British Israelism (also called Anglo-Israelism) is a doctrine based on the hypothesis that people of Western European and Northern European descent are the direct lineal descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of the ancient Israelites, particularly in Great Britain. The doctrine often includes the tenet that the British Royal Family is directly descended from the line of King David. The movement never had a head organisation or a centralized structure. Various British Israelite organisations were set up throughout the British Empire and in America from the 1870s; a small number of such organisations are still active today.
History of the movement
British Israelism arose in England, then spread to the United States. British-Israelists cite various medieval manuscripts to claim an older origin, but British Israelism as a distinct movement appeared in the early 1880s:
Although scattered British Israel societies are known to have existed as early as 1872, there was at first no real move to develop an organization beyond the small groups of believers which had arisen spontaneously. The beginnings of the movement as an identifiable religious force can, therefore, be more accurately placed in the 1880's when the circumstances of the time were particularly propitious for the appearance of a movement so imperialistically-orientated.
Earlier aspects of British Israelism and influences are traceable to Richard Brothers in 1794, John Wilson's Our Israelitish Origins (1840s), and John Pym Yeatman's The Shemetic Origin of the Nations of Western Europe (1879). In 1875, J. C. Gawler published Our Scythian Ancestors which is considered an influential text to the British Israel movement.
Heyday, end of 19th and early 20th centuries
At the end of the 19th century, Edward Hine, Edward Wheeler Bird, and Herbert Aldersmith developed the British Israelite movement. The extent to which the clergy in Britain became aware of the movement may be gauged from the comment made by Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801–1890) when asked why he had left the Church of England in 1845 to join the Roman Catholic Church. He said that there was a very real danger that the movement "would take over the Church of England."
In Russia, controversial self-declared Zionist priest Hippolytus Lutostansky claimed that British people were of Jewish origin. (Incidentally, he was an antisemite, yet he had insisted on Palestine as the national home for Russian Jews as early as 1911.)
During the 1890s, the "Anglo-Israel Association" had 300 members; it was based in Britain and founded in 1879 by physician George Moore. Hine later departed for the United States where he promoted the idea overseas.
Between 1899 and 1902, adherents of British Israelism dug up parts of the Hill of Tara in the belief that the Ark of the Covenant was buried there, doing much damage to one of Ireland's most ancient royal and archaeological sites. At the same time, British Israelism became associated with various pseudo-archaeological pyramidology theories, such as the notion that the Pyramid of Khufu contained a prophetic numerology of the British peoples.
In 1914, the thirty-fourth year of its publication, the Anglo-Israel Almanac listed details of a large number of Kingdom Identity Groups operating independently throughout the British Isles and in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and the United States of America.
In 1919, the British-Israel-World Federation (BIWF) was founded in London, and Covenant Publishing was founded in 1922. William Pascoe Goard was the first director of the publishing house. During this time, several prominent figures patronized the BIWF organization and its publisher; Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone was Patron-in-chief in pre-World War II days. One of the most notable members was William Massey, then Prime Minister of New Zealand. Due to the expansive nature of the British Empire, believers in British Israelism spread worldwide and the BIWF expanded its organization to the commonwealth. Howard Rand promoted the theory and became National Commissioner of the Anglo-Saxon Federation of America in 1928. He published The Bulletin, later renamed The Messenger of the Covenant. More recently, it has been renamed Destiny.
During its heyday in the early 20th century, British Israelism was also supported by John Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher. A prolific author on British Israelism during the later 1930s and 40s was Alexander James Ferris whose When Russia Bombs Germany (1940) sold over 60,000 copies.
The theory of British Israelism was vigorously promoted beginning in the 1960s by Herbert W. Armstrong, founder and former Pastor General of the Worldwide Church of God. Armstrong believed that the theory was a key to understanding biblical prophecy: "One might ask, were not biblical prophecies closed and sealed? Indeed they were—until now! And even now they can be understood only by those who possess the master key to unlock them." Armstrong believed that he was called by God to proclaim the prophecies to the Lost Tribes of Israel before the "end-times". Armstrong's belief caused his separation from the Church of God Seventh Day because of its refusal to adopt the theory.
Armstrong created his own church, first called the "Radio Church of God" and later renamed the "Worldwide Church of God". He described British Israelism as a "central plank" of his theology.
After Armstrong's death, his former church abandoned its belief in British Israelism and changed its name to Grace Communion International (GCI) in 2009. It offers an explanation for the doctrine's origin and its abandonment by the church at its official website. Church members who disagreed with such doctrinal changes left the Worldwide Church of God/GCI to form offshoot churches. Many of these organizations still teach British Israelism, including the Philadelphia Church of God, the Living Church of God, and the United Church of God. Armstrong promoted other genealogical history theories, such as teaching that modern-day Germany now represents ancient Assyria. He wrote in chapter 5 of his Mystery of the Ages (1985), "The Assyrians settled in central Europe, and the Germans, undoubtedly, are, in part, the descendants of the ancient Assyrians." (p. 183).
The late Professor Roger Rusk (1906–94), brother of former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, was a prominent teacher of British Israelism. He was a public school teacher for 13 years. After completing his doctorate in physics, he was a professor at the University of Tennessee for 28 years, where he became Emeritus Professor of Physics.
In Britain, the theology of British Israelism has been taught by a few small Pentecostal churches, including the Bible-Pattern Church Fellowship, an early offshoot of the Elim Pentecostal Church. The latter church does not hold to the British-Israel doctrine.
In London, the Orange Street Congregational Church teaches a form of British Israelism, and the Ensign Trust publishes The Ensign Message in its furtherance. In Australia, the Christian Revival Crusade founded by Leo Harris once taught this theology but abandoned it. The Revival Centres International continues to teach the doctrine, a prominent group that separated from the Crusade, along with other splinter groups. The "Churches of God" in Ireland are also known for their teaching on this subject.
A variant of British Israelism formed the basis for a racialized theology and became known as Christian Identity, which has at its core the belief that non-Caucasian people have no souls and therefore cannot be saved.
Connecting the deported Israelites with the Saka
The key component of British Israelism is its representation of the migrations of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Adherents believe that the Behistun Inscription connects the people known as Saka, Sacae, or Scythians (in Old Persian and Elamite) with the people known as Gimirri or Cimmerians (in Babylonian).
It should be made clear from the start that the terms 'Cimmerian' and 'Scythian' were interchangeable: in Akkadian the name Iskuzai (Asguzai) occurs only exceptionally. Gimirrai (Gamir) was the normal designation for 'Cimmerians' as well as 'Scythians' in Akkadian.
The theory further suggests that the "Cimmerians/Scythians" are synonymous with the deported Israelites.
British Israelite E. Raymond Capt claimed that there were similarities between King Jehu's pointed headdress and that of the captive Saka king seen to the far right on the Behistun Inscription.
Connecting the Saka-Scythians to the Celts
Adherents say that Saka-Scythians (whom they believe to be the Lost Tribes of Israel) migrated north and west after Cyrus the Great conquered the city of Babylon, and were forced yet further north and west by migrating/invading Sarmatians. The Sarmatians were also called “Scythians” by the Greeks; but Herodotus suggests that the former “Scythians” were called "Germain Scythians" (meaning "True Scythian"), whereas the Sarmatians were simply called “Scythians.” It is suggested that the term "Germain Scythian" is synonymous with "Germanii" or, in modern times, "Germanic" or "German."
Late 19th-century Celtic language scholar John Rhys stated that
the (Celtic) Kymry were for some time indifferently called Cambria or Cumbria, the Welsh word on which they are based being, as now written, Cymru ... and is there pronounced nearly as an Englishman would treat it if spelled Kumry or Kumri.
Rhys argued that both Celts and Scythians came from an area south-east of the Black Sea and migrated westward to the coast of Europe. He compared the Welsh autonym Cymru with the name of the Cimmerians Kumri. He believed that the names Iberia for Spain and Hibernia for Ireland were connected to a variation of "Hebrew" and that this was evidenced in philology.
Theological claims that assert a racial lineage
British Israelism asserts theologically related claims of a genetic link to the early Israelites. As such, it is based on a genealogical construct. This belief is typically confined to the geo-political status or the prophetical identity of the nation, not to the individual's superiority or salvation status with God.
Due to the diverse structure of the movement, other elements of its belief and its key doctrines may be embraced by individual adherents. British Israel theology varies from the conventionally Protestant Christian. More extreme forms include the Christian Identity Movement, which has some historic roots in British-Israelism. The core belief of British Israelism is that the Anglo-Saxon peoples of Britain and Northern Europe have a direct genetic connection to the Ancient Israelites mentioned in the Bible. Most British Israel movements believe that personal, individual salvation is open to all people.
Compatibility with present-day research findings
Lack of consistency with modern genetic findings
Human genetics does not support British Israelism's notion of a close lineal link between Jews and Western Europeans. Genetic research on the Y-chromosomes of Jews has found that Jews are closely related to other populations originating in the Middle East, such as Kurds, Armenians, and Arabs, and concluded that:
Middle Eastern populations… are closely related and… their Y chromosome pool is distinct from that of Europeans.
One study concluded that "the combined results suggest that a major portion of NRY biallelic diversity present in most of the contemporary Jewish communities surveyed here traces to a common Middle Eastern source population several thousand years ago. The implication is that this source population included a large number of distinct paternal and maternal lineages, reflecting genetic variation established in the Middle East at that time. In turn, this source diversity has been maintained within Jewish communities, despite numerous migrations during the Diaspora and long-term residence as isolated subpopulations in numerous geographic locations outside of the Middle East." British Israelites claim that population genetics have changed in the Middle East since the time of the Kingdom of Israel's deportation by the Assyrians; hence, the genetics of modern Jews are not representative of the Jews of the Kingdom of Judea or the historic population of the Kingdom of Israel.
Critics of British Israelism note that the arguments presented by promoters of the theory are based on unsubstantiated and highly speculative amateur research. Tudor Parfitt, author of The Lost Tribes: The History of a Myth, states that the proof cited by adherents of British Israelism is "of a feeble composition even by the low standards of the genre."
Other critics cite similar problems:
When reading Anglo-Israelite literature, one notices that it generally depends on folklore, legends, quasi-historical genealogies and dubious etymologies. None of these sources prove an Israelite origin for the peoples of northwestern Europe. Rarely, if ever, are the disciplines of archeology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics or historiography applied to Anglo-Israelism. Anglo-Israelism operates outside the sciences. Even the principles of sound biblical exegesis are seldom used, for… whole passages of Scripture that undermine the entire system are generally ignored… Why this unscientific approach? This approach must be taken because to do otherwise is to destroy Anglo-Israelism's foundation.
Proponents of British Israelism claim numerous links in historical linguistics between ancient Hebrew and various European place names and languages. As an example, proponents claim that the word “British” is derived from the Hebrew words “Berit” and “Ish”, and should therefore be understood as “Covenant Man”. This word has different roots, and this interpretation of the Hebrew is incorrect. Another example is Rhys' assertion of equivalence between Cymry (the native Welsh name for the British) and Cimmerian, which is at odds with the generally accepted derivation of Cymry from an earlier Celtic form *kom-broges (lit. "with-land"), meaning "people of the same country", or compatriot; only the modern form of the word looks similar. Yet another example is the alleged connection between the Irish "Tuatha Dé Danann" and the Tribe of Dan. Secular sources indicate that the true root of this phrase is the "People of the Goddess Danu".
Other links are claimed, but they cannot be substantiated and they contradict the findings of academic linguistic research. This shows conclusively that the languages of the British Isles (English, Welsh, and Gaelic) belong to the Indo-European language family and are unrelated to Hebrew, which is a Semitic language of the Afroasiatic language family. In 1906, T.R. Lounsbury stated that “no trace of the slightest real connection can be discovered” between English and ancient Hebrew.
Adherents of British Israelism cite various scriptures in support of the argument that the "lost" Northern Israelite Tribes migrated through Europe to end up in Britain. Critics argue that British Israelists misunderstand and misinterpret the meaning of these scriptures.
One such case is the distinction that British Israelists make between the “Jews” of the Southern Kingdom and the “Israelites” of the Northern Kingdom. They believe that the Bible consistently distinguishes between the two groups. Critics counter that many of these scriptures are misinterpreted because the distinction between “Jews” and “Israelites” was lost over time after the captivities. They give examples such as the Apostle Paul, who is referred to as both a Jew (Acts 21:39) and an Israelite (2 Corinthians 11:22) and who addressed the Hebrews as both “Men of Judea” and “Fellow Israelites” (Acts 2:14,22). Many more examples are cited by critics.
British Israelists believe that the Northern Tribes of Israel were “lost” after the captivity in Assyria and that this is reflected in the Bible. Critics disagree with this assertion and argue that only higher ranking Israelites were deported from Israel and many Israelites remained. They cite examples after the Assyrian captivity, such as Josiah, King of Judah, who received money from the tribes of “Manasseh, and Ephraim and all the remnant of Israel” (2 Chronicles 34:9), and Hezekiah, who sent invitations not only to Judah, but also to northern Israel for the attendance of a Passover in Jerusalem. (2 Chronicles 30); note that British Israelites interpret 2 Chronicles 34:9 as referring to "Scythians" in order to fit with their theory.
British Israelism states that the Bible refers to the Lost Tribes of Israel as dwelling in “isles” (Isaiah 49:1, 3), which they interpret to mean the British Isles. Critics assert that the word “isles” used in English-language bibles should more accurately be interpreted to mean “coasts” or “distant lands” “without any implication of their being surrounded by the sea.” For example, some English translations refer to Tyre as an ‘isle’, whereas a more accurate description is that of a ‘coastal town’.
British Israelism rests on linking different ancient populations. This includes linking the "lost" tribes of Israel with the Scythians, Cimmerians, Celts, and modern Western Europeans such as the British. To support these links, adherents claim that similarities exist between various cultural aspects of these population groups, and they argue that these links demonstrate the migration of the "lost" Israelites in a westerly direction. Examples given include burial customs, metalwork, clothing, dietary customs, and more. Critics argue that the customs of the Scythians and the Cimmerians are in contrast with those of the Ancient Israelites. Furthermore, the so-called similarities and theories proposed by adherents are contradicted by the weight of evidence and research on the history of ancient populations. It does not provide support for the purported links.
Parfitt suggests that the idea of British Israelism was inspired by numerous ideological factors, such as the desire for ordinary people to have a glorious ancestral past, pride in the British Empire, and the belief in the "racial superiority of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants".
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The English people are the lost tribes of Israel. The lion of Judah became the emblem of England and the harp of David is to this day the emblem of Ireland. But not only are the English Kings direct descendants of the Jewish Kings, they even sit on the throne of David, on which all Jewish Kings used to be crowned. The throne is made of the rock on which Jacob slept when he dreamed of the ladder and when God promised him a kingdom. That rock was brought by the prophet Jeremiah to Ireland, whence it was removed first to Scotland and then to London. [...] The English people in many ways resemble the Jews. Their type is the same, their manner of speech the same, and; above all, the fundamental trait of both nations is trading. Then, the great respect of the English people for the Bible betrays their kinship to the ancient Israelites.
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