Hugh Miller and the Mystery of his Death

On December 30, 1856, thousands of people followed Hugh Miller’s coffin to the Grange cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was dearly loved and respected, particularly for his thought-provoking writings on a wide variety of subjects. As an editor of Miller’s memoirs aptly said, “In choosing him, readers were choosing a friend.”[1]

            A question meandered through the crowd, “Why?”

            On Christmas Eve, after reading some poems to his children and sending them to bed, Miller wrote a suicide note to his wife Lydia and shot a bullet through his chest, muffling the sound. Lydia discovered the body the next morning.

            “Dearest Lydia,” he wrote, “I must have walked, and a fearful dream rises upon me. I cannot bear the horrible thought. God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.”[2]

Searching for Reasons

            Speculations about Miller’s reasons immediately rose. Upon request of his pastor, physicians conducted an examination of his brain, which showed a “diseased appearance.” The final judgment was that the suicide had been committed “under the impulse of insanity.”[3]

            He had not been well for a while. He had complained to his doctor that his brain was “giving way,” and had reported terrible nightmares that left him “trembling all over, and quite confused.” He had also reported sharp pains, like “an electric shock,”[4] passing through his brain and leaving a burning sensation on top of his head. Because of these physical symptoms and the visible appearance of a “diseased brain,” some have suggested a brain tumor. Whatever it was, it was fairly sudden and unpredicted. As most illnesses of the brain, it was also largely unexplainable.

            But people want explanations. Some blamed his mother, who told him stories about frightening Gaelic spirits. Some suggested he could not deal with the apparent contradictions between his faith and his geological studies. Interestingly, this second theory is still strong today. Yet, its proponents don’t know Hugh Miller. He was never afraid of the truth, nor of the questions and challenges that led to its discovery.

Candid Convictions

            In his memoirs, Miller speaks candidly about the evolution of his religious convictions. Born in the port town of Cromarty in 1802, he eventually developed into the typical teenage rebel - “a lad of my own will,” he said, a “Sabbath-breaker and a robber of orchards.” At 16, he left school and became an apprentice stone mason. By that time, his religion was so formal that he found it more consistent, “for the sake of peace,” to call himself an atheist. Later, a scary dream moved him to accept a vague idea of the existence of God, becoming what he reluctantly recognized as a “deist.”

            In 1829, he began his career as journalist, while he continued a passion for geology he had nurtured since his first discovery of a fossil nine years earlier. In the meantime, he continued his progress toward Christianity, although the path was crowded with questions. “I could believe in many things which I could not understand,” he wrote, “but how could I believe in things evidently not beyond the reach of reason, but directly opposed to it?”

            “I could believe that a man is either a free agent or chained down by the decrees of God to a predestined line of conduct, but how could I believe that he was at once free and the child of necessity? And yet the contradiction (as it appeared) seemed to me to be the doctrine of the Bible. … How, thought I, can one man who is a criminal be pardoned and rewarded because another who is none has, after meriting reward, been punished? How can it be said that He who thus pardons the guilty and punishes the innocent is not only just, but that he even does this that he may become just and merciful? It appeared even more strange than even this that the only way of becoming virtuous was, not by doing good and virtuous deeds, but by believing that Christ’s death was an atonement for sin, and His merits a fund of righteousness for which they who thus believe were to be rewarded. Certainly, thought I, if the Christian religion be not a true one, it is not a cunningly devised fable, for its mysteries are either not far enough removed from the examination of the rational faculties, or too directly opposed to the conclusions which they must necessarily form.”[5]

            This last argument must have convinced him, because Miller became not only a convinced Presbyterian, but a champion of the church as the Reformers had intended it. In 1841, he was chosen as editor of a new Evangelical publication called The Witness (second only to The Scotsman in circulation). There, he wrote clearly and forcefully about several religious issues, including the main problem of his day: the church’s acceptance of patronage (when noblemen imposed certain pastors on a congregation). It was the same issue that had divided the church in the 1733 Secession. This time, it resulted in the Disruption of 1843, led by Thomas Chalmers and heartily backed by Miller.

Faith and Science

            His articles on geology were as passionate as his writings on religion, because he considered science and religion as complementary, with science as a tool to glorify God. He conceded that the six days of creation could have been ages, but firmly believed in God as creator and sustainer of all things.

            This view allowed him to infuse his scientific writings with the beauty and poetry that is intrinsic in God’s creation, pointing out – as poets often do – what can be observed but is often missed. But his writings were also well researched and scientifically precise. In spite of being largely self-taught, Miller became greatly esteemed by the scientific community.

            After his death, his wife Lydia edited some of his unpublished works and added some of Hugh’s desired revisions to existing ones. Her motives were both to honor his memory and to continue to communicate to others his passion for geology, producing at the same time an answer that is both rational and biblical to Darwin’s advancing arguments.

            Like her husband, Lydia believed that serious scientific discoveries could only magnify God’s glory, since “the fact of creative power implies an absence of limit to creative power.”[6]

            Hugh Miller has been largely forgotten today, especially outside of Scotland. He is often remembered as an anomaly in his efforts to reconcile faith and science, and his death provokes more discussions than his life. Interestingly, his writings were greatly valued by many geologists of his day, who rarely saw in his perspective the discrepancy many have been trained to see today.


[1] Elizabeth Sutherland, Lydia, Wife of Hugh Miller of Cromarty, East Lothian, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 2002, p. 111

[2] Ibid., p. 108.

[3] Ibid., p. 109.

[4] Ibid., p. 106

[5] Peter Bayne, The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller, Vol. 1, London: Strahan & Co., 1871, p. 204.

[6] Sutherland, Lydia, p. 124.


Simonetta Carr