A Broken Key: the Case Against British Israelism (Part One)




“The great world powers are formulating their policies—laying their plans. But the next few years will see astounding events explode in a manner very different than [sic] the nations plan! [written c. 1967, by the way]…[T]he best minds in the world are in total ignorance of the unprecedented cataclysm that is about to strike. And why have these prophecies not been understood or believed? Because the vital KEY that unlocks prophecy to our understanding had been lost. That key is the identity of the United States and the British peoples in biblical prophecy.”

–Herbert W. Armstrong, The United States and Britain in Prophecy, pp. x-xi.

One can appreciate from the auspicious quote above that the doctrine of British Israelism (also known as Anglo-Israelism) looms large in the Armstrong Mythos. Anyone at all familiar with the cult’s teachings is aware that the entire eschatology of Armstrongism hangs on this pivotal “key.” But is it even true? Is it supported by any evidence? Is it contradicted by any evidence? And if it is false, what are the implications? What is the “plain truth” about British Israelism?

In this article, you will be treated to the facts pertaining to this very old–and odd–idea, along with a short and obscure history lesson on how a desperate ad-man-turned-preacher discovered it and spun it into gold.

We will divide this article into three parts, the first briefly covering the history of the doctrine, the second examining Armstrong’s introduction to and subsequent manipulations of it, and the third (the payoff for all of this boring, pedantic stuff) covering its refutation and the implications thereof. Now, stop whining: I chopped this up into manageable portions just for you.


Some who subscribe to the view that divine revelation is possible casually assume that the doctrine of British Israelism (abbreviated BI hereafter) was given to Armstrong directly by a fabulous creature called “God.” This is not the case, in fact. As a fully-developed, psuedo-historical theory, BI has been with us since at least the late 18th Century. Furthermore, it is an idea founded on hundreds of years of prior speculation on the location and identity of the so-called “lost ten tribes of Israel,” a tradition that stretches all the way back to the times of the original Apostles, and even beyond, with certain apocryphal works claiming that the ten tribes remained distinct and were not assimilated during the Assyrian captivity (Nettlehorst, British Israelism: A Mirage).

This tradition continued and proliferated throughout the Middle Ages, and it was out of this wild orgy of misguided conjecture that Britain was eventually implicated as one of the lands to which the Israelites might have migrated. This is attributed to one Abadie of Amsterdam, an apologist for Protestantism, who promulgated this idea c. 1723. The theory remained popular in Europe and North America through the turn of the century, and was more fully articulated primarily through two notable proponents, namely, Richard Brothers and John Wilson (Ibid.).

The Lunatic and the Scholar

Brothers, a Canadian who claimed BI was revealed to him by God and who foretold the transfer of the British monarchy to himself, attracted a small following that included some prominent members of society who would prove nominally useful to him when he ran into trouble with the crown. His warning message centered on the British Parliament, which he identified with the “beast” of Revelation, and London, which he guessed was “Babylon the Great.” He also claimed direct descent from King David–which ostensibly would make him related to both Armstrong and Flurry (it strikes the author that susceptibility to delusions of grandeur and pseudo-historical fairy tales may be a genetic flaw)–and called himself “Prince of the Hebrews” and “Nephew of the Almighty.”

He was arrested on charges of treason in 1795 after “prophesying” the imminent death of the king and his own ascendancy to “rule the world” by November 17 of that year. One particularly zealous devotee of Brothers’, a House of Commons member and orientalist called Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, sued for a lightened sentence and succeeded. The looked-for date passed uneventfully, however, as Brothers languished behind the walls of a private asylum, held there for many years to come on grounds of criminal insanity. As a result of this failed “prophecy” (a redundancy, we wish to remind the reader), Brothers’ cult soon disbanded, leaving him to his ineffectual fantasies. He ended his days a madman, designing flags for the unrealized kingdom in his head.

Wilson, a London-based historian, kept the madness alive into the early 1800’s, giving a series of academic lectures on BI, which were published in 1840 in the form of the classic book, Our Israelitish Origin. This was a rather more canny treatment of BI than the uneducated Brothers could have mustered, which afforded it a wider and longer lasting appeal. His conjectures drew appropriate criticism from his fellow historians, as well as interest and support from the credulous. One of these latter was a pyramidologist by the name of Charles Piazzi Smyth, who will turn up again later. Wilson’s collected lectures on BI would become an ideological touchstone for a new proliferation of prophecy enthusiasts “across the pond” in late 19th Century America.

Millerites and Adventists and Advocates, Oh My!

Around this time a licentious fecundity was erupting in the neglected understory of Protestantism, as the more prophecy-oriented sects compared notes. Especially relevant to our tale was the congress that took place across the Atlantic. In 1840, the year of the publication of Our Israelitish Origins, the American mass movement called Millerism established a foothold in Great Britain. William Miller was a relapsed Deist who late in life developed a distaste for mortality and sulked back to his Baptist roots. It wasn’t long before he radicalized away from this broad path and began preaching an end-time message, which included a prediction that Jesus would return to Earth by 1845. This didn’t bear fruit, obviously, and the resulting let-down was called (a bit melodramatically in our opinion) “the Great Disappointment.” Boo-hoo.

This unfortunate mistake took all the steam out of the Millerite movement, but not before the proponents of BI could impress their nonsense onto the minds of these naive and hopeful souls. During the five years or so that Millerism was festering on British soil before it evaporated altogether, it managed to entwine tendrils with the Anglo-Israelite movement there. Many Anglo-Israelites became Millerites, and Miller urged his American followers to include British authors in their reading of prophetic speculative fiction, some of which contained BI theories. Thus was the stage set for notions of BI to begin their mad shuffle across the Atlantic and into America, transported by the vector of a prophet’s folly (Orr, How Anglo-Iraelism Entered Seventh Day Churches of God).

After the Great Disappointment, the Millerites finished mopping up their deluge of tears and scattered to their respective sects and former mainstream churches, carrying with them the tattered remnants of their beliefs. Many of them still cleaved desperately to a conviction that Jesus would be coming back soon. These would eventually coalesce into various “Adventist” groups, distinguishing themselves on the basis of such teachings as Sabbath-keeping and many contentious issues of eschatology. From this Adventist melange was spawned a peculiar sect that would become known as the Church of God (Seventh Day) (Ibid.).

Sometime around the turn of the century CoG (Seventh Day) purchased a Sabbatarian paper (The Bible Advocate) that had a history of publishing debates on the subject of BI. CoG (Seventh Day) minister Andrew Dugger became its editor in 1914 and continued in this role for the next twenty years. Apparently, one of Dugger’s fellow ministers, Merritt Dickinson (who had become converted to BI around 1900), discussed BI theory with him in 1912. Seven years following on from this conversation, in 1919, Dugger was finally convinced to print some of Dickinson’s views on the subject in The Bible Advocate, and the church even published a booklet based on one of these articles, which was titled, “The Final Gathering of the Children of Israel.” It would be another decade still before a jobless and bored ad-man would stumble upon these well-known teachings and blow the dust off of them. Over a hundred years late to the game, he would turn it around and make it his own (Ibid.).

To be continued…

22 thoughts on “A Broken Key: the Case Against British Israelism (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Bibles, Bibles and more Bibles | Splintersurfer's Blog

  2. Please, part II soon. I am working with The Painful Truth’s James to put together an entire package which will once and for all completely disprove and obliterate Armstrongism. The first part of doing that is to prove British Israelism is an hoax. After searching for several years, I finally found the DNA proof of the sort which would hold up in court.

    It’s interesting. A member of United found out about the proof on the Feast of Trumpets and by the Day of Atonement, the proof in Wikipedia was removed. Let’s just say that I know which Armstrongist minister removed the proof. Shame on you, Rex. Bad dog.

    Not to worry, it turns out that I have the proof along with at least six others, so we’re still on track to expose Armstrongism once and for all by next Spring, the Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise… too much higher.

    That’s as much as I’ll say right now. You know, the Armstrongists are a perfidious bunch and although they may have carved out their fiefdoms and hang on to them jealously, you’d be surprised how they can all band together when their income is threatened and they will turn and rend you.

  3. I think we should band together and systematically monitor Wikipedia articles to keep them accurate and honest on all subjects related to Armstrong and his splinters. I think these articles are often read by their members and by potential members. We should especially focus on the LCG which seems to be growing — an alarming trend.

    • That’s hard work, but worthwhile. You can only get away with hard, verifiable facts that are uncontroversial, as they have a strict anti-defamation policy wrt individuals and organizations. Any negative edits that are remotely disputable will not survive. My single victory with this was on the PCG entry, quoting Flurry directly from the relevant co-worker letter laying out his no-contact ruling. I was surprised no one else had gotten to it before I did, and I check it periodically to make sure it hasn’t been whitewashed by PCG apologists (something Wikipedia would consider “vandalism,” I think, so any edits like that would not likely survive either). “Monitoring” is exactly the right word to use, and you can bet the cults are doing it too (of course, in their case the goal is to deceive potential converts).

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  6. Given that I am quite Berean in my tendencies, (at least to my understanding of the term and it’s meaning), I have studied the concepts presented in the various British Israel writings. As one undecided given compelling statements on both sides of the argument, I have the following points to make.

    First, as I am willing to hear both pro and counter arguments on the subject, I found this “debunking” lacking in focus or, honestly, evidence. Instead of disproving the concepts of British Israel, you have instead attacked Millerites, Armstrong’s devotee’s, and various fringe sects who, while subscribing to the concept, do not define the concept. As a Christian, this is a dangerous methodology. I, for one, would not appreciate being compared to David Koresh, simply because we both said the word, “Bible”. One cannot judge the dogma by dogmatic practice…that is foolishness, inspired by emotion.

    Of course, as with all things in this world, B.I. provides a heady combination of truth and deception…and as with all things, only a fool will proclaim to know the difference without prayer, comparing to Scripture, and intense “testing”.

    Regarding the above comment about DNA evidence…I have been unable to find a condemning source of DNA evidence against the basic precepts of British Israel. I have, however, found interesting observations regarding the R1b haplogroup as it related to European Jews that demonstrates that there is plausible argument of non-Semitic origins.

    Let me state clearly that I am no hatemonger, and was nearly repelled from considering the concept of British Israel due to those who are obviously using the precepts for the purposes of a personal, “master race” agenda. This, is counter-intuitive to Christ’s definition of leadership, sanctification, and the overall theme of the Bible. That said, for each of these, I found…after digging, a few that have no agenda of that sort, approach it with due diligence, and whether incorrect or not, are earnest in their statements and true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    One must assume an enemy when testing a doctrine. One must also, given this enemy’s tactics in Biblical accounts, assume that he would focus on misinformation, twisting of Scripture, and all manner of emotional rejections of submitted insight. I am not suggesting I know…I am still studying each lead…patiently and calmly, to find truth and not reject any concept out of hand that does not directly conflict Scripture…or the overall spirit of the truth of Jesus Christ.

    Remember, we are commanded to be kind in out corrections and I will state that I see little kindness in the vitriol within these articles. I’m not condemning, nor am I saying that you are wrong…but we owe it to those who may be misled by ANY doctrinal statements, to treat them as brothers in Christ and work with patience to defend them against false prophets.

    (Furthermore, I am not a member of any branch of the CoG, I am merely a non-denominational Christian with a strong tendency toward theological survey and apologetic study. I hope this critique is accepted in the spirit it was written…with love. God bless you.)

    -Nicholas Benton

    • Nicholas, did you read the part where I laid out exactly how this three part series would be published? The first two parts are not meant to cover debunking or evidence. Please stay tuned for part three though…I have feeling you’ll have something to say about it.

    • I am not a British Israelite, nor an Adventist, I used to listen a bit to the late Dr. Gene Scott, who called himself a Celtic Israelite. Whether the nations of northwest Europe represent the so-called “Lost Tribes” or not. I have always been intrigued by the question where the hell did the Lost Tribes go if not to northwest Europe. Even the Jewish encyclopedia states that there will be a regathering of the tribes. Can one make much sense of the minor prophets, Hosea in particular if they are simply lost. Can the grandiose promises made to Abraham and Sarah really be considered fulfilled in Christ, the church, and the Jew. Every time I run across an article refuting British Israel-ism it always focuses on Richard brother’s insanity (something Scott would agree with), or Mr. Armstrong. But never do you guys go after Dr. Scott who was a strong advocate of the lost tribes being located in north west Europe and that the throne of England represents the throne of David. Has anyone ever read Cyrus Gorden’s book, the common background of Greek and Hebrew civilization. Gorden is no British Israelite, in fact he is the translator of linear A writing and a world renown expert of Greek and Mycenaean civilization and was often used by Scott to show the lineage of kingship via the sons of Zarah who necessarily ruled during the per-exodus period in Egypt, felling prior to the exodus to found the Greek city states and the Melisian empire in Spain. Scott used to say if the lost tribes are completely lost then the bible is nonsense. I must say that if they are not the British, or the Celts, then who the hell are they, or more accurately where the hell are they. Why would God spend so much time sending prophets to prophesy to Israel, not Judah, with very specific prophecies about their ultimate destiny. if they are lost and lost forever. Also look at the dividing of the birthright by Jacob, he clearly says this is what will become of your descendants IN THE LAST DAYS. I am not sayi9ng we are in the last days but if the last days be in some future time don’t these promises have to be fulfilled. I mean they are quite amazing promises. If the Jews represent the only descendants of the two nations where have they even come close to fulfilling Jacobs words.

      • I suggest you read the whole series of articles. There is not one shred of evidence for the “lost tribes” theory to begin with, and certainly none for British Israelism.

      • I did read them. I wouldn’t say there is not a thread of evidence. I think Armstrong is way off on a lot of things. But whether the Celts or Brits are the lost tribes or not, someone’s got to be or the bible is false. The northern kingdom was certainly taken captive and lost to history; even the Jewish encyclopedia says that. The thing is that they have to be found at some point and they have to be a multitude numerous as stars and sand. So one of the major population groups must represent them. It is a fact that within 50 years of the tribes disappearing south of the caucus mts., huge numbers of celto-sythians just appear north of the caucuses. Those said Scythians have more recently been traced south to near and around Lake Van and the Caspian sea area, the very place where the tribes were resettled. I don’t see how one can make sense of the minor prophets if you do not distinguish between house of Israel and the kingdom of Judah. Read Hosea, God divorced the house of Israel, the names of the children of Hosea says it all, scattered, not my people, not having mercy, but in the very place they are scattered they will become a multitude and be called sons of the living god. The prophecy is not to Judah. Judah was punished but not divorced. I agree Armstrong is way off on many things, even a cult, but not because of his BI. I certainly don’t see why speculating about this is bothersome to anyone. Not allowing for people the freedom to investigate theories that are not main stream seems a bit controlling some might say cultish. peace

      • WTF? Who’s not allowing anyone freedom to investigate so-called “theories”? Again, read the whole series. The Northern Kingdom was not taken into captivity en masse, the tribes were not lost, and the Bible is not a history book (and certainly its eschatological “promises” aren’t to be taken seriously by any sensible person).

      • Josephus seemed to think they were lost, jesus certainly did. The jewish encyclopedia seems to think the same. Regardless of where they went they certainly didn’t return to palestine. To say they weren’t lost is to say jesus doesn’t know what he’s talking about.   Peace

      • All of those spurious contentions are addressed in the articles. You’re becoming insulting. As I said, read the articles, then bring some arguments that have not been answered already.

      • Here, just read part three, and then list in your own words the arguments I laid out against BI, and respond to each one in turn. And do avoid any temptation you may feel to preach supernatural just-so stories: appealing to the authority of scripture will get you less than nowhere.

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  10. Wow, I need to start subscribing to the comments of all the things I didn’t write myself–I’m missing out!

    This is totally necro by now, but the short answer to “why all the stuff in the minor prophets about Israel if they’re lost forever” is that the bible is a work of men sans divine revelation. Germans are not Assyrians, Brits are not Israelites. Tyre still stands proud. There’s no evidence of a Flood around 4,000 years ago (and earth’s fauna could not be saved on a boat that size), nor of an old-earth/Gap Theory re-creation at 6,000 years ago.

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