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Spurgeon, Darwin, and the Question of Evolution

Geoff Chang January 24, 2023

This is part three of a series on Spurgeon’s teaching on animals. See Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

In contrast to Spurgeon’s wonder at the Creator whose glory shines in all that He has made, Charles Darwin popularized a new theory in the 19th century that argued for the evolution of simpler life forms into more advanced ones through the process of natural selection. In his work, The Origin of Species, Darwin concludes with these words,

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.[1]

For Darwin, the grandeur of this world was not in the Creator but in the “several powers” of life that has produced so much variety out of a simple beginning.[2] While it does not discuss human origins explicitly, The Origin of Species hints at the link between humanity and the animal world enough to create a stir. The response to Darwin’s theory was mixed. Some rejected it as entirely incompatible with biblical revelation.[3] Others sought to reconcile natural selection with creationism, interpreting it as God’s secondary means for creation.[4] Yet others saw Darwin’s theory as supplanting primitive and miraculous readings of Genesis 1-2 in favor of a more naturalistic understanding of the universe. As people listened to these debates, many observed a growing rift between religion and science.

But where was Spurgeon in all this?

On one occasion, while spending time with his students at Westwood, one of them asked him, “Are we justified in receiving Mr. Darwin’s or any other theory of evolution?” Spurgeon replied,

Does Revelation teach us evolution? It never has struck me, and it does not strike now, that the theory of evolution can, by any process of argument, be reconciled with the inspired record of the Creation. You remember how it is distinctly stated, again and again, that the Lord made each creature ‘after his kind.’… Besides, brethren, I would remind you that, after all these years in which so many people have been hunting up and down the world for ‘the missing link’ between animals and men, among all the monkeys that the wise men have examined, they have never discovered one who has rubbed his tail off, and ascended in the scale of creation so far as to take his place as the equal of our brothers and sisters of the great family of mankind. Mr. Darwin has never been able to find the germs of an Archbishop of Canterbury in the body of a tomcat or a billy goat, and I venture to prophesy that he will never accomplish such a feat as that. There are abundant evidences that one creature inclines towards another in certain respects, for all are bound together in a wondrous way which indicates that they are all the product of God’s creative will; but what the advocates of evolution appear to forget is, that there is nowhere to be discovered an actual chain of growth from one creature to another, — there are breaks here and there, and so many missing links that the chain cannot be made complete. There are, naturally enough, many resemblances between them, because they have all been wrought by the one great master-mind of God, yet each one has its own peculiarities… Even where one species very closely resembles another, there is a speciality about each which distinguishes it from all others.[5]

A few things can be noted from Spurgeon’s answer regarding his position on evolution. First, Spurgeon believed that the claims of evolution were incompatible with biblical revelation. The text he cites comes from Genesis 1. Spurgeon believed that God created all the various creatures individually, each “after his kind,” rather than by any process of evolution.

At the same time, Spurgeon demonstrates a measure of humility in his answer. He prefaces it by saying, “it never has struck me, and it does not strike me now.” Does this mean that Spurgeon was open to a possible change of view at a future time? His sermons certainly do not give any such indication of ever embracing anything like theistic evolution. Rather, he consistently speaks against Darwinism. For example, preaching in 1865, Spurgeon decried evolution as one of the many “new systems of philosophy and infidelity which are constantly springing up.”[6] In 1861, when delivering a lecture entitled “The Gorilla and the Land he Inhabits,” Spurgeon declared,

I, for my own part, believe there is a great gulf fixed between us, so that they who would pass from us to you (again turning to the gorilla) cannot; neither can they come to us who would pass from thence. At the same time, I do not wish to hold an argument with the philosopher who thinks himself related to a gorilla; I do not care to claim the honour for myself, but anyone else is perfectly welcome to it.[7]

As a preacher, Spurgeon spoke with certainty that the theory of evolution was incompatible with Christian teaching. And yet, among his students, especially those who were wrestling with this question, Spurgeon spoke with humility and was careful not to alienate them over this debated issue.

Second, Spurgeon did not view science and religion as being at odds. Instead, he believed that science, rightly practiced, supported the claims of religion. As Spurgeon considered the theory of evolution, part of his rejection of it came from the fact that scientists had not discovered any “missing links” between the species. Instead, by the standards of scientific observation, the animal world continued to maintain clear lines of distinction. Here, Spurgeon’s answer shows that he did not believe evolutionary theory to be supported by the science of his day. At the same time, he did not believe that science could ever overturn the teaching of Scripture. Spurgeon imagined a young man explaining to his believing grandmother the theory of evolution and asking her,

‘Do you not feel alarmed about your faith?’ ‘No,’ she says, ‘if they were to discover fifty thousand things, it would not trouble me, for ‘I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.’’ You think her a simpleton, perhaps she might far more properly think you the same.[8]

For the Christian, the truth of Scripture is unshakeable, even against fifty thousand new scientific discoveries. When it appears that science contradicts the teaching of Scripture, Spurgeon taught his people to hold fast to the truths of Scripture.

Finally, we see Spurgeon’s rejection of evolution because it fails to account for man’s unique position among the creatures. While evolution taught a link between the animal world and humanity, Spurgeon believed Scripture’s teaching on man being made uniquely in the image of God. No animal has ever “ascended in the scale of creation so far as to take his place as the equal of our brothers and sisters of the great family of mankind.” His anthropology required a clear separation between animals and humans.

Now, Spurgeon affirmed that humans share in creatureliness along with their fellow animals. In his sermons and writings, Spurgeon often illustrated human stubbornness,[9] ingratitude,[10] suffering,[11] dependence,[12] ignorance (demonstrated in man’s belief in evolution!),[13] and other such finite characteristics by likening them to animals. Nevertheless, Spurgeon affirmed that “there [was] a great distinction between mere animals and men, because man hath a soul, and the mere animal hath none.”[14] As those made in the image of God, humanity alone has the promise of immortality,[15] authority to rule over Creation,[16] and the privilege of knowing God and his great love.[17] In other words, while evolution diminished the position of man in relation to animals, Spurgeon affirmed the elevated place of humanity over the animal world as revealed in God’s work of creation and redemption.

[1] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray, 1859), 492.

[2] Darwin did not consider himself an atheist but tended more towards agnosticism. He did not explicitly deny the person of Christ, but he rejected the idea of divine revelation. See Charles Darwin, Francis Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an Autobiographical Chapter (London: John Murray, 1887), 304-307.

[3] One example of this is Charles Hodge, who argued that atheism is fundamentally an atheistic worldview. Charles Hodge, What is Darwinism? (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Company, 1874).

[4] For one pamphlet defending theistic evolution, see Asa Gray, Natural Selection Is Not Inconsistent with Natural Theology (London: Trubner & Co., 1861).

[5] Autobiography 4:132.

[6] MTP 11:32.

[7] C. H. Spurgeon, The Gorilla and the Land he Inhabits: A Lectured Delivered by the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, on Tuesday, October 1st, 1861. Pamphlet, 9.

[8] MTP 11:32.

[9] “Some men are like dull animals that will not go without the whip.” MTP 43:467

[10] “Men are more brutish than the beasts that perish. The lower animals, as men contemptuously call them, acknowledge the hand that feeds them; but men receive the bounty of God through long years, and yet live as if there were no God at all, and feel no gratitude to him whatsoever.” MTP 40:154-55

[11] “Our bodies humble us; and that is about the best thing they do for us. Oh, that we were duly lowly, because our bodies ally us with animals, and even link us with the dust!” C. H. Spurgeon, The Cheque Book of the Bank of Faith (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1888), 104.

[12] “Animals are often taught through their food. When they could not be reached in any other way, they have been instructed by their hunger, and by their thirst, and by their feeding. And the Lord, who knew of what a coarse nature Israel was composed… also taught them by their hunger and by their thirst, by the supply of water from the rock, and by the manna which He rained from heaven.” MTP 39:517.

[13] “Of course, I know that nowadays men are so wonderfully intelligent, that they have discovered that human life has been ‘evolved’ from lower life. We are the heirs of oysters, and the near descendants of apes. It has taken some time to compass the evolution; and yet I will grant that very hard shells are still to be met with, and some men are not much above animals — especially such men as can be duped by this hypothesis.” MTP 36:369

[14] NPSP 4:22.

[15] “If man be a creature, if he only be first among animals, though the most highly organized of all the vertebrate creatures; and if, when he dies, there is an end of him, as there might be of a sheep or a dog, then, looking up to the stars and thinking of man as a mere beast, you need not say with David, ‘Lord, what is man?’ You know what he is. You have got your answer, and a gloomy and a melancholy answer it is. But if man is to live forever and ever, what a noble creature he becomes!” MTP 59:135.

[16] “MAN was made to rule. In the divine original he was intended for a king, who should have dominion over the beasts of the field, and the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea. He was designed to be the lord-lieutenant of this part of creation, and the form of his body and the dignity of his countenance betoken it. He walks erect among the animals, while they move upon all-fours; he subjugates and tames them to perform his will, and the fear and dread of him is upon all creatures, for they know their sovereign.” MTP 25:373.

[17] “I have sometimes looked at the happiest animals, and I have said to myself, ‘Ah, but yonder poor creature does not know the love of God, and how thankful I am to God that he has given me the capacity to know himself.’” MTP 19:94.