World record for Charles Darwin letter at New York sale

A new world record at auction for a letter by Charles Darwin was set at Bonhams New York yesterday (21 September) at the History of Science and Technology sale. The highly personal and unusually pointed statement on Darwin's lack of belief in the Bible and in Jesus Christ as the son of God was sold for $197,000, (£127,000) having been estimated at $70,000-90,000 (£45,000-60,000).

Darwin's letter is a reply to a young barrister named Francis McDermott who wrote on November 23, 1880 with a very unusual request: "...If I am to have pleasure in reading your books I must feel that at the end I shall not have lost my faith in the New Testament. My reason in writing to you therefore is to ask you to give me a Yes or No to the question Do you believe in the New Testament...." McDermott continues by promising not to publicise Darwin's reply in the "theological papers".

Darwin responded the very next day:

Nov. 24 1880
Dear Sir,
I am sorry to have to
inform you that I do
not believe in the Bible
as a divine revelation
& therefore not in Jesus
Christ as the son of God.
Yours faithfully
Ch. Darwin"

McDermott was true to his word and this letter was unknown to scholars for over 100 years. The subject of Darwin's religiosity had long been a cause of vehement debate. Darwin himself largely refrained from public comment, probably to respect the feelings of his friends and family. Just a month before penning this note, Darwin wrote to the prominent atheist Edward Aveling, "It has ... been always my object to avoid writing on religion, and I have confined myself to science."

Commenting on the letter, Darwin's great-great-grandson Matthew Chapman said, "You have to remember this was written two years before he died. You say what you mean. I don't think you are inclined to lie or showboat. You know you are facing death at that point and so I think this is a clear and honest expression of his atheism."

Darwin studied theology at Christ's College, Cambridge at the suggestion of his father but preferred to spend his time collecting specimens with a select circle of naturalists. It was Darwin's mentor John Henslow, a clergyman and a professor of Mineralogy at Cambridge, who nominated the 22-year old Darwin for the history-making voyage on the Beagle. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859 and it was then that Darwin's faith in religion or lack thereof became the subject of public controversy. Darwin died in 1882, the greatest naturalist of his age. Rumours of a deathbed conversion were widely believed but firmly denied by his daughter.


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to

Related auctions