The notion that Charles Darwin was an agnostic and he was sensitive to his wife's more evangelical Christianity is rather way off the mark. She was pious, but retained her well informed Unitarian (conscience-first over critical scripture and traditions, and belief in the afterlife) viewpoint, and he was increasingly a materialist flux-agnostic (unsure of the meaning of theism), though not letting science encroach upon religious views, and yet he retained a close connection with the local Anglican church and its broad activities until it started specialising and concentrating on its own congregation over parish life as a whole.
Their Unitarian connected background was shared: they were cousins, a fact that led Darwin to wonder if this led to weaknesses in their children as he realised that, in animal and plant life, sexual difference was the road to variety and thus improvement. Their intellectual circle was leading Unitarians and a few connected emerging broad Church radicals.
In the nineteenth century a man might enter the clerical profession as a means of doing something else, for example being a naturalist. Charles Darwin might have taken this route, but his doubts about orthodoxy before marrying led him away from that combination. He still was involved with the church, however, overseeing several of its activities as part of his contribution to village life and social standards.
Back from the Beagle voyage he married, and six years after the voyage in 1842 they moved to Downe. Because there was no Unitarian chapel in the area they went to the Anglican church regularly, though Charles less regularly than the rest. He and brother had been christened in the Anglican Church, and conformity was necessary to have access to established higher education, especially if he was to be a clergyman. All the children were so christened; they all took communion but Emma would turn the family around at the creed.
Charles Darwin was especially friendly with the incumbent, the Reverend John Innes (1817–94), changing his name to John Brodie Innes in 1861 as a condition of inheriting land in Scotland where he went in 1861. He was a high churchman and was made perpetual curate of Downe from 1846. Darwin paid money to the Sunday School fund, and from 1848 to 1869 administered the Coal and Clothing Fund. Charles Darwin and John Innes founded a Friendly Club for the financial benefit of members. Innes did not accept Darwin's theory but they were still very friendly.
Thus when Innes went to Scotland, and remained incumbent (with decision making powers regarding the curate amounting to something like private property), Darwin became his eyes and ears regarding the curates coming into the village. With his own property, there was no parsonage in the village and it had a low income, thus it did not attract good candidates. A curate called Samuel James O'Hara Horsman didn't care for the accommodation and spent long periods absent on his yacht, and wrote to Darwin (not Innes) to sort out his finances before his replacement - Darwin kept Innes informed. The man took the church's organ fund. He went to prison for misappropriation of church funds.
The next one, John Warburton Robinson, ran off to Ireland for three months and was seen out with a lady. Darwin noted a church attender left for the chapel in his evidence for Innes against this man.
Henry Powell 1869–71 was fed up with the lack of process towards building a parsonage, so left, having taken from Darwin the Coal and Clothing and School funds administration.
Then came a long stayer: George Skertchley Ffinden, was the Vicar of Down, 1871–1911 (Darwin still corresponding with Innes about him). A high churchman like Innes, he did not get on with Charles Darwin. He rejected his evolutionary theory and did not care for Emma's Unitarian views. He did not want them as local pillars of the community and he regarded them as non-Anglicans. One of many clashes was when Emma wanted the Down School to be available for a working class reading room in the evenings. Ffinden opposed this: Charles wrote to the Privy Council to present its view to the School Committee which Ffinden took as going behind his back.
James William Condell Fegan, 1852–1925, was a non-conformist working in the village and Charles Darwin supported his evangelistic clean up of the local down and outs. They thus attended his services.
Such a social role and contact was important to Charles Darwin as a man of money, living in the former parsonage, despite a consistency between his science and his religion that meant open ended questioning and seeking plenty of evidence. Emma had the more focused belief and participation, but retained her critical faculties and identity.
Why blog about this? Well because I'm interested (Emma is something of a heroine of mine) and there is some misleading stuff going around at present about both of them, particularly in creationist circles but also beyond.
Darwin Correspondence Project (2009), 'Darwin and the Church: Historical Essay', Darwin Correspondence Project; no date; University of Cambridge, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/content/view/152/144/. [Accessed: Sunday March 15 2009, 14:02]
Darwin Correspondence Project (2009), 'Belief: Historical Essay: What did Darwin Believe?' Darwin Correspondence Project; no date; University of Cambridge, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/content/view/130/125/. [Accessed: Sunday March 15 2009, 14:25]