The Historical Journal

Articles

Wilberforce and Huxley: a Legendary Encounter

J. R. Lucasa1

a1 Merton College, Oxford

The legend of the encounter between Wilberforce and Huxley is well established. Almost every scientist knows – and every viewer of the BBC's recent programme on Darwin was shown – how Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, attempted to pour scorn on Darwin's Origin of species at a meeting of the British Association in Oxford on 30 June 1860, and had the tables turned on him by T. H. Huxley. In this memorable encounter Huxley's simple scientific sincerity humbled the prelatical insolence and clerical obscurantism of Soapy Sam; the pretension of the Church to dictate to scientists the conclusions they were allowed to reach were, for good and all, decisively defeated, the autonomy of science was established in Britain and the western world, the claim of plain unvarnished truth on men's allegiance was vindicated, however unwelcome its implications for human vanity might be, and the flood tide of Victorian faith in all its fulsomeness was turned to an ebb, which has continued to our present day and will only end when religion and superstition have been finally eliminated from the minds of all enlightened men. Even churchmen concede that it was a disastrous defeat. Only Owen Chadwick strikes a note of caution, observing that the account given of the incident in Wilberforce's biography seems hardly consistent with an overwhelming defeat, and maintaining that the received account must be a largely legendary creation of a later date.