A new world record at auction for a letter by Charles Darwin was set at Bonhams New York yesterday (21 September) at the History of Science and Technology sale. The highly personal and unusually pointed statement on Darwin’s lack of belief in the Bible and in Jesus Christ as the son of God was sold for $197,000, (£127,000) having been estimated at $70,000-90,000 (£45,000-60,000).
Darwin’s letter is a reply to a young barrister named Francis McDermott who wrote on November 23, 1880 with a very unusual request: “…If I am to have pleasure in reading your books I must feel that at the end I shall not have lost my faith in the New Testament. My reason in writing to you therefore is to ask you to give me a Yes or No to the question Do you believe in the New Testament….” McDermott continues by promising not to publicize Darwin’s reply in the “theological papers”.
Darwin responded the very next day:
Nov. 24 1880
I am sorry to have to
inform you that I do
not believe in the Bible
as a divine revelation
& therefore not in Jesus
Christ as the son of God.
McDermott was true to his word and this letter was unknown to scholars for over 100 years. The subject of Darwin’s religiosity had long been a cause of vehement debate. Darwin himself largely refrained from public comment, probably to respect the feelings of his friends and family. Just a month before penning this note, Darwin wrote to the prominent atheist Edward Aveling, “It has … been always my object to avoid writing on religion, and I have confined myself to science.”
Commenting on the letter, Darwin’s great-great-grandson Matthew Chapman said, “You have to remember this was written two years before he died. You say what mean. I don’t think you are inclined to lie or showboat. You know you are facing death at that point and so I think this is a clear and honest expression of his atheism.”
Darwin studied theology at Christ’s College, Cambridge at the suggestion of his father but preferred to spend his time collecting specimens with a select circle of naturalists. It was Darwin’s mentor John Henslow, a clergyman and a professor of Mineralogy at Cambridge, who nominated the 22-year old Darwin for the history-making voyage on the Beagle. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859 and it was then that Darwin’s faith in religion or lack thereof became the subject of public controversy. Darwin died in 1882, the greatest naturalist of his age. Rumors of a deathbed conversion were widely believed but firmly denied by his daughter.