Darwin’s Unitarian Heritage


Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. The Parish Church of St. Chad’s Register of Christenings and Burials gives the following entry on 15 November 1809 “Darwin Chas. Robt. Son of Dr. Robt. & Mrs. Susannah his wife/born Febr. 12 th.”

St. Chad’s was a parish of the Church of England. Darwin’s religious heritage, however, was largely rooted in Unitarianism. Darwin’s father, Robert Waring Darwin, and mother, Susannah, only maintained cultural and social ties with the Church of England. Of their six children, only the two sons, Charles and Erasmus, were baptized in the Church of England.

As a young boy, Charles Darwin was taught at home by his mother assisted by Rev. George Case, pastor of the Unitarian Chapel on High Street (see picture). After Susannah’s death, at the age of eight Darwin entered the Shrewsbury Grammar School with affiliations to the chapel.

Darwin’s mother, Susannah, was the grand-daughter of Josiah Wedgwood who was one of the founder members of the Unitarian movement. Free-thinking was the cornerstone of the movement. The Unitarians rejected the validity of the Bible, specifically the concept of the trinity, and the basic tenet of Christianity: Jesus is the son of God.

Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, from his father’s side, was a also a free-thinker. Erasmus published the book entitled Zoönomia that foreshadowed The Origin of Species.

In Zoönomia, Erasmus espoused the basic tenets of evolution: “Would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality… possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end?”

What Darwin’s father, Robert Darwin, thought about God remains a mystery. There is no record of his father regularly accompanying the family to the Unitarian Chapel or the Church of England.

Eventually, a memorial was placed in the Unitarian Chapel on High Street bearing the following inscription:—”To the memory of Charles Eobert Darwin, author of the ‘Origin of Species,’ born in Shrewsbury. February 12th, 1809. In early life a member of and constant worshipper in this Church. Died April 19th,1882.”

A one point, Darwin stated – “I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted.”

How Darwin arrived at that point? 

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Darwin, Then and Now is a journey through the most amazing story in the history of science - the history of evolution. The book encapsulates who Darwin was, what he said, and what scientists have discovered since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859.

With over 1,000 references, Darwin Then and Now is a historical chronicle of the rise and fall of the once popular theory of biological evolution.