After 72 years under lock and key, the 1940 United States Census was released this morning. Accessing census records has never been easier. All the files have been digitized, a labor-intensive effort that involved scanning millions of documents.
According to the 1940 Census there were 132 million people living in the United States, a 7 percent increase from 1930. Taken in the midst of the Great Depression, the records are particularly revealing. For the first time ever, workers asked about household income as well as the education level of all those in the house.
The sixteenth census of the U.S. shows a country in transition – and many of its people living on very little, at least physically speaking.
For some people, there’s hope that the release of the records will help answer some long-held questions and help fill in the gaps on the family tree. There’s always the chance the census might solve a family mystery – or even create a new one! After all, some might be surprised to learn that Uncle Elmer wasn’t the high roller he claimed to be. And what happened to Aunt Margie? Did she really elope?
My own family’s past is shrouded in mystery. I’m eager to try and find my own parents on the Census, but I’m not sure how successful I’m going to be. Believe it or not, my father once told me he worked (as a young boy) as a messenger for Al Capone, but back then my dad might have had a different name. I’ll let you know what I can find out.
What’s particularly sobering though, when you see the scanned images, is the fact that the vast majority of the people listed are now dead. It is the human condition! In this case, their entire life has been reduced to a single line in the census taker’s book. And to look at the image online is to see some facts and figures attached to them – but there is much more to life than that.
This isn’t realistic, of course, but I wish the Census revealed information about a person’s faith, about who they loved and who loved them. I wish it contained observations, of lessons learned and the hurts and heartaches of their respective lives. I wish it revealed a person’s temperament, their sense of humor and their favorite things, including what they enjoyed doing outside of work, how they worshipped, what they read and what their favorite foods were at the time. I’d like to know what they were struggling with. I’d like to know what their hopes and dreams were, for both themselves and their children.
The Census counts people – but it doesn’t compute pain or pleasure. It’s interesting and necessary, but it doesn’t reveal what’s most important in life.
Even if I can’t find my parents or other loved ones in this 1940 document, Jesus reminds us all that our “names are written in Heaven” (Luke 10:20). Our family trees on earth might be messy and missing branches, but in God’s economy, the roots run deep and the tree stands perfectly full.
There will soon come a day when every question is answered and every mystery is solved – especially this most vexing one:
How was it that Jesus came to live and to die for a sinner like me?
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