“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…