Why Darwin donated to missionaries

HMS Beagle

HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego by Conrad Martens

It’s well known that Charles Darwin became an agnostic. What’s less well known is that, whilst remaining an agnostic, he became a regular donor to and honorary member of the South American Missionary Society. Nick Spencer, in his book Darwin and God, charts Darwin’s religious beliefs in some detail. Here, I want to explore why Darwin donated to missionaries.

Darwin wrote to his old friend Admiral Sir James Sulivan (who had been a lieutenant on the Beagle), on 30th June 1870:

I had never heard a word about the success of the T. del Fuego mission. It is most wonderful, and shames me, as I always prophesied utter failure. It is a grand success. I shall feel proud if your Committee think fit to elect me an honorary member of your society.

Writing in 1885 (24th April), Sulivan gave this account of Darwin’s relationship with SAMS:

Mr. Darwin had often expressed to me his conviction that it was utterly useless to send Missionaries to such a set of savages as the Fuegians, probably the very lowest of the human race. I had always replied that I did not believe any human beings existed too low to comprehend the simple message of the Gospel of Christ.

Sulivan goes on:

After many years, … he wrote to me that the recent accounts of the Mission proved to him that he had been wrong and I right in our estimates of the native character, and the possibility of doing them good through Missionaries; and he requested me to forward to he Society an enclosed cheque for £5, as a testimony of the interest he took in their good work.

He quotes letters from Darwin, including this one:

On June 10th, 1879: ‘The progress of the Fuegians is wonderful, and had it not occurred would have been to me quite incredible.’

Darwin had been ready to write off the Fuegians as barely human, beyond help, with no hope of them learning anything new. But, as Sulivan writes, the missionaries had gone there motivated by their belief that we are all made in the image of God, that all humanity is equal under God. The missionaries preached, educated and helped the natives, and showed that they were as capable of reading, writing, worshipping God, working with machinery and so on as any other group of humans. I think that this is a great practical demonstration of the importance of the Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei, of people being created in the image of God.

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