David's Desk is my opportunity to share thoughts and tools for the spiritual journey. These letters are my personal insights and opinions and do not necessarily reflect the sentiments or thoughts of any other person in Lorian or of Lorian as a whole. If you wish to share this letter with others, please feel free to do so; however, the material is ©2019 by David Spangler. If you no longer wish to receive these letters, please let us know at info@Lorian.org.
In many stories, attics are the places where lost or hidden treasures are found. We don’t have an attic, but our garage fills the same role as place where boxes are stored and items go to be lost. While clearing out some of these boxes this past month, my wife Julia came across something neither of us knew that we had, a treasure worthy of any attic. It was a book carefully wrapped in a plastic bag, its cover broken, its pages faded with age. With it came a glimpse into family history and into a world long vanished.
The book, Mitchell’s Primary Geography, is a textbook intended “for the instruction of children in schools and families.” It was published in 1856, four years before the start of the American Civil War. The name of the owner of this book is on the inside front cover: Rufus Spangler, my great-grandfather. On the next page, originally blank, he has written his name again, followed by the date when he was using the book: 1860.
The book had been found in a box from my Dad’s house, brought back here after he died some years ago. My Dad saved everything, but even so, the fact that this old textbook from his grandfather had survived relatively intact through four generations and a number of moves seems like a miracle to me. While I know a lot about my grandfather, Rufus’s son, I know next to nothing about Rufus himself. It’s been fun imagining him sitting in a one-room schoolhouse in eastern Ohio studying this book as an eight or nine year old boy.
What has been truly fascinating, though, has been reading the book itself. It comes from an optimistic time in American history. It describes Americans as “among the most intelligent, industrious, and enterprising people in the world.” The country has thirty-one States. The “Western States” are those we would now call the Midwest, from Ohio to Missouri, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Everything else further west are various Territories which will eventually be carved into new States, the exception being California. Eight years before this primer was published, the United States had defeated Mexico in war, gaining possession of California; it became the 31st State two years later in 1850.
West Virginia didn’t exist when Rufus was studying this geography. It wasn’t formed until the Civil War broke out and part of the State of Virginia refused to leave the Union.
The book covers more than just America. It is a world geography, describing the countries and peoples that existed then. Queen Victoria was on the throne in Great Britain. The Ottoman Empire still existed. The Tsar was on the throne of Russia. Perusing this book, I think of my great-grandfather Rufus. In 1860, when he wrote his name in this primer, his was a world without electricity. The transcontinental railroad linking the East and West coasts of the United States didn’t exist. Much of the western interior of the continent was still “Indian country.” There had been no “winning of the West” yet. I think of what it would be like for him to time-travel to my world today with its satellites, its jet travel, its computers and smartphones, the Internet and social media. The Tsar is long gone, as is the Ottoman Empire. Great Britain no longer rules much of the world. The United States is a superpower with nineteen more States than when he studied this book of geography and history. He might feel as if he had been dropped on another planet.
Mitchell’s Primary Geography exudes confidence that it knows the world as it is. It states clearly and with no hesitation, for instance, that the planet is only 6000 years old, as revealed by Scripture. In the way this was presented, this was not a religious statement but a scientific one. The split between science and religion had yet to take on the proportions that it has in our day. Darwin’s seminal book on evolution, The Origin of the Species, had only just been published in 1859. The whole perspective of creatures, including human beings, evolving over millions of years of time had yet to become widespread or accepted as fact.
Thinking of Rufus and his world got me thinking about us in our time and the world we know. We are as confident in our modern scientific and materialistic worldview as the writers of my great-grandfather’s geography primer were in theirs, and yet, who knows what my great-grandchildren will think looking back upon my time now. Will the world we know be as strange and exotic—and misinformed—to them as Rufus’s world is to me?
If nothing else, it reminds me to be humble in my certainties about the world I know.
Now a personal note. With this David’s Desk, I’m starting my thirteenth year of writing these monthly essays. I had no idea when I started that it would last this long! Thank you for your continuing interest and support, without which I would have stopped before this. I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you and look forward to continuing to do so.