Charles Darwin and the
Victorian Crisis of faith

Charles Robert Darwin was born at Shrewsbury, England, in 1809, the son of a well-to-do doctor. His mother died in 1817 when Charles was eight years old. In the following year he was sent to Shrewsbury School, where, to all accounts he was below average in all his subjects. Despite this failure to shine academically at school, as a young child Darwin developed an interest in the natural world becoming a keen collector of bird's eggs, insects and fossils.

From 1825 to 1827 Darwin went to Edinburgh University to follow the family tradition and train as a doctor. Although he gained a degree in medicine Darwin decided against doctoring as a profession due mainly to the fact that he hated seeing illness and he couldn't stand the sight of blood! His Edinburgh years however were significant for, not only did he meet and become friends with Dr Robert Grant, a pioneer evolutionist, sixteen years his senior, (a man who stimulated his interest in rocks and fossils) he gained invaluable knowledge and experience by attending lectures on biology, zoology and chemistry, and learned the skills of taxidermy.

Deciding to become a clergyman in the Established Church, Darwin, in 1828, went to study theology at Christ College, Cambridge. While at the university with the encouragement of Adam Sedgewick, the famous professor of Geology from Dent near Sedbergh and Professor John Henslow, he continued to develop his hobbies in geology and botany.

The voyage of the Beagle

On graduating in 1831, due to the influence of Henslow, Darwin was offered a position of naturalist on a ship, HMS Beagle, which was about to set off on a voyage to chart the South American coast. After a delay of several months, during which he overcame the disapproval of his father and while the ship was being refitted, the Beagle finally set sail at Christmas of that year setting a course for the Canary Islands; Cape Verde then taking the trade winds to Brazil and Argentina. Stopping for a time at Patagonia Darwin collected several significant fossil remains. The Beagle then set sail for the stormy waters of the Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn, and then returned to Beunos Aires, thus allowing him more time to explore. As he examined the rocks of the Argentinian hinterland he discovered more fossil remains of animals which resembled creatures living today but larger, different and extinct. When faced with such evidence he came to the conclusion that creation was a continuous process and that it had been going on for a long time. Certainly not a single week as stated in the book of Genesis.

The Beagle continued on its journey. On entering the calmer waters of the Pacific ocean the ship called in at Valparaiso, Chile, where Darwin undertook a six week tour of the Andes. It was while walking in these mountains, at an altitude of 12,000ft, that Darwin found a bed of fossil seashells. This puzzled the young botanist as these fossils had clearly been formed under the sea yet they were found at such a great height above sea level. Totally opposing the prevailing view held by the Creationists that fossil remains like these were found at such a great height because they had been left there by the flood of Genesis, Darwin concluded that they had been marine creatures living and dying in the sea and the rock formed containing such shells had been pushed upwards by tremendous earth movements long ago.

HMS beagle sailed on and reached the Galapagos Islands on 17 September 1835. Here Darwin encountered a host of rare, fascinating if not extraordinary creatures including giant tortoises and Iguanas. It came to Darwin's notice how the majority of birds, reptiles, shells and plants he collected were unique, found only on those islands and nowhere else. In an attempt to explain such variations within one species Darwin rejected the traditional idea of "fixity" - that creation had been instantaneous and fixed - and argued that the animal kingdom had evolved from something very primitive to something complex, and this change was still taking place. Each creature, he reasoned, would change or adapt according to the environment in which it lived and the food available.

On the voyage home Darwin also visited Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, the Cape of Good Hope and Brazil reaching England on 2 October 1836. From that date, to the year of his death in 1882, Darwin stayed in England living off his inheritance as a lecturer and writer. Between 1834 and 1845 he published a description of his adventures in his five volume work Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle. And a geographical account of his journey in the Voyage of the Beagle.

Darwin: 1839-1882

In 1839 he married his cousin, Emma Wedgewood the youngest daughter of Josiah Wedgewood, the famous Midlands potter. From 1841 he and his wife lived at Down House in Kent. It would appear that their marriage was a happy one; that he was a devoted husband and a dedicated father to his ten children. We know that his health was poor - that he suffered from a condition which many scholars identify with Chaga's disease. His life was one of relentless study, research and writing. He wrote various works such as his The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, a two volume work published in 1868 and his The descent of Man in 1871. In various articles and other publications he became a leading authority on various topics including barnacles and earthworms. But his most famous book, published in November 1859, was without doubt On the Origin of Species in which he presented his theory of evolution.

The theory of Evolution

This theory (which came to reshape the way we now look at life and the world) stated that natural life had gradually evolved over millions (if not billions) of years and that progress came about through "competition" and "modification". Darwin had noticed that animal breeders can produce enormous variations from a common stock and out of a large number of off-spring produced by a species, only a very few survive because of competition for food and living space. Mainly by reading Thomas Malthus Darwin developed the idea that all life forms struggle for survival. And it is those organisms which are better adapted to the environment which survive.

Darwin fully realized the effect his work would have. As he remarked: to speak openly on evolution was "like confessing a murder". For years he kept his ideas as secret entries in his notebook. In 1842 he wrote a letter to his wife, to be opened only in the event of his death, stating his wish that she should publish posthumously his essay on evolution. Darwin delayed with the publication of his ideas because they challenge the traditional idea (based on Ussher's biblical chronology) that the world was only 6,000 years old; the argument from Design as presented by Paley and he feared offending his wife, a woman of simple piety. It could also be argued that Darwin feared the publication of his theory because, as one biographer of Darwin remarked: "publishing would have been tantamount to treachery - a betrayal of the old order".

However, in 1859, fearing that an article sent to him by A. R. Wallace would gain the credit which was rightly his, Darwin agreed that a joint paper (written by himself and Wallace) should be read to a meeting of the Linnean Society in London giving an outline of the theory. This caused no stir, but in the following year, 1859, Darwin wrote the Origin of Species. This publication undermined the literal acceptance of the Creation story of Genesis; challenged the idea of man being a special creation made in the image of God and rejected the doctrines of Original Sin and the Atonement. A world-view based on order was now replaced by one of chance. This, it was believed, would lead to anarchy and the total breakdown of society. Darwin, living life almost as a recluse, pressed on with his researches and in 1871 he published another book, The Descent of Man. This book extended his general theory to the origin of the human race which he believed had descended from the higher primates.

The reaction to Darwin

The publication of the Origin of Species was without doubt, one of the main contributing factors which gave rise to the crisis of faith that occurred in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. Victorian clergymen respond to Darwin in one of three main ways.

  1. Many within the Evangelical and High Church party were scandalized by the teachings of Darwin. The best, and most famous of the opponents of Evolution is Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, the son of the famous anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. On 30 June 1860 the British Association for the Advancement of Science organized a public debate on the topical issue of evolution. According to eyewitness accounts, following a brilliant delivery in which Wilberforce presented the authority of the biblical account, the Oxford bishop turned to Huxley and, having asked for proof to support the claims of evolution, demanded to know if he [that is Huxley] was descended from the monkeys through his grandfather or his grandmother. Huxley, recognizing the obvious stupidity of the question, apparently muttered to himself: "The lord has delivered him into my hands", and then replied that "he would rather be descended from an ape than from a cultivated man who used his gifts of culture and eloquence in the service of prejudice and falsehood". This debate of 1860 marked the watershed in Christian and scientific thinking - although both sides claimed a resounding victory from this date the Church was fighting a rear-guard action against a changing world.
  2. Although many Churchmen and lay persons alike totally rejected Darwinianism others rejected the traditional creationist view and fully embraced it. Rev Charles Kingsley, the novelist and social reformer, regarded Darwin as a saviour figure, bringing religion to maturity. For him (and many like him) (although not rejecting Christianity) saw science as a champion warrior fighting, down through the ages, against false-religion, ignorance and bigotry.
  3. But as well as those who rejected evolution totally, and those who accepted it totally, Others tried to combine their faith with the new scientific learning. William Buckland, Prof of Geology at Oxford and later Dean of Westminster, attempted to harmonize geology and creation by arguing that each of the days mentioned in the Genesis account was an epoch, a geological period covering countless millions of years. For some, such as the American theologian Asa Gray and Charles Lyell, the author of the influential Principles of Geology (1831), there was no conflict between evolution and creation as, in their opinion, "evolution" was merely the name given to a process, (with God moving behind the scenes) by which man is thought to have arisen. It is of interest to note that in 1864, 716 English academics and clergymen published a declaration stating their belief that science and the Bible could be reconciled.

In England, by 1890, most Churchmen had accommodated evolution into their theology and rejected a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Evolution, with other branches of science, sociology and psychology were contributing factors in bringing about the secular society in the Western World and the view that the problems faced by mankind would be solved by education, better housing, medicine, rather than by the Christian doctrine of salvation and redemption.


Darwin died on 19 April 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. How are we to assess Charles Darwin? It must be said, that despite the traditional Victorian view, Darwin was not the heretical firebrand intent upon undermining the Church and its authority. As Owen Chadwick remarked, rather than being the pugnacious heretic, Darwin was "a direct, humble and reverant seeker after truth". Darwin was a pioneer who re-shaped the contours of the human mind. Natural Selection, the lynch-pin of Darwinian thinking, has become the central plank of biology today.

This brief article is a summary of a lecture given at the University of Bradford on 5 November 1999.

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