Charles Darwin's deathbed conversion never happened.
Shortly after Darwin's death on April 18th 1882, a Lady Hope spoke before a group of people at a school founded by an evangelist in Massachusetts. In this gathering she described how she had visited the deathbed of Darwin, and how Darwin had been reading the Book of Hebrews. He had confessed to her:
"How I wish I had not expressed my theory of evolution as I have done. I would like you to gather a congregation since I would like to speak to them of Christ Jesus and His salvation, being in a state where I am eagerly savouring the heavenly anticipation of bliss."
Her story was then published in the Boston 'Watchman Examiner', and it started to spread. However, Darwin never uttered these words Lady Hope had attributed to him.
'The Deathbed Conversion' is a common tale, weaved in an effort to show that even the greatest heretic will become righteous once he is faced with his own mortality. This story has targeted many others, including Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and David Hume. The occurrence of this fable has been covered by G.W. Foote and A.D. McLaren in their book 'Infidel Death-beds'1.
Quoted in 'Infidel Death-beds', Francis
, Darwin's son, describes his father's last moments as follows:
"During the night of April 18th, about a quarter to twelve, he had a severe attack and passed into a faint, from which he was brought back to consciousness with great difficulty. He seemed to recognize the approach of death, and said "I am not the least afraid to die." All the next morning he suffered from terrible nausea and faintness, and hardly rallied before the end came."
Francis Darwin also made this public statement in 1918 as the story resurfaced2:
"Lady Hope's account of my father's views on religion is quite untrue. I have publicly accused her of falsehood, but have not seen any reply. My father's agnostic point of view is given in my Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I., pp. 304-317. You are at liberty to publish the above statement. Indeed, I shall be glad if you will do so. Yours faithfully, Francis Darwin. Brookthorpe, Gloucester. May 28, 1918."
Henrietta, Charles Darwin's daughter, wrote in a journal called 'The Christian' in 19223:
"Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in the U.S.A.... The whole story has no foundation whatever."
In his autobiography, Darwin himself wrote2:
"By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,—and that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,—that the Gospels cannot be proven to have been written simultaneously with the events,—that they differ in many important details, far too important, as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye witnesses;—by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation."
With two of Darwin's children refuting the story, occurrences of the same story over and over again attributed to numerous people, and keeping in mind that Darwin had effectively abandoned Christian faith, it is safe to say that the story of Darwin recanting near the end is false.
1. An online version of 'Infidel Death-beds' by George W. Foote and A.D. MacLaren: http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/george_foote/infidel_deathbeds.html#1.47
2. 'The Survival of Charles Darwin: A Biography of a Man and an Idea' by Ronald W. Clark, and 'Autobiography of Charles Darwin' by Charles Darwin, excerpted at http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/ladyhope.html