Reports of Darwin’s Deathbed Conversion Have Been Greatly Exagerrated

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It’s an enduring tale that we’ve all heard: while Charles Darwin laid on his deathbed he threw out his own ideas about evolution and accepted Christianity. It makes for an interesting story, but it’s completely false.

The tale was made up by Elizabeth Cotton (also known as “Lady Hope” for some reason). She claimed to have visited Darwin on his deathbed where she saw him reading his Bible and complaining about people taking his theories too seriously. (The story can be read in its original version at Wikipedia.) According to Cotton, Darwin told her that he was wrong about evolution and wanted her to tell his friends and family about Jesus. The story reads like a tall tale, complete with emotional appeals and unrealistic dialogue. And are we really expected to believe that Darwin wanted to discredit all of his life’s work and that Elizabeth Cotton was the only person he told?

Darwin’s family has always denied the stories of his deathbed conversions. Since many of his family members were Believers they probably would have wanted Cotton’s story to be true (at least the part about him finding Christ), but they never supported Elizabeth Cotton’s claims and neither have any independent historians.

Charles Darwin is a poorly understood person. He was not an atheist, and he did not consider evolution to be at odds with the church. Plenty of people think his work was pitted against religion (like the people who visit my site and tell me that Darwin “killed God”), but he didn’t see it that way. Darwin enjoyed doing science for the sake of understanding the world around him, and he wasn’t out to change anyone’s religion. Charles Darwin specifically stated that his scientific notions were not a challenge to religion, but people don’t like to remember that part.

I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of his correspondence and discovered among them some rather interesting statements about religion. In a letter to a friend, he says that he attended a presentation of Handel’s Messiah and laments that his soul is too “dried up” to appreciate it. In another, his wife wishes he would return to seminary, but understands that he isn’t able to go back there. None of these things are explained, at all, but it certainly paints a picture of man who’s religious journey was more complex than we like to think.

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