Christians accepted Darwin


Almost every web site I read assumes that Darwin and Christianity were in opposition in the nineteenth century. This is demonstrably false. Sure, some vocal individuals were against Darwin. And the media loves a good fight! But when archbishops and official Bible Dictionaries support you, it's hard to say Christians are against you.

I include Charles Lyell in the evidence, because Darwin is merely a footnote. The real discovery is that life has been on earth for far longer than 6,000 years. Also, this is about Christians in the nineteenth century, though I do mention the twentieth century at the end. Finally, I admit to bias: I will always consider fundamentalists to be fringe groups, due to their reliance on Paul. If you give them more credence then you may come to a different conclusion.

The mainstream church

Charles Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey, near to Charles Lyell, the man who established the age of the Earth. Darwin's memorial committee included both archbishops, and the bishop of London. (Quenby, p.323)

For those not familiar with the English church, the two archbishops are the highest religious authorities in the land (other than the queen, whose position is more ceremonial than doctrinal). And the bishop of the capital city was involved for good measure. And the church disliked Darwin? Really? Let's look at the evidence.

The famous debate?

We've all heard of the debate between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford. But writers seldom focus on the reason for that debate: the publication of "Essays and Reviews", the cutting edge theology of the time. It gave a Christian perspective to the latest discoveries in scholarship, and in it Baden Powell (a prominent church of England priest and mathematician) praised "Mr. Darwin's masterly volume". The theological position was simple: God is a law giver. God works by laws. Scientists simply uncover those laws, and Darwin had done so.

Of course, there are all kinds of Christians, and not all of them agreed on everything. Wilberforce chose to argue with the new discoveries, and in doing so made a fool of himself. Thomas Huxley was nick-named "Darwin's Bulldog" for a reason, and enjoyed the fight. Most of those watching (who statistically would have been mostly Christian), could see that Wilberforce was an idiot and the theologians were right.

The age of the Earth

The Bible suggests that Adam and Eve lived around 4000 BC. But what did the creation story mean by creation in "seven days"? Today we know about the Enuma Elish, so "seven days" probably referred to seven days of instruction about the creation, but they didn't know that then. How did they handle it? By asking if it meant "day" as in "the day of the Lord", an indeterminate time:

The great age of the Earth was confirmed by Charles Lyell in the 1830s. Lyell was inspired by William Buckland, an ordained minister and later Dean of Westminster. Buckland saw the obvious layers in the rocks, and concluded, quite naturally, that there were a series of creations then destructions, and ours, the creation to the end of our world as described in the Bible, is simply the current creation. This was not a problem for Bible believers. As far back as 1816, Bishop Gleig wrote this in The Stackhouse Bible:

"Moses records the history of the earth only in its present state [...] There is nothing in the sacred writings forbidding us to suppose that they [fossils] are the ruins of a former earth." (Klaver, p.19)

It is true that some religious fanatics would not adapt to science. But the mainstream would, as Lyell noted in a letter to his sister. The Catholic church had only just (1822) lifted a ban on Galileo's writing, it was embarrassing to admit they were wrong, so they were keen not to make the same mistake again. Lyell wrote:

"I have got a rod for the fanatics, from a quarter they expect it not. the last Pope did positively dare to convoke a congregation, and reverse all that his predecessors had done against Galileo, and there was only a minority of one against; and he instituted lectures on the Mosaic cosmogony to set free astronomy and geology" (Klaver, p.28)

Lyell and the mainstream church

Lyell's work merely suggested that the pre-Adam period, rather than being a series of creations, was gradual. His books caused a stir, and at first people tried to find fault, as is usual with new discoveries. but within seven years the Christians were getting used to it. In 1840 John Pye Smith, Principal of Homerton Divinity College, published "On the Relation Between the Holy Scriptures and Some Parts of Geological Science." Soon after, other books like "The Genesis of the Earth and Man" and "Geology and Revelation" and "The Testimony of the Rocks" came to the same conclusion: Lyell was right, and does not contradict the Bible. Christians simply adjusted their views: the pre-Adam period was gradual, not catastrophic. So what?

One of the many religious defenders of Lyell was John Bird Sumner, later the archbishop of Canterbury. In 1929, when Lyell's work was most controversial, he wrote in support of it.(Rudwick, p.295, footnote 22). Sumner died in 1862, so was not one of the archbishops who arranged Darwin's memorial: it appears that it was normal for the heads of the church to support Darwin and Lyell.

By 1871, the official Bible Commentary, written by the Bishops and Clergy of the Anglican Church, left no doubt. Mainstream Christianity accepted Lyell. End of story. (source)


As for people before Adam, the standard Catholic encyclopedia, New Advent, cites books from 1873 and 1910 saying there is nothing against the idea that humans were on Earth before Adam: as long as they did not mix with Adam's seed.

"Palmieri ("De Creatione", Prato, 1910, p. 281, thes. xxx) does not place any theological censure on the opinion maintaining the past existence of such Preadamites, and Fabre d'Envieu ("Les Origines de la terre et de l'homme", Paris, 1873, lib. XI, prop. 1) defends the theory as probable." (source)

As for how far the Bible admits to links between these two groups, a visitor to that page reminds us that Genesis itself is vague on the question: the serpent is often thought of as being humanoid, and later we read of the sons of God mixing with the daughters of men. And I would add that "gods" was plural, Cain somehow founded a city after being driven out, and we have the cherubim as well. The only definite statement that Adam was first comes from Paul, and I argue that he is not reliable at all.

More about pre-Adamites

Bible readers did not have to wait for Darwin to think about pre-Adamites. The French theologian Isaac La Peyrere (1596-1676) argued for their existence, based on the Bible. He not only did this without any knowledge of evolution, but did so based on the same passages in Paul that others say forbid the idea! Now that's what I call a thinker.

"La Peyrere argued that Paul's words in Chapter 5, verses 12-14 of his Epistle to the Romans should be interpreted such that "if Adam sinned in a morally meaningful sense there must have been an Adamic law according to which he sinned. If law began with Adam, there must have been a lawless world before Adam, containing people". Thus, according to La Peyrere there must have been two creations: first the creation of the Gentiles and then that of Adam, who was father of the Jews. The existence of pre-Adamites, La Peyrere argued, explained Cain's life after Abel's murder which, in the Genesis account, involved the taking of a wife and the building of a city." (source)

Did scientists see a conflict with the Bible?

"Francis Galton, no friend of the churches and a friend of Darwin sent a questionnaire to all persons whom he regarded as established scientists. Of the 126 replies, 88 or seven out of ten, said they were members of one of the established churches, and a number of the others were members of one of the other churches." (Quenby, p.322)

Maybe they had no choice? Maybe they were closet atheists, who only went to church because they had to? No, there were enough non-attenders to show that this was an available choice. After all, this was a hundred years after Thomas Paine and the French Revolution. Were all scientists such cowards that they could not say what they thought for fear of losing status? Even if they might be, this essay is about measurable facts, not speculation. Most of the scientists involved were Christians.

Did scientists feel hostility from believers?

The term "believers" included the vast majority of the population, so of course there will be anecdotal evidence of arguments. Some extremists (e.g. Wilberforce) went out of their way to attack Darwin. But after a while people got used to the new thinking. This is healthy: new ideas should be challenged. But gradually the mainstream adapts to the new information.

Asa Gray, the most important American botanist of the nineteenth century (1810-1888), outlined the reaction to Darwin, when speaking to the bishop of Rochester: "he could not say that there had been any undue or improper delay on the part of the Christian mind and conscience in accepting, in such sense as he deemed they ought to be accepted, Mr Darwin's doctrines" (Quenby, p.323)

What did ordinary Christians think?

The Christian position on various subjects was given in booklets by The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK). This is the oldest Anglican mission organisation, founded in 1698, and produces tracts for missionaries. In 1874, fifteen years after The Origin of Species was first published, the SPCK produced "Creation As Told By Theology And Science" (Ackland). It argued that Darwin was right, and that the story of Adam and Eve is a summary of events that took far longer. But the story had to be written in a simplified way, for a people unfamiliar with science. So it uses methods we would use to explain science to children. So for example, instead of saying "language evolved because farming evolved and people needed a way to identify their animals" it said "the first man, let's call him Adam (which means 'man') was placed in a garden to tend it, and he named the animals."

The SPCK book was hardly unique. A study of parish magazines shows that ordinary Christians readily accepted the new discoveries of science. (Platt) Their faith was not threatened, their understanding was simply growing.

What do young earth creationists say now?

Even modern hard line creationists admit that plenty of believers accepted Lyell at the time.

"It should be noted that two very influential geologists in England (and in the world) at this time were William Buckland (1784-1856) and Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873). Buckland became the head professor of geology at Oxford University in 1813 and Sedgwick gained the same position at Cambridge in 1818. Both were ordained Anglican clergy and both initially promoted old-earth catastrophism. But under the influence of Lyell they both converted to uniformitarianism with public recantations of their catastrophist views in the early 1830s. Buckland is often viewed as a defender of Noah's flood because of his 1823 book, Reliquiae Diluvianae. But this apparent defense of the flood was actually a subtle attack on it, as Scriptural geologists accurately perceived. Because of their powerful positions in academia and in the church, Sedgwick and Buckland led many Christians in the 1820s to accept the new geological theories about the history of the earth and to abandon their faith in the literal interpretation of Genesis and in the unique and geologically significant Noachian flood. One more fact about geology at this time deserves mention. The world's first scientific society devoted exclusively to geology was the London Geological Society (LGS), founded in 1807. From its inception, which was at a time when very little was known about the geological formations of the earth and the fossils in them, the LGS was controlled by the assumption that earth history is much older than and different from that presented in Genesis. And a few of its most powerful members were Anglican clergy." (source)

So they accept that mainstream believers at the time accepted an old earth. The only disagreement as whether changes happened in sudden bursts (as suggested by distinct levels of sediment) or gradually (as Lyell now argued). Lyell's arguments were persuasive, so educated Christians accepted them. Modern Young Earth Creationists of course say they were in error.

What changed in 1910

So what changed? Why is Darwin a problem for Christianity?

In the 1800s, the anti-Darwin people had a problem. Darwin was winning the battle for Christian minds. So the anti-Darwinists began to organise. In 1910 a number of them got together to publish a set of influential pamphlets, "The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth". This is where the term "fundamentalist" comes from: not from Moslems but from evangelical Christians.

So some Christians were shouting "Christians cannot believe in evolution". This created a split in the churches, between liberal and evangelical. This got worse in the 1980s when evangelical religion became more overtly political. For generations now, the loudest Christians have been those who oppose Darwin.

It became embarrassing for people who love science to be identified as Christian. Naturally some would drift away. This left the remaining Christianity slightly more anti-evolution. So more people drift away. And so on. And that is where we are today.


I often hear that Darwin was at odds with Christianity. That is factually incorrect. He was at odds with some Christians, and that gave him great concern. But the mainstream church accepted him.

Those who hated Darwin split the church, gradually driving away the young and educated. If enough young people leave then Christianity will become irrelevant. So the anti-evolutionists may have destroyed the church. Only time will tell.




This is not organised according to the Harvard method or any other. We live in the Internet age. Just click the link, or Google the topic. Time spent formatting bibliographies is time taken away from research.

Ackland, T.S: "The Story of Creation as told by Theology and Science", the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (1874, facsimile edition 2004)

Klaver, J.M: "Geology and Religious Sentiment: Effect of Geological Discoveries in English Society and Literature Between 1829 and 1859 (Brill's Studies in Intellectual History)" (1997)

Platt, J: "Suscribing to Faith? The Anglican Parish Magazine 1859-1929" (2016)

Quenby, J and Smith, J. M.: "Intelligent Faith: A Celebration of Darwinian Evolution" (2009).

Rudwick, M.J.S. "Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform" (2014)