The Intriguing Historical Origins
Where did the concept that the British and American people are the “Lost 10 Tribes of Israel” originate? How did it become an understanding so readily embraced by the Church of God since the 1930s?
We can enlarge our understanding and appreciation of how the belief fits in the context of recent Church history by an examination of the historical setting in which the concept known as British or Anglo-Israelism developed.
The essential historical context
Although the first truly sophisticated published version of the belief appeared in 1840 and pre-dates Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859) by almost two decades, Anglo-Israelism was born and grew to maturity in an intellectual climate heavily tainted by erroneous ideas of evolution and racial superiority.
Twentieth century critics of British-Israelism often cite this intellectual milieu as evidence that the concept is simply one more expression of the racism around mid-century — one piece of the larger fabric of a flawed and prejudicial 19th century world view.
We must, however, evaluate the literature of any era in its historical context, remembering that most British-Israel material was written before Nazi race theories led to the so-called “Final Solution” of the Holocaust. In the 19th century, while Britain and America were on the ascendancy, the concept that the British and Americans were descendants of the “chosen people” was an attractive and quite plausible idea.
In fact, the concept itself is not inherently racist or prejudicial, any more than Jesus Christ was racist in his comments to the Samaritan woman beseeching Him to cast the demon out of her daughter (Matthew 15:24). It is interesting that Jesus” response to this woman’s request for aid was: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” As such, neither Christ’s ministry nor the premise of British-Israelism demand that we accept wrongheaded notions about inequality among the races of humankind.
So the idea of Anglo-Israelism is not inherently racist any more than Christianity is inherently violent. It depends on the behavior of its adherents. Neither are its implications, when properly understood, incompatible with New Testament teachings. God was not racist in the selection of Abraham to initiate His plan for the salvation of all humankind (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8, 14). God’s choice did not mean He preferred Abraham’s race above all others, but He had chosen to begin His spiritual plan with just one man and his wife — and that man was Abraham.
The geography of nations
At the national level, Abraham’s descendants — the Israelites — received a similar opportunity. The earth “and its fullness” belong to God (Psalm 50:12). A passage in the Pentateuch suggests that God intended from the beginning of human history that various peoples should inhabit specific territories of the earth. “He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9; compare Acts 17:26).
Israel’s selection was for the purpose of providing all the other peoples of the world with a national model of Godly behavior (Deuteronomy 4:6-8). God intended that people of every nation might imitate Israel’s positive example and also receive the benefits first given to Jacob (see Isaiah 20:23-24; Zechariah 8:23).
If popular ideas about race affected 19th and 20th century British-Israel literature, so did the expansion of British power throughout the world during the 19th century. By the beginning of World War I, English military power and economic influence had created the largest empire in recorded history.
Predictably, the success of British imperialism fueled the popularity of British-Israelism. In America, British-Israelism became a kind of a narrowly-focused or modified version of “Manifest Destiny” — the concept that God favored the territorial expansion of the United States, to facilitate the free development of democracy across the continent and the acquisition of new territory as an outlet for America’s remarkable population growth. Those Americans who embraced British-Israelism carried the notion of “Manifest Destiny” one step farther, forging a literal link between the mid-19th century expansion of the U.S. to fill the North American continent and God’s unconditional Birthright conferred on the descendants of Joseph.
Consequently, British-Israelism in both Britain and America has often become associated with the negative connotations of “imperialism.” Some 20th century critics even allege that those who embraced British-Israelism were seeking a salve for the conscience. This idea is out-of-date, projecting today’s political sensitivities on an audience that viewed the world far differently than most people do today.
To understand those who accepted British-Israelism, it is essential to consider the historical context in which these peoples lived. In fact, imperialism in mid-19th century Britain was not perceived negatively by the general public. As for justification of an empire, many British citizens saw themselves as extending the blessings that had made Britain great to less fortunate peoples around the globe.
Indeed, “missionary imperialism” — the duty to deliver what was believed to be a superior culture, system, and way of life to the backward peoples of the world — imbued many British subjects with a sense of both right and responsibility to help the less fortunate societies of the world to develop.
The rise and fall of the British Empire
At the turn of the 20th century, the British were a people splendidly confident in their ability to make the world over for the better and in their own image. The spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden composed “in 1898 at the height of the imperial endeavor,” prevailed over any pangs of conscience about interfering in the affairs of less technologically and (as was the popular 19th century perception) culturally advanced peoples (Christopher Bayly, Atlas of the British Empire, (p. 125).
The general public considered the “New Imperialism” which blossomed during the last quarter of the 19th century more a cause celebre — giving the masses at home “something to shout about” — than a stain to be expunged from the moral integrity of the British people.
Of course the British Empire ultimately began to fracture. But this did not begin to happen until the end of the 19th century. A general awareness of this process of disintegration did not develop until the early- to mid-20th century, well after the British- Israel movement had reached high pitch.
Comparing the American context and the mid-century spirit of “Manifest Destiny” American attitudes were similar to British ones across the Atlantic. Most Americans enthusiastically supported the overspreading of the United States across the length and breadth of the whole continent. The popular American mood was one of belligerent self-confidence.
The movement in America
In America, the 1840s witnessed the final decade of the “Second Great Awakening,” a time of revivalism distinguished (especially in the South) by considerable religious enthusiasm and the birth of several new Christian denominations. Capitalizing on a growing interest in the Second Coming, a Baptist minister named William Miller rode the wave of this burgeoning interest in religion.
Miller and others effectively established the Adventist Movement. Based on his understanding of prophecies in the books of Daniel and Revelation, Miller predicted the imminent Second Coming in the early-1840s.
But the “Great Disappointment” of 1843 and again in 1844 came only a few years after the introduction of Anglo-Israel teachings in the British Isles. Miller’s focus on endtime prophecy and the return of Jesus Christ created a mentality receptive to ideas like British-Israelism.
It is undeniable that British-Israelism was a product of the times. Many who wrote about this concept were influenced to one extent or another by the theological interests and intellectual climate of the day. However, some writers presented their information more responsibly than others.
The unfortunate fact that numerous 19th century Anglo-Israelism writers incorporated racism into their beliefs brings discredit on them personally rather than on the essentially sound core of the concept they sought to spread. The central issue is not whether British-Israelism is racist, imperialist, or elitist; rather, it is whether the fundamental concept — that the descendants of the 10 tribes still exist today and are found among the Anglo-American nations — is true or false.
More than a few contributed to the basics, but we can only cover one or two names briefly in this paper.
John Wilson’s remarkable contribution
John Wilson, an Anglican layman from Cheltenham, published Our Israelitish Origin in 1840 only three years after the coronation of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). This was the first full-blown thesis connecting the Anglo-Saxon to ancient Israel. Wilson drew on the best of contemporary scholarship and methodology. He made particular use of the work of Sharon Turner (1768-1847), a monumental figure in British historiography whose multi-volume work, A History of the Anglo-Saxon Peoples (1799- 1805), traces the Anglo-Saxons back through Europe to the Balkan countries and ultimately to the Crimea and Caucasus Mountains.
This is just where we would expect based on the testimony of such biblical passages as 2 Kings 17:6 and 1 Chronicles 5:26. “In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away to Assyria, and placed them in Halah and by the Habor, the River of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.”
Wilson also rigorously connected his arguments for British-Israelism to Scripture. His knowledge of the Bible was expansive. His impressive list of publications includes not only the foundational works on the identity of modern Israel, but a wide range of theological topics, particularly ones of interest to pre-millennialists — those who believe in the return of Christ prior to a Millennial reign. Wilson became a popular speaker and drew large audiences principally from the respectable Victorian British middle class.
Later one of the earliest British-Israel works to capture the popular imagination was Forty-Seven Identifications of the British Nation with Lost Israel (1871) by banker and life insurance office manager, Edward Hine. This man was probably the most significant of Wilson’s immediate successors. He lectured on British-Israelism before sizable audiences throughout the British Isles and in the United States during the late-19th century.
Hine claimed to have addressed some 5 million people during his lecture circuit career, speaking at venues as prestigious as Exeter Hall. His work represents a certain coming of age in British-Israel thinking. The fact that Hine’s work drew criticism from no less than the Saturday Review, as well as Canon George Rawlinson, a professor of history at Oxford University, illustrates the degree to which British-Israel ideas commanded the attention of the late-19th century British public.
The belief in the churches
In both the U.S. and Britain, the idea of British-Israelism cut across denominational lines, although a preponderance of Anglo-Israelites in the British Isles very likely were Anglican.
Some of the major contributors to the literature illustrate the denominational diversity of the concept’s believers: John Wilson was an Anglican from England; Joseph Wild was a Congregationalist minister from Toronto, Canada; John Harden Allen was a Methodist from the Pacific Northwest; and T. Rosling Howlett was a Baptist minister who had pastorates in New York City, Washington, D. C., and Philadelphia.
Believers typically were non-proselytizing. They usually tried to work within the framework of their own established churches.
However, the British-Israel World Federation was formed in the late-19th century to bring together many of the various believers into an organized body. Headquartered in Putney, England, it continues to exist today although its vigor and influence has declined sharply.
However, as the movement grew in strength during the last quarter of the 19th century, it also gathered some distinguished and respectable followers. These included Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), Royal Astronomer of Scotland and Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at Edinburgh University; Colonel John Cox Gawler (1830-1882), the Keeper of the Crown Jewels; First Sea Lord and Admiral Jacky Fisher (1841-1920), as well as several members of the British Royal family.
Even Queen Victoria was apparently intrigued, and one of her direct descendants was a patron of the movement until her death a few years ago.
For awhile British-Israelism made a significant impact in the British Isles. At one stage, up to 20 million British subjects were reputed to be active believers. In 1845 one of the leading Tractarians of the Oxford Movement, John Henry Newman, cited his “fear that the Church of England stood in danger of being taken over by the Christian Israel Identity movement” as one of his reasons for leaving the Anglican Church to embrace Roman Catholicism (Patience Strong, Someone Had to Say, pp. 85-86).
Sidebar: “We Are the Lost 10 Tribes!”
If many of those who have believed in British-Israelism have been criticized as simple-minded or uneducated, the idea has attracted its share of prominent people as well. In 1914, one of Britain’s greatest admirals, Jacky Fisher wrote First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, offering advice on naval affairs. American author William Manchester recounts how “the old salt had been bombarding Churchill with advice, sometimes on profound matters, sometimes on trivia: ‘Why is the standard of recruits raised 3 inches to 5 feet 6? ... What d — d folly to discard supreme enthusiasm because it’s under 5 feet 6. We are a wonderful nation! astounding how we muddle through! There is only one explanation — We are the lost 10 tribes!’ He was now seventy-four” (The Last Lion, vol. 2, p. 440). An article in the June 1980 National Message attributes to Fisher these words when his nation was “at the peak of British sea-power... “The only hypothesis to explain why we win in spite of incredible blunders is that we are the lost 10 tribes of Israel” (cited in O. Michael Friedman, Origins of the British Israelites, pp. 37, 45 [note 44]). Of such remarks, journalist-historian James Morris observes, “Admiral Fisher thought only half in jest that they [the British] were the Lost Tribes” (Pax Britannica, p. 502).
Sidebar: Modern Archaeology & British-Israelism: Flinders Petrie & the Great Pyramid
In 1865, Scottish Royal Astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth wrote his classic work, Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid. It was this very book which launched the “father of modern scientific archaeology in Palestine,” Sir Flinders Petrie, on a prestigious career involving the excavation of more than 50 sites and the publication of 98 books on Middle Eastern archaeology.
Petrie grew up in a strict Presbyterian home that embraced literalism. Smyth was a friend of the Petrie family. At age 13, Petrie read his book. At age 27 in 1880, he went to Egypt with the intention of mathematically confirming Smyth’s theories that the dimensions of the pyramids held the secrets of prophecy for the descendants of Israel.
In fact, after two years of work, Petrie’s triangulation system disproved Smyth’s prophetic speculations. As the work of Petrie and many others who followed him have convincingly shown, the pyramids were principally tombs for Egyptian royalty.
The results of Petrie’s work appeared in his first book, The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh. His experience at the pyramids induced Petrie to continue with his work in Egypt, laying the foundation for modern archaeological studies (Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December 1980, p. 46).
On the opposite side of the Atlantic, the list of Americans who published British- Israel books and articles is a lengthy one. Two of the more well researched and balanced presentations include Israel Redivivus by Canadian clergyman Frederick C. Danvers, a recognized authority on the Indian Office, the East India Company, and the rise and decline of the Portuguese empire in India; and Judah’s Sceptre and Joseph’s Birthright by Methodist clergyman J. H. Allen.
The United States and Britain in Prophecy
Among this group of balanced and carefully-reasoned works is Herbert W. Armstrong’s The United States and Britain in Prophecy (all quotations herein are from the 9th edition, revised, November 1986), first published in 1942 and reappearing in 10 editions over the next four and a half decades.
This original volume drew heavily from Allen’s research and publications. But whatever the source of inspiration, it was Herbert Armstrong’s work which made the association of ancient Israel with the modern day British and Americans a popular and widely accepted belief in the Church of God and beyond.
No human work is perfect in every detail. Some editions of this book include inaccuracies. Like the apostle Paul, Herbert Armstrong anticipated the end of the age and an imminent Second Coming based on the national and world conditions which prevailed during his own lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Inaccuracies and errant cosmetic details notwithstanding, in general terms his overall assessment, like the broad strokes of Christian doctrine canonized in the writings of Paul, remains valid and sound. Some critics assail not so much Herbert Armstrong’s predictions or style, but the whole notion of British-Israelism. They consider it theologically and historically unsound. This has been especially true among the critics of British-Israelism at the close of the 20th century.
Much that in an earlier century might have been accepted as historical proof would today either be disregarded or at best considered circumstantial evidence. To date, the historical-critical method alone has not proved the Anglo-Saxon people are Israelite descent. We must be careful, however, not to extend inordinate respect to this specific methodology.
Biblical subjects that are accurate, valid, and true — including the resurrection from the dead, one of the fundamental convictions of Christianity itself — cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a scientific doubt. Clearly this world’s conventional academic methodology leaves much to be desired.
If a matter is controversial but nevertheless true, how should a Christian understand it in terms of Scripture? What are the rules that should govern our interpretive perspective, particularly on an issue relevant to biblical prophecy or the identity of the descendants of ancient Israel in modern times? These are the vital concerns we shall address in the following chapter.