Darwin’s family began (as they did after every supposed “conversion story” became known). In a letter to James Howe, Darwin’s son Francis wrote in 1915: “He [Darwin] could not have become openly and enthusiastically Christian without the knowledge of his family, and no such change occurred.”6
In a letter dated May 28, 1918, Francis again writes: “Lady Hope’s account of my father’s views on religion is quite untrue. I have publicly accused her of falsehood, but I have not seen any reply.”3
Darwin’s daughter Henrietta wrote in 1922: “I was present at his deathbed. Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. . . . He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier.”7
Beyond these denials, if the tale were true, why did Darwin’s wife Emma not rejoice in this? She was always troubled by what she perceived as the godless nature of his views. If he indeed repented, why did she not make this known? Also, if the story were credible, why did Lady Hope wait 33 years before relating it, and even then, relating it in a country across the ocean?
Given the weight of evidence, it must be concluded that Lady Hope’s story is unsupportable, even if she did actually visit Darwin. He never became a Christian, and he never renounced evolution. As much as we would like to believe that he died with a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, it is much more likely that he didn’t. It is unfortunate that the story continues to be promoted by many sincere people who use this in an effort to discredit evolution when many other great arguments exist, including the greatest: the Bible.