A census every decade has been a feature of British life since 1801.

Monday, 22nd March 2021, 10:43 am
Rev David Clarke, next Moderator of the Presbyterian Church. Picture by Brian Little

Having just completed the form for our household, I confess the question which caused most reflection was the one regarding the Ulster Scots language. Since I know the word ‘clabber’ —as in ‘clabber to the knees’— and the meaning of the word ‘thole’ — I ticked that I could understand it. Just about!

The practice of census-taking has an ancient history, stretching back perhaps at least 2,000 years before Christ. It was designed primarily to allow rulers to assess taxation, and military capability. There is evidence that ancient cities kept a register of their citizens. While the Domesday Book of mediaeval England gave a glimpse of land ownership and tax liability, the first national census in 1801 followed on the impact of the writing of Thomas Malthus, and his theories of population, with the central idea that food production always lagged behind population increases.

The most famous census of all was the one which brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, two millennia ago, when the Saviour of the world was born (Luke 2;1). That event was exceptional in another way. When the Romans held a census, people stayed in their normal abode; but when Jews in Palestine held a census each man returned to his ancestral home. The Emperor Caesar Augustus in far-away Rome made that diplomatic concession to Jewish custom, and so helped fulfil the ancient prophecy of Micah who, eight-centuries before, had spoken of a Ruler coming from Bethlehem (Micah 5; 2).

An old story reminds us of a more serious census still to come. Two soldiers on leave were sight-seeing in London. They arrived to visit Westminster Abbey, but it was late in the afternoon and the doors were locked. They were approached by a gentleman, to whom they explained their disappointment. The stranger happened to be the Dean of the Abbey.

He obtained the keys and showed the young men the glories of the Abbey, pointing out statues and memorials to distinguished Britons, as well as the tombs of kings. He also seized the opportunity to witness to his faith. He told them, ’You may both have a more enduring monument than this, for this will moulder into dust and be forgotten, but you, if your names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, you will abide for ever’.

The soldiers were mystified by the reference, but the good Dean pointed them to the Book of Revelation (21;27) where we are told that only those who have responded to the grace of God in Christ will find a place in God’s eternal kingdom.

That verse inspired the old gospel song, ‘When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there’

Can you sing that song with certainty, my friend?