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British Israelism is a variant of fundamentalist Christian theology based on pseudoarchaeology. In general it claims the lost tribes of Israel migrated to the British Isles and were the ancestors of today's White British people. It was a popular theory in the early 20th century, at least in the U.K. where it served as a theological pseudo-justification for the British Empire. It fell out of favour because the evidence for it is completely lacking.
Contemporary scholars, such as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (2003: 235) identify the most influential writer who gave birth to the British Israelite movement as John Wilson, who wrote Our Israelitish Origins in 1840. Edward Hine also published The British Nation Identified with Lost Israel in 1871, which went on to sell 250,000 copies. The "Anglo-Israel Association" in Britain had only 300 members in its early years, however during the heyday of British Israelism the membership of the "British-Israel-World Federation" (BIWF) reached 20,000 at its height in 1920 (Wilson, 1968; Simpson, 2002). The Jewish Encyclopedia in 1906 estimated globally that there were once two million proponents of the theory. During this time several prominent figures became patrons of the BIWF, including Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone. William Pascoe Goard who became Vice-President of the BIWF in 1921 published more than a dozen books on the theory, which attracted support abroad. George VI (then Duke of York) had also written in 1922 that: "I am sure the British Israelite business is true. I have read a lot about it lately and everything no matter how large or small points to our being the chosen race". Covenant Publishing was set up in 1921 by the BIWF, and continues to publish British Israelism literature. The movement fell into decline after the 1940's, but tenets of British Israelism were later promoted by Herbert W. Armstrong. In 1961, the British Israelite George F. Jowett published The Drama of the Lost Disciples which went through 16 editions (up to 2009), selling 55,000 copies through Covenant Publishing (according to the 16th ed. preface). This was the last notable British Israelite text to sell well. In the late 1960's, it was estimated that there were between 3,000 and 5,000 proponents of British Israelism (Wilson, 1968).
As of the 21st century these figures are far smaller, while Covenant Publishing has been reduced to publishing only small pamphlets due to the declining support for the theory. Recently E. Raymond Capt (d. 2008) had published a string of British Israelism books, combining them with pyramid woo.
- That the White British alone fulfill the prophecies of the Israelites as listed in the Old Testament.
- Two House Theology - the belief that while Jews (Ashkenazi, Sephardi) are lineal descendants of the tribe of Judah, that the other tribes of Israel are not Jewish, but are the White British (and sometimes surrounding peoples).
- Another key tenet is the view that the House of Israel (the "ten lost tribes") never returned to the Kingdom of Israel after the Assyrian invasion and captivity in the 8th century BC, but were taken into Assyria, where eventually they moved into Britain.
- That the British monarchy descends from King David (the Davidic bloodline).
- An apostolic origin of the British church (British Israelites believe that many of the apostles visited Britain).
- That the English language is of Hebrew derivation.
Despite numerous prominent academics supporting British Israelism during its earlier years and heydey, the theory has been criticized on the grounds that none of these academics were anthropologists or archaeologists (Reisenauer, 2008). For example, Charles Piazzi Smyth was an astronomer, George Moore, M.D. author of The Lost Tribes and the Saxons of the East and the West (London, 1861) was a physician, Edward Faraday Odlum was a geologist, while C. A. L. Totten was a Professor of Military Tactics at Yale University. It has been claimed by British Israelites that the anthropologist C.O. Groom Napier had delivered a British Israelite paper to the London Anthropological Society in 1875. However Napier's paper was in fact titled: "Where are the Lost Tribes of Israel?", and was a paper discussing all the different theories (not limited to British Israelism). The only paper supporting British Israelism to be presented to the London Anthropological Society was in 1876, by Edward Hine, which was met with laughter and ridicule (Simpson, 2002). Hine's paper was entirely based on Biblical prophecy, which was deemed non-scientific. The nature of the British Israelite theory itself is rooted in unorthodox Biblical interpretation and prophecy; no such claims can be supported by genuine evidence.
Some British Israelites have attempted to support their theories with non-Biblical sources, such as mythology and ancient historical texts. These, however, are also met with ridicule and considered pseudo-historical. Most sources British Israelites use are in fact fraudulent; for example, they often quote the Chronicles of Eri, a 19th century literary hoax (Macalister, 1941). The Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes in 1910 that: "The theory [of British-Israelism] rests on premises which are deemed by scholars - both theological and anthropological - to be utterly unsound". In 1998, David MacDonald, from the Illinois State University History Department, wrote that: "The concept that the ten tribes […] moved to Europe is a complete myth […] Nothing — not archaeology, cultural history, or linguistics--gives the slightest credibility."
British Israelism has also faced theological criticism (Reisenauer, 2008). Most Christians regard it as a cult.
Most British Israelists are merely eccentric and not particularly racist. The exception is Christian Identity, an explicitly white supremacist variant of British Israelism popularized among the Ku Klux Klan and related groups during the late 20th century. Christian Identity extends British Israelism beyond merely being about the British, to include all of the so-called "white race" - Germanic, Celtic, Slav, Italic, Caucasian, Aryan, etc.. It also adds anti-Semitic beliefs not shared by most British Israelites, claiming that the Jews are impostors to the claim of descent from the Israelites, and are actually descended from converts from the Khazar tribe or the children of the devil. The 1902 book Judah's Sceptre and Joseph's Birthright by J. H. Allen is a British Israelist tract that is cited by scholars as one of the reasons why U.S. white supremacists discovered British Israelism and twisted it into the explicitly racist Christian Identity theology.
W. Cleon Skousen's popular book The 5000 Year Leap, much favored by Glenn Beck, relies on the assertion that the United States Constitution was derived from the old Anglo-Saxon law which was identical to the Old Testament law of biblical Israel. His source? Howard B. Rand, a prolific British Israelist author (from Massachusetts, United States, surprise surprise). Unsurprisingly, Beck himself has espoused a modified version of British Israelist theories on his show, tying them in with American exceptionalism.
- Black Hebrew Israelites (black supremacy parallel)
- Christian Identity, the Americanized racist strand of British Israelism
- Garner Ted Armstrong
- Herbert W. Armstrong
- Kenneth McKilliam
- The Philadelphia Trumpet
- Ten Lost Tribes
- Pre-Columbian contact hypotheses
- Macalister, R. A. Stewart. (1941). Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 2, No. 7, Mar., pp. 335-337.
- Simpson, Richard. (2002). "The Political Influence of the British-Israel Movement in the Nineteenth Century", Victorian Studies.
- Reisenauer, Eric Michael. (Sep. 2008). "Anti-Jewish Philosemitism". British Scholar, Vol. 1, No. 1. pp. 79-104.
- Wilson, J. (1968). "British Israelism: A Revitalization Movement in Contemporary Culture". Archives de sociologie des religions, 13e Année, No. 26, pp. 73-80.
- Michell, John. (1983). Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1984; "Jews, Britons and the Lost Tribes of Israel," pp. 163-177.
- Parfitt, Tudor (2003). The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth. Phoenix.
- Isidor Singer, The Jewish Encyclopedia, (London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901-1906), Vol. I, pp. 600-601
- Quoted in The Independent, 6 April 1996.
- "Leading the Nation to Glory by Our Identification With Lost Israel: A Weekly Journal", 1, No. 18 (9 June 1875), pp. 137–47.
- The Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th edn. 1910. Vol.II, page 31.
- Bible Based Cults: British Israelism
- "Glenn Beck: U.S. identified in Bible" (warning: link goes to WND)