11 December 2021

Lichfield enjoys an early celebration
of Erasmus Darwin’s 290th birthday

Erasmus Darwin House between Beacon Street and the Cathedral Close in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield celebrated the 290th birthday tomorrow of Erasmus Darwin with a day of activities today (11 December 2021) from 11 am to 4 pm and free entry to the museum. The house was decorated for Christmas and the day’s programme included a range of children’s activities from a mouse hunt to crafts.

Erasmus Darwin House is close to the Cathedral Close in Lichfield. Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) lived there and raised many of his children in the house.

Erasmus Darwin is best-known as the grandfather of Charles Darwin, the naturalist. But in his own right he was also a physician, a natural philosopher, a physiologist, and an inventor. He was also an advocate of the abolition of slavery and a poet, whose poems included a discourse on evolution and the relatedness of all forms of life.

He was a member of the Darwin-Wedgwood family nexus that includes his grandsons Charles Darwin and Francis Galton, and he was a founding member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a discussion group of pioneering industrialists and natural philosophers. On one occasion, it is said, he turned down an invitation from George III to become a physician to the King.

Erasmus Darwin was born on 12 December 1731 at Elston Hall, Nottinghamshire, near Newark-on-Trent. He was the youngest of seven children of Robert Darwin (1682-1754) of Elston, a lawyer and physician, and his wife Elizabeth Hill (1702-1797). The name Erasmus had been used by a number of members of his family and derives from an ancestor, Erasmus Earle, who Common Sergeant of England under Oliver Cromwell.

He was educated at Chesterfield Grammar School and then later at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, before studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. However, it is not known whether Darwin ever obtained the formal degree of MD.

He started working as a physician at Nottingham in 1756, but he met with little success. He moved to Lichfield the following year to try to set up a practice in this cathedral city. A few weeks after his arrival in Lichfield, he used a novel course of treatment and restored the health of a young man whose death seemed inevitable.

This ensured his success in Lichfield, and for more than 50 years Darwin was a highly successful physician in the Midlands.

Erasmus Darwin lived in Lichfield from 1758 to 1781 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Lichfield, he wrote ‘didactic poetry,’ developed his system of evolution, and invented amongst other things, a carriage steering mechanism, a manuscript copier and a speaking machine.

Darwin married twice and had 14 children, and also had two illegitimate daughters with his children’s governess, and he may have had at least one other illegitimate child.

He married Mary (Polly) Howard (1740-1770) in 1757, and they were the parents of four sons and a daughter, including Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848), the father of the naturalist Charles Darwin.

In the gardens at Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When Polly died in 1770, Darwin employed Mary Parker as a governess to look after young Robert. By late 1771, Erasmus and Mary were intimately involved and they were the parents of two daughters, Susanna and Mary, who later set up a boarding school for girls. Erasmus may have fathered another child with Lucy Swift, a married woman.

Darwin met Elizabeth Pole in 1775. She was a daughter of Charles Colyear, 2nd Earl of Portmore and wife of Colonel Edward Pole (1718-1780), which led to a family connection with Comberford Hall. But, as Elizabeth was married at the time, Erasmus could only make his feelings known for her through poetry.

When Edward Pole died in 1780, Erasmus and Elizabeth were married and they moved to her home, Radbourne Hall, 6 km west of Derby. In 1782, they moved to Full Street, Derby, and they were parents of four more sons.

Darwin’s personal appearance is described in unflattering detail in his Biographical Memoirs, printed by the Monthly Magazine in 1802. He is described as ‘of middle stature, in person gross and corpulent; his features were coarse, and his countenance heavy; if not wholly void of animation, it certainly was by no means expressive. The print of him, from a painting of Mr Wright, is a good likeness. In his gait and dress he was rather clumsy and slovenly, and frequently walked with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.’

Darwin died suddenly on 18 April 1802, weeks after having moved to Breadsall Priory, north of Derby. He was buried in All Saints’ Church, Breadsall.

Erasmus Darwin is commemorated on one of the Moonstones, a series of monuments in Birmingham, and Erasmus Darwin House, his home in Lichfield, is now a museum dedicated to Erasmus Darwin and his life’s work.

The spires of Lichfield seen from a window in Erasmus Darwin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Advent 2021:
14, Karl Barth

Karl Barth (1886-1968) … ‘Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way’

Patrick Comerford

This looks like being a demanding weekend, as I catch up on some of the tasks disrupted for two or three days and nights by Storm Barra and the power outages it brought with it.

But, before this busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning (11 December 2021) for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in my Advent calendar, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Advent;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

I mentioned yesterday [10 December 2021] the interesting coincidence that two of the great Christian writers and thinkers of the 20th century, Thomas Merton and Karl Barth, died on the very same day, 10 December 1968. They are both commemorated on the same day in the Calendar of Saints in the Episcopal Church in the US.

Saint Damasus I, who was the Bishop of Rome or Pope from 366 to 384, is commemorated in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church and by some Anglicans on this day, 11 December. The son of a priest, his life coincided with the rise of Constantine I as Emperor and the reunion and re-division of the Western and Eastern Empires. He is associated with the legitimisation of Christianity, with his Papacy coinciding with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in the year 380. His personal secretary was Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible into the Vulgate Latin.

However, I thought it was an appropriate Advent exercise today to return to yesterday’s commemoration in the calendar of the Episcopal Church in the US and to the life of Karl Barth (1886-1968), who was, perhaps, the most influential theologian of the 20th century: Pope Pius XII described him the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.

Although many think of Karl Barth a German theologian, he was born in Basel in Switzerland on 10 May 1886, the son of a pastor and professor of theology, and spent his childhood in Bern.

Barth studied at several prestigious universities including Tübingen. After completing his studies, he served as a Swiss Reformed Church pastor in Geneva and Safenwil in Switzerland.

The events of World War I brought Barth to critically question the dominant theology of the day, which, in his view, held a too easy peace between theology and culture. In his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, published in 1919 and then thoroughly rewritten in 1922, Barth reasserted doctrines such as God’s sovereignty and human sin, central ideas that he believed were excluded and overshadowed in the theological discourse of the day.

It was said his ground-breaking commentary on Romans ‘fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians.’ By then, he was Professor of Theology in Göttingen (1921-1925), and from there he moved to Münster (1925-1930) and to Bonn (1930-1935).

With Hitler’s rise to power, Barth joined the Confessing Church, and he was primarily responsible for writing the Barmen Declaration (1934). In it, Barth claimed that the Church’s allegiance to God in Christ gave it the moral imperative to challenge the rule and violence of Hitler.

When he refused to swear an oath to Hitler, Barth was forced to resign his professorship in Bonn. Barth then returned to his native Switzerland, where he assumed a chair in systematic theology at the University of Basel. In the course of his appointment, he was required to answer a routine question asked of all Swiss civil servants: whether he supported the national defence. His response was firm: ‘Yes, especially on the northern border!’

Meanwhile, Barth had published the first volume of his 13-volume opus, the Church Dogmatics, in 1932. He continued to work on the Dogmatics until his death in 1968. An exhaustive account of his theological themes and a daring reassessment of the entire Christian theological tradition, the Dogmatics gave new thought to some of the central themes first articulated in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.

In the Church Dogmatics, Barth address four major doctrines: Revelation, God, Creation, and Atonement or Reconciliation. In the first volume, ‘The Doctrine of the Word of God,’ Barth laid out many of the theological notions that would comprise the heart of the entire work, including his understanding of God’s Word as the definitive source of revelation, the Incarnation as the bridge between God’s revelation and human sin, and the election of the creation as God’s great end.

He was invited to be an observer at the Second Vatican Council. He featured on the cover of Time magazine on 20 April 1962. He died in Basel on 10 December 1968.

Barth in his own words:

Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way.

The best theology would need no advocates: it would prove itself.

Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.

There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost a canonical status in Protestant theology. But now, we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical.

The centre is not something which is under our control, but something that controls us.

To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it.

It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure.

I haven’t even read everything I wrote
(possibly an apocryphal response to a student who claimed to have read everything Barth had written).

Matthew 17: 10-13 (NRSVA):

10 And the disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ 11 He replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; 12 but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (11 December 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for those whose livelihoods depend on the land. May we have greater respect for creation and for agricultural workers.

Yesterday: Thomas Merton

Tomorrow: Saint Spyridon

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org