From faith to faith—the spiritual pilgrimage of George John Romanes
The Reverend George Romanes, D.D., was professor of Greek at the University of Kingston, Canada. He was an excellent classicist and a learned theologian of the ‘moderate’ type. For him the year 1848 was notable on two counts. First, he inherited a very considerable fortune, which meant he was able to resign the chair in Kingston and return to England to live the life of a perpetual student. Second, in May 1848 his son George John Romanes was born.
George John’s mother was a Scottish highlander—vivacious, unconventional and clever. The family settled in London and George attended a preparatory school near his home. But an attack of measles brought a premature end to his schooling. He never went to school again. According to his wife, Ethel, who wrote his biography, “He was educated in a desultory and aimless fashion at home and was regarded by his family as a shocking dunce.”
Romanes entered Gonville and Caius College Cambridge in 1867 to read mathematics and study for Holy Orders. However, “some slight chance” caused him to abandon this course and instead take a Bachelor of Arts in natural science. He remained at Cambridge to study physiology and medicine.
His wife tells us that Romanes went to Cambridge, “half-educated, utterly untrained, with no knowledge of man or books. He left it a trained worker, an earnest thinker with his life-work begun—an unwearied search after truth … and an ever-increasing reverence for goodness, and, as the years went by, a disregard for applause or reward”.
Little bible, worn and marked
“At first he fell completely under Evangelical influences—at that time practically the most potent force in Cambridge”—so writes his biographer. She continues, “He was a regular communicant and it is touching to look at the little Bible he used while at Cambridge: worn and marked, and pencilled with references to sermons which had evidently caught the boy’s attention. He used to attend meetings for Greek New Testament study and enjoyed the distinguished preachers who visited the University.”
Romanes spent much time in theology and writing sermons, which, though crude and confused in style, still showed deep thought and, according to his biographer, remarkable knowledge of the Bible.
It was not until 1870 that he discovered books by Charles Darwin, and it is impossible to overstate the extraordinary effect they had on the young man’s mind. In the same year, signs of ill-health commenced: fainting attacks, headaches and incessant lassitude. Nevertheless, he decided to enter for the prestigious Burney Prize Essay, the subject that year being ‘Christian Prayer and General Laws’.
The essay was successful, “and the writer was more than once acclaimed as a champion of the faith on account of it”. Although this essay gives evidence that Romanes still believed in the efficacy of prayer, doubts were starting to arise.
Letter seen by Darwin
Still ill, and having by this time acquired a considerable income from his father, he decided to give up any profession and devote himself to freelance scientific research. He wrote a letter to the editor of Nature. This happened to be seen by Charles Darwin who, very generously, sent a friendly note of approval to the writer.
This act had an overwhelming effect on Romanes. That the great Mr Darwin should write to him! It was too good to be true. And so commenced a long and very close friendship between the two which ended only with Darwin’s death. It was “marked on the one side by absolute worship, reverence and affection” … (and the letters reproduced in the biography demonstrate that this statement is no exaggeration) … “and on the other side by an almost fatherly kindness and wonderful interest in the younger man’s career. Perhaps no hero-worship was more unselfish, more utterly loyal or more richly rewarded”.
Through Darwin, Romanes came to be on friendly terms with the great scientific figures of the day: Charles Lyell, Thomas Huxley, Joseph Hooker, Francis Galton, Edmund Gosse, Asa Gray, and others. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. His research resulted in such books as Mental Evolution in Animals, Animal Intelligence, and The Scientific Evidences of Organic Evolution. He was considered a highly successful lecturer; erudite and witty.
In time he became heir-apparent to Darwin’s unpublished notes and manuscripts on psychological subjects. He pioneered the study of developmental psychology using material provided by Darwin. Later in life he wrote a major work in three volumes: Darwin and After: An Exposition of the Darwinian Theory and a Discussion of Post-Darwinian Questions. Gradually, influenced by his prestigious friends, his faith evaporated.
In 1878 Romanes wrote A Candid Examination of Theism. This book, drawing heavily on Darwin and Spencer, disposes of theism. But here the spiritual battle which was to dominate the rest of his life emerges. He says:
“I am not ashamed to confess that with this virtual negation of God the universe to me has lost its soul of loveliness: and although from henceforth the precept to ‘work while it is day’ will doubtless gain an intensified force from the terribly intensified meaning of the words that ‘the night cometh when no man can work’, yet when at times I think, as think I must, of the appalling contrast between the hallowed glory of the creed which once was mine, and the lonely mystery of existence as now I find it,—at such times I shall ever feel it impossible to avoid the sharpest pangs of which my nature is susceptible.”
Romanes’ writings indicate the turmoil he went through in his loss of faith which he ascribed to his ready acceptance of Darwinism. When a great friend died, moving him much, he still determined, torture though it was, “to be utterly true to his reason” and not abandon his agnostic beliefs. But all the time he was seeking, seeking.
On the side of truth
He corresponded with Asa Gray, Professor of Botany at Harvard University, a man who tried hard to reconcile Darwinianism with Christianity. In 1883 he wrote to Gray: “How gladly I would enter your camp if only I could see that it is on the side of truth.”
But he was well aware of the inevitable results of atheism. He wrote,
“Never in the history of man has so terrific a calamity befallen the race as that, which all who look may now behold, advancing as a deluge, black with destruction, resistless in might, uprooting our most cherished hopes, engulfing our most precious creeds, and burying our highest minds in desolation … The flood-gates of infidelity are open, and Atheism overwhelming is upon us.”
His wife writes that when he was at the height of his scientific success, he had “entered on that period of conflict between faith and scepticism which grew more and more strenuous, more painful as the years went by and which never really ceased until a few weeks from his death and which was destined to end in a chastened, a purified, and a victorious faith … As time went on he felt … the impossibility of a purely materialistic position, and as he pondered the final, ultimate mysteries … he arrived very slowly, very painfully, but very surely at the Christian position”.
Meanwhile the headaches got worse. Focal blindness developed, and he developed left-sided paralysis. His scientific activities were severely disrupted. The only treatment which seems to have been applied was that he should travel to a warmer climate. But all to no avail. For several years he was aware that he was dying.
[Let me as a physician interpose a note here. Reading the story of Romanes’ illness, which lasted more than a decade, there is little doubt in my mind that he suffered from some slowly growing space-occupying lesion such as a benign tumour or perhaps an aneurysm.]
As the last years of his life passed by, Romanes seems almost to have been two men at once. There was his academic, scientific face. He appeared, so states his wife, “profoundly sincere, anxious, almost unduly anxious, to give no indulgence to his own longings, to state to himself and to others unsparingly, unflinchingly what appeared to him as yet irrefutable arguments against the Faith”. Yet when he was alone, he relaxed and poured out his inmost heart.
Romanes was a considerable poet and we can learn much of his inner thoughts from his sonnets. This one was written for his wife three years before he died:
‘I ask not for Thy love, nor e’en so much
As for a hope on Thy dear breast to lie.
But be Thou still my Shepherd, still with such
Compassion as may melt to such a cry
That so I hear Thy feet and feel Thy touch
And dimly see Thy face ere yet I die.’
Hand stretched out
A little more than a year before his death, his wife had been away for a time. She returned on a Sunday, to be greeted by her husband, surprisingly bright. His first proposition was, “The church bell is tinkling, let’s go to church”. She writes,
“The brightness and gladness of the two evening psalms was oddly appropriate, and chimed in with the feelings of greater gladness dawning on him, for he was leaving the strange land in which for years he had not been able to sing ‘The Lord’s Song’. Gradually, through the darkness he became increasingly aware of the hand of God stretched out to him.”
Romanes composed another poem on his last Easter Sunday—only a few weeks before his death.
‘Amen, now lettest Thou Thy servant Lord,
Depart in peace, according to Thy Word:
Although mine eyes may not have fully seen,
Thy great salvation, surely there has been
Enough of sorrow and enough of sight
To show the way from darkness into light;
And Thou hast brought me, through a wilderness of pain.
To love the sorest paths if soonest they attain.’
The poem concludes:
‘Oh! may it be that, coming soon or late,
Thou still wilt find Thy soldier at the gate,
Who then may follow Thee till sight needs not to prove,
And faith will be dissolved in knowledge of Thy love.’
Almost his last words to his wife were: “It is Christianity or nothing.” The pilgrimage from faith to atheism and back again was ended.
What sort of a man was Romanes? He has been called “That lovable man”. He had many friends and almost no enemies. He was a family man, kind, jolly and helpful to others. He was a scientist of note and an astute philosopher. He founded the Romanes lecture in the University of Oxford. Above all he was a man who sought truth with all his heart. Perhaps his disadvantage was that he found friendship in Charles Darwin, a man against whom he could not stand. His misfortune was to be born at a time of great turbulence in the world’s history, and to be unwittingly in the centre of it.
What lessons can we learn from this misguided but gallant man? Mrs Romanes writes:
“It is impossible to exaggerate the influence which Mr Darwin’s great work had on every department of science, of literature and also on art.”
Many sound Christian men and women lost their faith because of evolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many more held on grim-faced and confused. Eventually, probably the majority placed the whole controversy in the “too hard basket” with the aid of such compromise positions as the ‘gap’ theory. Others decided that evolution and creation were, after all, compatible.
Mrs Romanes writes again:
“Thirty-six years have passed away since the publication of the Origin of Species … Now we can see that a man can fully accept the doctrine of evolution and yet can also believe in a personal God and in the doctrines which logically flow from that belief. But this was not so at first.”
I believe Mrs Romanes was wrong. But I also believe that a non-compromise position has only been possible for the scientifically trained since the last half of the twentieth century.