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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin and the Church


St Mary’s Church, Downe
St Mary’s Church, Downe

The story of Charles Darwin’s involvement with the church is one that is told far too rarely. It shows another side of the man who is more often remembered for his personal struggles with faith, or for his role in large-scale controversies over the implications of evolutionary theory for religion. His local activities in the village of Down paint a fascinating picture of a man who, despite his own divergent beliefs and uncertainties, was determined to support the church as a social institution. His correspondence provides a unique window into this complicated relationship throughout Darwin’s life, as it reveals his personal and professional interactions with various clergymen and religious bodies.

Darwin and his family had a lifetime involvement with the Church of England, and various dissenting establishments. In the Darwin and Wedgwood households, formal adherence to the Anglican Church was often combined with Unitarian belief. Unitarianism was a form of Protestant non-conformism that departed from the Anglican Church in its denial of the Trinity and the doctrine of eternal damnation. Unitarian congregations were comparatively small, well-educated, and allowed for a greater variance of belief (and doubt) than many non-conformist denominations. Darwin’s parents attended a Unitarian chapel throughout his childhood, and yet both young Charles and his older brother Erasmus were christened in the Church of England as young boys, and had every intention of continuing to belong to that institution (Autobiography 75). A nominal adherence to the Anglican Church’s teachings was still essential for admittance to many of the elite cultural and political institutions of England. It was required to enter Oxford and Cambridge, for example, and an Oxbridge degree was often crucial, in turn, in securing a position in the most prestigious professions. As a young man, Charles went up to Cambridge in 1828 with the aim of completing the necessary studies to be a clergyman.

During Darwin’s lifetime, the vast majority of the Anglican clergy continued to be graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, and they tended to share the culture and aspirations of the English gentry. In comparison with some careers like medicine, the bar, or politics, the clerical profession was a relatively inexpensive to enter. The role of country parson could allow a young man the opportunity to marry, employ servants, and keep a carriage. In fact, however, relatively few parsonages paid enough to support even a small family in comfort, and the possession of an independent income was essential to enjoy a gentlemanly lifestyle. For Darwin, who could rely on the financial support of his father, and who anticipated a substantial inheritance, the clerical life offered the prospect of a highly respectable and comfortable existence that was also compatible with the pursuit of scientific interests. Indeed, Darwin’s Cambridge mentor, John Stevens Henslow, and his friend and cousin William Darwin Fox were clergymen naturalists. A nostalgic piece in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine described the early-nineteenth-century parson as ‘no sportsman, though very fond of natural history, and a student of the habits of birds, who built at their ease in the thick leafy covert which engirdled on every side his own snug ivy-covered house’ (Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1887): 321).

Darwin started on his journey around the world intent on returning to his religious studies, and wrote to his sister Caroline: ‘I find I steadily have a distant prospect of a very quiet parsonage, & I can see it even through a grove of Palms.—’ (letter to Caroline Darwin, 25–6 April [1832]). Darwin’s sisters were extremely supportive of his desire to enter the Anglican Church. His brother, however, wrote to the contrary: ‘I am sorry to see in your last letter that you still look forward to the horrid little parsonage in the desert. I was beginning to hope I should have you set up in London in lodgings somewhere near the British Museum or some other learned place’ (letter from E. A. Darwin, 18 August [1832]). Writing to Fox from Lima, Peru, Darwin mused on the pleasant thought of clerical life, even as he began to wonder whether he was suited to take such a profession: ‘To a person fit to take the office, the life of a Clergyman is a type of all that is respectable & happy: & if he is a Naturalist and has the “Diamond Beetle”, ave Maria; I do not know what to say.— You tempt me by talking of your fireside, whereas it is a sort of scene I never ought to think about—’ (letter to W. D. Fox, [9–12 August] 1835). Darwin’s doubts about orthodox belief, and his speculations about the nature of religion are evident in his scientific notebooks from the late 1830s, and in correspondence with his fiancée, Emma Wedgwood, in 1838 and 1839, as can be read here. In the end, Darwin chose a middle course—a life of ease in the country and of involvement with the Anglican Church, but assuredly not that of a clergyman.

The parish of Down

In 1842, within six years of his return from the Beagle voyage, Darwin moved to Down House, in the village of Down, Kent. There was no Unitarian chapel in the vicinity, and the family went dutifully to the local Anglican church of St Mary’s each Sunday. All the children were baptised and confirmed in the Church of England. The whole family took the sacrament, although Emma used to make the children turn around and face the back, on occasions when the rest of the congregation recited Trinitarian creeds. The Darwins placed a large gravestone near the entrance to the church where their children Mary and Charles were buried; later Darwin’s brother Erasmus, Emma’s sister Sarah, Emma herself, and Charles and Emma’s unmarried daughter Elizabeth were all interred in the churchyard at Downe (Moore 1985 and n. 19).

Much of the family’s church involvement can be attributed to the influence of Emma, whose religious scruples are discussed here. But Darwin’s correspondence reveals his own active engagement with church affairs, his role in local charities, his supervision of church and school finances, and his general concern for the status of the church in the community. The pastoral role of the village parson had traditionally involved not only conducting services, but overseeing schools and charities, and also often serving as a Justice of the Peace. In many villages, there was a distribution of responsibility between the parson and the chief local landowner, depending on the personalities and abilities of people involved. Although he was not the principal landowner in Down, Darwin was a gentleman of means, and clearly felt responsibility for the welfare of the village.

During the period roughly between 1800 and 1870, the Church of England underwent its most substantial changes since the Reformation. It gradually moved from having a uniquely privileged relationship with the State, to being one denomination among many. These changes involved the admission of dissenters (including Roman Catholics) to Parliament, municipal corporations, universities, and grammar schools. The period also saw an increase in the role of the secular state in education, poor relief, and the administration of justice. This shift of power was especially pronounced in small villages. From the 1850s to the 1880s, there was a general tendency to remove some of these local duties from the clerical realm, and many parsons felt their roles to be increasingly circumscribed. Non-conformism also made inroads on Anglican authority in the countryside. The Darwin family took an interest in, and even at times supported, the work of Non-conformist preachers in the village.

John Brodie Innes

Many of the letters highlighted in this section focus on Darwin’s long-standing relationship with the Reverend John Brodie Innes (1817–94). Innes was named perpetual curate of Down in 1846 (Crockford’s). Innes was a High-Churchman, that is, a defender of traditional Anglican orthodoxy and clerical authority. To the end of his life Innes refused to be persuaded by Darwin’s theory of evolution, but nevertheless spoke proudly of his acquaintance with Darwin and supported the naturalist’s scientific integrity. There is not much early correspondence between the two, as they would have seen each other frequently in the village. However, what remains is cordial; in the first extant letter of the correspondence, Darwin wrote to Innes expressing concern over his health, and suggesting a remedy for toothache (letter to J. B. Innes, [1848]). Darwin then wrote to discuss his subscription to the Sunday school-fund; Darwin also discussed taking charge of the Coal and Clothing Fund (a local charity), which he administered from 1848 to 1869 (letter to J. B. Innes, [8 May 1848] and n. 2). Darwin praised Innes to John William Lubbock, the principal landowner in Down, in a letter of 1854 in which he said, From all I have seen of Mr Innes’ conduct towards the poor & sick, I think he would make an excellent Guardian [of the Poor Fund]’ (letter to J. W. Lubbock, 28 March [1854]). Despite their differences, they collaborated on these charities, and also managed to found a Friendly Club, a charity fund for the maintenance of its members; he even allowed the club the use of his own lawn for its meetings (Moore 1985; letter to J. S. Henslow, 17 January [1850] and n. 6; and letter to J. B. Innes, 29 May [1871]).

Their true friendship does not become clear in the correspondence until later in their acquaintance, however, when Innes inherited property in Scotland and moved north. It was to the Darwins that Innes entrusted the family’s dog, Quiz, when he moved away from Down (letter to J. B. Innes, 15 December [1861]). Darwin and Innes continued to correspond about a variety of topics, and Innes was always keen to provide Darwin with what he hoped were useful anecdotes, such as a curious account of what was considered to be a cross between a cow and a red deer (letter from J. B. Innes, 7 December 1868). Innes had a tendency to tease Darwin about his theories rather than criticise him. In a letter describing his reaction to Descent, Innes remarked to Darwin, ‘I have an abhorrence of an ape, but in my boy days had a very favorite little ring tailed monkey, and I should much prefer one of that kind as my more immediate ancestor. Please think of my request favourably—’ (letter from J. B. Innes, 26 May 1871). Indeed Innes had such a high opinion of Darwin’s character that he claimed in 1878 to have made the following declaration to a gathering of fellow clergymen, including an unspecified bishop:

I have the pleasure of the intimate friendship of one of the very first Naturalists in Europe. He is a most accurate observer, and never states anything as a fact which he has not most thoroughly investigated. He is a man of the most perfect moral character, and his scrupulous regard for the strictest truth is above that of almost all men I know. I am quite persuaded that if on any morning he met with a fact which would clearly contradict one of his cherished theories he would not let the sun set before he made it known. I never saw a word in his writings which was an attack on Religion. He follows his own course as a Naturalist and leaves Moses to take care of himself.

Letter from J. B. Innes, 1 December 1878

This was a stirring expression of confidence from a man who admired Darwin’s work and scruples, even if he was never persuaded to credit Darwin’s theories. His faith in Darwin was developed not only by years of daily contact in Down, but also by also by several decades of dutiful reporting by Darwin of the welfare of the parish and the church.

Other Down clergy

Despite his move to Scotland, Innes remained the incumbent of the village, and was thus responsible for the appointment of a resident curate and the maintenance of a local parsonage. The right to appoint was known as an advowson. It was not uncommon in this period for clergymen to hold several Church livings. The authority over the appointment rested ultimately with the bishop, but in practice such decisions were made by the incumbent, sometimes through the mediation of a clerical agent. Advowsons had the status of private property, a custom that originated at a time when the local squire virtually owned the parish, built the church, and sought clergymen of whom he approved. But advowsons were often separated from the local community through inheritance; and once detached, they could become a property in their own right, and be bought and sold. Their value depended on the income they promised through tithes, and this depended in turn on the wealth of the parish. Those appointments bringing in under £200 a year could be difficult to fill. Because of the problems of clerical vacancy associated with absentee incumbents, and because the system of appointments was liable to abuse by unscrupulous agents and even clerical imposters, some within the Anglican Church called for an elimination of multiple livings, and increased action on the part of bishops over the sale of advowsons and the appointment of curates.

The village of Down did not fare well under this system. The living was comparatively small, and the local parsonage had been sold. In fact, some years before the Darwins arrived in Down, the parsonage had actually been Down House. The details are not known, but Innes evidently had property of his own in the village, and did not need a parsonage. When he left the village for Scotland, he tried to secure the purchase of land for a new parsonage, but was unsuccessful. These circumstances help to explain some of the difficulties that arose following Innes’s departure.

In Innes’s absence, Down suffered through a succession of short-term curates, most of whom were found to be objectionable, or even criminal. Darwin kept tabs on each of them, and repeatedly took it upon himself to have them called to account. One of the early replacements for Innes, Samuel James O’Hara Horsman, quickly absented himself for an extended period on his friends’ yacht, and only on hearing about the consternation in Down at his absence did he write, not to Innes, who would be responsible for naming his replacement, but to Darwin, who he trusted would take care of the financial complications he left behind (letter from S. J. O’H. Horsman, 2 June [1868]). Among the reasons justifying his absence, Horsman complained of the poor accommodation that was available to him in Down. Darwin immediately wrote to Innes and back to Horsman. He also hastily asked around and examined the school account books, advancing the required sum for the school and in the process discovering that Horsman seemed to have made off with the church’s organ fund (letter to J. B. Innes, 15 June [1868]). So embroiled in this process was Darwin that he was later, much to his consternation, almost called to testify in a suit brought by Horsman relating to the Down school and organ funds (letter to J. B. Innes, 13 January 1871).

Down’s next clergyman was unsuitable for entirely different reasons. John Warburton Robinson seemed not to be an entirely respectable young man. Darwin first voiced concern when the curate absconded to Ireland for three months, leaving Down entirely without a clergyman. Later, and more seriously, Robinson was rumoured to be walking out in the evening with young women—a serious accusation, although no one later was quite confident enough to make an official complaint. Darwin continued to be concerned through all the uproar about the reputation of the Down church; he even cited as a cause for concern that one parishioner had started to attend the Dissenters’ chapel, rather than the Down parish church (letter to J. B. Innes, 1 December 1868).

Darwin wrote of the next vicar, Henry Powell, in lukewarm terms—but did not, at least, view him as criminal or morally suspect: ‘Mr Powell is, I think, a thoroughly good man & gentleman. Does good work of all kinds in the Parish, but preaches, I hear, very dull sermons’ (letter to J. B. Innes, 18 January [1871]). Mr Powell was happy to take up much of the parish work, and relieved Darwin of responsibility for the Coal and Clothing Club, as well as the Anglican National School (Moore 1985). Nevertheless, however honourable a gentleman this most recent vicar was, he soon tired of the unsuccessful attempts to arrange the construction of a parsonage, and with Innes’s approval the reins passed to George Sketchley Ffinden.

Darwin’s relationship with Ffinden was in marked contrast to his relationship with Innes. Ffinden, like Innes, was a High-Churchman. He came to Down determined to take charge of the village (Moore 1985). However, he came with rather mixed testimonials. Innes informed Darwin that though he ‘heard all good of Mr. Ffinden’s moral character, his clerical ability was not stated as very high; he had however capital testimonials to his wife’s qualifications’ (letter from J. B. Innes, 5 June 1871). Particularly in the early days of Ffinden’s tenure, Innes continued to keep an eye on him through the Darwins, seeking their comments on Ffinden’s proposed alterations to Down Church, towards which Darwin and Innes had both pledged particular sums on the expectation of particular results. Ffinden strongly disapproved of the Darwins. In his eyes, Emma’s Unitarian leanings and Darwin’s controversial reputation made them singularly unsuitable to be pillars of the community, and a series of skirmishes ensued over the following decade. One of the most significant arguments involved a village schoolroom. Like the vast majority of village schools in this period, the Down school was Anglican. Emma wished it to be used as a reading room for the working classes in the evening. Ffinden opposed the activity, and as a result Darwin wrote to the office of the Privy Council in London for support, and presented their answer to the School Committee (letter to Down School Board, [after 29 November 1873]). Ffinden fiercely resented Darwin for going behind his back, and this event contributed to such strained relations that Darwin’s neighbour, John Lubbock, was forced to send a series of letters to both men, vainly seeking to reconcile them (letter from John Lubbock, 5 April [1875]).

The tensions between the Darwins and Ffinden over the management of parish affairs may partly derive from some of the social changes that the Church underwent over the course of the nineteenth century. One of the effects of the gradual secularisation of English institutions was that Church of England clergymen came to see their pastoral role as limited to the care of their own denomination, rather than as extending to the village as a whole. The involvement of non-Anglicans (and Ffinden clearly regarded the Darwins in this light) in local church business would have been viewed as an encroachment, and the use of Church property like the school building by persons who were not members of the congregation would be regarded as a trespass.

It is perhaps because of this more narrowly denominational role of the local Anglican church that the Darwins partly shifted their attention and patronage to Non-conformism. During the reign of Ffinden, there is an interesting letter from Darwin to the evangelist J. W. C. Fegan. Darwin whole-heartedly supported Fegan’s work in the village, writing in 1880 or 1881: ‘your services have done more for the village in a few months than all our efforts for many years. We have never been able to reclaim a drunkard, but through your services I do not know that there is a drunkard left in the village’ (letter to J. W. C. Fegan, [December 1880 – February 1881]). Indeed, the Darwin family even altered the habits of the household in order to allow Emma and the children to attend his services (Moore 1985).

All this is not to say that Darwin held whole-heartedly all the tenets of any of the religious institutions he came into contact with. His involvement with the Friendly Club and village school did not increase his desire to actually attend Sunday services with Emma and the children. Darwin’s life in Down was in many ways typical of that of an English country gentleman, and his works and ideas must be judged in the context of his daily activities and relationships, rather than viewed through the lens of later interpretations by both followers and detractors. This side of Darwin’s life was enormously significant to his interactions with his peers, and to his own view of his social standing, but has been almost completely forgotten in the public understanding of Darwin’s views.


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