Christian Identity – thinly disguised anti-Semitism
Dr Richard V. Pierard, Scholar in Residence and Stephen Phillips Professor of History at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts (2000-2006), describes a shadowy, heretical grouping infiltrating western, right-wing evangelicalism.
The materials of the Christian Identity movement are seldom found in public or research libraries, but they are readily available on the Internet. Their web sites have book lists with vast numbers of titles written by largely unknown (except to adherents and those who study the movement) people, and easily purchased at low prices.
The racialist and anti-Semitic stance of Christian Identity figures have made them a subject for scrutiny by American watchdog organisations, most notably the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, which issues reports from time to time on the activities of Identity adherents.
Insightful, scholarly accounts by James A. Aho,1 Michael Barkun2 and Jeffrey Kaplan3 also provide a wealth of information. So there is plenty of information out there. As Barkun shows in careful detail, Christian Identity’s origins lay in British-Israelitism (also known as Anglo-Israelitism), a movement that deserves more careful study than it has received so far.4
British Israelitism teaches that the British (and their American offspring) are lineal descendants of the northern ‘ten lost tribes’ of Israel, were carried off into captivity by Assyria around 722 B.C., and are therefore God’s chosen people and heirs to the promises of the Old Testament prophets.
British-Israel exponents argue that over a period of centuries these tribes gradually migrated across Europe, albeit in unbelief, leaving their traces in such place-names as Danmark (Denmark) and Saxony (Isaac’s Sons), until finally reaching the British Isles.
The result was that the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic peoples were the ‘hidden Israel’. The tribes most prominent in the new homeland were firstly Ephraim, who received the promise of Jacob’s birthright blessing that ‘his seed shall become a multitude of nations’ – i.e. the British Empire; and secondly Manasseh, ‘he also shall become a people and he also shall be great’ – i.e. the progenitor of the United States (Genesis 48:19).
According to this view, Judah and Benjamin, the two tribes left behind, became the Jews – and a mixed race because of intermarriage with Gentile neighbours in the post-exilic period. It was to this remnant group of ‘Jews’ that Jesus came as Messiah. But they rejected the divine offer and eventually were expelled from the land of Israel.
British-Israelitism never became a separate church, nor did it have doctrinal formulations to which its followers were expected to adhere. The only handbook of ‘British-Israel truth’ was purported to be the Bible.
It claimed to be an international fellowship open to any Protestant believer and its followers were encouraged to remain active members of their churches. In its heyday, in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, British-Israelism was a genteel fad. Because of its millennialist character, it developed connections with the prophetic movement, itself a force in early fundamentalism.
For example, Charles Fox Parham, one of the prime founders of Pentecostalism, was a strong exponent of British-Israel ideas. A variety of small Anglo-Israel study groups arose on both sides of the Atlantic, and the movement’s figures – such as John Wilson, Edward Hine, M. M. Eshelman, David Davidson, W. H. Poole, Charles A. L. Totten, J. H. Allen, Howard Rand, William J. Cameron, John A. Lovell, and Frederick Haberman – generated a vast amount of literature, much of which recycled one another’s ideas.
The most notorious of all American anti-Semites, Gerald L. K. Smith, was strongly sympathetic to Anglo-Israelitism’s view of the Jews. One of British-Israelitism’s offshoots was a fascination with the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) in Giza (Gizeh), Egypt.
Pyramid enthusiasts believed that by studying various measurements of this ‘sermon in stone’ – ‘obviously’ not built by primitive Egyptians but by some unknown patriarch – they could discern prophetic truths encoded by God in it for the future instruction of humankind.
The early British-Israel adherents were philo-Semitic, and had a strong millenarian interest in the return of Christ. They believed that, under the leadership of ‘Anglo-Israel’, the descendants of Judah and Benjamin (who had not been ‘lost’ but continued as a reminder of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus’ Messiahship) would be reunited as one people in the last days. Anglo-Jewish resettlement of Palestine would fulfil biblical prophecy5 – the return of God’s people to the land, preparing the way for Christ’s return.
They taught that latter-day Israel would have to undergo suffering during the great tribulation to be purged of their accumulated sins, but when Gog in the form of Russia invaded the Holy Land, the Jews would acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah; their Anglo-Saxon brethren would call upon God for assistance; and at the battle of Armageddon Christ would come down from heaven to rescue his people and establish his millennial reign.
Soon, however, British-Israelitism began to take on an anti-Semitic character. Ideas from the political right filtered in about the urban, plutocratic conspiracy that was causing all the problems of farmers and small businessmen.
Various writers spoke of the ‘world Jewish conspiracy’ and portrayed the tribe of Judah as the mischief maker of ancient Israel, increasingly emphasising the differences between Judah and Israel.
Moreover, they said that since the Jews had rejected Christ, God had rejected them, and only the pure British-Israelites were heirs to the Old Testament promises. They regarded the demand of Zionist Jews for British withdrawal and the establishment of an independent homeland in Palestine as the repudiation of the British peoples’ claim to be the true Israel.
Some even went so far as to say that Jews, already an unassimilable people, were an evil force and perhaps even the offspring of Satan. In short, they transferred the chosen-ness of Israel to the Anglo-Saxons and reduced the Jews to a small remnant that lived in tiny enclaves around the world and in the ‘illegal’ state of Israel in Palestine.
By the 1950s a loose network of churches and publicists had emerged to promote the concept of ‘Christian Identity’, a term that came out of British-Israelitism. The spokespersons for this maintained that since the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic peoples were the lineal descendants of ancient Israel, they needed to become aware of their true ‘identity’ as God’s chosen people.
But since then this concept has again metamorphosed, this time into a racial understanding whereby ‘white’ or ‘Aryan’ peoples in general are seen as the descendants of the biblical lost tribes, called to do God’s work on earth.6
Present-day Jews are to be completely excluded from this. They are a mongrel people or even the offspring of Satan, who will try to keep true Israel from fulfilling its task. What will soon transpire is a final, apocalyptic struggle between good and evil, the Aryans and the Jewish conspirators. If the Aryans are successful, the result will be the redemption of the world.
Today Christian Identity organisations are a motley collection of groups. At least by their titles some give the impression of being evangelical churches, such as the Christian Conservative Churches of North America, New Christian Crusade Church (Metairie, LA), America’s Promise Church (Phoenix), Church of Israel (Schell, MO), Christian Gospel Fellowship Church (Spokane, WA), Lord’s Covenant Church (Phoenix), and Scriptures for America (an outreach ministry of the Church of Laporte, CO, an Identity congregation).
Others are more up-front as to their true nature, like the Christian Identity Church in Harrison, AR, and the Aryan Nations and Church of Jesus Christ Christian in Hayden Lake, Idaho. Some Identity groups are little more than militarised survival communes with a thin veneer of religiosity – such as the Christian Patriots Defense League and the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord.
Although the sermons and literature of Christian Identity preachers are full of Scripture references and evangelical concepts, Christian Identity is not an evangelical faith but another religion altogether, with an anti-Semitic focus.
To be continued
1. The politics of righteousness: Idaho Christian patriotism (University of Washington Press, 1990).
2. Religion and the racist Right: the origins of the Christian Identity movement (University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
3. Radical religion in America: millenarian movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah (Syracuse University Press, 1997).
4. My essay, ‘The Contribution of British-Israelism to anti-Semitism within conservative Protestantism’, in Holocaust and church struggle: religion, power and the politics of resistance,ed. Hubert G. Locke and Marcia Sachs Littell (University Press of America, 1996), pp. 44-68, is a concise treatment of the origins of British-Israel. Barkun provides a fuller, more detailed account.
5. I deal with this in John Beaty’s ‘The Iron Curtain over America: anti-Semitism and anti-Communism in the 1950s’, in Bearing witness to the Holocaust 1939-1989, ed. Alan L. Berger (Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), pp. 301-311.
6. Metairie, L. A. The New Christian Crusade Church (c. 1976). See also Comparet’s Your heritage: an identification of the true Israel through biblical and historic sources (Harrison, A. R.; Kingdom Identity Ministries) and Dan Gayman, The two seeds of Genesis 3:15 (1994).