Early in December 2017 President Trump announced that the United States would recognize that Jerusalem was the capital city of Israel, and not Tel Aviv.
He said: ‘Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital … This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done’ (New York Times, 6/12/17). He also stated he would move the US embassy to the Holy City.
This pivotal and heavily analysed statement dramatically changes United States’ foreign policy towards Israel and has drawn much criticism from Western and Arab nations.
Since Israel’s founding as a nation in 1948, no other nation has declared Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, due to the delicate political, ethnic and religious situation in Palestine. It is a move that may yet bring violence to the city.
Jerusalem has been contested for millennia and there are many — Jews, as well as Christians — who want Jerusalem, as well as the entire territory of Israel and Palestine, to belong to Israel.
This has given birth to the Zionist movement, with a large following in the world, and especially the United States and United Kingdom. Christian Zionism has greatly influenced the past 70 years of American-Israeli relations.
While Zionism has many different strains and ideologies, these were united by a central purpose: to restore the Jewish homeland and bring Jewish exiles there, free of persecution. The impetus for many Christians has been the dispensational belief that the Jews’ return to Israel is a prerequisite for Jesus’ Second Coming.
Christian sympathy toward the restoration of Israel did not begin in earnest until the seventeenth century among Protestants in England. The Reformation brought a renewed vigour for the literal interpretation of Scripture, which led the Reformers to understand many passages concerning Israel’s restoration as a physical restoration to her homeland.
Many notable theologians argued for this. One was John Owen, who, in his commentary on Hebrews, stated: ‘Moreover, it is granted that there shall be a time and season, during the continuance of the kingdom of the Messiah in this world, wherein the generality of the nation of the Jews, all the world over, shall be called and effectually brought unto the knowledge of the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ; with which mercy they shall also receive deliverance from their captivity, restoration unto their own land, with a blessed, flourishing, and happy condition therein’.
Others, such as Samuel Rutherford, Thomas Draxe, Joseph Mede, and Henry Finch predicted the return of the Jews, the defeat of the Ottomans, and the Jews coming to faith in Christ. This conviction spread in the American colonies under the teaching of Cotton and Increase Mather, and, most notably, Jonathan Edwards.
Gerald R. McDermott in his article, ‘The Reformed tradition on Israel is diverse’ (this ET, page 19) says that Increase Mather ‘wrote in his The mystery of Israel’s salvation (1669) that the future conversion of “the Jewish nation” was “a truth of late [that] hath gained ground much throughout the world”. This widespread acceptance was a sign that the times of the end were near, a time when “the Israelites shall again possess . . . the land promised unto their Father Abraham”.’
Jonathan Edwards taught that, though God had ‘abandoned’ literal Israel for a time after the resurrection, there would be a second outpouring of grace just after the millennium. ‘Nothing is more certainly foretold than this national conversion of the Jews in the 11th chapter of Romans’ (Ibid.).
This concept was soon espoused by more than preachers. John Adams, the second president of the United States, wrote in a letter to Mordecai M. Noah, a Jewish American leader, in 1819: ‘I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites indeed as well disciplined as a French army, and marching with them into Judea, and making a conquest of that country, and restoring your nation to the dominion of it … For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation’. The son of Puritan parents, Adams knew the Scriptures, but sadly became a Unitarian.
Christian Zionism gained a larger following during the nineteenth century, due to the influence of dispensationalism and the Scofield Bible. Dispensationalism began in the United Kingdom through the teaching of John Nelson Darby and spread to the United States during Darby’s tours beginning in 1862.
Darby taught a variant of premillennialism, that can be summed up as: ‘We believe that the world will not be converted during the present dispensation, but is fast ripening for judgment, while there will be a fearful apostasy in the professing Christian body.
‘And hence that the Lord Jesus will come in person to introduce the millennial age, when Israel shall be restored to their own land, and the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord; and that this personal and premillennial advent is the blessed hope set before us in the gospel for which we should be constantly looking’ (Ernest R. Sandeen, The roots of fundamentalism, British and American millenarianism, 1800-1930).
While Darby’s Brethren church practices did not catch on in the US, his dispensationalism did. He spoke at numerous conferences, including the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878. Evangelicals William Eugene Blackstone, Charles Erdman and C. I. Scofield were influential, and nothing influenced the American church like the Scofield Bible.
First published in 1909, this contained annotations by Scofield, teaching premillennialism and dispensationalism. Among other things, Scofield taught that God has two different peoples whom he loves — Jews and the Christian church — and that he has two separate plans for them. His notes on Revelation teach premillennial eschatology and the restoration of the Jewish people to their own land.
Not long after, Israel was declared an independent nation (1948) and many believed Scofield had been right in his predictions. By the end of World War II, over two million copies of the Scofield Bible had been sold. Today there are many denominations in America that espouse a dispensational view and have Zionist tendencies.
William Eugene Blackstone was also inspired by the Niagara Conference and influential in turning the mind of the American church towards Zionism. He firmly believed that the Jews would be restored to their homeland and would not need to come to a saving knowledge of Christ.
He hosted a conference in Chicago in 1890, where several prominent leaders of the church met to discuss the restoration of the Jews. Finding this did little to garner real support, he wrote what became known as the Blackstone Memorial: a document signed by 413 prominent leaders that petitioned American president Benjamin Harrison to intervene in restoring Russian Jews to Palestine.
While his first petition did not gain the result he desired, his second was warmly received and wholeheartedly supported by Woodrow Wilson, some 25 years later. Louis D. Brandeis, a Jewish lawyer from Boston and friend of Blackstone, was a pivotal leader among American Zionists and influential in securing the president’s support for the Memorial, as well as the president’s consent to the Balfour Declaration. Blackstone died in 1935, just 13 years shy of Israel becoming a nation.
American involvement with the Jews goes back to the beginning of the nation. George Washington supported religious freedom for a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790 and John Adams advocated a Jewish return to their Holy Land.
Zionist political support from the US government was little heard of during the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth there was no shortage of it. Beginning with President Wilson’s support of the Blackstone Memorial and Balfour Declaration, it continued through Harry Truman’s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidencies.
In 1942, Zionist leaders met at the Biltmore Conference and called for the ‘fulfilment of the original purpose of the Balfour Declaration’, with the unfettered immigration of persecuted Jews into Palestine.
Truman, affected by the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII and his own dispensational convictions, was pivotal in the establishment of Israel as a nation in 1948. When Marx Jacobsen quipped, ‘This is the man who helped create the State of Israel’, Truman responded, ‘What do you mean “helped” create? I am Cyrus; I am Cyrus!’ (Quoted in Moshe Davis, America and the Holy Land, Greenwood, 1995).
From 1979 onwards, American political and financial support for Israel continued, especially in view of the ‘Palestinian problem’ and the hostility of Arab Middle Eastern nations to Israel.
While earlier American support for Israel stemmed from religious convictions, today things are largely viewed from a different perspective. According to Michael Koplow, a Middle East analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, ‘the US’s alliance with Israel owes to two key factors — intelligence-sharing and ideological unity’ (Business Insider, 18/2/17). Koplow asserts that Israel is unrivalled in its knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs and has collaborated with the US on many occasions; both share a passion for democracy, in the midst of a region dominated by Islam.
The political problems involving Israel and Palestine today are very complex, but Christians must pray for peace in that region, and for salvation in Christ for Jews, Muslims and atheists throughout that troubled region.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA