Charles Darwin, Christian

Many Christians see Darwin as a bogeyman, but a new book says he was driven by Christian abolitionism.

By + More

By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

It's no secret that Charles Darwin has become a scourge to many American Christians. But here's a secret: Darwin's scientific quest to was fueled by his Christian abolitionism. His "sacred cause," as Darwin called it, was to undermine a key precept of the slave trade—that blacks comprise an inferior race separate from whites—by proving the common descent of mankind from lower life forms.

This faith-based mission is the subject of the just-published   Darwin's Sacred Cause, by a pair of acclaimed Darwin biographers. I talked to one of them, James Moore, this week: 

Why do you call Darwin 's antislavery views a "sacred cause"?The phrase "sacred cause" is Darwin's. He didn't mean it was a spiritual, otherworldly pursuit. It was a sacred cause because it had already been called a sacred cause among English abolitionists. The word came up so many times that we had to purge it from our book—sacred this and sacred that.

The tradition that Darwin belonged to, Unitarianism, taught that all believers die and are resurrected at the end of time to face the final judgment and to live forever in perfected creation. There was no heaven or hell, in a sense, only a future state or perfection. Darwin's end was never about getting people off a sinking ship and into a spiritual realm where everything was perfect. Darwin and his family were interested in perfecting this world.

The unity of his faith and his humanitarianism was instilled in him from his youth. Darwin acquired his foundational belief in the brotherhood of all humans of all races when he was baptized, at 9 months. Even when he couldn't believe all the things he had been taught—he certainly gave up belief in Adam and Eve and, eventually, in the Bible as a moral authority—the unity of the human family was his bottom line.

How religious was the young Darwin ?When Darwin goes to Cambridge, he is expected to become an ordained clergyman in the Church of England. At Cambridge, he mixed with men whose theological views were indistinguishable from modern-day American fundamentalists: belief in the Bible, even if not as a textbook of science, and Adam and Eve. When he embarked on the Beagle voyage [his global fact-finding mission], he said he was so in captivity to the word of Scripture that he was able to quote the Bible as a moral authority. He was so priggish that his shipmates laughed at him for it. 

Read the full interview on