Charles Darwin and his wife Emma were a bit of an odd couple in a spiritual sense. The one thing that kept them together was their devotion to one another. Their love transcended their different levels of spiritual devotion.

Spiritually speaking, Charles was a withered plant, while his wife Emma was like a tall and vibrant evergreen tree. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in their views on suffering. 

In 1866 Charles wrote the following about suffering: “It has always appeared to me more satisfactory to look at the immense amount of pain and suffering in this world as the inevitable result of natural sequence of events, i.e., general laws, rather than from the direct intervention of God.”

Here Darwin falls prey to the old atheist trap of thinking that if God is all knowing, all good, and all powerful, then why is there so much suffering in the world? Amazingly the answer to this question was right in front of him. His wife Emma had the answer. Here is what she said about suffering after caring for Darwin during one of his bouts of acute illness in 1861.

“I find the only relief to my own mind is to take it as from God’s hand, and to try to believe that all suffering and illness is meant to help us to exalt our minds and to look forward with hope to a future state.” She seems to be saying that the Lord intended for us to prove ourselves worthy of exaltation by testing our diligence in a world full of pain and suffering.

Their spiritual differences were also manifested in their choice of literature. During times of trial and leisure, Emma enjoyed reading uplifting Christian writings, while Darwin demonstrated a penchant for literature with agnostic leanings. On one occasion in 1869 while the young American writer Henry James visited their home for lunch, he observed Emma reading Fervent Prayer while Darwin read The Index. The Index was “a newspaper produced by a group of disaffected American Unitarians and philosophical unbelievers” who rejected the “authority of the Bible, Church, or Christ.” Darwin was a regular contributor to the newspaper and shared its humanist doctrines with the family, occasionally becoming “indignant with anyone who doubted their complete accuracy.”

Poor Emma. How difficult it must have been for her to endure Darwin’s skepticism. The difference in spiritual commitment was difficult for Emma. Later in life she realized that “the ‘painful void’ which [she] had spoken of just before their wedding, still lay between them.” Because of his resolute agnosticism, she was unable to share the beliefs of hope and peace with Charles. It also appears that his intractable skepticism weakened her faith. 

In spiritual terms, it is clear that Emma was the stronger partner. She remained steadfast in the faith through good and bad times while her husband wavered. She tried to build up her children’s faith while her husband occasionally challenged it. And she was patient with his overt skepticism, while he, it appears, was too prideful to learn more about her beliefs. 

Science heaps praise upon Charles. I am heaping praise upon Emma. If the most important work we do is within the walls of our own homes, then she deserves credit for raising her children in righteousness and teaching them to honor and fear God – the most important accomplishment in any era.

(Source: Darwin, His Daughter & Human Evolution, by Randal Keynes)

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