The Huxley-Wilberforce Debate

Huxley and Wilberforce

The Huxley-Wilberforce debate is often given as an example of the warfare between Science and Christian faith. Here is the usual telling of the story[1]

On Saturday, 30 June, Samuel Wilberforce, the powerful Bishop of Oxford, debated Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's friend and chief scientific defender. Wilberforce, known as “Soapy Sam” for his smoothness and rhetorical slipperiness in debate, offered a lengthy denunciation of Darwin's theory, ridiculing it and declaring it to be at odds with Scripture. As he closed his remarks, Wilberforce turned to Huxley and sneeringly asked him if it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed descent from apes. The audience cheered. Huxley turned to the man seated next to him and whispered, “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands.” Rising to his feet, Huxley responded that he would rather have an ape for an ancestor than a bishop who distorted the truth. This rebuke brought the audience around to Huxley's side, their laughter and roars of approval greater than for Wilberforce's jibe. Huxley had won an audience mostly hostile to evolution to his side. It was a turning point not merely in the fortunes of Darwinism but in the history of science, the day when Darwin's theory earned the right to a fair hearing and science threw off the shackles of religious authority.

Most historians now agree that the traditional telling of this story is largely myth. The legend was developed in the 1880s and 1890s, more than 20 years after the event. It was constructed almost exclusively by supporters of Darwin. Key portions of the story appeared in the biographies of Darwin and Huxley written by their sons Francis Darwin and Leonard Huxley [2,3]. An eye-witness version, entitled ‘A Grandmother's tales’ appeared in the October 1898 issue of Macmillan's Magazine [4]. Here is a portion of that article

I was happy enough to be present on the memorable occasion at Oxford when Mr Huxley bearded Bishop Wilberforce. There were so many of us that were eager to hear that we had to adjourn to the great library of the Museum. I can still hear the American accents of Dr Draper's opening address, when he asked ‘Are we a fortuitous concourse of atoms?’ and his discourse I seem to remember somewhat dry. Then the Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and he assured us there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey? On this Mr Huxley slowly and deliberately arose. A slight tall figure stern and pale, very quiet and very grave, he stood before us, and spoke those tremendous words — words which no one seems sure of now, nor I think, could remember just after they were spoken, for their meaning took away our breath, though it left us in no doubt as to what it was. He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. No one doubted his meaning and the effect was tremendous. One lady fainted and had to carried out: I, for one, jumped out of my seat; and when in the evening we met at Dr Daubeney's, every one was eager to congratulate the hero of the day.

The remark “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands” is not mentioned in any of the contemporary articles, papers, and letters, even those by Huxley. It appears to have been a later addition to the story. The fact that this story was developed by Darwinians long after the event doesn't prove that the story is false, but it does raise doubts about its accuracy and objectivity.

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