Death-bed conversion for Darwin highly unlikely

August 28, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

Among the very dependable canards recycled by evangelical preachers are claims that some famous skeptic was converted just prior to their death. The use of fear as an instrument of conversion has a long history which was displayed again on television recently. In this instance, Charles Darwin, the originator of biological change by natural selection, was the subject.

As an admirer of this great naturalist, I have read volumes of biographical information about his life and have yet to find any confirmation of this story. Having just recently read "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin" by David Quammen and, seeing no reference to the oft-repeated legend, I made direct contact with him to get his opinion of the issue.

He, of course, was well aware of this claim and had traced the hoax to its origin. It turns out that the originator of this folklore was Lady Hope Elizabeth Cotton of Tasmania. In her memoirs, published in 1915, she actually claimed that Darwin had recanted to her and had accepted Christianity. Quammen found it hard to restrain his contempt for the continuance of this fiction.


Quammen had effectively refuted the legend in his book when he included the following statement made by Darwin in his autobiography - published five years after his death. "I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true, for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."

In addition, there are reliable accounts of the events immediately happening during the last days of Darwin's life. Irving Stone, one of America's great biography writers, gives such an account in "The Origin." On April 15, 1882, Darwin was overcome by dizziness at dinner and was carried to a chaise lounge in another room. His caretakers included his wife, Emma, his daughters, Elizabeth and Henrietta, and son, Francis.

On the 19th, Darwin had another, much more serious, seizure. When he regained consciousness, Darwin softy uttered these words, "You are the best dear nurses." Then, holding Emma's hand, Darwin murmured, "I am not afraid to die." She then kissed him on the brow and whispered, "You shouldn't be." Both had spoken their last words to each other.

David Quammen expressed his professional frustration with those who are easily seduced by these purely contrived deceptions and asserts that "it requires an act of willful ignorance of the historical record" to perpetuate these fictional death-bed stories.

Over the years I have encountered as wide a range of theological, doctrinal and ideological switches as one can imagine. Catholics who have converted to the Unitarian point of view, Christians who become Buddhist, Protestants who become Mormons, Christians who become atheists and atheists who become Christians make up some of those swaps of faith.

We must be charitable to those who transition from one system of belief to another. We have the need to discover a weltanschauung (life view) that provides a personal foundation of core values and beliefs to give meaning to our lives. For some, this might take several attempts before a more or less permanent aggregate is found.

But there are few intellectual giants the equal of Charles Darwin. Admittedly, one is vulnerable to wide shifts in thinking when affected by senility. Darwin, however, was in control of his mental faculties till he died. It is true that he did, at one time, consider the ministry as a profession. It is well known that this was more the wish of his father than his own. Darwin's affection for the study of nature became so powerful that other options became untenable. Given his profound respect for the laws of nature and the method of science, it is inconceivable that a death-bed conversion was in the cards.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus at Hagerstown Community College.

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