British Israelism, also known as Anglo-Israelism, is a theological belief that the British people are the direct descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. This belief originated in England in the 16th century and was promoted by several theologians and preachers over the following centuries.
The central tenet of British Israelism is that the people of Britain (and other Northwest European nations) are the literal descendants of the “Lost Tribes” of Israel. These tribes were taken into captivity by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE and supposedly migrated through Europe to eventually become the Anglo-Saxon peoples. British Israelists cite various biblical prophecies and promises pertaining to Israel, and claim these apply directly to Britain and the British people.
Some of the key beliefs of British Israelism include:
- The British monarchy is descended from the line of King David, as God had promised David that his throne would be established forever.
- The British Empire and other English-speaking nations are the fulfillment of God’s promise to spread Israel’s descendants throughout the world.
- The United States inherits its portion of Israel’s birthright from Britain, since America was colonized by British and European descendants of the Lost Tribes.
- Britain has been instrumental in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and God’s plan for the ages.
To support these beliefs, British Israelists point to various historical migrations, linguistic studies, biblical clues, and prophetic interpretations. Some of the commonly cited evidence includes:
- Similiarities between Hebrew and English/European words and customs.
- Archaeological findings that suggest ancient Israelite contact with Northern Europe.
- Prophetic passages hinting that Israel would inhabit “islands” and coastlands (Isaiah 24:15, Jeremiah 31:10).
- Parallels between the blessings promised to Abraham and the power and wealth attained by Britain.
However, British Israelism remains a fringe theology and is rejected by mainstream Christian denominations. Critics argue that the various biblical texts cited do not substantiate the direct linkage between modern Britons and ancient Israelites. Additionally, genetic and migration evidence contradicts the Anglo-Saxon peoples descending specifically from ancient Semitic tribes. There are also concerns that British Israelism has at times supported racist attitudes by over-emphasizing supposed ethnic divisions between Israelite and non-Israelite peoples.
Origins of British Israelism
Early origins of British Israelist thought can be traced back to England in the 16th century among Protestant theologians. Some scholars point to John Sadler’s Rights of the Kingdom (1649) as one of the first works promoting the view that the English people were directly descended from the Israelite tribe of Ephraim, son of Joseph. Over the next few centuries, various preachers and theologians propagated Anglo-Israelite ideas in England, although it remained a fringe view.
In the 19th century, Edward Hine was a major early proponent who helped spread British Israelism to America and other British territories. E.P. Ingersol published a book in the 1860s that further promoted the connection between England and Israelite origins. In the 1870s, minister Herbert W. Armstrong championed British Israelism and played a key role in shaping the modern form of the theology. The late 19th to early 20th century saw the formation of British Israelite organizations and increased popularity of the beliefs, especially in America and the British Commonwealth countries.
Key Tenets and Beliefs
Some of the core tenets of British Israelism include:
Britain and Davidic Lineage
British Israelism teaches that the throne of Britain is the continuation of the royal line of King David. God had promised David, “Your house and your kingdom shall endure before me forever” (2 Samuel 7:16 ESV). This covenant was unconditional and could not be invalidated by later disobedience or loss of national sovereignty over Israel and Judah. The Davidic throne continued even after the Babylonian exile, with many medieval European royal families intermarrying with unknown Jewish exiles. Eventually, the Davidic monarchy became centered in Ireland and Scotland, before finalizing under British rule. Modern British monarchs thus remain rightful heirs to King David’s lineage.
Migration of the Lost Tribes
When the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel around 722 BCE, they deported the 10 tribes occupying the region. The Assyrians resettled these tribes in various parts of their territory in northern Mesopotamia and the Caucasus (2 Kings 17:6, 18:11). British Israelism claims that from here, the tribes migrated northward into Eastern Europe and westward across the continent. Over subsequent centuries, they eventually reached the European coastlands and migrated to the British Isles. Anglo-Saxon peoples descending from these Israelite tribes then expanded the British Empire worldwide.
God had promised tremendous blessings upon the patriarch Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3). British Israelists teach that the abundant wealth, power, and expansive empire enjoyed by Britain and related peoples is the literal fulfillment of birthright promises made to Ephraim and Manasseh (sons of Joseph). America inherited its portion primarily through Britain’s colonial settlements. They cite texts like Deuteronomy 33:13-17 and Genesis 49:22-26 as applying directly to modern prosperity enjoyed by Anglo-Saxon nations identified as Israel.
A key component of British Israelism is the belief that God has a special prophetic role and destiny planned for the British and related peoples. Their control over major sea gates (Gibraltar, Suez Canal, Singapore, etc.) and geopolitical power has shaped modern history to line up according to God’s prophetic timetable. For example, Britain’s role in establishing a Jewish homeland in 1917 and defending it in WWII was helping fulfill prophecies about Israel’s return. Isaiah 43:10 and other texts are cited to show Israel’s unique prophetic commission among the nations.
Origins and History of British Israelism
While British Israelist ideas had existed previously, the modern ideological origins can be traced to 19th century England:
John Sadler and Rights of the Kingdom (1649)
Some credit John Sadler’s Rights of the Kingdom as one of the first literary works propagating uniquely British Israelist views in England. Sadler argued that the British people, especially the aristocracy, were directly descended from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. He believed they had a prophetic destiny to rule the world.
Edward Hine and the American Spread
Edward Hine was an important early minister and writer who preached British Israelism extensively in 1850s England. He later emigrated to America where his lectures and books helped introduce Anglo-Israel ideas to American audiences in the 1860s and 1870s. Hine taught that America also fulfilled Israelite ancestry and destiny.
Herbert W. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God
Herbert W. Armstrong was one of the most influential champions of British Israelism in the 20th century through his radio ministry and the founding of the Worldwide Church of God. While drawing from earlier writers, Armstrong shaped the theology into the more systematic form as it is known today and widely propagated it to an international audience.
Founding of British Israelite Organizations
In the late 19th through early 20th centuries, various British Israelite organizations formed to promote Anglo-Israel teachings and lobby governments. Examples include the British Israel Association, the Anglo Saxon Federation of America, and the Empire British Israel Society. Conferences, publications and education initiatives further spread their theology.
Biblical and Historical Support Cited
Various historical, linguistic and biblical evidence is cited to support British Israelism. However, mainstream experts largely dispute the conclusions drawn from this evidence.
British Israelism teaches that the Hebrew language shares similarities with English and other European languages. For example, biblical names like Danube River, Din Britain, and Denmark, allegedly correspond to the Israelite tribe of Dan. They claim this suggests ancestral ties to Hebrew peoples. However, mainstream linguists attribute most such parallels to mere coincidence rather than familial linguistic origins.
Some archaeological evidence has been interpreted by British Israelists as supporting ancient Israelite migration. For example, the 7th century Franks Casket has Hebrew Jewish inscriptions but was discovered in Britain. British Israelists claim this attests to early Israelite settlement of England, but most scholars date Jewish presence much later in the 17th century.
Coastlands and Islands
Biblical verses suggesting Israel’s descendants inhabited coastlands and islands after captivity are seen to indicate the British Isles (Isaiah 24:15, Jeremiah 31:10). However, critics respond that other nations bordering seas and oceans also fit this description.
Blessings to Ephraim and Manasseh
British Israelists apply prophecies concerning wealth and empire for Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 49:22, Deuteronomy 33:13-17) directly to Britain and America’s prosperity. However, other scholars maintain the original context was strictly geographical blessings promised within the Holy Land.
The continuation of the Davidic royal line in Britain is said to fulfill God’s promise that David’s throne would last forever (2 Samuel 7:13,16). The lack of documentation tracing the exact dynastic lineage is acknowledged though.
Criticisms of British Israelism
Despite the purported evidence presented for it, British Israelism remains a fringe theology rejected by mainstream Christianity due to various concerns:
Questionable Interpretation of Biblical Prophecies
Critics argue British Israelists remove prophecies about Israel’s blessings and territories out of context in questionable ways. The original Old Testament audience would not have understood such prophecies as applying millennia later to England and America.
Dubious Linkage Between Israelites and Anglo-Saxons
Mainstream historians find no reliable documentation that ancient Israelite exiles specifically ended up in Western Europe and Britain as British Israelism claims. Genetic studies also show European Jews derived mostly from other Middle Eastern groups rather than ancient Canaanites of the Holy Land.
New Testament teaching emphasizes God’s inclusion of Gentiles into spiritual Israel through faith in Christ. But British Israelism seems to rebuild ethnic barriers between Israelite and non-Israelite peoples that Christianity theologically broke down (Ephesians 2:11-22).
Justification of Racism and Imperialism
Some adherents have utilized British Israelism to denigrate non-white peoples and justify racist attitudes now considered unbiblical. Claims that Britain and America have an inherent right to rule the world also reflect questionable imperialistic attitudes.
In summary, British Israelism relies on highly interpretive readings of select biblical texts, overlooks key elements of New Testament teaching, and remains at odds with mainstream history, theology, and science. While intriguing, most Christian scholars consider its premises defective and conclusions unsubstantiated.
Key Proponents and Adherents Over the Centuries
While a fringe theology, British Israelism attracted many influential adherents over the centuries, including:
16th-17th Century England
Early Anglican clergy like Richard Brothers, William H. Poole and Bishop TitusGATE proposed ideas linking the English people to ancient Israelites. John Sadler’s Rights of the Kingdom (1649) proclaimed the British aristocracy’s Hebrew roots.
John Wilson (1804-1870)
As a Scottish-born clergyman, Wilson’s 1840 book Our Israelitish Origins advanced the view that the British were Israel’s lost tribes. His speaking tours promoted these ideas throughout Great Britain.
Edward Hine (1825-1891)
Hine was likely the foremost popularizer of Anglo-Israelism in 19th century Britain. He spread it extensively as a preacher, professor and author. His writings later introduced British Israelism to America.
Herbert W. Armstrong (1892-1986)
Armstrong championed British Israelism through his Worldwide Church of God and mass media ministry, shaping it into the modern form. His teachings reached millions globally over several decades.
Garner Ted Armstrong (1930-2003)
As the son of Herbert W. Armstrong, Garner Ted Armstrong assumed leadership of his father’s Worldwide Church of God and continued propagating Anglo-Israelism after his father’s death in 1986.
Key Concepts and Teachings
Some core concepts and beliefs within British Israelism include:
Lost Tribes Migration to Britain
The Assyrian exile and migration of the 10 Lost Tribes to Europe and Britain eventually merging with Anglo-Saxon invaders of England. This lineage explains Britain’s subsequent rise to greatness.
Belief that Britain’s monarchy represents an unbroken continuation of the divinely ordained royal line descended from King David meant to rule Israel forever.
Prophetic Israelite Nations
Britain, America, and related European peoples represent prophetically significant modern Israelite nations central to God’s plans for the end times.
The unmatched prosperity and empire attained by Britain and America marks specifically promised fulfillment of the Abrahamic birthright blessings inherited by Ephraim and Manasseh.
Shared racial traits and lingustic patterns connect the Anglo-Saxon and related peoples to their ancient Hebrew Israelite forefathers.
Common Criticisms and Concerns
Some important criticisms leveled against British Israelism include:
Faulty Interpretation of Scripture
Principles of biblical hermeneutics are violated by misapplying Old Testament prophecies to Britain without substantiation.
No Genetic Connection
DNA and genetic research provides no empirical evidence that Anglo-Saxon English people derived from Semitic Middle Eastern tribes.
Undercuts New Covenant Universality
British Israelism rebuilds outdated walls between Israel and the Gentiles that Christ’s new covenant removed (Ephesians 3:6).
End times prophecies concerning Israel are largely spiritualized under the new covenant and not strictly ethnically defined.
Justification of Racism and Imperialism
Anglo-Saxon supremacy and colonialism have at times been wrongly championed by distorting British Israelism’s premises.
Response and Current Status in Christian Theology
British Israelism remains outside mainstream Christian theology due to the following factors:
Lack of Denominational Support
No major Christian denomination officially accepts British Israelism teachings. It is mostly championed by fringe denominations like Armstrongism or independent churches and teachers.
Contradicted by Genetics
Genetic studies provide no substantiation for the key premise that Anglo-Saxons descended from ancient Semitic tribes of Israel.
Faulty Interpretive Methods
Principles of biblical exegesis are broken by loose prophetic interpretations used to arrive at British Israelist conclusions.
Increased Attention to Hermeneutics
With improved modern awareness of sound biblical hermeneutics, mainstream Bible scholars reject the exegetical foundations upholding British Israelism.
Declining Public Interest
Waning popularity of Armstrongism and related churches has relegated British Israelism increasingly to the fringe of current theological consciousness.
In summary, British Israelism has failed to move beyond a relatively minor position in Christian thought due to contradictions with sound exegesis and empirical evidence. It remains confined mostly to a few outlier denominations and independent churches on the periphery of mainstream evangelical theology.