Bryan Misquotes Darwin, Part 2

William Jennings Bryan (1902)

I’m continuing to discuss a strange misquotation of Charles Darwin by William Jennings Bryan: “I deserved to be called an atheist.” It appears, as I explained in part 1, in the speech that Bryan recycled from his unused closing statement in the Scopes trial; he delivered it only once, in Winchester, Tennessee, on the day before his death, but it was published, so it’s readily available. It appears in a lengthy passage that Bryan quotes from the 1887 life and letters, edited by Francis Darwin. In transcribing it, Bryan makes a variety of minor and unimportant errors (failing to italicize “Beagle”; not following Darwin’s capitalizations; changing the style of the punctuation; and so forth). But he also commits a major error: he presents it as one unitary passage, whereas in fact it contains material from two separated passages. And, worst of all, he gets a key word wrong: what Darwin in fact wrote was, “I deserve to be called a Theist” (emphasis added).

Bryan’s contention that Darwin’s study of evolution caused him to lose his Christian faith is, of course, advanced in the service of arguing for the rightness of Tennessee’s Butler Act: “How,” he demands, “can any teacher tell his students that evolution does not tend to destroy his religious faith? How can an honest teacher conceal from his students the effect of evolution on Darwin himself?…The parents of Tennessee have reason enough to fear the effect of evolution on the minds of their children.” So the appeal of quoting Darwin as embracing atheism is clear, although shortly thereafter Bryan accurately represents Darwin’s considered opinion as agnosticism—”helpless and hopeless agnosticism,” as Bryan describes it—instead. Still, however congenial it was to Bryan’s purposes, it was clearly a misquotation. Was it a genuine and honest mistake or a deliberate misrepresentation?

The grammar of the passage provides a clue. The first two sentences of the passage are about Darwin’s views when he was on the Beagle, from 1836 to 1839, and Darwin employs the past tense. But the rest of the passage, except for the penultimate sentence which looks back to 1858 when Darwin was writing the Origin, is in the present tense. That includes the sentence containing “I deserved”; Darwin wrote, “I deserve,” but Bryan, perhaps thinking that he was correcting Darwin’s error, put it in the past tense, thus conveying the impression that Darwin “deserved to be called an atheist” while he was on the Beagle. But it’s important to Bryan’s overall argument that Darwin was dissuaded from his original Christian belief by his investigation of evolution, and Darwin was, as Bryan acknowledged, “orthodox” while he was on the Beagle. So that suggests that Bryan wouldn’t have wanted to characterize Darwin as then embracing atheism.

Confirmation comes from Bryan’s In His Image (1922), in which Bryan rehearses the same argument, but quotes the same passages from Darwin correctly:

It is fair to conclude that it was his own doctrine that led him astray, for in the same connection (in “Life and Letters”) he says that when aboard the Beagle he was called “orthodox and was heartily laughed at by several of the officers for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality.” In the same connection he thus describes his change and his final attitude: “When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause, having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the ‘Origin of Species’; and it is since that time that it has very gradually, with many fluctuations, become weaker. But then arises the doubt: Can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?

“I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.” (emphasis in original)

So while it was a bad misquotation, the evidence suggests that it was a genuine mistake, and since Bryan reportedly dictated his undelivered closing statement to a secretary, it wasn’t necessarily entirely Bryan’s fault.

Bryan’s misquotation of Darwin was repeated at least once. In a letter published in Science in 1926, E. T. Brewster wrote about a “long quotation from Darwin’s ‘Life,’ which examination proves to be made up by combining portions of two paragraphs that in Darwin’s text…stand about four and one half pages apart. In this ‘quotation,’ moreover, Darwin’s words…‘I deserve to be called a Theist’ appear as ‘I deserved to be called an atheist’—and the usual moral is drawn.” The quotation appeared in a “special evolution number” dated September 15, 1925, of a publication called The Herald of Christ’s Kingdom, published by the Pastoral Bible Institute. (The group broke away from the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society—later the Jehovah’s Witnesses—in 1918, after the controversial Joseph Franklin Rutherford succeeded Charles Taze Russell as its leader after Russell’s death in 1916.)

Brewster reports that he wrote to the editors of The Herald of Christ’s Kingdom to alert them of the errors and to offer to review a proposed reprint of the special evolution number “provided they would agree not to reprint in their new edition any fact on my list which they themselves could not verify, and would withdraw the spurious quotation.” Unsurprisingly, his offer was rejected. The contents of the issue are currently available on-line, and it’s easy to verify that the exact passage from Darwin’s life and letters as quoted by Bryan appears in it, with, inescapably, the same moral: “Here we have the effect of Evolution upon its most distinguished exponent; it led him from an orthodox Christian, believing every word of the Bible and in a personal God, down and down and down to helpless and hopeless agnosticism.” That’s taken, without acknowledgement, from Bryan’s closing statement.

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
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