Fact Check

Did Charles Darwin Convert to Christianity and Discredit Evolution on His Deathbed?

According to one account, Darwin said he had been "a young man with uninformed ideas."

Published March 10, 2024

 (Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Wikimedia Commons
Claim:
Charles Darwin professed a belief in God and recanted the theory of evolution on his deathbed.

It wasn't long after the famed scientist Charles Darwin died that the rumors started. Within a week of his death on April 19, 1882, a preacher in Wales "confirmed" for his parishioners that the father of evolution, a devoted man of science, had converted to Christianity on his deathbed. 

Similar stories have been shared ever since.

More than 30 years later, in 1915, across the Atlantic in Northfield, Massachusetts, a woman named Lady Elizabeth Hope told a story during a devotional service about meeting Darwin in late 1881. During their talk, Darwin reportedly expressed his belief in God and renounced the theory of natural selection that made him a household name.

The story is sometimes used as an argument against evolution, the very theory that Darwin made famous. If you believe Lady Hope's story, even Darwin didn't believe his own theory — so why should we?

That argument, however, cannot stand on stable ground. There is no evidence Darwin professed his belief in God in this conversation, nor is there evidence that he recanted the theory of evolution. In order to best understand the claim, let's start with a brief explanation of Darwin himself.

Charles Darwin

Darwin was born in 1809, when the fields of biology and geology were new and mysterious. Over the course of his life, Darwin's theory of natural selection completely redefined the scientific landscape. But it took him a very long time to publish the work that made him famous.

Between 1831 and 1836, Darwin traveled the world on the HMS Beagle, where he visited the Galápagos Islands and first began thinking about the ideas his name would become synonymous with. Although he privately proposed his theories of natural selection soon after returning to England, he waited more than 20 years to publish them. "On the Origin of Species," now one of the most famous scientific works ever, was published in 1859.

It was not initially popular, especially among conservative and religious circles. Early reviewers quickly latched onto the implied idea that humans had evolved from apes, despite the fact that Darwin chose to never explicitly state that. One reviewer wrote:

Lady Constance Rawleigh, in Disraeli's brilliant tale, inclines to a belief that man descends from the monkeys. This pleasant idea, hinted in the "Vestiges," is wrought into something like a creed by Mr. Darwin. Man, in his view, was born yesterday — he will perish to-morrow. In place of being immortal, we are only temporary, and, as it were, incidental.

The work deserves attention, and will, we have no doubt, meet with it. Scientific naturalists will take up the author upon his own peculiar ground; and there will we imagine be a severe struggle for at least theoretical existence. Theologians will say — and they have a right to be heard — Why construct another elaborate theory to exclude Deity from renewed acts of creation? Why not at once admit that new species were introduced by the Creative energy of the Omnipotent? Why not accept direct interference, rather than evolutions of law, and needlessly indirect or remote action? Having introduced the author and his work, we must leave them to the mercies of the Divinity Hall, the College, the Lecture Room, and the Museum.

Health problems around the time of the publication of "On the Origin of Species" prevented Darwin from actively participating in the debates over the validity of his work. As a result of his health issues, Darwin's later years were largely spent doing research and with his family: his wife, Emma, and their seven children.

In the years before he died, Darwin wrote an autobiography. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the work — completed between 1876 and 1881 — was not intended for wider publication, but for his grandchildren. The scientist died less than a year after it was finished.

"I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic," Darwin wrote. It is this claim that supporters of Darwin's supposed deathbed conversion must effectively prove wrong.

The preacher in Wales was the first to attempt the feat, but others followed. In "Darwinian Myths: The Legends and Misuses of a Theory," author Edward Caudill shares a correspondence from one of Darwin's most ardent supporters, Thomas Huxley, and his son Francis Darwin, confirming for a Canadian newspaper that Darwin had not converted to Christianity.

Overall, the historians agree: Such claims were few and far in between until Lady Hope's story in 1915.

Lady Hope

Born Elizabeth Reid Cotton in 1842 as the daughter of an evangelist, Lady Hope continued her father's work throughout her life. She gained her title after marrying Adm. Sir James Hope and continued to use it after his death. Around the time of Darwin's death, Hope was living relatively close to him, and according to "The Darwin Legend," a book exploring the origins of Darwin's supposed conversion written by prominent Darwin scholar James Moore, the two probably did meet about six months before Darwin died.

(Snopes was unable to access a full copy of "The Darwin Legend." Our sources for this claim come from "Darwinian Myths" and reviews of "The Darwin Legend" available online.)

Perhaps these claims would hold more weight if Lady Hope had mentioned Darwin's sudden turn to religion not long after their meeting. However, she first recounted the supposed events in 1915 during a devotional service. It was quickly reprinted in the Watchman-Examiner, a Baptist newspaper. The following quote, which she attributed to Darwin, supposedly contains his renouncement:

I was a young man with uninformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything; and to my astonishment the ideas took like wildfire. People made a religion of them.

It's a bit much to call that a renouncement. The story quickly spread, and multiple members of Darwin's family wrote to various people advocating the theory to deny the claim. But, true or not, it has been republished multiple times since then.

Modern Distancing

Lady Hope's story was long used by creationists arguing against Darwin's theories as evidence that they were wrong. But over time, even creationist websites have come to acknowledge the inherent weakness of the argument. In fact, several of the sources we used in researching this article were from creationist websites sharing the story but cautioning readers against employing it in an argument.

We cannot sum up the arguments against this story any better than the creationist website AnswersInGenesis.org did:

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.

Sources

Caudill, Edward. Darwinian Myths: The Legends and Misuses of a Theory. Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2005.
Charles Darwin - Evolution, Natural Selection, Theory | Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Darwin/The-private-man-and-the-public-debate. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.
Darwin, Charles, and Nora Barlow. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882: With Original Omissions Restored. Norton, 1993.
"Darwin's Deathbed Conversion—a Legend?" Answers in Genesis, https://answersingenesis.org/creationism/arguments-to-avoid/darwins-deathbed-conversion-a-legend/. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.
Did Darwin Renounce Evolution on His Deathbed? https://www.icr.org/article/2834/. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.

Lady Hope's Visit With Charles Darwin. http://www.endureinstrength.org/pages.asp?pageid=118448. Accessed 28 Feb. 2024.

Leifchild, John R. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. https://darwin-online.org.uk/converted/Ancillary/1859_Leifchild_A506.html.
Review of Moore, "The Darwin Legend." http://steamdoc.itgo.com/writings/moore94.html. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.
The Darwin Legend: ARN Book Review. https://www.leaderu.com/orgs/arn/reviews/rev002.htm. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.
Caudill, Edward. Darwinian Myths: The Legends and Misuses of a Theory. Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2005.
Charles Darwin - Evolution, Natural Selection, Theory | Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Darwin/The-private-man-and-the-public-debate. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.
"Darwin's Deathbed Conversion—a Legend?" Answers in Genesis, https://answersingenesis.org/creationism/arguments-to-avoid/darwins-deathbed-conversion-a-legend/. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.
Did Darwin Renounce Evolution on His Deathbed? https://www.icr.org/article/2834/. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.
Leifchild, J. R., 1859. [Review of] On the origin of species. Athenaeum no. 1673 (19 November): 659-660.
Review of Moore, "The Darwin Legend." http://steamdoc.itgo.com/writings/moore94.html. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.
The Darwin Legend: ARN Book Review. https://www.leaderu.com/orgs/arn/reviews/rev002.htm. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.

Jack Izzo is a Chicago-based journalist and two-time "Jeopardy!" alumnus.