Creation-Evolution Debate, Huxley vs. Wilberforce

With the publication of the Origin of Species, Englishman Charles Darwin unloosed a storm of controversy which has not subsided to this day. Religion and science clashed head-on over the theory. Believers resented what they perceived as Darwin's attempt to rule God out of creation. Many scientists resented inaccurate and closed-minded reactions from the religious community. Darwin had amassed an enormous quantity of detail which showed that micro-evolution had occurred--evolution within kinds. From this he conjectured that macro-evolution, evolution across kinds, had taken place.

On this day, Saturday, June 30th, 1860, six months after the publication of the Origin of Species, evolution was the topic of a meeting of the British Association. Seven hundred people showed up. An American, Dr. Draper, was to speak on the "Intellectual Development of Europe Considered with Reference to the Views of Mr. Darwin." He spoke for an hour, and then other speakers took off on the theme. A number of churchmen were on the platform, among them Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce.

The crowd called for this popular speaker. Wilberforce, after attempting to defer to another speaker, rose to speak. The great anatomist, Sir Richard Owen, had coached him. However, Wilberforce was not deeply grounded in the sciences. He castigated the theory with good humor and made it appear absurd. The crowd loved it.

The agnostic Thomas Huxley had been coaxed into attending the meeting. Wilberforce, carried away with words, turned to Huxley with a mocking question. Was it through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey?

Huxley slapped his knee and whispered a very un-agnostic comment: "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands." Wilberforce sat down to applause. The audience called on Huxley. He rose with defiance. Explaining Darwin's key ideas, he exposed what he claimed was Wilberforce's ignorance and error. He would not be ashamed of a monkey in his ancestry, he said. He would be ashamed to be "connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth." The crowd applauded. Wilberforce was humiliated.

That was over 135 years ago. The debate still goes on. And sadly Christians have often tried to oppose evolution without a full grasp of the scientific arguments that they must address and answer. But in recent years even from within the scientific community new questions are being raised that seem to assure that the evolution debate is far from over.


  1. Denbigh, Kenneth G. An Inventive Universe. New York: Braziller, 1975. This is mentioned as a representative sample of books which defend evolution. Many more could be mentioned, such as Dawkin's The Blind Watchmaker.
  2. Dent, Michael. Evolution, a Theory in Crisis. Bethesda, Maryland: Adler and Adler, 1985. This is given as a sample of many books which show flaws in evolutionary theory; others could be mentioned, such as Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe.
  3. "Darwin, Charles,"" "Huxley, Thomas," and "Wilberforce, Samuel." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
  4. Irvine, William. Apes, Angels and Victorians; The story of Darwin, Huxley and Evolution. New York: Time Incorporated, 1955.
  5. Mitchell, Chalmers. Thomas Henry Huxley; a Sketch of his life and work. New York: Putnam, 1900.
  6. "Wilberforce, Samuel." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.

Last updated April, 2007.