Charles Darwin died on 19 April 1882, at the age of 73. To some it was deplorable that he should have departed an unbeliever, and in the years that followed several stories surfaced that Darwin had undergone a death-bed conversion and renounced evolution. These stories began to be included in sermons as early as May 1882.1 However, the best known is that attributed to a Lady Hope, who claimed she had visited a bedridden Charles at Down House2 in the autumn of 1881. She alleged that when she arrived he was reading the Book of Hebrews, that he became distressed when she mentioned the Genesis account of creation, and that he asked her to come again the next day to speak on the subject of Jesus Christ to a gathering of servants, tenants and neighbours in the garden summer house which, he said, held about 30 people. This story first appeared in print as a 521-word article in the American Baptist journal, the Watchman Examiner,3 and since then has been reprinted in many books, magazines and tracts.
The main problem with all these stories is that they were all denied by members of Darwin’s family. Francis Darwin wrote to Thomas Huxley on 8 February 1887, that a report that Charles had renounced evolution on his deathbed was ‘false and without any kind of foundation’,4 and in 1917 Francis affirmed that he had ‘no reason whatever to believe that he [his father] ever altered his agnostic point of view’.5 Charles’s daughter Henrietta (Litchfield) wrote on page 12 of the London evangelical weekly, The Christian, for 23 February 1922, ‘I was present at his deathbed. Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier … . The whole story has no foundation whatever’.6 Some have even concluded that there was no Lady Hope.
Darwin’s biographer, Dr James Moore, lecturer in the history of science and technology at The Open University in the UK, has spent 20 years researching the data over three continents. He produced a 218-page book examining what he calls the ‘Darwin legend’.7 He says there was a Lady Hope. Born Elizabeth Reid Cotton in 1842, she married a widower, retired Admiral Sir James Hope, in 1877. She engaged in tent evangelism and in visiting the elderly and sick in Kent in the 1880s, and died of cancer in Sydney, Australia, in 1922, where her tomb may be seen to this day.8
Moore concludes that Lady Hope probably did visit Charles between Wednesday, 28 September and Sunday, 2 October 1881, almost certainly when Francis and Henrietta were absent, but his wife, Emma, probably was present.9 He describes Lady Hope as ‘a skilled raconteur, able to summon up poignant scenes and conversations, and embroider them with sentimental spirituality’.10 He points out that her published story contained some authentic details as to time and place, but also factual inaccuracies—Charles was not bedridden six months before he died, and the summer house was far too small to accommodate 30 people. The most important aspect of the story, however, is that it does not say that Charles either renounced evolution or embraced Christianity. He merely is said to have expressed concern over the fate of his youthful speculations and to have spoken in favour of a few people’s attending a religious meeting. The alleged recantation/conversion are embellishments that others have either read into the story or made up for themselves. Moore calls such doings ‘holy fabrication’!
It should be noted that for most of her married life Emma was deeply pained by the irreligious nature of Charles’s views, and would have been strongly motivated to have corroborated any story of a genuine conversion, if such had occurred. She never did.
It therefore appears that Darwin did not recant, and it is a pity that to this day the Lady Hope story occasionally appears in tracts published and given out by well-meaning people.