§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible

T. H. Huxley emerges as the most important skilful investigator of scriptural geology, geography, biology, anatomy, physiology, and history. His skill in this investigation resulted from, first of all, his being a professional scientist, rendered crebible by the huge amount of laboratory work he conducted; from his being an excellent teacher and writer; and from his possessing the fierce temper of a dedicated polemics, suffering from a chronic disease he defined as "tenacity of purpose." In the Prologue to Controverted Questions, Huxley advised that polemical writing, though always something of an evil, is sometimes necessary and useful, "when, as does sometimes happen, those who come to see a contest remain to think." Though he claimed here that "few literary dishes are less appetising than cold controversy," he served the polemical essays once again in volumes four and five of Collected Essays. For guides to these essays and other work by and on him, see § 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis and § 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons. This present guide will track his reflections on theological issues from boyhood to 1860 and his analyses from 1860 to 1880.

Sermons in the Vulgar Tongue

He reflected on having been taken when a child to church to hear "sermons in the vulgar tongue"–vulgar defined as an ignorance of science and history leading to a belief in the truth of myths such as those of Old Testament stories- bene elohim, creation, and the deluge; and coercing a hatred of those who didn't believe. For the Ealing church that tot Tom attended, see picture of Ealing Church. For other relevant childhood events, see Autobiography. His teenage diary, Thoughts and Doings, notes that (despite church attendance) he read subversives such as David Hume and Thomas Carlyle, and argued with his parents, Tom claiming that it was improper to tax Dissenters for support of an established church, even that it was improper for the nation to maintain an established church. "I think now that it is against all laws of justice to force men to support a church with whose opinions they cannot conscientiously agree– The argument that the rate is so small is very fallacious. It is as much a sacrifice of principle to do a little wrong as to do a great one." He wondered about more abstract matters such as whether soul and matter may be of the same substance.

In the voyage of the Rattlesnake, he was infinitely more animated by sea creatures than by scripture. In his Rattlesnake diary he wrote almost nothing about the theological barriers he would late devote his life to knocking down. On his twenty-second birthday, he noted: "Morals and religion are one wild whirl to me–of them the less said the better"–May 4, 1847. The Rattlesnake journal concludes with a definition of Goethe's thatige skepsis: "An Active Skepticism is that which unceasingly strives to overcome itself and by well directed Research to attain to a kind of Conditional Certainty" Active Skepticism.

Upon his return to England, he found that scientific study was blocked by a "thorny barrier with its comminatory notice-board–'No Thoroughfare. By order. Moses'"–Preface V. The barrier was too high for him to climb over it, and since he would not deign to crawl under it or give up his journey, the only alternative was to knock it down. An early higher criticism of the Bible appeared in 1854; while reviewing a geological book, Huxley said that "churchman and layman now unite in admitting that, if Moses were ever in possession of the laws of geology, they must have been written on the tables which he broke and left behind on Sinai"–Murchison, et al.

He began writing a series of essays which in their detailing science at work implicitly questioned Biblical notions of fixity of species, special creation, young age of the earth, final causes, and scriptural authority itself. In the beginning of the year 1859, Huxley delivered a lecture at the Museum of Geology–Science and Religion. In this address, which appeared ten months before the Origin of Species, Huxley finds religion and science "twin sisters," but theology and science mortal enemies. The plain teaching of geology cannot be reconciled with Genesis. He spoke cordially of the "Divine Governor" favoring our delving into the secrets of nature.

In a subsequent letter –January 30, 1859– he said that his screed was meant as a protest against Theology & Parsondom, the irreconcilable enemies of Science. Scientific investigation does not support stories such as those of creation and Joshua. "If it be permissible to turn and twist the Scripture phraseology as the rationalistic orthodox do on Genesis, I for my part will undertake to prove that rape, murder and arson are positively enjoined in Exodus." Hebraic ethical ideas are scientifically accurate, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" as definite as any other inductive law. In this letter, he expressed the hope that if he were to live thirty years, it would be to advance the New Reformation. It was about thirty years from this letter to his fight with Prime Minister Gladstone and others on Old Testament and New Testament stories.

Extinguished theologians

In the 1860 On the Origin of Species, he again made explicit his sense of conflict between the new science (or "The New Reformation" as he termed it in his January 30, 1859 letter to Dyster) and the Bible. While pagan myths "are as dead as Osiris," coeval Palestinian myths "have unfortunately not yet shared their faith." Two millennia after the origin of these myths, the cosmogony of the "semi-barbarous Hebrew" still lived. But things were changing, as he wrote in a dramatic allusion: "Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain."

Implicit in the 1844 anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and in the 1859 On the Origin of Species is a hostile criticism of scriptural accounts of creation. T. H. Huxley appears to have been the first English scientist to make that criticism explicit, thus justifying the fears of Adam Sedgwick and others that rabid science was infecting the world, and more important than that, he sharpened the contrast between progressive rationalism and antique supernaturalism. Hebrew myth extolling "special creation" (today's term is "scientific creationism") should, Huxley advised, die.

Huxley again pinpointed creationism as absurd in The Darwinian Hypothesis, and would go into more detail on this subject in his lectures in New York in 1876, and then would direct much of his energy upon retirement to even more detailed scrutiny of scriptural absurdities. Such delineation of the controversy continued throughout his addresses, lectures, and papers of the 1860s, especially in the proposition that human beings descended not from Adam, but from an ape-like ancestor. In On Species and Races, and Their Origin, Huxley deifies science, reverence now seen as "the handmaid of knowledge." In the draft of this address, though not in its published version in Annals and Magazine of Natural History, he asks the question his audience may have had on their minds: "Well, this is all very eloquent, but what about having a gorilla for a cousin? "Most assuredly. No question of it. ... Why that is very dreadful–possibly–but the question before us is not what is dreadful but what is true." The truth of this proposition was delivered in the lectures that were compiled in the 1863 Man's Place in Nature. See his letter to Charles Kingsley on the incompatibility of scripture and science– April 30, 1863.

Pope Pius IX's encyclical identified the "free progress of science" as an error, in his encyclical Syllabus of Errors. In response to this and to attacks by Cardinal Wiseman and Benjamin Disraeli on the "New Reformation" and the idea of human evolution, Huxley composed his encyclical, Science and "Church Policy"(The Reader 1864) which puts down "political intriguers" who in their "church cry" to win elections voice an opinion that science education is "a mere mischievous chimera." Mr. Disraeli, "an actor of astonishing power and versatility" is the worst villain in boosting technological achievement (mere "froth and scum" to Huxley). Prelates are afraid of the incursion of science; having surrendered their astronomy, physics, geology, chronology, ethnology, and most of their history, and having shared ethics, they wonder what an insatiable science will leave them. Huxley's militant answer is that "Science exhibits no immediate intention of signing a treaty of peace with her old opponent, nor of being content with anything short of absolute victory and uncontrolled domination over the whole realm of the intellect."

One small site in the realm of the intellect is occupied by ideas about creation. Invited to give lecture to the clerical audience of Sion College in November of 1867, Huxley used the opportunity of delivering a sermon berating the audience for its ignorance of geological investigation that showed the earth to be much older than 6,000 years. What Huxley, who endowed himself with the title Minister, actually said was extemporaneous and though no references to it exist in biographical surveys of him, an article did appear in the Saturday Review (probably written by J. H. Green), Professor Huxley on Science and the Clergy; and a spokesman for the Victoria Institute did write a long attack upon it, which attack includes some passages from the talk taken down by an auditor: James Reddie, On Geological Chronology, and the Cogency of the Arguments by Which Some Scientific Doctrines Are Supported. Green's article calls for better harmony between scientific and ecclesiastical neighbors who distrust each other, and Reddie's advises Huxley to learn the facts about Nile deposition and other scientific matters. Huxley alluded to Sion House lectures in a letter to to Ernst Haeckel, January 21, 1869.

Huxley did not care for Gladstonian or other compromises that took scriptural language figuratively, ridiculing those who did this in a bit of doggeral:

Benevolent maunderers stand up and say
That black and white are but extremes of grey;
Stir up the black creed with the white,
The grey they make will be just right. (Notebook)

Primate coherence being the message of his lectures on human evolution (e.g., see On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals (1862), Huxley at the end of the decade of the sixties went on to deliver a remarkable address claiming protoplasmic coherence, On the Physical Basis of Life (1868), which when published sent the periodical into seven editions. (§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm for this and criticism of it.) His Lectures on Evolution in New York (1876) provoked much newspaper reporting, as for example, New York Times Reviews.

Bible in school

The 1870s opened with Huxley playing a decisive role on The London School Board, a major contributor to the design of British education. Part of that education, he insisted, should be required reading of the Bible–not for gleaning information on geology or the cosmos or our descent, but for its literary and ethical value. His interest was less a promotion of the Bible, even in that book's being understood as liberally as possible, than in promoting free thought as the way of deleting from culture the "verbal delusions" of theology, as he noted in a letter to his wife. His scientific essays were easily understood as attacks on Genesis, as for example in an undated cartoon captioned "The Battlefield of Science and the Church" (and Battlefield Close-up), wherein T. H. Huxley carries a placard reading "Genesis and Biogenesis"–also ; and in Jenkins' Lord Bantam, a novel featuring a speech by Professor Cruxley on "The Hippocampus Minor and its relation to the Mosaic cosmogony."

As a result of a decade of teaching, lecturing, writing scientific and popular papers, and a good deal of electioneering in London and elsewhere, Huxley in 1870 was elected a member of the London School Board, receiving more votes than almost any other candidate. The School Boards: What They Can Do, and What They May Do (1870) presents Huxley the candidate's view on the top issues facing the Board, the recommendations of which finally became a plan for British education that lasted till 1944. The Huxley curriculum included physical training and drill instruction; especially for girls, "the elements of household work and of domestic economy"; guidance in morality; and the Bible.

The Bible is to be studied as a promoter of religion (not theology), as a great piece of literature, as an introduction to grammar and geography (not to God). There was much commentary in periodicals about Huxley's education mission: for example, in The Nonconformis : The Saturday Review and Professor Huxley (1871); and in the Spectator: Professor Huxley on Denominationalism (November 5, 1870) and Professor Huxley on the Charities of London (May 20, 1871). In the first, R. H. Hutton says he would not vote for Huxley because Huxley's secularist views would inspire "sceptical bewilderment in the minds of the poor children submitted to his theory." In the second, Hutton approves of Huxley's insistence that charity money go to the education of children rather than the upkeep of churches. A detailed scrutiny of Huxley's activities (and of his personality) on the London School Board was given by its chair, Dr. J. H. Gladstone.

Huxley presented his hostile views about the education provided by Ultramontane Roman Catholicism, arguing that the London School Board ought not to fund parochial school education. "Believing that their system as set forth in the syllabus, of securing complete possession of the minds of those whom they taught or controlled, was destructive to all that was highest in the nature of mankind, and inconsistent with intellectual and political liberty [reported in the School Board Chronicle of November 4, 1870], he considered it his earnest duty to oppose all measures which would lead to assisting the Ultramontanes in their purpose"–J. H. Gladstone Account. The Times attacked him for his "injudicious and even reprehensible tone." In a letter to Edward Clodd, Huxley explained his reason for defending inclusion of the Bible: December 21, 1879, and in a letter of 1887, he noted that half the time of students in Dissenting or Church schools "is occupied with grinding into their minds their tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee theological idiocies, and the other half in cramming them with boluses of other things to be duly spat out on examination day"– June 29, 1887; and many years later explained again in a letter to the Times (August 15, 1893): Letter on Bible Reading.

T. H. H. 1891
1891 Portrait in J. A. Hill publication of Man's Place in Nature

Sympathy for Christian feeling

Darwinism had been defined as infidelity, "rank infidelity" according to an 1868 issue of the English Churchman. But liberal churchmen such as Benjamin Jowett and Charles Kingsley saw Darwinism as compatible with Christianity. A liberal theologian having solicited Huxley's signature on a petition protesting against Anglican orthodoxy, Huxley explained why he would not sign this: "The theological doctrines to which you refer ... are simply extensions of generalisations as well based as any in physical science. Very likely they are illegitimate extensions of those generalisations, but that does not make them wrong in principle"–November 18, 1876. He also refused to sign a petition to have George Eliot buried in Westminster Abbey–December 27, 1880; and refused to contribute to a fund to help the atheist George Foote against a charge of blasphemy: "I am ready to go to great lengths in defence of freedom of discussion, but I decline to admit that rightful freedom is attacked, when a man is prevented from coarsely and brutally insulting his neighbours' honest beliefs"–March 12, 1883.

Pious Victorians, like their counterparts today, wondered how one could elevate the ethics of scripture while demolishing its foundation of historical (and scientific) accuracy. But Huxley thought that could be done, and discounting the stories as verbal delusions, praised the ethics. In his late years, Huxley's interest in Judaic-Christian history and prophetism engaged his attention as strongly as marine invertebrates had in early years, as indicated by a letter of June 3, 1889 on the early church; by a letter of April 1892 to Mrs. Ward: "And if you please, Ma'am, I wish to add that I think I am not without sympathy for Christian feeling–or rather for what you mean by it. Beneath the cooled logical upper strata of my microcosm, there is a fused mass of prophetism and mysticism, and the Lord knows what might happen to me, in case a moral earthquake cracked the superincumbent deposit, and permitted an eruption of the demonic element below"; by his letter of August 31, 1894 on Spinoza, whom he much respected–August 13, 1875; and by a multitude of other letters and of essays comprising Science and Hebrew Tradition and Science and Christian Tradition.

Huxley approved of Nazarenism, as in his letter to Romanes: "I have a great respect for the Nazarenism of Jesus–very little for later 'Christianity.' But the only religion that appeals to me is prophetic Judaism. Add to it something from the best Stoics and something from Spinoza and something from Goethe, and there is a religion for men. Some of these days I think I will make a cento out of the works of these people"–November 3, 1892.

In January of 1885, from Rome he wrote to John Donnelly, expressing his disgust at seeing God made and then eaten. He was ready to rise and "slay the whole brood of idolators"–January 18, 1885. Jesus, he informed his son Leonard, would not have recognized the Papacy: "She was a simple maiden enough and vastly more attractive than the bedizened old harridan of the modern Papacy, so smothered under the old clothes of Paganism which she has been appropriating for the last fifteen centuries that Jesus of Nazareth would not know her if he met her"–January 25, 1885, would have been driven distraught by its fetish worship–May 9, 1882', such as adoration of the "Bambino"–January 8, 1885.

A correspondent delivered to Huxley a story narrating an intelligent seven-year old child's asking his teacher whether when Jesus bids us pray to Our Father, He means to Joseph. What business of Joseph's did Jesus have to do? "Had he stopped behind to get a few orders?" In his reply, Huxley relates his opposition to a compromise at the London School Board that would have "involved the obligatory teaching dogmas as the Incarnation," and refers to the Times letter. And then he continues the narrative, the boy asking "Please, teacher, if Joseph was not Jesus' father and God was, why did Mary say, 'Thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing'? How could God not know where Jesus was? How could He be sorry?

Teacher.–When Jesus says Father, he means God; but when Mary says father, she means Joseph.

Boy.–Then Mary didn't know God was Jesus' father?"–October 16, 1894

In a private letter written a year later to his friend Farrer, he mentioned approvingly the remark someone had made forty years ago: "that the existence of the Established Church was to his mind one of the best evidences of the recency of the evolution of the human type from the simian. How much there is to confirm this view in present public opinion and the intellectual character of those who influence it!" and said that he didn't regret his vote to include the Bible: "Twenty years of reasonably good primary education is 'worth a mass.'"–November 6, 1894.

In the last years of his life, he drafted a series of lectures to working men on the bible, comparable, he pointed out, to those he had given on biology early in his career; and he also worked on a draft of a survey of evolution from Judaism to Christianity. He much admired the Jewish Nazarenes, converted by Paul to Christianity–to Carpenter–October 11, 1890 and to Romanes– November 3, 1892. In an 1892 exchange of letters, he again explained his views on the Higher Criticism–The Bible and Modern Criticism.

In this present library will be found a draft of Huxley's planned Working-Men's Lectures on the Bible–The Natural History of Christianity, which naturalizes Elohim into a human being,

traces Mosaic ethics to Egyptian, discovers the "sole guide" to prophets "the inner life of resaon :& conscience," and finds Jesus and Paul to be antagonists. Huxley's criticism of the Old Testament is discussed in § 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis, and of the New in § 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons. Preface IV, written a year before his death, offers his final statement on bibliolatry: "Wherever bibliolatry has prevailed, bigotry and cruelty have accompanied it. It lies at the root of the deep-seated, sometimes disguised, but never absent, antagonism of all the varieties of ecclesiasticism to the freedom of thought and to the spirit of scientific investigation. For those who look upon ignorance as one of the chief sources of evil; and hold veracity, not merely in act, but in thought, to be the one condition of true progress, whether moral or intellectual, it is clear that the biblical idol must go the way of all other idols."

THH and JH
THH with grandson Julian, photograph by Kent and Lacey, 1895


The only spirits Huxley was fond of inhabited a glass of wine. His first "spiritualistic experience," to use his phrase, took place in 1854, at the house of a relative (unidentified). The medium was a native of the United States, her performance "the usual pencil and alphabet business." She succeeded in fooling him for a while, until he learned how to rap well enough to fool any audience, and she succeeded in inspiring a comment in his first article to the Westminster Review (1854). The article attacked Comte and also the high irrationalities of seances, and similar spiritualistic experiences such as those performed by "mesmerists, clairvoyants, electro-biologists, rappers, table-turners, and evil-worshippers in general. ... If it were true that our poor souls, instead of retiring into their rest after the weary fight of this world, were to be at the beck and call of every tobacco-squirting 'loafer' who chose to constitute himself a medium, would not those of us who have any self-respect sooner become dogs, and perish with our bodies?"–Martineau, et al..

Alfred Russel Wallace invited Huxley on November 25, 1866, to attend a seance. Huxley replied that he was not interested in "disembodied gossip"–November 1866.

In 1871, the Committee of the London Dialectical Society invited Huxley to co-operate in a program to investigate spiritualism. Huxley refused not only because he was busy, but also because he was not interested in the subject. "If anybody would endow me with the faculty of listening to the chatter of old women and curates in the nearest cathedral town, I should decline the privilege, having better things to do. And if the folk in the spiritual world do not talk more wisely and sensibly than their friends report them to do, I put them in the same category. The only good that I can see in the demonstration of the truth of 'Spiritualism' is to furnish an additional argument against suicide. Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a 'medium' hired at a guinea a séance"–Report on Spiritualism (Daily News, October 17, 1871); and see his narrative of attendance to spirits, Report on Séance (January 1874). In 1876, Huxley attended another seance, though he informed Tyndall that he "would not trust the Virgin Mary if she professed to be a medium"–October 27, 1876.

One of the very few further references to spiritualism is his concluding Lessons in Elementary Physiology (1st ed., 1866) with Appendix B–the case of Mrs. A, who was visited by the spirit of her husband; who would call to her "Come here! Come to me!" Sometimes the spirit of her husband would not merely yell at her, but scowl at her as well. Another reference is Cock-Lane and Common Sense (Times, 1884), concerning a ghost seen strolling in Cock-Lane, Huxley observing that the prospect of returning after death to "take part in Cock-lane pranks and Sludge seances" was disagreeable.

Other mediums he met afterwards were also impostures, but less clever than the American lady. In October of 1888, a friend of Huxley, Moncure Conway, published an article on spiritualism, and shortly after that a Chicago newspaper reported that Huxley looked favorably on spiritualism. His reply was Spiritualism Unmasked, Pall Mall Gazette (January 1, 1889); see also Professor Huxley and the Spiritualists Pall Mall Gazette (January 12, 1889). It could be safely said, he pointed out, in the first of these two communications to the Pall Mall Gazette "that the older form of the same fundamental delusion–the belief in possession and in witchcraft– gave rise in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries to persecutions by Christians of innocent men, women, and children, more extensive, more cruel, and more murderous than any to which the Christians of the first three centuries were subjected by the authorities of pagan Rome."

The spiritual world whether appearing in a seance or in scripture was a fit subject for scientific investigation. Huxley doesn't hint at this understanding, but is clear in stating it often in his essays and in the little-known Address to the Anthropological Department of the British Association (1878). Intelligence, formation of a social state, and the religious sentiment are all, he says here, legitimate subjects of inquiry. "Anthropology has nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of religion–it holds itself absolutely and entirely aloof from such questions–but the natural history of religion, and the origin and the growth of the religions entertained by the different kinds of the human race are within its proper and legitimate province." In the last year of his life appeared an article by Andrew Lang, Science and Demonology (Illustrated London News, June 1894), which opens with a definition of science: "In England, when people say "'science,' they commonly mean an article by Professor Huxley in the Nineteenth Century," and then proceeds to lambast Huxley for his dumb views, as given in Science and Christian Tradition, on spirits and demons. To Huxley, closely related in its absurdity though worse in its achievement of mayhem, was belief in the particular spirits known as demons; see § 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons.

Of THH in Hodeslea hall; W. Ward reports that Huxley said of this bust by Boehm: "It is almost Voltairian."



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden