RECORD: Conway, Moncure Daniel. 1905. [Recollection of visiting Darwin, 1873]. Autobiography: memories and experiences. 2 vols. London: Cassell and Co, vol. 2, pp. 324-7.

REVISION HISTORY: Text prepared and edited by John van Wyhe 11.2010. RN2

NOTE: See record in the Freeman Bibliographical Database, enter its Identifier here.

"Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907. American Unitarian clergyman. Abolitionist. 1863-84 Minister South Place Chapel, Finsbury, London. 1864 C abandoned theism upon the death of one of his sons. C and the congregation left fellowship with the Unitarian Church. South Place Chapel eventually became South Place Ethical Society. 1873 Jan. 24 Visited Down House. ED's dairy. 1873 Sent Col. T.W. Higginson's Collected essays to CD. Recollection of CD in 1873 in Autobiography (F2098), transcribed in Darwin Online." van Helvert & John van Wyhe, Darwin: A Companion, 2021.

[page] 324

The subjects of my [lectures at Sheffield] were advertised, and one on "The Pre-Darwinite and the Post-Darwinite World" attracted Darwin. I was told that he listened to it; but he rarely came to London, and probably the discourse was reported to him. I soon after received an invitation to visit him at "Down," his house near Bromley. I went to Bromley with the Wedgwoods. Hensleigh Wedgwood was a very interesting gentleman, but inclined to put some faith in "occultism." Mrs. Wedgwood told me anecdotes about her brother (Darwin), one of which is quaint. Darwin could never realize the world-wide impression made by his discovery, nor his own fame. [William] Gladstone, then Prime Minister, being in the neighborhood of Down, had called. When he had gone Darwin said, "To think of such a great man coming to see me!"

The other guests at Down, besides the Wedgwoods and myself, were my friends Charles [Eliot] Norton and his sister of Cambridge, Massachusetts. A sister of Mrs. Charles Norton married a son of Darwin.

Darwin was not in perfect health, and his wife and daughters

[page] 325

took care that he should retire early. My opportunity for conversing with him came next day. In the soft spring morning before sunrise I looked out of my bedroom window and saw Darwin in his garden, inspecting his flowers. His grey head was bent to each bush as if bidding it good-morning. And what a head! All that the phrenologists had written was feeble compared with a look at that big head with its wonderful dome, and the lobes above each luminous eye. All the forms of organic nature had contributed something to represent them visibly in the constitution of the head able to interpret them.

I was soon with Darwin in the garden, which was in floral glory. He expressed satisfaction that I had been able to derive from evolution the hopeful religion set forth in my discourse, but I remember that he did not express agreement with it. He spoke pleasantly of W. J. Fox M. P., my predecessor at South Place (whom he well knew), and asked me about [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, whose writings interested him. But he had not been aware of the extent of Emerson's poetic anticipations of his discovery many years before it was published. While we were talking of these things the birds began to insist on his attention. One in particular—a hermit thrush—perched on the topmost point of a tree, continued long his marvelous song. From my point of view he was justifying his "hermit" profession by a Vedic hymn to the rising sun, but Darwin considered that he was no real hermit or yogi at all, but had a love affair on hand, and was singing a canticle to his beloved.

When we were presently at breakfast the post came,—a pile of letters which the daughters began to open, separating from those of friends the large number from strangers in all parts of the world. A few of these were read aloud for our amusement, letters from crude people reporting to Darwin observations which they believed important. One American farmer wrote about the marvelous intelligence of his dog, who always knew when he was about to take a walk, dancing about so soon as he touched his cane. One had some commonplaces to tell about his new variety of beans, another something about his pigeons. The rest of us laughed, but Darwin said, "Let them all be pleasantly answered. It is something to have people observing the things in their gardens and barnyards."

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Adjoining the house was the conservatory in which Darwin carried on his experiments. Into this he invited me, overcoming my hesitation by saying that he particularly desired it. I felt indeed that it was right, because I was minister of the chief rationalistic congregation and was endeavoring to transfer the religious sentiment from a supernatural to a scientific basis. He took pains to show me everything. There was the enclosure in which he and Sir John Lubbock, who resided near him, conducted their experiments with ants. But Darwin was at that time chiefly occupied with the earthworm, his volume on which impresses me as next to his "Origin of Species" in value.

Darwin's unbelief in all varieties of religious theory was not at that time known to me. Although a letter of his, afterwards printed, shows that he must have thought my vision of a "Post-Darwinite" religion an illusion, no word of that kind fell from him. His kindly spirit, his interest in the ideas animating liberal ministers, indicated his desire that we should all work out his discovery in its moral applications in our own several ways. It was not exactly his realm, and he knew its importance too well to venture much even theoretically upon it. In the afternoon we had some drives in the neighbourhood, and no doubt passed by without notice the famous "Tom Paine Tree," which I visited with interest many years later.

The visit to "Down" was charming. It stands in my loving remembrance as an era related to that in which I first met Emerson in his home at Concord. But it involved a new departure in my earthward pilgrimage.


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Darwin and Emerson died at nearly the same time (April 20 and April 27, 1882). The relation of these two minds to each other and to their time is striking. In the year (1836) when Darwin abandoned theology to study nature, Emerson, having also abandoned theology, published his first book, "Nature," whose theme is Evolution. It was a notable circumstance that on the death of these two men who have done away with supernaturalism, no voice of odium theologicum broke the homage of England and America. The scene in Westminster Abbey at the burial of Darwin was impressive. From the chapel of St. Faith the body of the great man was borne by the procession along the remote cloisters. We who had long been in our appointed seats in the Abbey presently heard a faint melodious strain; nearer the dirge of the invisible choir approached; and when at length the great door of the Abbey opened, and the choristers appeared, and the coffin laden with wreaths from all parts of Europe, a stir of emotion passed through the waiting company. There were following that coffin more than a hundred of the first men in England and some from other countries. On many faces the grief was visible. Huxley, [John] Tyndall, Francis Galton, Sir John Lubbock, Sir Joseph Hooker, could with difficulty control their grief. It was dark in the Abbey and the lights but feebly struggled with the gloom. There was something almost spectral in the slow moving of the procession with noiseless tread. Around in every direction the throng of marble statues were discernible, as if a cloud of witnesses gathered to receive the new-comer in their Valhalla. But it was an earthly Valhalla. The darkness of the Abbey, only made visible by occasional lamps, might have been regarded by saints of the still radiant windows as emblematic of the curtain drawn by knowledge beyond the grave. To me the gloom deepened when the service thanked God for removing such a man out of this wicked world, but lifted a little when the white-robed choristers gathered around the three graves—those of Newton, [John] Herschel, and Darwin—and sang a new anthem, "Happy is the man that findeth wisdom!" Amid the universal homage to Darwin one adverse sentiment is widely noted and rebuked. L'Univers, the Roman Catholic organ in Paris, said, "When hypothesis tends to nothing less than the destruction of faith, the shutting out of God from the heart of man, and the diffusion of the filthy leprosy of Materialism, the savant who invents and propagates them is either a criminal or a fool. Voilà ce que nous avons a dire du Darwin des singes."

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