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British Israelism (also called Anglo-Israelism) is a doctrine based on the hypothesis that people of Western European descent, particularly those in Great Britain, are the direct lineal descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. The doctrine often includes the tenet that the British Royal Family is directly descended from the line of King David.
The central tenets of British Israelism have been refuted by evidence from modern genetic, linguistic, archaeological and philological research. The doctrine continues, however, to have a significant number of adherents.
The movement has never had a head organisation or a centralized structure. Various British Israelite organisations were set up across the British Empire and in America from the 1870s; a small number of such organisations are still active today.
The theory of British Israelism arose in England, from where it spread to the United States. Although British-Israelists will cite various ancient manuscripts to claim an ancient origin for British Israelism, the belief appears to have gained momentum since the English Revolution of the 17th century. It increased during the "Christian Restorationism" movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
One of the first published accounts of the theory of an Israelite genealogy of the British was The Rights of the Kingdom by John Sadler, published in 1649. But, it was only in the late 18th century, during a religious climate of Millenarianism, that British Israelism became a distinct ideology, based on the preaching and writings of two men, Richard Brothers and John Wilson. Brothers was the first to expound upon his version of British Israelism, but he lacked credibility due to alleged mental illness. Having prophesied the end of the British monarchy, he was imprisoned in an asylum as criminally insane. Wilson adopted and promoted the idea that the "European 'race', in particular the Anglo-Saxons, were descended from certain Scythian tribes, and that these Scythian tribes (as many had previously stated from the Middle Ages onward) were in turn descended from the ten Lost Tribes of Israel." (Parfitt, 2003. p. 54) Wilson's ideas were to be refined, and new ideas were developed, well into the second half of the 19th century. Wilson gave public lectures to spread his message but did not form any organisation or movement.
Other books from this period detailing the theory were Ezra Stiles' The United States elevated to Glory and Honor (1783), and Richard Brothers' A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times (1794). Also cited as an original work is Rev. John Wilson's Our Israelitish Origins (1840s).
In the latter half of the 19th century, Edward Hine and Edward Wheeler Bird developed the ideas further. Hine was related to George Rawlinson, "who attacked his work mercilessly: the attendant publicity was sufficient enough to launch a full-scale controversy." (Parfitt, 2003. p. 54) Hine departed England for the United States in 1884, where he promoted the idea that Americans were the lost tribe of Manasseh, whereas England was the lost tribe of Ephraim.
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.
George Jeffreys founded the Elim Pentecostal Church in Ireland in 1915. Differences of opinion over Jeffrey's open aspousal of British Israelism and disputes on church governance led Jeffreys to withdraw from the Elim Pentecostal Church in 1939 and to form the Bible-Pattern Church Fellowship in Nottingham, which founded other churches throughout England until the 1960s, but that now only continues as a small fellowship. The presidency of Elim then passed to George Kingston, a wealthy businessman who had founded many of the Elim congregations in Essex.
In 1919 the British-Israel-World Federation was founded in London. During this time, several prominent figures patronized the organisation: 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. It became most prevalent in the United States, England, and various Commonwealth nations. The theory was widely promoted in the United States during the 20th century.
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. It is issued by Destiny Publishers.
The theory of British Israelism was also vigorously promoted 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, 1967, p. 5) 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. (See 'Armstrongism'.)
After Armstrong's death, his former church, which changed its name to Grace Communion International (GCI) in 2009, abandoned its belief in British Israelism. It offers an explanation of 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, including the Philadelphia Church of God, the Living Church of God and the United Church of God, still teach British Israelism. 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 (1906–1994), brother of former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, was a prominent teacher of British Israelism. He worked for 13 years as a public school teacher. After completing his doctorate in physics, he worked for 28 years as a professor at the University of Tennessee, where he became Emeritus Professor of Physics. He was also a member of the American Physical Society and the Tennessee Academy of Science.
The organisation continues to exist, with its main headquarters located in Bishop Auckland in County Durham. It maintains local chapters throughout the British Isles. The most recently established chapter is in BIWF-USA, based in Heber Springs, Arkansas.
A well known British Israelite advocate named A. A. Beauchamp converted to Christian Science in 1924. A. A. Beauchamp was the owner and publisher of a popular British Israelite magazine called The Watchman of Israel. Beauchamp’s conversion to Christian Science was due to the complex interaction between Christian Science and British Israelism, which was initiated during Mary Baker Eddy's lifetime by a number of well known Christian Scientists. Julia Field King, an American Christian Scientist from Iowa who was a friend and student of Mrs Eddy, sailed to England under Mary Baker Eddy's orders to study British Israelism in 1896. She had already read the works of the Anglo Israelite C. A. L. Totten and was impressed by the works of Totten. Totten engaged in a genealogical exercise, attempting to prove the Davidic ancestry of the British royal family. Julia Field King put extensive research into trying to prove this; she went even further into trying to prove that Mary Baker Eddy herself was a descendant of King David. Mrs Eddy came to be a believer in British Israelism; Eddy was also attracted to this notion because she believed that it could boost the Christian Science movement in England. In 1898, Mary Baker Eddy wrote a poem titled “The United States To Great Britain” In this poem, Mrs. Eddy refers to the United States and Great Britain as "Anglo-Israel," and our "brother," Great Britain, as "Judah's sceptred race".
In a letter in 1902 to Julia Field titled "King of a work tracing the lineage of Queen Victoria back to King David," Mary Baker Eddy wrote: "Your work, 'The Royal House of Britain an Enduring Dynasty,' is indeed masterful: one of the most remarkable Biblical researches in that direction ever accomplished. Its data and the logic of its events sustain its authenticity, and its grandeur sparkles in the words, 'King Jesus.'" In the words of Jeremiah, quoted in the book: "David shall never want a man to sit upon the throne of the House of Israel." (Jer. 33:17) Mrs. Eddy states: "Christian Science ... restores the lost Israel." In many of Mary Baker Eddy's writings, she addressed the Israelites as Christian Scientists. Until her death Mary Baker Eddy continued to keep an interest in British Israelism, early members of the Christian Science Mother Church accepted the Anglo Israel message of Mrs Eddy however after Mrs Eddy’s death in 1910 The Mother Church denied anything to do with British Israelism and any Christian Scientists supporting British Israelism in The Mother Church were excommunicated. The attractions of British Israelism in the Christian Science movement still remained after Mary Baker Eddy’s death. Because The Mother Church no longer wanted to teach British Israelism, a number of offshoot Christian Science Churches and groups were set up to continue teaching British Israelism. One notable example was the British Israelite Christian Science Church called the “The Christian Science Parent Church”. It was organised by an English Christian Scientist named Annie Cecilia Bill. Annie Bill became convinced that she was the true successor of Mary Baker Eddy and in 1912 organized what became known as the Christian Science Parent Church. After World War I, she moved to the United States and in 1924 established the church in America. As soon as Annie Bill set up The Christian Science Parent Church many Christian Scientists left The Mother Church to join it. Annie Bill believed that The Mother Church was no longer teaching Christian Science the way it should be taught. Annie Bill wrote The Universal Design of Life (1924) that acknowledged Eddy's authority. The Church was a mixture of Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science and Annie Bill’s teachings on British Israelism and spirituality. The Christian Science Parent Church had high respect for Mrs Eddy. Its members would read her textbook Science and Health with Keys to the Scriptures as well as Annie Bill's textbook. The members of the church believed that the English speaking peoples were the lost tribes of Israel and that they were mentioned in bible prophecy.
Another Christian Scientist who was a firm believer in British Israelism was John V Dittmore he joined Annie Bill's Christian Science Parent Church, he was a well known contributor to A. A. Beauchamp's British Israel magazine called The Watchman of Israel, he communicated with A. A. Beauchamp and told her that Annie Bill's doctrines were correct, later A. A. Beauchamp joined the Christian Science Parent Church.
A. A. Beauchamp’s magazine, published on behalf of British Israelism, became the magazine of the Parent Church and the central perspective adopted by Bill. The Christian Science Parent Church had a messianic view of history. Its members believed that the English speaking peoples were the lost Israel and that they were mentioned in bible prophecy as the people who would bring about spiritual perfection on earth, Annie Bill believed that the northern and western European and North American peoples were the descendants of the ten ancient tribes of Israel and that they were destined to lead the world, spiritually, to the millennial dispensation. A number of members also came to believe in pyramidology, the idea that the measurements and geometric design of the Great Pyramid in Egypt had religious and prophetic significance.
The British Israelism of Beauchamp and Dittmore brought many new members into the church [many of whom were already Anglo Israelites]. Many of the contributors to The Watchman of Israel magazine became full-time Christian Scientists. In 1924 Beauchamp left the church and pursued other interests but rejoined it in the 1940s. The census of religious bodies reported that in 1926 the church had 29 congregations and 582 members in the United States. There were over 44 churches in Great Britain, Australia and Canada by 1928, by 1930 there were 88 churches and over 1200 members. In the late 1920s Annie Bill denounced Mary Baker Eddy’s writings, she wrote a new textbook called “The Science of Reality” which replaced her other textbook which acknowledged Eddy’s authority. The Christian Science Parent Church was renamed The Church of Universal Design.
Annie Bill led the church until her death in 1937. After her death a new leader named Francis J Mott took over, he continued the Anglo Israel message and the work of Annie Bill and renamed the Church The Society of Life in 1937. The Church later changed its name to the Church of Integration. A. A. Beauchamp’s British Israel magazine The Watchman became The Universal Design, A Journal of Applied Metaphysics. Mott initially published his views in several books published by A. A. Beauchamp. The British branch of the church was destroyed in the chaos of World War II. In America the church survived and was briefly revived after the war. A new magazine, Integration, was issued from the church's headquarters in Washington, D.C., beginning in 1946. Eventually, however, the church, which was never numerically strong, dissolved.
At least one follower of Bill who opposed Mott's leadership, Mary Sayles Atkins, continued to write, under her pen name, Mary Sayles Moore, about Bill and during the 1950s she published several volumes with A. A. Beauchamp, who had left the Church of Integration in the 1940s. Her most important volume was Conquest of Chaos, which reviewed Bill's career and the rise of Mott.
Mary Beecher Longyear (1851–1931), the founder of the Longyear Museum was a British Israel proponent. Mrs. Longyear and her husband John were very helpful to Eddy and the early Christian Science church in providing the funds to purchase land for the church and for the Christian Science Benevolent Association in Chestnut Hill. Mrs. Longyear was a pioneer in the field of historic preservation. She searched the back roads of Massachusetts and New Hampshire to locate and purchase four houses in which Eddy once lived. She had portraits painted of Mrs. Eddy and Mrs. Eddy's early students and had reminiscences written by many of those who knew her. For over three-quarters of a century, the Longyear Museum has provided exhibits and resources about the life and achievements of Mary Baker Eddy. The Museum moved into its new building in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
The Christian Science Endtime Center founded in 1996 by Stanley C. Larkin is the only active Christian Science organisation which supports Mary Baker Eddy's Anglo Israel studies.
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, a prominent group that separated from the Crusade, and other splinter groups, continue to teach the doctrine. 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.
Brit-Am is an organization (founded ca.1993) based in Israel, which also identifies the Lost Ten Tribes with the British and related peoples. Brit-Am uses biblical and rabbinical exegesis to justify its beliefs, supplemented by secular studies.
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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 in Old Persian and Elamite as Saka, Sacae or Scythian with the people known in Babylonian as Gimirri or Cimmerian.
|“||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. George Rawlinson wrote:
|“||We have reasonable grounds for regarding the Gimirri, or Cimmerians, who first appeared on the confines of Assyria and Media in the seventh century B.C., and the Sacae of the Behistun Rock, nearly two centuries later, as identical with the Beth-Khumree of Samaria, or the Ten Tribes of the House of Israel.||”|
The archeologist and 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. He also posited that the Assyrian word for the House of Israel, Khumri, after Israel's King Omri of the 8th century B.C., is phonetically similar to Gimirri. (Cimmerian)
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 the 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.
The Brit-Am Organization believes that Jewish sources concerning the Lost Ten Tribes parallel what is known concerning the early Scythians. Amongst other points, the Scythians are believed to have settled in the Land of Israel during the reign of King Josiah ben Amon of Judah, as the Lost Tribes were said to have done.
As with Judaism, 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.
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, Turks, Armenians and Arabs, and concluded that:
Middle Eastern populations...are closely related and...their Y chromosome pool is distinct from that of Europeans. (Nebel, 2001.)
Y-DNA Haplogroups J2 and, to a lesser extent, J1 are most commonly identified in Jewish people, which is in contrast to Western Europeans. The more distant Haplogroup R1b is the most commonly identified in Europeans.
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." (Parfitt,2003. p. 61.)
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.” (Orr, 1995)
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 “British” is derived from the Hebrew words “Berit” and “Ish”, and should therefore be understood as “Covenant Man”. These words have other roots and this interpretation of the Hebrew is incorrect. Another example is Rhys' assertion of equivalence between Cymry and Cimmerian, which is at odds with the generally accepted derivation of Cymry from an earlier Celtic form *kom-broges, meaning "people of the same country"; only the modern form of the word looks similar. Yet another example is the alleged connection between the '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 cannot be substantiated and contradict the findings of academic linguistic research. This shows conclusively that English belongs to the Indo-European language family and is unrelated to Hebrew, which is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family. “No trace of the slightest real connection can be discovered” between English and ancient Hebrew. (Greer, 2004. p74.)
Adherents of British Israelism cite various scriptures in support of the argument that the Northern Israelite Tribes were lost. Critics argue that British Israelists misunderstand and misinterpret the meaning of these scriptures.
British Israelism rests on linking different ancient populations. This includes links between the "lost" tribes of Israel, 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. Further, 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".