"AS I SEE IT"
Volume 5, Number 11, November 2002
“I too will have my say; I too will tell what I know.
For I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me;
Inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.
I must speak and find relief; I must open my lips and reply.
I will show partiality to no one. Nor will I flatter any man.”
["As I See It" is a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. Its purpose is to address important issues of the day and to draw attention to worthwhile Christian and other literature in order to aid believers in Jesus Christ, especially pastors, missionaries and Bible college and seminary students to more effectively study and teach the Word of God. The editor's perspective is that of an independent Baptist of fundamentalist theological persuasion.
AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at: DKUTILEK@juno.com. You can be removed from the mailing list at the same address. Back issues sent on request. Some may also be downloaded at http://www.tegart.com/brian/bible/kjvonly. Articles on the King James Bible controversy and recent issues may be accessed at www.KJVOnly.org
All articles are by the editor (unless otherwise noted) and are copyrighted but may be reproduced for distribution, provided the following conditions are met: 1. articles must be reproduced in unedited, unabridged form; 2. the writer must be properly credited; and, 3. such reproduction must be for free distribution only. Permission to distribute in any other form must be secured in writing beforehand. Permission for reproduction in Christian print periodicals will generally be given.]
The Relative Worth
of a Knowledge of the Bible and a College Education:
A Secular Scholar’s Assessment
“Everyone who has a thorough knowledge of the Bible may truly be called educated; and no other learning or culture, no matter how extensive or elegant, can, among Europeans and Americans, form a proper substitute. Western civilization is founded upon the Bible; our ideas, our wisdom, our philosophy, our literature, our art, our ideals, come more from the Bible than from all other books put together. It is a revelation of divinity and of humanity; it contains the loftiest religious aspiration along with a candid representation of all that is earthly, sensual, and devilish. I thoroughly believe in a university education for both men and women; but I believe a knowledge of the Bible without a college course is more valuable than a college course without the Bible.”
---William Lyon Phelps (1865-1843), Lampson Professor of English Literature at Yale, in Human Nature in the Bible (London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923), p. ix.
MATTHEW HENRY, ON MOSES’ 40 YEARS IN EXILE
“Sometimes it is long before God calls his servants out to that work which of old he designed them for, and has been graciously preparing them for. Moses was born to be Israel’s deliverer, and yet not a word is said of it to him till he is eighty years of age.
Now observe, how this appearance of God to him [i.e., in Exodus 3] found him employed. He was keeping the flock (tending sheep) near Mount Horeb, v. 1. This was a poor employment for a man of his parts and education, yet he rests satisfied with it, and thus learns meekness and contentment to a high degree [I think rather, Moses had long since resigned in despair to this menial task, doubting that his life would ever attain its earlier prospects--editor] . . . .
Note, 1. In the calling to which we are called we should abide, and not be given to change. 2. Even those that are qualified for great employments and services must not think it strange if they be confined to obscurity; it was the lot of Moses before them, who foresaw nothing to the contrary but that he should die as he had lived a great while, a poor despicable shepherd. Let those that think themselves buried alive be content to shine like lamps in their sepulchers, and wait till God’s time come for setting them on the candlestick.”
--Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (Old Tappan, N. J.: Revell, n.d.), vol. I, p. 280
MORE STRANGE AND NOVEL ROADSIDE SIGNS
Sign at an ice cream store--“Jolly Cones--Scream Til Dad Stops”
“Buck’s Lakeside Deli”
From the Ozarks--“New Salvage Groceries Here”
From Tennessee--“Tater Peeler Road”
Perhaps the longest church name in the entire Mid-west-- “Mount Zion General Baptist Community Church”
I recently secured a copy of New Age Bible Versions by Gail Riplinger and have been reading it. Is this the very worst book in the world or just the very worst one that I have ever read? Everything about this book is a mess. Does she really have the academic credentials claimed on the back? I find it most difficult to believe.
Dear J. M.
Riplinger's book is as inaccurate and misinformed--and misinforming--as any book that I have ever encountered (I couldn't read it through). Every page of it I read was marred by multiple errors of fact, selective presentation (and concealment) of evidence, distortion, misquotation, bad logic and every other possible form of inaccuracy.
“Gail the Ripper” has, as I understand it, a master's degree in interior design, but zero formal Bible training and no Bible language training of any kind, yet she is lauded and admired as an “expert” by an appalling number of preachers. She actually claimed that God was the author and she was merely the penman in the writing of her book ("God And Riplinger" is her explanation of the initials G.A.), which is cultic, to say the least of it, reminding one of Ellen G. White of the Adventists. No one with even the barest knowledge of the facts regarding the text and translation of the Bible would fall for her deception, yet thousands have--and isn't that a sad commentary on the unutterably gross ignorance of so many in the ministry!!! For this they will give an account.
Your article on Hedge Trees has been, in my biased opinion, one of the most enjoyable articles I've read in a long time!! That must be either because I have been bored beyond tears OR because I am a Kansas brat. I MISS HEDGE
APPLES . . . and have since I moved up to this forsaken, Siberian icebox [Minnesota--ed.]. Thanks for bringing to my mind GREAT memories of my youth!!
Dear R. B.
Just wait til I write up an article about brutal summer heat, endless drought, oppressive winds, and a faceful of blowing dust, followed by a sudden thunderstorm raining mud--you'll pack up and move back!
You can always tell Kansas hitch-hikers. They are the ones carrying signs that say "Anyplace but HERE"
“BEWARE OF EVERY KIND OF GREED”
It is now some dozen years, perhaps more, since I heard a professor from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Dr. Green as I recall, preach at a missions conference in Wichita. His text was the famous parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), who planned to tear down his barns to build bigger ones for his surplus crops, supposing that with his material needs abundantly provided for, he was on easy street and would enjoy a long and relaxing retirement, only to face death that very night. But rather than making the usual application of the passage to those lost persons who are pre-occupied with this world’s goods to the neglect of their own soul’s eternal welfare, the professor made a pointed application to the life of believers, an application which after more than a decade I cannot drive from my mind. It was a follows-
Though we believer’s know Christ, and know, in theory, the completely transitory nature of all our worldly goods, and the express command from Christ to not focus our energies on amassing possessions in this life, but rather to focus on accumulating an ever-growing treasure in heaven,--for all that, we nevertheless for the most part act exactly like the rich fool! We set before us as our chief aim the piling up of wealth and possessions, with a pre-occupation with houses and lands, of cars and fine clothes, of bank accounts and 401k’s. And whenever God blesses us with an increase in income or an inheritance, we automatically assume that God intends for us to spend all the increase on ourselves, with yet more luxury, more vacations, a yet larger, more palatial dwelling. “Let us tear down our barns and build bigger!” When is enough enough? When does our self-focused spending become that greed of which Jesus warned? When does it become SIN?
James searchingly asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:1-3, NIV)
The problem is not with riches; the problem is in ourselves. We assume that all that we earn, all that we acquire, all that we obtain (after taxes, naturally) is ours, ours, OURS! Sure, we say “I’ll tithe, but don’t ask me to sacrifice--I’ve earned my Beamer, I deserve that second house in the mountains, those annual trips to Hawaii” (or, to bring it down closer to our level, “that new Pontiac, that larger house on an acreage in the country, that expensive 7-day cruise.”) The tragedy is that we most often go over head and ears in debt to gratify our craving for things and end up enslaved to our creditors, so stressed out over debts that we cannot enjoy those things we expected to bring us happiness. And all too often at one and the same time, churches, missionaries and various Christian ministries with genuine and immediate financial needs struggle along under-funded and over-burdened with pressing responsibilities, handicapped because American Christians with enough and more and too much heap self-indulgence upon self-indulgence.
Of course and in truth, all that I have is the Lord’s, and none of it is mine in any permanent sense. The issue is what will I do as a steward of those things God has entrusted into my hands. We would do well to learn from the example of faithful saints of God from times past who had a radically different perspective on earthly possessions.
It is reported of John Wesley, that “[w]hile he had but thirty pounds [income] a year, he lived on twenty-eight and gave away forty shillings [= two pounds]. Receiving twice as much the next year, he kept his living expenses down to the twenty-eight pounds and had thirty-two to bestow on the needy; and when the third year his income rose to ninety pounds, he spent no more than before and gave away sixty-two. The fourth year brought one hundred and twenty, and he disbursed still but the same sum for his own needs, having ninety-two to spare.
Such economy on the one hand and such generosity on the other have seldom been known in human history. But George Mueller’s record will compare favorably with this or any other of modern days. His frugality, simplicity, and economy were equal to Wesley’s, . . . He gave--as not one in a million gives--not a tithe, not any fixed proportion of annual income, but all that was left after the simplest and most necessary supply of actual wants. While most Christians regard themselves as doing their duty if, after they have given a portion to the Lord, they spend all the rest on themselves, God led George Mueller to reverse this rule and reserve only the most frugal sum for personal needs, that the entire remainder might be given to him that needeth. . . . Mr. Mueller’s own words are: ‘My aim never was, how much I could obtain, but rather how much I could give.’ “ (George Mueller of Bristol by A. T. Pierson, pp. 298, 299)
“There is One who still sits over against the Treasury, watching the gifts cast into it, and impartially weighing their worth, estimating the rich man’s millions and the widow’s mites, not by the amount given, but by the motives which impel and the measure of self-sacrifice accepted for the Lord’s sake. . . . God estimates what we give by what we keep, for it is possible to bestow large sums and yet reserve so much larger amounts that no self-denial is possible. Such giving to the Lord costs us nothing.” (ibid., pp. 324, 331)
Let us pause and seriously reflect on these matters.
THE EASTERN ORTHODOX CHURCH
The Eastern Orthodox is a religion that professes to be true Christianity. It is found most commonly (and is the dominant form of religion, affecting all aspects of the culture) in Russia, Belarus, Ukraina, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece, with smaller pockets in various countries of the Middle East. Most conservative and evangelical American Christians have very limited knowledge of the Eastern Orthodox Church, its history or its doctrines. This was especially true before the collapse of Soviet communism in the early 1990s, since most of those professing the Orthodox religion were under Soviet domination and therefore closed to missionaries. (Greece was--and is--closed to missionaries due to the Orthodox Church’s insistence on the denial of religious freedom to the populace). I myself knew almost nothing about the Orthodox religion before March 1991, when I made my first of many trips to Romania. I had been inside an Orthodox cathedral exactly once in my life.
In the past decade-plus, hundreds of missionaries and Bible teachers from the West have gone to most of these once-closed, former communist states, and have personally gained a knowledge of Eastern Orthodoxy, and have in turn informed churches in the West something about this religion.
In its general terms, the Orthodox religion in broad outline is very much like Roman Catholicism--there is a dominant church hierarchy, a system of salvation via sacraments, exaltation of Mary, prayers to and veneration of various saints, widespread use of images, tradition is given a very high authority--trumping even the plainest teachings of the Bible--, and numerous other points in common. That there would be broad similarities between Orthodoxy and Catholicism is no surprise. They were both part of the same Medieval “Christianity” until a formal split in 1054 over a single word in a creed.
In the details of their respective religions, the Orthodox and the Catholic would be quick to point out their differences. Orthodoxy claims pride of priority in time (claiming its roots in Apostolic labors in Asia Minor and Greece, before there was any church in Rome), and place (it was historically centered in Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul, the city to which Constantine moved the governmental capital of the Roman Empire in the 4th century). Orthodox deny the supremacy of the Pope in Rome; he is rather, “the first among equals”--primus inter pares, to use the Latin (!) phrase--being one among a half dozen or so of supreme bishops that lead the Church. There is no world-wide hierarchy as in Romanism, but rather, the various national Churches (Romania, Greece, Russia, etc.) are self-governing.
Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy recognize the same seven “sacraments”--rituals performed by the Church on the worshipper’s behalf which are claimed as meritorious in earning salvation, and are declared absolutely essential to salvation--infant baptism, confirmation, confession, sacrifice of the mass and transubstantiation, matrimony or celibacy, and last rites. There are differences in some of the details of the sacraments--the Orthodox immerse infants three times while Rome now sprinkles (they generally practiced immersion until the late Middle Ages); the Orthodox use leavened bread in the mass, Rome unleavened. Rome gives only the bread to the laity, while the Orthodox give both the wine and the bread to all, including infants.
The Orthodox allow their priests to marry prior to ordination (in contrast to Rome), but those who wish to rise high in the hierarchy of the Church are expected to remain unmarried.
Regarding images, both Catholics and the Orthodox pray before such images, venerate them, burn candles and offer incense before them, believe they are sacred and sometimes miraculous objects--in short and in the plainest language: both are guilty of the basest idolatry. One chief difference: for Rome, images are three-dimensional--a brazen (sometimes literally) violation of the third commandment (Exodus 20:4-5), which they obscure by combining the 2nd and 3rd commands in their catechism and renumbering them as the 2nd (and somehow neglect to memorize the portion in question), and dividing the 10th so that the number 10 is preserved. For the Orthodox, all images, or “icons” (the Greek word) are two-dimensional portraits (a Pharisaical sleight-of-hand avoidance of a technical violation of the 3rd commandment) made in strict accordance with detailed rules governing the making and use of icons (they all have the same flat, artificial Medieval look by design). The Orthodox claim that the icon is a sort of “graphic user interface” (to use computer-age terminology) where the physical universe can encounter and inter-act with the spirit world, a doorway to the celestial.
Both have prescribed supposedly meritorious ritual prayers, namely the rosary, which is directed to Mary (though in the Bible, no one ever prays to her); in the case of Orthodoxy, they also have the “Jesus prayer.” Both of these are vainly and repeatedly recited, under the mistaken notion that “they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matthew 6:7).
In other lesser matters, there are some differences in details: Rome affirms the dogma of Purgatory, while the Orthodox Church has no such settled dogma (though Purgatory is generally believed in). Rome claims the Latin Vulgate version of Jerome as its inspired and infallible Bible, while, for the OT, the Orthodox claim the inspiration and authority of the pre-Christian Septuagint Greek translation (modern language Orthodox versions follow the Septuagint, not the Hebrew in the OT). Both accept the canonicity of the Apocrypha (with a difference over one book), though in Orthodox Bibles, the apocrypha follows the OT books (as in the original KJV as well) while in Catholic Bibles, the apocryphal books are mixed in among the canonical OT books. The Orthodox liturgy has long-been recited in the native language of the congregation, while Rome’s use of the vernacular is a Vatican II (1960s) innovation.
The Orthodox religious calendar differs from that employed in the West, so that their date for the celebration of Easter (and also the Ascension and Pentecost) usually comes later, sometimes by as much as five weeks or more.
In Orthodox church buildings in Eastern Europe, there are generally no seats for the congregation (except some “chief seats” along the side walls for important personages); the worshippers are expected to stand for the whole service, while in Catholicism, there are seats provided, with various times of sitting, standing and kneeling during the ritual.
Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy have historically placed a high value on mysticism, monasticism, tradition, church councils, saints’ days, and ritual. Union of church and state has also been advocated, though with Rome, the Church is usually dominant, while in Orthodox countries, the State has been dominant, with the Church being a servant, a tool of the State, often useful in suppressing the masses (and often generating much hatred for the Church for its part in tyranny). Naturally, persecution of dissent has been widely practiced and suppression of Bible distribution in the vernacular was the rule (there was no printed Romanian New Testament until 1648 and no complete Bible until 1688, and even after this, reprints were rare for centuries; there was no printed New Testament in Russian at all until the 1820s--300 years after the Reformation made modern language versions commonplace in Western European countries; the complete Bible in Russian came even later, in 1877).
In summary: while there are differences of detail and in lesser matters of doctrine, in reality, there are great and broad parallels between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church in most matters. Both are essentially Christianized paganism, with a system of salvation by works entrusted entirely to the Church as the arbiter of who will and will not receive eternal life. The authority of Scripture is first diluted by the addition of the apocrypha, then subverted by the exaltation of tradition and the decisions of Church councils. People reared in such a culture desperately need to hear the unadulterated Gospel message taken directly from the Scriptures alone.
Any believer interested in ministering to the spiritual needs of people in Orthodox-dominated societies should seek to inform himself about the teachings and practices of the Orthodox Church.
Reading about Eastern Orthodoxy: some readily accessible sources of information--
The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware (Penguin, 1963), 352 pp., paperback. The author is Orthodox, and apart from some absurd assertions (such as that the RCC and Protestants are in closer agreement than the RCC and Orthodox!), the volume is a good and readable introduction. to Orthodox history and views.
The Eastern Orthodox Church by Ernest Benz (Doubleday, 1963), 230 pp., paperback. Another fairly recent and brief work that focuses perhaps somewhat more on the doctrines of Eastern Orthodoxy than Ware. Both are valuable for the information they provide.
History of the Eastern Church by A.P. Stanley. London: John Murray, 1876, fifth edition. 412 pp., hardback. As a High-Church Anglican, the author is generally very sympathetic to the doctrines and practices of Orthodoxy; the book has a good chronological chart, some maps, and other features.
The Age of Faith by Will Durant, vol. IV in his big The Story of Civilization set (11 vols.), has a brief treatment of the Eastern Church in pp. 423-449. Durant was a lapsed Catholic. I have not read this section.
The Greek and Eastern Churches by Walter F. Adeney, (New York: Scribner's, 1932), 634 pp., hardback. Chiefly a history. I have used it only sparingly.
Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics edited by James Hastings (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1914), “Eastern Church” by Porphyrios, vol. V, pp. 134-6; “Greek Orthodox Church,” by S. V. Troitsky, vol. VI, pp. 425-435. The latter is the longer and more instructive article.
Creeds of Christendom by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983 reprint of 6th ed.), 3 vols. Vol. 1 has, inter alia, discussion of the background of the oecumenical and Eastern Orthodox creeds, while vol. 2 contains the actual Greek text of those creeds, with Latin translation.
Cyclopedia of Biblical Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature edited by John McClintock and James Strong (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981 reprint), “Greek Church,” by Alexander J. Schem, vol. III, pp. 983-986.
The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge edited by Samuel M. Jackson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963 reprint), “Eastern Church,” by A. A. Stamouli, vol. IV, pp. 48-54.
Confident Pastoral Leadership by Howard F. Sugden & Warren W. Wiersbe. Chicago: Moody Press, 1973. 160 pp., paperback.
Every preacher, especially those newly-entered into the pastorate, would be well-served to have an older, wiser friend in the ministry to give good counsel and sound advice regarding the various practical aspects of the ministry--the crises, the concerns, the troubles, the issues, the situations that inevitably arise, and for which no Bible college or seminary course can adequately prepare the young preacher. In the late Howard Sugden and the still-alive-and-kicking Warren Wiersbe, the preacher will find such wise counsel and advice. Between these two highly successful pastors (and I mean in matters far more important than mere numbers--building up and edifying the members of their congregations, reaching out both near and far with the Gospel message, and such like), there is a wealth of experience to be tapped, not the idealistic but untried proclamations of ivory-tower theoreticians.
In eighteen chapters, a series of common questions that the authors were frequently asked are presented, along with their well-considered answers. The topics addressed range from a Divine call to the ministry to a call to a specific church and dealing with inherited problems and one’s predecessor in a pastorate, to matters of study, books, sermon preparation, to personal priorities and time management, to weddings, hospital visits, and funerals, to church membership and discipline. And the preacher who has already figured out the proper Biblical approach to many or most of these matters will still be well-served by being reminded of these things.
Here is sound, sage, sane, solid, practical and useable advice. I have no idea if this book is yet in print (I suspect not), but it should be rather common in the used market (my copy is a third, 1979 printing), and should be hunted out and obtained. I will be searching for copies for young preachers of my acquaintance. I wish I had come across
it when it first appeared.
Quotes from Confident Pastoral Leadership--
“The work of the ministry is too demanding and difficult for a man to enter it without a sense of divine calling. Men enter and then leave the ministry usually because they lack a sense of divine urgency. Nothing less than a definite call from God could ever give a man success in the ministry.” (p. 9)
“Certainly the pastor must have character and conduct that are above reproach.” (p. 10)
“A man does not enter the ministry because he has failed at a dozen other jobs, or because there is nothing else to do. The oft-repeated counsel is worth repeating again: if you can stay out of the ministry, then do so; because this will prove that you were not called to begin with.” (pp. 10-11)
“ ‘Apt to teach’ [I Timothy 3:2] is one of the important qualifications for the ministry, and this suggests ‘apt to learn.’ We must be receivers before we can be transmitters. The man who does not learn the discipline of study will never accomplish all God wants him to accomplish in the ministry. . . . Of course, you must be a student all of your life” (pp. 13, 14)
“If you are a called man, and a prepared man, then be an available man and God will open and close doors for you.” (p. 20)
“The big decisions of life are often built upon the little decisions that we make day after day; so keep your devotional life at a high level, and God will show you His will.” (p. 26)
“Why has preaching declined in recent years? For one thing, the churches have been too easily influenced by the latest secular fads--counseling, group dynamics, dialogue, drama, and so forth.” (p. 52)
“Perhaps the main reason people have criticized preaching is the fact that so much preaching is poorly done and does not meet the needs of the people.” (p. 52)
“You can learn from every man, either what to do or what not to do.” (p. 53)
“The pastor cannot afford to be like the spider, and spin everything out of his own mind; nor can he be like the ant, and steal morsels [read: sermon outlines] from others. He must be like the bee and gather nectar [from many flowers] but ‘make his own honey.’ (Bacon used this comparison; we borrow it from him.) Or to change the image, the pastor ‘milks a lot of cows, but he churns his own butter.’ “ (p. 69)
“We need not apologize for giving an invitation, but neither should we use the response (or absence of response) as the test of the success of the service. The harvest is the end of the age, not at the end of the meeting. A public invitation is not necessarily a test of orthodoxy, but neither is the absence of an invitation (or a resistance to it on the part of the pastor) a special mark of spirituality.” (p. 72)
“If a man is steadily digging into the Word, he will have no problem teaching a lesson, preaching two sermons, and leading a midweek service during the average week.” (p. 81)
[Frankly, I don’t know what full-time pastors who preach just once or twice a week do with all their time, or how they can manage to keep their mouths shut that much--contrast Jeremiah 20:9b--ed.]
“Good Christians can disagree in their musical likes and dislikes, but all spiritually-minded people will agree on these propositions: the lyrics must be true to the Word, the tune must be wedded to the words so that one helps the other, and those who present the music must do so honestly from the heart. With the first, we have no problems: any Bible student can tell when a song is not true to Christian doctrine. (And, sad to say, we have plenty of them!) It is with the second that we have a real problem, because not every Christian knows when a hymn tune is really suited to the words. Tunes, like salads, appeal to different people. So, here we must exercise love and patience. As to the third proposition, only the Lord (and the musicians) knows whether the song is being presented in a sincere manner. The difference between ministry and performance is right here: ministry comes from the heart, performance from the mouth. Anyone who ministers in music publicly in a church should practice what he plays or sings. Anything less is hypocrisy. To summarize: the music in the church ought to be made up of fit words put to fit tunes, presented by spiritually fit people.” (p. 83)
“As pastor, be sure that the ministry is worth inviting others to share! The best encouragement you can give your people in this matter of sharing Christ is a ministry of the Word that they can enthusiastically invite people to attend. And keep in mind that, though your members bring in the visitors, it is primarily the pastor’s job to keep them coming!” (p. 95)
“Marriage does not create problems: it reveals them.” (p. 98)
“Unless you begin your day in the Word and prayer, committing the entire day to Him, you will not make the best use of your time.” (p. 146)
“Our spiritual life starts to deteriorate when we start praying things we don’t mean, preaching things we don’t practice, and expecting things of others that we don’t do ourselves.” (p. 154) Ouch!
THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS: the Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914, by David McCullough. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977. 698 pp. hardback.
Earlier this year, we read and reviewed a book about the Lewis and Clark exploration, Undaunted Courage, by the late historian Stephen Ambrose (AISI 5:6), followed by his history of the building of the American transcontinental railroad, Nothing Like It in the World (5:8). These books recount immensely important events in the development and improvement of transportation. It is by design that we next read this book by McCullough on the Panama Canal, an engineering achievement that shortened the transit by water from New York to San Francisco by several weeks and some 8,000 miles.
The quest for an all-water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific was always a great desideratum ever since the first discovery by Balboa in 1513 of the Pacific Ocean a mere forty miles across the Isthmus of Panama from the Caribbean Sea. But what a forty miles--steamy, disease-plagued jungle subject to frequent torrential rains, with an unbroken mountain range whose lowest pass was nearly 400 feet about the sea (one aspiration of the Lewis and Clark expedition had been to find a serviceable all-water route up the Missouri River and down the Columbia to the Pacific; in this they were much disappointed).
The Isthmus was first breached by rail (at great expense in money and lives) in the 1850s to accommodate the ever-growing traffic between the East Coast of the U.S. and California. The Isthmus could now be crossed in 3 hours in relative comfort (the previous foot-crossing which required up to 10 days was exceedingly precarious and often fatal), and ship’s cargo could be unloaded, hauled overland, and be reloaded, though at considerable expense. But the passage of actual ships themselves was only a dream, yet a dream that some hoped to bring to reality.
Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) achieved international fame as the French engineer who dug the famous Suez Canal joining the Mediterranean and Red Seas, thereby reducing the distance by sea from Europe to Asia to a fraction of what it previously had been. To build a similar canal at Panama was deemed to be just one more opportunity to add to his world-wide renown, and enhance the glory of France. After all, the canal at Suez was much longer, and a canal built in the admittedly brutal heat of Panama would present no obstacles not already faced--and overcome--at Suez. Or so he thought. In reality, the dryness of Egypt meant many fewer diseases and disease-bearing organisms there, and no violent floods or mudslides triggered by torrential rains to deal with. There were no mountain ranges to overcome, and most of the material to be removed in Suez was sand, not gumbo clay or rock as in Panama.
De Lesseps promoted, organized and led a concerted and expensive French effort in the 1870s and 1880s to dig a canal at Panama (then and until an American-sanctioned revolution in 1903, a part of Columbia). After the expenditure of many millions of francs, and the loss of thousands of lives to yellow fever, malaria and other diseases over a period of two decades, with subsequent and immense political and financial scandals, the French finally gave up, having failed miserably to achieve their goal.
Subsequently, the desire to have an American-built canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific was hotly debated in the States. Various potential routes were discussed and analyzed and discussed some more: Panama, Nicaragua, Columbia, even Mexico. Ultimately, Nicaragua seemed almost certain to be the choice, but a persistent Frenchman, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, earlier associated with the French canal-building effort, managed to persuade key figures in the U.S. government--most notably President Theodore Roosevelt--that the Panama route was preferable, and so Panama it was.
When the Columbian government stalled and delayed making a treaty with the U.S. for the construction of the canal, a revolution in Panama, whereby it became independent of Columbia, was planned and carried out with the full knowledge and acquiescence, even prior encouragement, of officials in the American government. A treaty was concluded in short order with the now-independent government of Panama, and the work was begun.
The first obstacle to be overcome if the American effort was to succeed where the French had miserably failed was the multitude of tropical diseases indigenous to the humid American tropics. A rigorous effort subdued yellow fever, malaria, and cholera and reduced typhoid fever, tuberculosis and others to manageable proportions.
Skilled and semi-skilled laborers from the States, and a large mass of unskilled manual laborers from Caribbean Islands poured into Panama, the total work force at times exceeding 25,000. The government-run and government-controlled canal project was remarkably efficient and effective. The canal was completed in 10 years’ time, well before the planned deadline, and well under budget.
All told, combining the French and American efforts, the canal cost $639 million dollars (the far greater part being spent by the Americans) and 25,000 lives (80% lost under the French) to build. Some 262 million cubic yards of soil, clay and rock were moved; 61 million pounds of dynamite were consumed in the process. Other than wars, the canal was the largest and most expensive government project ever undertaken to that time. With a series of locks 1,000’ long, 85’ deep and 110’ wide, and requiring in all some 2 million yards of concrete to build, the canal could accommodate the largest ocean going vessels of that day, and most of those of the present day, all but the very largest of modern military ships, cruise ships and cargo vessels. There has been some talk of creating another canal, probably at another location in Central America, perhaps one entirely at sea-level.
(Though built entirely with U.S. money and ours in perpetuity by treaty--and with a substantial lease payment made by the U.S. to Panama yearly--nevertheless, in the late 1970s the Carter administration engineered a return of the canal in its entirety to Panama with no compensation to the U.S. Instability in Panama something over a decade later required a U.S. military invasion to secure this vital waterway. Under Clinton in the 1990s, the Red Chinese were allowed to gain control by lease of important aspects of the canal complex. These developments, occurring after the writing of McCullough’s book, are of course not touched upon by him.)
The author, David McCullough is, among other things, the narrator of the famous PBS series “The Civil War,” the author of The Johnstown Flood (which we reviewed in AISI 4:10) and the best-selling 2001 biography of President John Adams (which we somehow neglected to review, but which we highly recommend). His account of the canal’s history is characterized by his usual care in research and a generally lively and readable narrative (though at one point I thought it would take me as long to read the book as it took to actually dig the canal!). The book is well provided for with photographs, maps, bibliography and indices.