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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell   1 September 1874

Sep. 1. 1874


Sir C. Lyell—to Mr. Darwin

I have been intending from day to day to congratulate you on the Belfast meeting on which occasion you and yr. theory of evolution may be fairly said to have had an ovation— Whatever criticisms may be made on Tyndall cannot be denied that it was a manly & fearless outspeaking of his opinions1 & no one can wonder that the Belfast clergy of the Calvinistic school three or more of them as I suppose you saw preached against such opinions on the Sabbath in the middle of the scientific week   It was principally I believe on the question of the efficacy of prayer that objection was taken to the tone adopted by scientific writers of late tho’ I do not remember whether this was specially alluded to in the President’s address—2 but Prof. Jellet in one of the Churches read what may be considered a regular argumentative paper on the efficacy & propriety of prayer & I was glad to see that altho’ part of his argument may have been special pleading yet he fairly admitted that truth was the chief object to be kept in sight & that unless prayer could be shown to be rational no Xtian sanction & authority or Scriptural support ought to have any weight.3

I must read his paper again for the subject is really a difficult one to decide whether it is not so congenial to human nature as simply that there is something in prayer & that it ought not to be entirely rejected—however great may be the tendency to abuse it— I feel certain that at one of the early meetings of our association such an address as that of Tyndall & such free discussions as have lately been welcomed on the nature of matter & force would not have been tolerated

I have been spending 9 days for the sake of change of air & sea breezes on the coast between Arbroath & Montrose4   Near the latter place I saw the Revd.  __ Mitchell— who has contributed a very good paper on the Old Red Sandst. of this part of the world to our Quart Geol. Journ. He showed me his specimens of Crustacean footprints a long series of tracks with the mark of the body trailing along, accompanying ripple marks & beautiful rain drops—5 This seemed to bring Pterygotus Anglicus vividly before one while the entire absence of marine shells in our Devonian beds 10,000 ft thick seems confirmatory of their freshwater origin, perhaps there were lakes as large as Lake Superior.6

Mr Judd7 (whose important paper on the ‘Five Great Volcanos of the Hebrides’8 you will have seen), has been staying with me here, and I should have much to tell you of what I have learnt of our geology. He quite confirmed what I have published about Forfarshire.9

Ever affectionately yours, | Charles Lyell

Postscript— My dear Darwin, I shall add a few words in my own handwriting. I have been lying awake last night thinking of the many conversations I have had with the dear wife I have lost, and of the late Mr. Seniors saying that as he was not conscious of having existed throughout an eternity of the past, how could he expect an eternity of the future. If according to this view, death means annihilation, may we not give up all discussion about prayer, for would there be anything worth praying for, there being no future life.

I can easily conceive an eternal omnipresent and omniscient mind coexistent with Matter, and Force, and like them indestructible, but as Greg says even such a Deity may perhaps not be omnipotent, but as Tyndall (says) all this carries us into the unknowable and incomprehensible, and I must not make you my father confessor, especially without leave, but you will excuse an old friend—

believe me | ever affectionately yours, | Cha Lyell


John Tyndall’s presidential address on 19 August 1874 at the Belfast meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science discussed the relationship between science and religion, and included a long section on Darwinian theory (see Tyndall 1874, pp. lxxxiv–lxxxvii).
Tyndall did not discuss the efficacy of prayer in his presidential address, but he had written several articles on the subject, including a controversial proposal to test the effects of prayer for the sick (Tyndall 1872a and 1872b).
John Hewitt Jellett, president of the mathematical and physical section of the British Association in 1874, lectured at the Parish Church, Belfast, on 23 August 1874. For a summary of his lecture, and of the response of the Belfast clergy to Tyndall’s address, see The Times, 24 August 1874, p. 5. Some of the responses were published in J. L. Porter 1875. Jellett later wrote a book on the efficacy of prayer (Jellett 1878).
Arbroath and Montrose are towns on the east coast of Scotland.
Hugh Mitchell, a minister in Craig, Scotland, had a large collection of fossils from Old Red Sandstone formations (Geological Magazine (1894): 575–6. The article referred to by Lyell is probably H. Mitchell 1861, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London.
Pterygotus anglicus is an extinct species of Devonian sea scorpion (order Eurypterida). Fossil remains were found in Old Red Sandstone formations in Forfarshire (now Angus), Scotland (see Henry Woodward 1866–78, 1: 33–4, 44). Lake Superior, on the border of the United States and central Canada, is the world’s largest freshwater lake (Columbia gazetteer of the world).
John Wesley Judd.
Judd 1874.
Lyell discussed evidence for the former existence of glaciers in Forfarshire, Scotland, in C. Lyell 1840c.


Comments on Tyndall’s [Presidential] Address at Belfast meeting [of BAAS] and praise of CD’s work there. Mentions criticism of Belfast clergy.

CL saw some crustacean footprints while in Ireland.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 445–6; Kinnordy MS (private collection)
Physical description
4pp draft, 2pp CC

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9619,” accessed on 22 March 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22