Published: September 23, 2015
NEW YORK CITY — A new world record auction price for a letter by Charles Darwin was set at Bonhams September 21 at its history of science and technology auction. The personal and very pointed statement on Darwin’s lack of belief in the Bible and in Jesus Christ as the son of God attained $197,000, surpassing its $70/90,000 estimate.
Darwin’s letter is a reply to a young barrister named Francis McDermott who wrote him on November 23, 1880 with this 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 with a no.
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 you 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.
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