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Christians and Zion: British stirrings 

Part 1 in a series of 5 articles on Christian Zionism:  Part 1  - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5

Donald Wagner

10/09/03 (Daily Star) The British have had a long-term fascination with the idea of Israel and its central role in biblical prophecy that dates back to their earliest recorded literature. The Epistle of Gildas (circa. 6th century AD) and the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (735 AD) both saw the British as “the new Israel,” God’s chosen people, who were destined to play a strategic role despite repeated invasions by their Nordic neighbors. In the British perception of being an elect, these battles were understood in the context of Israel’s battles against the Philistines, Babylonians and others. 

A clear resurgence of such themes was evident in the 16th century, perhaps influenced by the Protestant Reformation and its emphasis on the Bible and varied interpretations of its texts, now that Rome had lost its control over the new clergy and theologians. One of the early expressions of fascination with the idea of Israel was the monograph Apocalypsis Apocalypseos, written by Anglican clergyman Thomas Brightman in 1585. Brightman urged the British people to support the return of the Jews to Palestine in order to hasten a series of prophetic events that would culminate in the return of Jesus. 

In 1621, a prominent member of the British Parliament, attorney Henry Finch, advanced a similar perspective when he wrote: “The (Jews) shall repair to their own country, shall inherit all of the land as before, shall live in safety, and shall continue in it forever.” Finch argued that based on his interpretation of Genesis 12:3, God would bless those nations that supported the Jews’ return. However, his idea did not find support from fellow legislators. 

While these writers cannot be classified as Christian Zionists, they might be viewed as proto-Christian Zionists, as they prepared the way for those who would follow. Gradually their views receded, but the turbulence following the American and French revolutions provoked significant feelings of insecurity across Europe. As the anxiety rose in the run-up to the centennial year at the beginning of the 19th century, prophetic speculation concerning Jesus’ return and related events was in the air. 

During the decade that followed the year 1800, several Christian writers and preachers began to reflect on the events leading to Jesus’ would-be imminent return, among them Louis Way, an Anglican clergyman. Way taught that it was necessary for the Jews to return to Palestine as the first stage prior to the Messianic Age, and he offered speculation as to the timing of Jesus’ second coming. Within a short period of time, Way gained a wide readership through his journal The Jewish Expositor, and counted many clergymen, academics and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as subscribers. 

A number of influential proto-Christian Zionists emerged in the generation that followed Way. John Nelson Darby (1800-81), a renegade Irish Anglican priest, added several unique features to Way’s teachings, including the doctrine of “the Rapture,” whereby “born again Christians” would be literally removed from history and transferred to heaven prior to Jesus’ return. Darby also placed a restored Israel at the center of his theology, claiming that an actual Jewish state called Israel would become the central instrument for God to fulfill His plans during the last days of history. Only true (“born again”) Christians would be removed from history prior to the final battle of Armageddon through the Rapture ­ based on his literal interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:16. 

Darby’s extensive writings and 60-year career as a missionary consolidated a form of fundamentalism called “premillennialism” (Jesus would return prior to the Battle of Armageddon and his millennial rule on earth). Darby made six missionary journeys to North America, where he became a popular teacher and preacher. The premillennial theology and its influence on Christian fundamentalism and the emerging evangelical movement in the United States can be directly traced to Darby’s influence. 

Christian Zionism is the direct product of this unusual and recent Western form of Protestant theology. Found primarily in North America and England, it is now exported around the globe via satellite television, the internet, best-selling novels such as the Left Behind series, films and a new breed of missionaries. These unique doctrines were found among fringe movements in Christianity throughout the ages, which most Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches regarded as extreme and marginal, if not heretical. 
One of the influential British social reformers to be influenced by premillennial theology was Lord Shaftesbury, a conservative evangelical Christian who was intimately linked to leading members of the British Parliament. In 1839, Shaftesbury published an essay in the distinguished literary journal the Quarterly Review, titled “The State and Restoration of the Jews,” where he argued: “(T)he Jews must be encouraged to return (to Palestine) in yet greater numbers and become once more the husbandman of Judea and Galilee.” Writing 57 years before Zionist thinkers Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill and Theodor Herzl popularized the phrase, Shaftesbury called the Jews “a people with no country for a country with no people.” The saying was curiously similar to that of the early Zionists, who described Palestine as “a land of no people for a people with no land.” Gradually, Shaftesbury’s views gained acceptance among British journalists, clergy and politicians. 

One of the most important figures in the development of Christian Zionism was the Anglican chaplain in Vienna during the 1880s, William Hechler, who became an acquaintance of Herzl. Hechler saw Herzl and the Zionist project as ordained by God in order to fulfill the prophetic scriptures. He used his extensive political connections to assist the Zionist leader in his quest for an international sponsor of the Zionist project. Hechler arranged meetings with the Ottoman sultan and the German kaiser, but it was his indirect contacts with the British elite that led to a meeting with the politician Arthur Balfour. That meeting in 1905 would eventually lead to Balfour’s November 1917 declaration on a Jewish homeland, which brought the Zionists their initial international legitimacy. Balfour’s keen interest in Zionism was prepared at least in part by his Sunday school faith, a case put forth by Balfour’s biographer and niece, Blanch Dugdale. 

Then-British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George was perhaps even more predisposed to the Zionist ideology than Balfour. Journalist Christopher Sykes (son of Mark Sykes, co-author of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916), noted in his volume Two Studies in Virtue that Lloyd-George’s political advisers were unable to train his mind on the map of Palestine during negotiations prior to the Treaty of Versailles, due to his training by fundamentalist Christian parents and churches on the geography of ancient Israel. Lloyd-George admitted that he was far more familiar with the cities and regions of Biblical Israel than with the geography of his native Wales ­ or of England itself. 

British imperial designs were undoubtedly the primary political motivation in drawing influential British politicians to support the Zionist project. However, it is clear that the latter were predisposed to Zionism and to enthusiastically supporting the proposals of Herzl and leading Zionist officials such as Chaim Weizmann due to their Christian Zionist backgrounds. Balfour’s famous speech of 1919 makes the point: “For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country…The four great powers are committed to Zionism, and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” 

The phrases “rooted in age-long traditions” and “future hopes” were perhaps grounded in Balfour’s British imperial vision, but they were also buttressed by his understanding of Bible prophecy, which undergirded his bias toward the Zionist project as well as his grand designs for Britain’s colonialist policy. 

Donald Wagner is professor of religion and Middle Eastern studies at North Park University in Chicago and executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He wrote this commentary, the first of five on Christian Zionism running this week, for THE DAILY STAR 

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