Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Lady Elizabeth Reid Hope (née Cotton; December 9 1842–8 March 1922) was a British evangelist who is generally believed to be the Lady Hope who claimed in 1915 that she had visited the British naturalist Charles Darwin shortly before his death in 1882. Hope claimed that Darwin had withdrawn his theory of evolution, and recanted . This Lady Hope Story is generally believed, even by many Creationists, to be false — or at least unverifiable — and if true, probably exaggerated. The story however remains a popular urban legend. Darwin's actual views on religion were somewhat complex and varied over his lifetime, and he tried to avoid controversy, but he tended towards agnosticism or weak theism.
Elizabeth Cotton was born in 1842 in Tasmania, Australia, the daughter of a British general, General Sir Arthur Cotton. Aged 35, she married a widower, retired Admiral Sir James Hope, who was 34 years her senior, in 1877 becoming Lady Hope of Carriden . Sir James died just four years later.
She and her father were part of the evangelist temperance movement, living in Beckenham Kent about 6 miles from Downe during the early 1880s. Charles Darwin's died on 19 April 1882 at Down House in Downe.
Hope remarried in 1893 to T.A. Denny, an Irish businessman some 24 years her senior. She continued to use the name "Lady Hope" rather than "Mrs Denny". Denny died in 1909. Hope travelled to the United States in 1913. It was there in 1915, 33 years after Darwin's death, in Northfield , Massachusetts that the story first appeared.
The Lady Hope Story
The Lady Hope Story first appears in an American Baptist newspaper the Watchman Examiner on August 15 1915. The author was identified only as a "consecrated English woman", "Lady Hope", but research by L.G. Pine a former editor of Burke's Peerage found no other Lady Hope other than Elizabeth Hope who was adult in the 1880s and still alive in 1915.
Original text of the article
- It was one of those glorious autumn afternoons, that we sometimes enjoy in England, when I was asked to go in and sit with the well known professor, Charles Darwin. He was almost bedridden for some months before he died. I used to feel when I saw him that his fine presence would make a grand picture for our Royal Academy; but never did I think so more strongly than on this particular occasion.
- He was sitting up in bed, wearing a soft embroidered dressing gown, of rather a rich purple shade.
- Propped up by pillows, he was gazing out on a far-stretching scene of woods and cornfields, which glowed in the light of one of those marvelous sunsets which are the beauty of Kent and Surrey. His noble forehead and fine features seem to be lit up with pleasure as I entered the room.
- He waved his hand toward the window as he pointed out the scene beyond, while in the other hand he held an open Bible, which he was always studying.
- "What are you reading now?" I asked as I seated myself beside his bedside. "Hebrews!" he answered - "still Hebrews. 'The Royal Book' I call it. Isn't it grand?"
- Then, placing his finger on certain passages, he commented on them.
- I made some allusions to the strong opinions expressed by many persons on the history of the Creation, its grandeur, and then their treatment of the earlier chapters of the Book of Genesis.
- He seemed greatly distressed, his fingers twitched nervously, and a look of agony came over his face as he said: "I was a young man with unformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything, and to my astonishment, the ideas took like wildfire. People made a religion of them."
- Then he paused, and after a few more sentences on "the holiness of God" and the "grandeur of this book," looking at the Bible which he was holding tenderly all the time, he suddenly said: "I have a summer house in the garden which holds about thirty people. It is over there," pointing through the open window. "I want you very much to speak there. I know you read the Bible in the villages. To-morrow afternoon I should like the servants on the place, some tenants and a few of the neighbours; to gather there. Will you speak to them?"
- "What shall I speak about?" I asked.
- "Christ Jesus!" he replied in a clear, emphatic voice, adding in a lower tone, "and his salvation. Is not that the best theme? And then I want you to sing some hymns with them. You lead on your small instrument, do you not?" The wonderful look of brightness and animation on his face as he said this I shall never forget, for he added: "If you take the meeting at three o'clock this window will be open, and you will know that I am joining in with the singing."
- How I wished I could have made a picture of the fine old man and his beautiful surroundings on that memorable day!
Denial by Darwin's children
- Lady Hope's account of my father's views on religion is quite untrue. I have publicly accused her of falsehood, but have not seen any reply. My father's agnostic point of view is given in my Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I., pp. 304–317. You are at liberty to publish the above statement. Indeed, I shall be glad if you will do so."
After the story had been revived in 1922, Darwin's daughter Henrietta Litchfield stated in The Christian for February 23, 1922 in an article titled: Charles Darwin’s Death-Bed: Story of Conversion Denied by Mrs. R.B. Litchfield:
- I was present at his deathbed, Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in the U.S.A. ... ...The whole story has no foundation whatever."
In 1958 The Autobiography of Charles Darwin was republished edited by Darwin's granddaughter Nora Barlow, which restored various tracts edited out by Francis Darwin in the original 1887 edition. These included some vague references to God.
Subsequent retellings and academic investigation
The story spread and became a popular urban legend. The claims were republished as late as October 1955 in the Reformation Review and in the Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland in February 1957.
There has been subsequent academic investigation into the story. Ronald W. Clark's The Survival of Charles Darwin explained the story but did not go into much detail. In 1994 Open University lecturer James Moore published The Darwin Legend, which claimed that Hope had visited Darwin sometime between 28 September and 2 October 1881, when Francis and Henrietta were absent, but Charles' wife Emma was present, but that Hope subsequently embellished the story.
False stories of deathbed recantations for other people are also common.
Whether or not Darwin did actually recant, the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection, with subsequent improvements, remains the central unifying paradigm of biology and is not doubted by the scientific community. Seen from a mainstream scientific point of view, the Lady Hope Story is a lie in a long string of lies from Creationists, and not a very good one at that.
Alternatively, from a Creationist point of view, one website claims "Christians have enough scientific evidence for Creation and against evolution without resorting to stories that can not (sic) be verified!".
- Clark, R.W. (1984) The Survival of Charles Darwin ISBN 0380699915
- Moore, J. (1994) The Darwin Legend ISBN 0801063183
Her maiden name is sometimes incorrectly given as Stapleton-Cotton. This is an error that appeared in Burke's Peerage; the Stapelton-Cotton name branched off the Cotton lineage after her ancestors had branched.
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