John Stevens Henslow: Faithful Guide for Evolution



On 16 May 1861, John Stevens Henslow (1796–1861) passed away in Suffolk, UK.

As a college student, Henslow undertook scientific studies at Cambridge University: geology with Adam Sedgwick (1785–1873), chemistry with James Cumming (1777–1861), and mineralogy with Edward Daniel (1769–1822). Thereafter, he began to prepare for the Anglican priesthood and served as the curate at a parish in Berkshire. While working as a priest, he continued to study scientific topics, building a herbarium for British plants and working with John James Audubon (1785–1851) to establish ornithological societies. It was in this capacity that he became acquainted with Charles Darwin (1809–1882), earning him the recognition as “Darwin’s chaplain.”

Several excepts from a biographical memoir demonstrate the role of his faith in his scientific research and ministry as a chaplain, as well as his hope for a more welcoming reception for Darwin’s theory among apologists in later generations:

‘One great feature in his religion which always struck me, was the strength of his faith… His was, indeed, the faith which seemed able to remove mountains. It was his strong faith which encouraged him to undertake what he did, much of which it might have been thought by some hopeless to attempt ; and which carried him through difficulties, at the sight of which many would have turned back. It was the same strong faith to which may be traced the equanimity with which he took all the events and accidents of life, and the calmness with which he reasoned with opponents, whose hearts had not been brought under the same principles as his own. And this faith, which was so conspicuous in himself, he impressed on others.’ (pp. 145-146).

‘With reference to the religious aspect of this question, … he had always defended Darwin from some of his opponents, whom he considered as having shown him ungenerous treatment in fastening upon him opinions of an infidel or irreligious tendency, which those who are acquainted with his real sentiments on matters of religion know to be utterly without foundation.’ (p.213).

‘Subsequent inquiries led him still further to modify this opinion, as well as to regret the publication of his earlier letters in the Athenæum, otherwise than as serving to inculcate caution in the inquiry. He continued his attention to the subject, comparing the researches of others with his own conclusions, and holding himself ready, if truth required, to abandon any opinions which it might be shown he had too hastily taken up. With a view to obtaining further evidence, in the autumn of 1860, he went to France to examine the celebrated gravel-pits at Amiens and Abbeville,  where the same flint hatchets had been found in large quantities ; likewise associated, as was stated, with the bones of extinct quadrupeds.’ (p.215).

‘He was not one of those who fear a collision between Scripture and science. His opinions on this subject, as expressed in one of his letters in the Athenæum, above alluded to, deserve to be recorded in his own words : —“I dare to assert that I yield to no man in firm belief that ‘all Scripture is given by inspiration’; but, then, given only for the purposes specified, viz. ‘for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.’ I am equally satisfied that proofs have been established, by arguments conclusive to all who have learnt to appreciate the evidence, that the inspired writers were often left to convey their lessons in their own words, intelligible to those whom they addressed, and in accordance with their own imperfect or erroneous views of nature… Yet, they who can look back a few years will remember how the same pulpits, then rebuking and maligning the conclusions  at which geologists had arrived, are now content to accept them as evidence of a Wisdom, Power, and Goodness, beyond any that former ignorance could ascribe to the works of that First Great Cause”…’ (pp. 217-218).

“John Stevens Henslow.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Jenyns, Leonard. Memoir of the Rev. John Stevens Henslow, MA, FLS, FGS, FCPS: Late Rector of Hitcham, and Professor of Botany. (London, GB: J.V. Voorst Publishers, 1862; Cambridge Univ. Press Reprint, 2011), Full text at archive(dot)org. Image: Cambridge Press.


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