We all have a general idea of what British Israelism is, of course—how it claims that the British race (with whom, for some convenient reason, is included America) is directly descended from the ten so-called "lost" tribes of Israel.
It is claimed that the ten tribes after their capture by the Assyrians were not in any way absorbed by their conquerors; neither did any of them return under Ezra; neither did they become any part of the Jews of the dispersion. All these feasible explanations are discarded by the British Israelites in favor of the idea that the ten tribes as a whole, by successive stages, and under successive names, gradually migrated by way of Western Russia, Northern Germany, and Scandinavia, until they finally and providentially came to rest in the British Isles, and subsequently spread to America.
I do not know of any historian or theologian of repute who thinks the theory is anything but nonsense. The British Israelites seem to be either unable or unwilling to discriminate between what is generally accepted as history and what is classed as mere legend or folklore. When it suits their purpose, they are willing to give as much credence to the one as to the other. Their Biblical exegesis, to my mind, is far more remarkable for its ingenuity than for its profundity.
For example, one of their main historical proofs is that all along the line of march of our supposed forebears, there is a succession of ancient Jewish cemeteries, proving (so they say) that the Israelites in ancient times passed that way. Of course that proves nothing of the sort. All over Europe and Asia Minor there are Jewish cemeteries of greater or lesser antiquity. By that means you could find the lost tribes anywhere and almost everywhere.
It is claimed, also, that because there are some 40,000 words in our language which have a definite Hebrew derivation, therefore we are all Hebrews. But I suppose there would be twice that number of words of Greek derivation, yet no one suggests we are all Greeks ! And there must again be double that number of Latin words, yet no one suggests that we have anything racially in common with the Italians.
It is upon such adroit twists as these that the whole theory is elaborated. Much of their Biblical exposition seems to be concerned (and I say it with reluctance, but of necessity) with making the Lord out to be, among other things, an extremely subtle punster. Any real or fancied resemblance between place or racial names is stretched and stretched until it fits the scheme.
But the danger of British Israelism as it concerns us, is this. They are avowed fundamentalists, as we are ourselves. Indeed their great error lies in the fact that their literalism is altogether extreme. Their fundamentalism appeals to those to whom we can, and do, most quickly and easily appeal—the men and women who have a genuine regard for the word of God; but who, as is mostly the case, are not able to tell, at first, whether it is being interpreted sensibly or not.
I believe that British Israelism is one of the means by which the devil is getting in on our fundamentalist ground. For these people uphold the Bible. In some respects they have a very good knowledge of the Scriptures. They are certainly Bible students. There can be no question about that. But all their Bible study, because of their misinterpretation, serves only to confirm their mistaken notions. And more serious still, it serves only to foster in them and the thousands who hear them week by week a religion which is not really Christianity at all. It is not Christianity in that it knows nothing of the true spirit of Christ—of His impartial regard for all men and nations. And it does not seek to stress Christ's first principle of eradicating sin from the human heart.
A Substitution for Christianity
British Israelism is one of the devil's substitutes for Christianity. For it almost invariably develops in its adherents a spiritual pride, and a feeling of smug superiority which is the very antithesis of everything that Jesus came to teach.
How shall we meet it ? I think it is of little use to point out to them, "If ye are Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed." They say, "Oh, yes, we know that. But in addition to all that we are Abraham's descendants physically as well. We are, therefore, as a nation, destined to do a great work for God physically and politically, as well as spiritually." That is their theory, though in practice they emphasize the national and political aspect of this mission. The spiritual is hardly touched upon.
The better way, I think, is probably to try to impress upon the British Israelites that the converse of Paul's statement must be equally true. If we are not Christ's, then we are certainly not Abraham's seed, either spiritually or physically. And since fully ninety per cent of the British people have no real connection with Christ at all, then we simply cannot, as a nation, be Abraham's seed.
But having gone as far as that, the British Israelites usually turn round and triumphantly point out that in spite of our ingrained and characteristic modesty, we British are really a great people. They say that since the days of Good Queen Bess, the Lord has looked upon us, and after us, in a remarkable way. Therefore quite apart from any Biblical or remote historical proofs, they say, we must be the Lord's chosen people. They quote the miracle of Dunkirk, the battle of Britain, the defeat of Napoleon, the destruction of the Armada, etc., ad nauseam.
Now we believe that the Lord has a secondary policy with nations, just as He has a primary policy with individuals. What shall we say then? Wherein lies the real reason for our national greatness, if any? We must have an answer to that if we are going to get anywhere, either with British Israelites or their sympathizers.
That answer must be, of course, a matter of conjecture. But I believe that our real, or supposed greatness is due, in the first place, to the fact that we live on an island. Consequently we are a maritime people, and while we are of Europe, yet we are not (in a sense) in Europe.
But secondly, and more important still, if the Lord has favored us, I believe it is because we have tried to uphold and to promulgate God's word. For the largest and earliest Bible society in the world is called the British and Foreign Bible Society. Or is it called by another name in heaven? That society, founded by Britons, and backed mostly by Britons, has published to date something over 5oo,o0o,000 copies of the Scriptures. They have more than twice the output of the next largest society. Therein, I believe, lies the reason for whatever divine favor we have enjoyed. And therein, I think, is probably a fairly general answer to the main sophistries of British Israelism.
The British Israelites also especially pride themselves that they are above endeavoring to form yet another sect or denomination. But they are clearly not above seeking to influence the members and policies of as many denominations as they can. Indeed they state openly that that is their object. Thus we may meet their doctrines wherever we go.
Especially does British Israelism appear to appeal to the middle classes, and for obvious reasons. It calls for no sacrifice, no separation from their fashionable churches. It is pseudo-intellectual. It imparts a complacent sense of enjoying the divine favor, while at the same time it is not too specific regarding one's little weaknesses.
Worse still, it saturates the mind with unbiblical and uncharitable doctrines. It makes the hearts of otherwise simple and good men and women much harder to reach and to win to this message. The best means of meeting theological error is the preaching of positive truth.