Census and Sensibility

“GO, NUMBER Israel from Beersheba even to Dan; and bring the number
of them to me, that I may know it.” It was not the first census
described in the Bible, nor the last, nor yet the most renowned. But
for reasons that are obscure, King David’s order to Joab, the commander
of his army, went against God’s will and both men knew it. The count
was carried out all the same, and was followed by a heavy punishment:
70,000 Israelites died of the plague before the Lord relented and
accepted burnt offerings as a token of David’s repentance.

Taking a census thus came to be known as the sin of David, and was
long regarded as best avoided. In 1634 Governor John Winthrop of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony estimated the local population rather than
counting it exactly, telling a correspondent: “David’s example stickes
somewhat with us.” And when a Census Bill was debated in Britain in
1753, Matthew Ridley, the member of Parliament (MP)
for Newcastle, gave a speech saying that there was among the people
“such a violent spirit of opposition to this Bill, that if it be passed
into a law, there is a great reason to fear, they will in many places
oppose the execution of it in riotous manner.”