On a recent London holiday (my mini-tribute to Mother England for her role in providing me so fine a vacation experience), my Westminster Abbey tour found me standing directly atop the grave of Charles Darwin right when our quirky bird “London Walks” tour guide first mentioned the notables buried there. It was actually a bit of a shock, seeing his name right at the tips of my tennies.
Quickly moving on to be wowed by the likes of Chaucer, Newton, and Churchill, I didn’t give a whole lot of vacation thought over to Darwin’s place of rest until I rested my own Yankee arse back at my computer sorting through the snaps (still tributing).
Then it finally dawned. (I am a quick study.) Ironic, isn’t it, that the scientist most thoroughly associated with the irreligious occupies such a high place of Christian burial.
As an enthusiastic lover of irony (I’d be a groupie if irony had groupies), I felt it my duty to investigate.
Turns out that most characterize Darwin (who was actually the Chaplain on board the HMS Beagle before being drawn, on the same voyage, to his signature naturalism) as having died an agnostic. He lost a lifelong mooring in his Christian faith not with his famed discoveries but when his daughter Annie died tragically at age ten. That he might has succumbed to doubt seems understandably human in reading his eulogy to Annie:
…the main feature in her disposition which at once rises before me is her buoyant joyousness. Her joyousness and animal spirits radiated from her whole countenance and rendered every movement elastic and full of life and vigor. It was delightful and cheerful to behold her. We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age.”
Apparently Darwin’s wife remained a woman of deep faith who he, as a consummate family man, was seriously disinclined to want to ever offend.
A memorial sermon on Darwin’s passing was preached in the Abbey on the Sunday following the funeral by the Bishop of Carlisle:
“I think that the interment of the remains of Mr. Darwin in Westminster Abbey is in accordance with the judgment of the wisest of his countrymen; It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr. Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God.”
Some one hundred and twenty-ish years after his death (and exactly 200 after his birth), we clearly haven’t sorted through that can of worms.
But with this bicentennial blurb, I wish to hereby serve notice that our subconsciously-drawn generalizations about people tend to be pretty half-baked, if baked at all.
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. You can reach her at email@example.com.