Darwinism: Let Us Hope It is Not True, But If It is, Let Us Pray It Does Not Become Widely Known

Wife of the Bishop of Worcester? Wife of the Bishop of Birmingham? Wife of Samuel Wilberforce? Wife of an English Canon? A Decorous Spinster? Fictional?


Dear Quote Investigator: There is a remarkable quotation that dramatically highlights the controversial intersection between science and religion in the nineteenth century. The words were spoken by a Bishop’s wife as recounted in this anecdote in the book “Origins” by the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey and the science writer Roger Lewin [RLRL]:

On hearing, one June afternoon in 1860, the suggestion that mankind was descended from the apes, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester is said to have exclaimed, ‘My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.’ As it turns out, she need not have been quite so worried: we are not descended from the apes, though we do share a common ancestor with them. Even though the distinction may have been too subtle to offer her much comfort, it is nevertheless important.

This mordant tale has always deeply impressed me. So, I was rather confused when I came across another version of the anecdote from Nicholas Humphrey, a Professor at the London School of Economics [NHLF]:

When, in the 1880s, the Bishop of Birmingham’s wife received information that Charles Darwin was claiming that human beings were descended from monkeys, she is reported to have said to her husband, ‘My dear, let us hope it is not true; but, if it is true, let us hope it will not become generally known.’

Worcester or Birmingham? 1860 or 1880s? Could you resolve these discrepancies and find the historically accurate version of this quote? My research only left me more puzzled.

Quote Investigator: When QI began his exploration of this potent saying he quickly located another inconsistent version of the tale in a book titled “The Altruistic Species” which mentions “the famous response of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce’s wife upon learning of Darwin’s theory: ‘Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us hope it does not become widely known’” [ASW].

Samuel Wilberforce was a well-known orator who engaged in a famous debate concerning evolution at Oxford. He was the Bishop of Oxford and then of Winchester, but he was never the Bishop of Worcester or Birmingham [ODCC].

Charles Darwin’s monumental work On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. QI has located no evidence for the existence of this quotation in the 1860s, 1870s, or 1880s. The earliest cite QI has found is in an 1893 text titled “Verbum Dei: The Yale Lectures on Preaching”. In this volume a variant of the quote was attributed to a spinster and not to a married woman within a lecture written by a British pastor named Robert Forman Horton [VDY]:

The Church swarms with people who have no spiritual sinew, and whose lungs cannot breathe the invigorating air of Truth: they take up the cry of that timid and decorous spinster who, on hearing an exposition of the Darwinian theory that men are descended from apes, said, “Let us hope it is not true, or if it is, let us hush it up.”

QI believes that this basic anecdote was incrementally transformed over many decades to generate multiple modern instantiations of the story. The details of these tales change over time, but they do not appear to be based on firm historical evidence.

Conceivably there exists a diary entry or newspaper account that is contemporaneous with the 1860s or 1880s, but QI has not yet found it. None of the modern accounts examined by QI provide citations to data of the relevant period. The preponderance of evidence indicates that current narratives for this tale have been heavily fictionalized.

Here is a selected subset of citations arranged in chronological order.

Some words below are rendered in bold letters to help the reader to trace the variations in the anecdote over time. The bold letters are not present in the original manuscripts.

Several of the citations in this post were uncovered by Brian Switek and his commentators in 2009 and mentioned at his blog Laelaps that discusses fossils and the history of science. Laelaps is now part of the WIRED Science blogging network.

In 1893 the pastor Robert Forman Horton believed that Darwin’s theory was challenging, but he did not believe that attempting to suppress or hide it was desirable. He used an anecdote featuring a spinster to illustrate an improper attitude toward the pursuit of truth. Here is a longer excerpt from the lecture he wrote to deliver at Yale [VDY]:

Some preachers, and many editors, have ingloriously resolved to avoid the dizzy heights of Truth, to conceal themselves in the valley of Tradition, and to anathematise those who have too much confidence in God and the Bible to follow their example. I am not careful to minimise the temptation which thus comes to a preacher, even to one who is veritably sent by God.

He often knows quite well that if he shuts his eyes to the facts, and blindly clings to the old unquestioning dogmatism, he will not only escape the throes of new knowledge himself, but he will be praised by the multitudes who hide in the valley of Tradition, and even hailed as a champion if he launches his thunderbolts against the truths which he has never ventured even to examine.

The Church swarms with people who have no spiritual sinew, and whose lungs cannot breathe the invigorating air of Truth: they take up the cry of that timid and decorous spinster who, on hearing an exposition of the Darwinian theory that men are descended from apes, said, “Let us hope it is not true, or if it is, let us hush it up.”

I count it to be the great trial and ordeal which God presents before His prophets in all ages—shall they sit easily in the slumberous bowers of an accepted Orthodoxy, or will they up and climb, and walk, even with Death and Morning, on the mountain horns?

The final sentence includes an allusion to the poem “Come Down, O Maid” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. QI thinks that Horton was using the figure of the “timid and decorous spinster” as an archetype, and he was not presenting the tale as rigorously veridical. Indeed, in 1897 he presented a different version of the anecdote. The spinster was metamorphosed into a mother talking to her daughter. Details for this citation are given further below.

In May of 1893 an article in “The Literary World” reviewed the book composed of Horton’s lectures. The saying under investigation was deemed stimulating enough to repeat in the review. Thus, the magazine facilitated the wider dissemination of the quotation [LWY]:

And very good is the application to Biblical Criticism of the story of the timid and decorous spinster, who, on hearing an exposition of the Darwinian theory that men are descended from apes said: ‘Let us hope it is not true; or, if it is, let us hush it up!’

In 1894 another religious figure, Minister Henry R. Rose of Auburn Maine, published a lecture containing the quote. The words were the same but the description of the speaker was altered slightly: spinster was replaced with lady [HRR]:

It is our duty, as cultivated minds living in civilized communities, to make heroic and successful efforts to overcome this hostility of our humanity to new ideas which are obviously sound or which we may be able to prove sound.

Our course, it seems to me, is not that of the timid and decorous lady who, on hearing an exposition of the Darwinian theory that men are descended from apes, said: “Let us hope that it is not true, or if it is, let us hush it up!” The “hush it up” disposition is really a traitorous one. It would deal treacherously with truth.

In 1897 an article was published in “The Fortnightly Review” that presented a revised version of the 1893 tale. The woman speaker was still characterized as timid, but now she was no longer a spinster; instead she was a woman with a daughter. The author of the article is named “Robert F. Horton” and QI believes that this name refers to Robert Forman Horton who used the anecdote first in 1893.

The excerpt below refers to Nonconformity. Pastor Horton himself was a religious Nonconformist which means that he did not follow the doctrines of the Church of England [FFRH]:

By one of the many conventions on which English civilisation rests, it is agreed to ignore Nonconformity. Like the timid lady who, after a lecture on the Darwinian doctrine of man, said to her daughter, “Let us hope it is not true, my dear; or, if it is, let us hush it up,” the British public hopes that Nonconformity has no existence, or is dying out, and if not, is resolved to “hush it up.”

In 1898 a variant of the anecdote was told that was set in Boston, Massachusetts during a lecture series sponsored by the Lowell Institute, an educational foundation. This tale featured two women who were overheard at a lecture [HDL]:

When Henry Drummond was giving a course of lectures on Evolution in the Lowell Institute he overheard two ladies, evidently much opposed to his views, discussing them. One of them said: “Mary, if what he says is not true we can stand it. But if it is true we must hush it up.”

In 1901 a Kentucky newspaper reported on a sermon that attempted to reconcile evolution and religious belief. The woman in this rendering of the story was construed as amiable [KP]:

Our timidity, too, often destroys our power to face the truth. We are like an amiable woman who, on hearing an exposition of the Darwinian theory of the descent of man from apes, said: ‘Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us hush it up.’

In 1903 George A. Gordon, Minister of the Old South Church in Boston, presented a version of the anecdote that he says was recounted by Henry Drummond [GGD]:

The story that Dr. Drummond was fond of telling illustrates the initial mood of a generation. A society lady and her daughter happened to be present at a lecture on evolution, in which man was described as the descendant of ancestors differing but little from the ape, and at the close of the lecture the mother remarked to her daughter “How shocking! It seems to be true; but let us try to hush it up.”

A 1919 Robert H. Fisher, a Minister in Edinburgh, presented the tale with some minor variations. The woman was identified as a “maiden lady” and the wording of her statement was somewhat different [RHF]:

A maiden lady’s judgement upon the Darwinian theory (as it was represented to her) that the human race is descended from the apes, was this: “I do not believe that it is true; but if it is true, let us hush it up.” That is not an unusual frame of mind. But it is the direct opposite of the only frame of mind worthy of a Christian preacher.

In 1921 Pastor John Kelman of New York presented another variant of the story. The speaker of the quote was identified as an “old woman”, the timeframe was the “early Darwinian days”, and the wording of the statement was again modified [PJK]:

There is a tale of an old lady in the early Darwinian days, who was informed in the crude and popular language of those times that Mr. Darwin had discovered that we were all descended from monkeys. Her reply was, “Oh, let us hope that it is not true, but if it should turn out to be true let us by all means hush it up.”

In 1924 Hugh Crichton-Miller, a prominent psychotherapist and founder of the Tavistock Clinic in the UK, published “The New Psychology and the Preacher”. This is the earliest citation located by QI presenting the quotation using phraseology similar to the most common modern versions. The phrase “let us hush it up” was replaced with “let us pray that it may not become widely known” [HCM] [NPP]:

A famous Scottish ecclesiastic in the crisis of a momentous controversy, used the following words in addressing the General Assembly of his Church:—”Remember,” he said, “that the facts, if they are facts, are God’s facts.” It would be well for religion if more of its champions sincerely maintained this attitude towards truth. The converse is illustrated by the story of the old lady faced for the first time by the theories of Darwin: “Descended from monkeys? My dear, I trust that it is not true; but if it is, let us pray that it may not become widely known.”

In 1933 a book in which Christianity was debated duplicated the wording used in the 1924 book of Hugh Crichton-Miller thus aiding its further propagation [ICT]:

However a great shock it was and the Church’s reception of the news was symbolised by the old lady who greeted the Darwinian hypothesis with the remark: “Descended from monkeys? My dear, I trust that it is not true; but if it is, let us pray that it may not become widely known.”

In 1940 a book explicating the morals and manners of Americans based on an analysis of the contents of the Sears Roebuck Catalog was published. This is the first work located by QI that attributed the saying to the wife of an English Canon though no specific Canon is identified [SRC]:

And with respect to evolution their attitude was much like the point of view of the wife of an English canon who greeted the announcement of man’s alleged descent from monkeys with the remark, “My dear, I trust that it is not true; but, if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”

In 1941 an article based on a lecture given by M.F. Ashley Montague was published in “The Journal of Heredity”. This is the earliest work found by QI that attributed the quotation to an identifiable individual: the wife of the Canon of Worcester Cathedral. No evidence is presented, and the locution “it is said” suggests hearsay [MFAM]:

It is said that when the theory of evolution was first announced it was received by the wife of the Canon of Worcester Cathedral with the remark, “Descended from the apes! My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.”

In 1942 Montague published a book in which he repeated the anecdote. Bennett Cerf, the newspaper columnist and quip collector, noticed the tale and helped to circulate it with a book he published in 1944 [MBC]:

M. F. Ashley Montagu’s book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, includes the story of the wife of a Worcester Cathedral Canon who listened to the first announcement of the theory of evolution with consternation. “Descended from the apes!” she exclaimed. “My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known!”

In 1946 a newspaper in Alberta, Canada printed the anecdote using the modern wording, but the setting was shifted from England to “an eastern city” [LHC]:

When a society leader in an eastern city was first told about the theory of evolution she protested: “Descended from apes! My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.”

In 1955 the variant of the tale with “hush it up” was published again in the book “Belief and Unbelief Since 1850″. The anecdote utilizing this phrasing and the modern phrasing persisted in parallel in circulation [BUB]:

More representative, at least of the reaction of the rank-and-file members of the Churches were the two old ladies who said: ‘Let’s hope it’s not true, and if it is, let’s hush it up!’

The number of citations continues to grow after 1955, but only a few more will be presented. In 1977 Richard E. Leakey and Roger Lewin published “Origins”. This cite was excerpted by the questioner above.

In 1993 Carl Sagan the astronomer and acclaimed science popularizer included the tale in a book he co-wrote with Ann Druyan [SFA]:

The conclusion scandalized Victorian England. The outraged reaction of the wife of the Anglican Bishop of Worcester was typical: “Descended from apes! My dear, let us hope that it is not true but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”

In 1996 Nicholas Humphrey published “Leaps of Faith” which designated the Bishop of Birmingham’s wife as the speaker. This cite was excerpted by the questioner above.

In 2002 “Eurekas and Euphorias: the Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes” recounted an interesting version of the anecdote that pinpointed a location and time of occurrence. In June of 1860 a debate was held in Oxford at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The topic was the theory in Darwin’s new book, Origin of Species, and the participants included Samuel Wilberforce, Richard Owen, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley, and others. According to the book the following occurred at the end of the debate [EEO]:

But as the audience left the hall, the Bishop of Worcester’s wife was heard to voice her opinion of the Theory of Evolution to her companion: ‘Let us hope it is not true. But if it is true, let us hope it does not become generally known.’

Within the book at the end of the chapter about the Oxford debate the names of three books are provided for reference [EEO]:

For excellent accounts of the debate, its historical setting and its aftermath, see, for instance, Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (Michael Joseph, London, 1991), Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple by Adrian Desmond (Michael Joseph, London, 1994), and Ronald W. Clark’s The Huxleys (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1968).

Page numbers are not given, and QI was unable to locate the support for this tale of an overheard woman at the Oxford debate while perusing these references.

In 2007 “The Altruistic Species” was published by Andrew Michael Flescher and Daniel L. Worthen, and it identified Samuel Wilberforce’s wife as the speaker of the quote. QI excerpted this book near the beginning of this blog post.

In conclusion, QI thinks that the evidence that the quotation was spoken by the wife of a Bishop or the wife of a Canon in 1860 or 1880 is very weak. The mutable phraseology, shifting attribution, varying locale, and lack of direct evidence undermine credibility.

It is possible that the anecdote was created by Robert Forman Horton by 1893. He was the first person known by QI to have presented the tale, and he was willing to tell a revised version in 1897. All the other instances might have been derived from these primal versions by paraphrase and mutation.

Alternatively, Henry Drummond may have created the tale and told it to others by 1893. In this case, Horton would have heard the story directly or indirectly from Drummond. The 1903 cite says that the anecdote was a “story that Dr. Drummond was fond of telling”. The citation in 1898 is about a lecture series given by Drummond, and these Lowell Institute lectures were actually given in 1893.

Someone unknown may have crafted the tale. Of course, it is also possible that the story was inspired by an actual incident.

QI thanks you for this difficult question and hopes that someday the answer will become widely known.

[RLRL] 1977, Origins: What New Discoveries Reveal About the Emergence of our Species and Its Possible Future by Richard E. Leakey and Roger Lewin, Page 21, E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified on paper)

[NHLF] 1996 (UK Publish 1995), Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation by Nicholas Humphrey, Page 7, BasicBooks Division of HarperCollins, New York. (Verified on paper)

[ASW] 2007, The Altruistic Species: Scientific, Philosophical, and Religious Perspectives of Human Benevolence” by Andrew Michael Flescher and Daniel L. Worthen, Page 130, Templeton Foundation Press, Philadelphia and London. (Verified on paper)

[ODCC] 2006, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church Ed. E. A. Livingstone, “Wilberforce, Samuel”, Oxford University Press. (Oxford Reference Online; Accessed 2011 February 7)

[VDY] 1893, Verbum Dei: The Yale Lectures on Preaching by Robert Forman Horton, Lecture IV: The Bible and the Word of God, Page 132, Macmillan and Co., New York and London. (Google Books full view) link

[LWY] 1893 May 26, The Literary World, Mr. Horton’s Yale Lectures, Page 488, James Clarke & Co., London. (Google Books full view) link

[FRRH] 1897 April 1, The Fortnightly Review, The Free Church in England by Robert F. Horton, Page 597, Chapman and Hall, Limited, London. (Google Books full view) link

[HDL] 1898 September 8, Congregationalist, In Brief, Start Page 309, Volume 83, Boston. (ProQuest American Periodicals)

[KP] 1901 January 28, Morning Herald, Mr. Pillsbury on Evolution, Page 2, Column 4, Lexington, Kentucky. (GenealogyBank)

[GGD] 1903, Ultimate Conceptions of Faith by George A. Gordon, Page 76, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York. (Google Books full view) link

[RHF] 1919, The Outside of the Inside: Reminiscences of the Rev. R.H. Fisher by Robert H. Fisher, Page 194, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (HathiTrust) link

[PJK] 1921, The Foundations of Faith by John Kelman, Page 156-157, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[HCM] 2004, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘Miller, Hugh Crichton- (1877–1959)’, Contributor: K. Loughlin, Oxford University Press. (Online oxforddnb.com; Accessed 2011 February 08 )

[NPP] 1924, The New Psychology and the Preacher by Hugh Crichton Miller, Page 45, Thomas Seltzer, Inc., New York. (Verified with scans from the Arrendale Library of Piedmont College; Great thanks to the librarians)

[ICT] 1943 (Reprint of text in 1933 edition), “Is Christianity True?” by Arnold Lunn and C.E.M. Joad, Page 167, Eyre & Spottiswoode Publishers Ltd., London. (Verified with scans of 1943 edition from the Lineberger Memorial Library of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary; Great thanks to the librarian; The 1933 edition was not verified on paper or with scans)

[SRC] 1940, The Good Old Days: A History of American Morals and Manners as Seen through the Sears Roebuck Catalogs 1905 to the Present by David L. Cohn, Page 71, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Questia)

[MFAM] 1941 August, The Journal of Heredity, The Concept of Race in the Human Species in the Light of Genetics by M. F. Ashley Montagu, Page 243, Volume 32, Number 8, Published by the American Genetic Association. [Footnote Page 243: Lecture delivered before the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, Chicago. April 7, 1941.] (Verified on microfilm)

[MBC] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 167, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)

[LHC] 1946 March 20, Lethbridge Herald, Left Hand Corner: Page 2 (Back Page), Column 2, Lethbridge, Alberta. (NewspaperArchive)

[BUB] 1955, Belief and Unbelief since 1850 by H. G. Wood, Page 50, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Google Books snippet; Questia) link

[SFA] 1993 (Copyright 1992), Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Page 276, Ballantine Books of Random House, New York. (Google Books preview) link

[EEO] 2002, Eurekas and Euphorias: the Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes by Walter Bruno Gratzer, Mauled by the Bulldog, Page 73, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)