Darwin and the Clergyman

Darwin 200 / by Samantha Evans /

Letters between Charles Darwin and the vicar of Downe document a close friendship, and a surprising mutual interest in preserving the church.

Downe Church in 2007. Photo: Sam Pablo Kuper of the Darwin Correspondence Project

There were those churchmen in Victorian England who reacted to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution with what we would recognize as intolerance today, but many were open to Darwin’s ideas. For John Brodie Innes, Darwin’s close friend and the vicar of Darwin’s home village of Downe, natural selection did not threaten his worldview. After reading Descent of Man, Innes wrote to his friend, “I have an abhorrence of an ape, but in my boy days had a very favorite little ring tailed monkey, and I should much prefer one of that kind as my more immediate ancestor.” This is from one of many letters exchanged between Darwin and Innes. Those letters, now being published by the Darwin Correspondence Project, an Anglo-American initiative, document the pair working closely to preserve the church for the sake of the community, particularly during a little-known scandal in 1868 and 1869, when two corrupt curates were appointed to the church.

Darwin was 33 when he and his young family moved to Downe, a rural village southeast of London. It was 1842 and Downe was tiny, with about 500 citizens. John Brodie Innes, as the clergyman, and Darwin, as a rich landowner, were among a handful of men informally supervising village life. Darwin and Innes served together on various committees and church-funded groups, including the National School, the Sunday School, and several charities for the poor. Although Darwin later said that he gave up Christianity after the age of 40, the church was the linchpin of rural society, and a man in his position could hardly avoid contact with it.

In 1862, Innes inherited land in Scotland and left Downe, appointing a curate to cover his duties. This system worked smoothly until Samuel James O’Hara Horsman, a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin, applied for the position. Innes distrusted Horsman, but gave way to the “universal judgment in his favour” at Downe and appointed him.

Within a few months, Horsman had left the parish for an extended holiday without giving notice, and dissatisfaction with him began to circulate. Horsman wrote to Darwin from a friend’s house in London to defend his absence, complaining of “wretched & miserable lodgings at Downe” and low pay. Darwin wrote to Innes at once about Horsman’s erratic behavior, to which Innes responded that if Horsman didn’t resign, he would recommend the archbishop dismiss him. Now, clearly feeling the difficulty of administering his parish from afar, Innes offered to sell his “advowson,” the authority to appoint the vicar of Downe, to Darwin. Darwin refused it, most likely because he found the position inappropriate for himself as a nonbeliever.

Instead, Darwin helped Innes sort out the accumulating accusations against Horsman, including Darwin’s own suspicion that Horsman had stolen the church’s organ fund. “He was curiously anxious to get up a subscription for the new organ,” Darwin wrote to Innes. “And some of the Lubbocks [a wealthy family in the village] have suggested that he may have pocketed the money & never paid for it.”

Following Horsman’s resignation, Innes appointed another curate. Darwin wrote to Innes, showing wariness of the appointee, John Warburton Robinson: “I have called on Mr Robinson…. I shd like to hear your opinion whether I might safely pass over the school accounts to him, as it plagues me keeping 3 sets of accounts. I suppose you can form no opinion how long he will be here.”

When Robinson took off to Ireland for three months not long after, the typically reserved Darwin dashed off a forceful letter to Innes. This is the surviving draft:

“Mr Horsman, now that he is known to have been a complete & [premeditated] swindler (for no other interpretation as it seems to me can be put on his conduct about the Organ) has done much injury in the Parish & some of the subscribers to the School were actually afraid to pay the subscriptions to Mr Robinson apparently merely for being a clergyman; & what they will think now that he has gone off for 3 months, I know not… As I fully believe that you are anxious to do all the good that you can to your Parish, I am sure you will allow me to say, that unless you can very soon make some fixed arrangement, so that some respectable man may hold the living permanently, great injury will be done here, which it will take years to repair, & what you will consider of importance the Church will be lowered in the estimation of the whole neighbourhood…”

Although Darwin later said that he gave up Christianity after the age of 40, the church was the linchpin of rural society, and a man in his position could hardly avoid contact with it.

Innes, aware of how much he was taxing Darwin’s patience, wrote back, “I do not forget that you have taken, and are taking, a great deal of trouble as a labour of love, having no responsibility but the desire to do good, and help an old friend out of a most distressing dilemma.”

Robinson did return to Downe from Ireland but was instantly embroiled in scandal. Darwin wrote to Innes citing rumors that Robinson had been seen walking with women after dark. “My wife found Mrs Allen [of another well-off Downe family ] very indignant about Mr R.s conduct with one of her maids. ... Our maids tell my wife that they do not believe that hardly anyone will go to Church now that Mr R. has returned.” Sexual misconduct by a clergyman was a grave offence, much as it is today, and would have led to Robinson’s instant dismissal.

The gossipy villagers’ reactions may seem puritanical now, but there was much at stake for the community, and Darwin had a vested interest in alerting Innes. If the curates continued to misbehave, the villagers would stop going to church, and contributions to church-run charities and initiatives would dry up. The faltering of an institution like the church would have spread instability in such a small town, affecting even those who were not religious.

Innes was working hard to replace himself, but he needed hard evidence to oust Robinson. Darwin made an attempt to find out the truth: “Mr Allens cook saw Mr R. talking to [a girl] in the road near the house. He had heard from Mrs Allen that the mother of the girl . . . had written to Mr R. forbidding him to call at her cottage; also that Mr R. had been seen to go into some house in the village where some girl supposed to have a bad character lives…” All of the witnesses eventually clammed up and would not testify against Robinson, but Robinson soon left Downe anyway; by the following year, he was curate in another town.

When a new vicar, Henry Powell, was finally appointed, Darwin was pleased, writing to Innes, “Mr Powell is, I think, a thoroughly good man & gentleman. Does good work of all kinds in the Parish. But preaches, I hear, very dull sermons.” It was a subtle compliment to his dear friend.

After all his efforts to save the parish of Downe, Darwin’s close involvement with the church would soon come to an end. A new vicar, George Ffinden, arrived in 1871 and was intolerant both of Darwin as an evolutionist and of his wife and daughters as Unitarians. Darwin’s family soon stopped attending Downe Church, although Darwin continued his charitable work in the village.

Throughout the 19th century, the authority of the church shrank, and non-Anglicans and nonbelievers were gradually emancipated. As the church’s powers and responsibilities were restricted, many Anglican clergymen began to concentrate on serving their congregations exclusively, rather than attending to the needs of the whole community. Some of the more extreme among them refused to have anything to do with dissenters and would certainly have refused to have much to do with Darwin. John Brodie Innes was perhaps old-fashioned in his willingness to work with nonchurchgoers and nonbelievers like Darwin. “We often differed,” Darwin wrote to Innes long after Innes had left Downe, “but you are one of those rare mortals, from whom one can differ & yet feel no shade of animosity.” Soon enough, opinions would harden on both sides of the religion/science debate and the kind of intuitive cooperation and common social goals that existed between John Brodie Innes and Charles Darwin would become virtually extinct.— Samantha Evans is a Research Associate at the Darwin Correspondence Project in Cambridge

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Originally published February 12, 2009

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