On this day in 1790, Congress authorized the first official U.S. census. Five months later, under the authority of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, 17 federal marshals, aided by 200 assistants, fanned out on horseback to count heads. They covered the original colonies as well as “Western territories” which would eventually become the states of Kentucky and Tennessee.
The marshals were to ask six simple questions, but many households refused to speak to them. Some feared that this was a step toward new taxation, while the more pious believed that census-taking was forbidden by the Bible. In reality, the government’s main interest was finding out how many free white men over the age of 16 were eligible for industrial development and military service. In addition to rough travel and hostile people, census takers were poorly paid, receiving just $1 for every 150 rural residents and $1 for every 300 city dwellers tallied.
When the census was finally completed in March 1792 at the cost of $45,000, the results were handed to President George Washington. Both he and Jefferson expressed doubt about the accuracy of the count, believing that the U.S. population was greater than the nearly 4 million that were reported. Ten years later, when the next census was taken, the national population was listed at over 5.3 million people. The census taken in 2010 listed the U.S. population at nearly 309 million, a 9.7% increase from the 2000 count. The price tag, which included the hiring of 635,000 temporary data-gatherers, was $13 billion. According to some sources, the 2020 Census will cost an estimated $15.6 billion, but the GAO (General Accountability Office) has taken issue with this number.
God is in the counting business, too, yet the scriptures indicate that He is far more accurate than any human head-counter. Jesus said that not one sparrow is forgotten by God. Though there are about 35 species of true sparrows, Jesus used a term that could mean any little bird. In New Testament times, the poor would buy these birds for mere pennies in order to roast them for food. Two would go for a cent and five for two cents with the fifth thrown in for free—yet God knows when even one of these insignificant creatures falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29).
Jesus added that all the hairs on our head our numbered. For men like me who are “follically challenged,” God has an easy task. But don’t miss the point. The average human head contains about 100,000 hairs and God knows each strand better than your hairdresser. If he knows the number of hairs on your head, imagine how much more he knows you with all your fears, joys, hurts, and dreams.
Lent is a solemn season, reminding us of our mortality. True, we came from dust and will return to dust—but we will not be forgotten or forsaken. For those who abandon their own righteousness to put childlike trust in the Truly Righteous One, Jesus Christ, only one thing will be forgotten by God.