It is unlikely that Charles Darwin gave up his belief in evolution when he was dying.
Did Charles Darwin reject evolution before he died?
Did Darwin really have a deathbed conversion?
It is unfortunate that many well-meaning Christians — including many preachers — promote the story that Charles Darwin withdrew his belief in evolution on his deathbed.
It would be a spectacular story for Christianity if it were true, but Christians should not bear false witness if it is not true.
Tracing the story
Many researchers have tried to trace this story back to its beginning. As far as we can tell, they have all concluded that the story about Darwin's deathbed rejection of evolution is not true.
Details of the tale vary, but the basic account, which first appeared in the Watchman-Examiner (Boston) of August 19, 1915, goes like this:
Nowhere does this story say that Darwin expressed doubt about evolution. Nor does it say that he committed his life to Christ. It seems more likely that Darwin's thinking was “how can you believe the Bible if you can't prove it's true?”
In fact, from letters that Darwin wrote we find that when people asked him his beliefs about God, he generally refused to give a satisfactory answer. His son Francis always maintained that his father was an agnostic.
One of Darwin's biographers, James Moore, examined the “Darwin legend” for 20 years and wrote a book about it in 1994. (The Darwin Legend, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan.) Moore found some truth in the story, but many enrichments, which he called “holy fabrication.”
Yes, there was a “Lady Hope” — Lady Elizabeth Hope (see photo at left), born Elizabeth Reid Cotton in Tasmania, Australia, on Friday December 9, 1842. She was the daughter of a British general, General Sir Arthur Cotton. She took part in tent evangelism and visited sick people in Kent in the 1880s.
She married retired Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Hope in 1877, who was 34 years her senior, and gained the title of Lady Hope of Carriden. She died in Sydney, Australia, in March, 1922. Her gravestone still stands at Rookwood Cemetery in the Sydney suburb of Lidcombe.
Details of the story “embellished”
Moore believes that Lady Hope (who seems to have used the title Lady Hope rather than the more common protocol of Lady Elizabeth) probably did visit Darwin six or seven months before he died. But Moore found that many of the details in the embellished stories were clearly wrong.
Darwin's second daughter, Henrietta Litchfield, was quoted in The Christian of February 23, 1922, as saying that Lady Hope never visited her father during any of his illnesses. But many people could have visited Darwin whom his daughter did not know about, or had forgotten, so this is not conclusive evidence that Lady Hope did not visit Darwin.
After all, Henrietta made this claim almost 30 years after her father's death, she was now almost 80, and she and her husband Richard had not been living permanantly in the Darwin home at the time. Henrietta is also known for her “selective editing” when it came to the religious side of her own mother Emma (see Henrietta Litchfield's biography in The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science), so she certainly could have been the same when it came to incidents involving her father.
Lady Hope true; Darwin's conversion untrue
Darwin's family has always denied that Charles converted and renounced evolution, which fits with the known facts. But we should keep in mind that even if Darwin had renounced evolution, this would not prove or disprove evolution, any more than Christianity would be disproved if a famous Christian renounced it. Truth is not decided by a popularity vote.
As mentioned above, James Moore found what other researchers have found. The story of Darwin's conversion and renunciation of evolution is either an invention or unwarranted embroidery on the original story.
Postscript: Only 13 days after Henrietta Litchfield's public denunciation of the Lady Elizabeth Hope story appeared in The Christian, Lady Hope succumbed to terminal cancer and died on Wednesday March 8, 1922 in Sydney, Australia.