The Legend of Charles Darwin’s Deathbed Conversion is Proof that a Legend can develop within Decades

Copied from:  “Why I am not a Christian” by Keith M. Parsons

It is easy to show that legends can and do arise and spread within a few decades of a remarkable person’s death, despite the opposition of eyewitnesses. Consider the famous “Darwin Legend.” Charles Darwin died on April 19, 1882. Almost immediately stories began to circulate suggesting that Darwin, the agnostic and author of the godless theory of evolution, had repudiated his theories and confessed his faith in a dramatic deathbed conversion. With meticulous scholarship, historian James Moore has shown how quickly these false stories spread (Moore, 1994). His research shows that one week after Darwin’s burial a Welsh minister preached a sermon claiming that Darwin had confessed his faith on his deathbed (pp. 113-114).

By 1887, five years after Darwin’s death, a reporter with the Toronto Mail contacted T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s close friend and ally, and reported that a local evangelical minister had claimed that on his deathbed Darwin “whined for a minister and renouncing evolution, sought safety in the blood of the Saviour.” Huxley consulted with Darwin’s son Francis, who was present at his father’s death, and responded to the Toronto reporter that the story was utterly false (pp. 115-117). However, despite the repeated efforts of the Darwin family to squelch the story, it continued to spread.

In 1915, thirty-three years after Darwin’s death, probably less than the time between Jesus’s crucifixion and the writing of the earliest canonical gospel, one “Lady Hope” published an account of her interview with Darwin six months before his death (pp. 91-97). In this anecdote she falsely claimed that Darwin appeared to regret his theory of evolution and professed faith in Christ. Moore records that Lady Hope’s story swept through the evangelical magazines “like wildfire” (p. 99).

Of course, the story grew in the telling. Inflammatory tracts appeared with titles like “Darwin on His Deathbed” and “Darwin’s Last Hours.” As Moore records, hardly anyone bothered to check these stories with the Darwin family. When they did, the stories were denounced in no uncertain terms. As late as the 1930s Leonard Darwin, the last of the Darwin children, continued to assail Lady Hope’s account as a “hallucination,” a “lie,” an “absurd fiction,” and “purely fictitious.” Yet the story continued to spread. Thus legends can proliferate in a few years’ time despite the stringent opposition of the eyewitnesses.

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