“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Romans 1:19-21 (ESV)
I read a very touching letter this week—from one of the Twentieth century’s most inspiring women to one of mankind’s most brilliant pioneers. By any measure, Helen Keller and Alexander Graham Bell were truly remarkable people.
“Dear Dr. Bell, it would be such a happiness to have you beside me in my picture-travels! As in real journeys you have often made the hours short and free from ennui, so in the drama of my life, your eloquent hand in mine, you make the way bright and full of interest, give to misfortune an undertone of hope and courage that will assist many others beside myself to the very end.”
Helen Keller letter to Alexander Graham Bell, July 5th, 1918
For someone saddled with blindness and deafness, who was disappointed by her own speech, Helen Keller had a profoundly beautiful and powerful voice. Her letter to Bell is affectionate, expressing deep love and gratitude. But when she writes “your eloquent hand in mine,” she is alluding to something that surpassed a simple display of affection—she and Bell conversed through “finger spelling.”
At the time of the letter, Bell was a very wealthy man, spending his final productive years giving his unrelenting imagination to a diverse and lengthy list of inventions at his Beinn Bhreagh estate on Nova Scotia’s pastoral inland sea, the Bras d’Or Lake. His biography reads like the history of the industrial revolution. He received the “most lucrative patent ever issued” for his telephone invention, but his interests went far beyond that world-changing achievement, including:
- Flying machines,
- Selenium cells,
- Iceberg detectors,
- Alternative fuels,
- Solar panels,
- Composting toilets,
- Medical devices,
- Metal detectors (he developed a detector to find bullet fragments in President James Garfield’s body),
- Magnetic data storage devices, and
- The photophone (a wireless telephone and a precursor to fiber optic technology—which he considered the greatest achievement of his life).
Bell was a compassionate humanitarian by all accounts. His studies of elocution led him into an intense, lifelong passion working with the deaf. He met his wife Mabel on the job as a speech teacher. You may have heard her name among the barons of Twentieth century industry—it turns out she had what it took to succeed in big business. “Ma Bell” became the moniker of one of the largest and most successful commercial empires ever conceived (Bell Telephone, which became AT&T, Bell Labs, etc.). His work with the deaf also put him in a position to help Helen Keller—many years his junior, and for whom he developed an abiding paternal affection.
Bell’s success enabled Mabel and him to build their grand estate at Beinn Bhreagh, where he assembled a talented group of machinists, experimenters and tinkerers who could fashion all manner of gadgets and devices. Mabel referred affectionately to them as “the men,” and they turned Bell’s ideas into airplanes, elaborate kites, hydrofoils, and even an air conditioning system for his mansion. He was a deeply pensive man—his daughters reminisced about routinely seeing the embers of his cigar through the dark of night as he floated on an inner tube on the Bras d’Or Lake, meditating upon whatever crossed his mind.
Bell’s contributions to society are equally impressive. He helped found the National Geographic Society, and gave his fortune generously to others, receiving a very long list of decorations, accolades and humanitarian awards. He has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history.
Back to Helen Keller’s Letter
What has any of this got to do with personal discipleship?
Helen Keller’s letter, which she typed herself, starts out by asking Bell to pay attention:
“Dear Dr. Bell: Will you sit down on the edge of one of those wonderful submarine-chasers you told me about—if such a swift thing can be sat on with perfect safety—and read this letter? Mind, you are to read it through, and you are not to get what you read mixed up with charts and things!”
Alexander Graham Bell had issues with distractions? Come on. Really?! Actually Helen Keller may have been onto something. In this recent article about Bell and his legacy, his great-grandson (who used to play in the carcass of the submarine chaser as a little boy) describes Bell’s lifestyle and work on the hydrofoil.
“Bell was easily distracted. So he had different stations where he would force himself to focus on just one thing. In the Kite House, he would just work on the kites and the aviation projects he was interested in. Then there was an area up the hill on the estate with the sheep and chickens where he worked on genetics. Another area near the water where he worked on the hydrofoil.”
Hugh Muller, Alexander Graham Bell’s Great-Grandson
OK, let’s land the plane. Where was Bell spiritually? Bell considered himself a “Unitarian Agnostic” (see page 5 of this March 12th, 1901 letter to his wife). He also marked up this Unitarian pamphlet with his personal beliefs. He and Mabel are buried in front of a rock on the Beinn Bhreagh estate with no signs of any faith. I won’t comment on his eternal fate, but did Bell miss something essential in his thinking?
Romans 1:20 (above) is a pillar of Article 2 of the Belgic Confession, one of the creeds of the Reformation. The idea is that God has revealed Himself in two books: the book of Scripture (the Holy Bible), and the book of Nature (His divine creation). It’s a both-and proposition, and a strong encouragement to those who invest in studying the Scripture and the beautiful, natural world of the Creator. In other words, that God exists should be evident to everyone who contemplates Nature, and we are without excuse if we fail to acknowledge His creation, preservation and government of the universe. Ironically, Helen Keller knew God existed before she knew His name. More on that and the Belgic Confession in a future post.
Where are you in those moments when you’re floating on a dark lake, staring over your embers, thinking about whatever grabs your imagination? Are there any submarine chasers distracting you from the veracity of Scripture that leads to the love of God? It’s our responsibility not to get distracted—however noble our endeavors.
For those dying to know, here is Bell’s response to Helen Keller’s request. It seems Mabel Bell wrote her own letter, just to be safe. Obviously, Helen Keller commanded great affection from the Bell family, and her letter had touched them all deeply. (It touched me deeply as well.)
Just last year, Smithsonian researchers discovered a recording of Bell’s voice.
August 6th, 2013 at 9:47 am
I think that Bell’s “unitarian agnosticism” is exemplar to those who believe in the power of science and reason to solve all human problems. Looking back at all of the scientific advancements over the past century, along with the ethical challenges and disasters that sadly come along with them, I wonder if Bell would have the same sort of enthusiasm today?
In my estimation, the evangelical message of the Bible has a positive appreciation for what science and technology can do, but it also has a more sober evaluation of the pitfalls than what “unitarian agnosticism” has to offer.
August 6th, 2013 at 11:51 am
The sadness here is that for Bell it was either-or (science or God). In his personal writing he emerges as an atheist more than an agnostic. As someone whose life clearly benefitted mankind, his legacy is a good example that there truly are wonderful people who don’t accept the claims and content of the Bible. It’s not our business to condemn or demonize them, but it is our responsibility to share with them (1 Corinthians 9:23).
August 9th, 2013 at 9:53 am
Courage, faith & devotion – Helen said that the picture of her life should enphasize these attributes… Would that we could say that, too, about our lives? What a powerfully poignant letter – whew! Thanx so much, John, for sharing this really great post.
grace, peace & Helen Keller groupies – Virginia : )
August 14th, 2013 at 2:23 pm
Helen Keller was amazing. I had learned about her in elementary school, but certainly was too young to appreciate what she–as a deaf and blind person–had to overcome just to function in life. She was so full of grace, love, and compassion, it’s easy to forget when reading her letters how difficult it must have been for her to develop her inner thoughts. It’s a true story full of miracles and the grace of God (actually…not unlike the Bible).
This material was extremely fun to research. I just kept connecting dots–starting with a photograph I snapped almost haphazardly in a museum, and ending up with a really interesting theological illustration for the post. I have lots of background material on Helen Keller (that was new to me) that hit the cutting room floor. It will probably make its way into future posts. Thanks again for the encouragement!