Thursday, 31 March 2011

Rev. Reed on Darwin

From the Unitarian General Assembly Email News

Important new book from the Lindsey Press on Charles Darwin

New Book

'Till The Peoples All Are One': Darwin's Unitarian Connections by Rev. Clifford M. Reed

Charles Darwin described himself as an agnostic, but how far was he really a Unitarian?

That is the question that the Reverend Cliff Reed sets out to explore in the newly published 'Till the peoples all are one': Darwin's Unitarian Connections.

The short and sharply focused biography explores Darwin's extensive connections with members of the Unitarian faith community and the extent to which their ethos had an impact on, or at the least coincided with, his own. Cliff considers their emphasis on scientific understanding in the quest for knowledge, their belief in human advancement, their changing assessment of the Bible, and their moral and social concerns.

Among these last, he examines in some detail the opposition to slavery shared by Darwin and most Unitarians and pursued by Unitarian Members of Parliament in their understanding that, black or white, all humans are equal and that the contemporary stereotyping of slaves as an inferior species was simply both wrong and cruel.

Reed details the changes in Darwin's religious beliefs from an apparent readiness to take orders in the Established Church to an increasing dislike of orthodox religion setting this in a contemporary Unitarian context which included Unitarians who were prepared to have their children baptised in an Anglican church, and radical Unitarian thinkers like James Martineau and his sister, the writer and journalist Harriet Martineau. He gives some emphasis to Darwin's approval of the faith of contemporary American Unitarians such as Francis Ellingwood Abbot as expressed in the journal of the Free Religious Association.

The book, which began as a lecture given at the Ipswich meeting house during the bicentennial celebrations of Darwin's life in 2009, makes extensive use of the letters and other writings of Darwin himself and his contemporaries, providing valuable fresh perspectives.

In an extensive exploration of the understanding between the couple, it challenges conventional accounts of Emma Wedgwood, Darwin's wife, as a 'simple-minded evangelical Christian' demonstrating that she was in fact a lifelong Unitarian, widely read and intelligent and, although she might attend an Anglican church when in the country, she went to Martineau's Little Portland Street chapel when in London.

Reed concludes that, 'Unitarians - of various kinds - touched Darwin's life at so many key junctures from early childhood to old age that it seems perverse to deny the immense significance of their faith tradition for him'. He adds that, although present-day Unitarians have been loath to claim Darwin as one of our own, we should 'not be too quick to deny him either'.

The book is available from Audrey Longhurst at Essex Hall (Tel: 020 7240 2384) at £7.50 plus £0.72 postage. It will be offered at a special price of £6.50 at the Annual Meetings of the General Assembly at Swansea.

Kate Taylor, Lindsey Press Panel

Charles Darwin was the eyes and ears of his Anglican absentee Rector but his sympathy was with the Darwin-Wedgwood clan and this was was why he was shunned by a later incumbent. But in fact Charles Darwin also approved of a non-conformist evangelical who was able to collect up the village drunks. Emma Darwin did believe in God the creator and life after death, and this is what could have been offended by Charles's doubts regarding animal and human origins. Her beliefs were consistent with much Unitarian piety at the time. When attending at the Anglican Church, she turned herself and the children around when the creed was said to indicate that she and they did not believe it nor approved of the concept. Once I decided to abstain from it, I used to content myself with staying sat down or sitting down when the creed was said, but often thought of Emma's stood up alternative.

1 comment:

Erp said...

People seem to forget that Emma's views may have changed over her lifetime (though never orthodox Anglican). Also how much did she disagree with her husband's conclusions versus people assuming she did?