The History of Christian Zionism in Post-Luther, Pre-Darby Britain 1550-1850

Bonar BrothersThere are two definitions to be grasped at the outset of this essay. “Zionism” and “Christian Zionism”. Zionism is simply the belief that the Jewish people have been given the land of Israel by covenant promise to God and have a current right to occupy that land. Christian Zionists are Christians who agree with this belief.[1]

One of the key arguments from opponents of Christian Zionism is the argument that Christian Zionism has only been around for the past two hundred years. What the critics are obviously referring to is the advent of dispensationalism with John Nelson Darby who rose to prominence in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Donald Wagner, says in his book Anxious For Armageddon that ‘Darby was its greatest apostle and missionary [of Christian Zionism], the apostle Paul of the movement.’[2] The aim of this essay is to demonstrate that Christian Zionism was not an idea propagated by Darby, even though he may have certainly popularised it through the rise of dispensationalism, but rather it was a widespread belief held by a number of prominent church figures and theologians over the three hundred year period. To keep this essay brief, we will focus predominately on the contributions to Christian Zionism from Britain.

A significant observation of Christian Zionism in this period of church history is its partnership with Premillennialism. The reason why this is the case is because the same literal hermeneutic they applied to scripture to arrive at a Premillennialist position also naturally causes them to arrive at a Christian Zionist position. If the biblical promises made by God to Israel are to be taken literally and still apply to Israel today, and not the church, it should not be surprising to anyone that such a view leads one to take on board the belief of Christian Zionism.

 

Eschatological Background In The Aftermath of the Reformation

The eschatological background in the aftermath of the reformation was predominately amillennialist and anti-Judaic. Even there is a general consensus among scholars that early Christian interpretations of Biblical prophecy were predominately premillennial,[3] however, by the time of Origen, it had dramatically declined. The rise of the Alexandrian School was a major factor in the rejection of chiliastic beliefs. Origen, who was the theologian of the school, openly attacked chiliasm and introduced the allegorical method of interpretation by which he interpreted spiritually and not literally the passages of Scripture, which announced the millennium.[4] Then came the arrival of Augustine and his amillennialist manifesto City of God by which he ‘spiritualized’ the references to one thousand years in Revelation 20:1–10 to suggest that the reign of Christ referred to one thousand years of Christian history, a period he identified as ‘the sixth millennium, the sixth day,’ or, alternatively, to ‘the whole period of this world’s history.’[5] Israel had been spiritually allegorised as the church that took on the name ‘the New Israel’ who has usurped the covenants and promises made to ethnic Israel. Consequently, the land of Israel had been spiritualized to mean heaven, which negated the land to have anything to do with future prophetic events, especially a return of the Jews. Augustine instituted amillennialism as the official eschatological position in the Roman Catholic Church and consequently banned millennialism, declaring it a heresy. In the centuries following Augustine were a number of other influential church fathers who continued the supercessionist sentiment in the church up to the time of the Reformation including Pope Gregory the Great, John Calvin, Erasmus and finally Martin Luther. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk himself, articulated his understanding that God had once and for all rejected the Jews in his writing, The Jews and Their Lies. In it he writes:

Therefore this work of wrath is proof that the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is he any longer their God. This is in accord with Hosea 1:9, “Call his name not my people, for you are not my people and I am not your God.” Yes, unfortunately, this is their lot, truly a terrible one. They may interpret this as they will; we see the facts before our eyes, and these do not deceive us.[6]

And so leading up to the Reformation, the groundwork had been laid, and the seeds of Christian Zionism were forced to grow through the thorn bushes of anti-semitism and supercessionism.

 

Late 16th Century

In broad terms, the eschatology of the late sixteenth century perpetuated Augustinianism, the result being that chiliasm continued to be associated with certain extremist segments of Anabaptism.[7] However, the fruit of the Reformation brought about an interesting development. Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English (c.1382) paved the way for William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English in 1525/6, Myles Coverdale’s English translation of the Bible in 1535,[8] and the Geneva Bible in 1560. The main gift of the Reformation was that more than ever before, the Bible was now in the language of the people. As a result, the scriptures gained prominence in European society and brought about a new wave of interest in the prophetic aspects of the scriptures. Scholar Thomas Ice elaborates on this development;

Thus, so it would come to be, that the provision of the Bible in the language of the people would become the greatest spur to the rise of Christian Zionism. The simple provision of the Bible in the native tongue of the people, which gave rise to their incessant reading and familiarization of it, especially the Old Testament, was the greatest soil that yielded a crop of Christian Zionism over time. It was a short step from a near consensus belief in the conversion of the Jews by the end of the Reformation period to the widely held view among post-Reformation Puritans in the restoration of Israel to her covenant land.[9]

Calvin’s successor Theodore Beza in the 1560’s influenced the English and Scots exiles who produced the Geneva Bible that the Jews would be converted in the end times, as expressed in a note on Romans 11:15 and 26.[10] Peter Martyr Vermigli had written a commentary on Romans based on the Geneva Bible and wrote a careful exposition of the eleventh chapter, which prepared the way for a general adoption amongst the English Puritans on a belief in the future conversion of the Jews. This view was then adopted by such great Reformation and Puritan theologians as William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, Thomas Goodwin, William Strong, William Bridge, George Gillespie and Robert Baillie, to name but a few.[11]

One Cambridge student who was influenced by Martyr’s commentary was Hugh Broughton (1549–1612), ‘the first Englishman to propose going as a missionary to the Jews in the Near East’, and one of the first ‘to propose the idea of translating the New Testament into Hebrew for the sake of the Jews.’[12] For an Englishman, he was ironically referred to as a ‘rabbinic Hebrew scholar’ and held the belief that the book of Revelation was the Gentile counterpart to the book of Daniel, whose prophecies, he maintained, were confined to the Jews. Broughton was undoubtedly one of the leading forerunners of the Restorationist movement, believing that God’s blessing would rest upon the nation, which answered such a noble call.[13]

One of the very first Englishmen to express a clear view that the Jews should be restored to their land was Francis Kett (1547–1589).[14] He was a controversial figure in that he espoused a form of Arianism in which he denied the divinity of Jesus. Yet, in 1585, he had published a book entitled The Glorious and Beautiful Garland of Mans Glorification Containing the Godly Misterie of Heavenly Jerusalem. While the book was focused on other eschatological matters, particularly the New Jerusalem, there was a section in the book which Kett mentioned “the notion of Jewish national return to Palestine.” This notion, which some think was likely gaining many followers, was deemed heretical to the English establishment of the day.[15] Consequently, on January 14, 1589, Kett was burnt to death in the ditch of Norwich Castle for his Arian beliefs, but more notably for expressing such views about the Jews return to their land, an idea he claimed to have received from reading the Bible.[16]

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the topic of the restoration of the Jews to their land became the subject of serious theological debate.[17] Two key contributors who were both strict Calvinists, were Edmund Bunny (1540–1619), who outlined his understanding of the Jewish restoration to their land in the books: The Scepter of Ivday (1584) and The Coronation of David (1588) and Andrew Willet (1562–1621) with his publication of works from 1590.[18]

 

The 17th Century

The new evangelical millennialism continued to emerge out of Puritanism at the beginning of the seventeenth century, as theologians began to reassess the eschatological consequences of their creedal communities’ rejection of millennial belief.[19] Crawford Gribben, a scholar specialising on Millennialism explains a significant development culminating with the emergence of the seventeenth century;

In addition, a growing awareness of and interest in Hebraic language, literature and culture which encouraged protestant theologians across confessional divisions to take seriously the wider implications of the Jewish conversions they expected in the latter days. Specifically, as they returned to detailed study of Hebrew prophetic texts, many of these writers began to moot the possibility of a Jewish return to the Promised Land.[20]

As the seventeenth century progressed it became increasingly common for Puritans to discourse on the conversion of the Jews, not only in Biblical commentaries, but in Parliamentary sermons as well.[21] And so, a flurry of books advocating Jewish restoration to their land began to appear as well. Thomas Draxe released in 1608, The Worldes Resurrection: On the general calling of the Jews, A familiar Commentary upon the eleventh Chapter of Saint Paul to the Romaines, according to the sense of Scripture. Draxe argued for Israel’s restoration based upon his Calvinist and Covenant Theology.[22]

Arguably the most influential figure from the seventeenth century for the cause of Christian Zionism was Thomas Brightman (1552–1607). He has been described as ‘the first Puritan Judeo-centrist’, based on his belief that the millennium would be inaugurated by the conversion of the Jews.[23] His two most recognised written works featuring Christian Zionism were Apocalypsis Apocalypseos (1609) (published in English as A Revelation of the Apocalyps (1611)) and his famous commentary on the book of Revelation, A Revelation of the Revelation (1615). It has been claimed that Brightman’s commentary on Revelation, which was a blend of pre- and postmillennial concepts, contains ‘the single strongest impulse in Great Britain in support of the doctrine of Jewish national restoration’.[24] In the commentary he writes, “how the Jews will return from the areas North and East of Palestine to Jerusalem and how the Holy Land and the Jewish Christian church will become the centre of a Christian world.” Brightman wrote: “What, shall they return to Jerusalem again? There is nothing more certain; the prophets do everywhere confirm it.”[25] Brightman’s influence in bringing Christian Zionism to the forefront was felt significantly. In fact, the polemic Donald Wagner depicts Brightman in his book Anxious For Armageddon as ‘the first futurist premillennial dispensationalist’[26] and ‘the British forerunner of Christian Zionism, a type of John the Baptist in this field’[27] and as ‘the father of Christian Zionism’.[28]

Another giant of the early seventeenth century advocating Christian Zionism was Joseph Mede (1586–1638). Known as the father of English premillennialism, he outlined his firm belief of the Jews being restored to their homeland in his written work The Key of the Revelation in 1627 in Latin and in 1642 in English.

Following in the footsteps of Mede was Thomas Goodwin (1600–1680) who also saw the Jews one day returning to Israel. In An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (1639), he taught that the Jews would be converted to Christ by 1656.[29]

Giles Fletcher (1549–1611), a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge and Queen Elizabeth’s ambassador to Russia wrote a work advocating Restorationism. Fletcher’s book, Israel Redux: or the Restauration of Israel; or the Restauration of Israel exhibited in two short treatises (shortened title) was published posthumously by the Puritan Samuel Lee in 1677. Fletcher cites a letter in his book from 1606 as he argues for the return of the Jews to their land. Fletcher repeatedly taught the “certainty of their return in God’s due time.”[30]

Sir Henry Finch (1558–1625) was probably the most distinguished of all Christian Zionists in the early seventeenth century. He was a legal officer to King James I, a Member of Parliament for Canterbury, and in 1616, he was made a knight of the realm. His seminal work entitled, The World’s Resurrection or The

Calling of the Jewes. A Present to Judah and the Children of Israel that Ioyned with Him, and to Ioseph (that valiant tribe of Ephraim) and all the House of Israel that Ioyned with Him was published in 1621. In it he taught that the biblical passages that speak of a return of these people [the Jews] to their own land, their conquest of enemies and their rule of the nations are to be taken literally, not allegorically as of the Church.[31] Little did Finch realise the controversy that would ensue. King James of England was incensed by Finch’s statement that all nations would become subservient to the nation of Israel at the time of her restoration. Finch and his publisher were quickly arrested and thrown into prison, while he was examined by the High Commissioner. Several weeks later, he was released, yet the ordeal had taken its toll. Consequently, Finch was striped of his status, lost his reputation, had his possessions confiscated, was plagued by poor health and died penniless a few years later. However, despite his horrible persecution, his influence was immense. Kobler explains, “But Finch’s ordeal could no longer deter his disciples. Originally confined to individual scholars, the anticipation of a Restoration of the Jews became an increasingly general notion in England in the forties of the seventeenth century.”[32]

Many Puritans of the seventeenth century taught the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land. Arguably, one of the most prominent Puritans of the era was John Owen (1616–1683). He wrote, “The Jews shall be gathered from all parts of the earth where they are scattered, and brought home into their homeland.” From the first quarter of the seventeenth century, belief in a future conversion of the Jews became commonplace among the English Puritans. Interestingly, many who believed in the conversion of the Jews also came to believe in Jewish restoration as well.[33]

 

The 18th Century

William Whiston (1667–1752), was Isaac Newton’s successor as a Cambridge mathematician and famous as the translator of Josephus, advanced this combination of high and low cultures in his privately-expressed conviction that the Temple would be rebuilt, the Jews restored to the Promised Land, and the millennium begun by 1766.[34]

Samuel Collet dedicated his seminal work Treatise of the Future Restoration of the Jews and Israelites to their own Land (1747) to the Jews. He prophetically writes, “…to show, that you, who are now dispersed among the Nations, will, in a short time, with the rest of the Israelites, be restored to your Land, and enjoy there the greatest Prosperity, and that, through you, all the Nations will be blessed.”[35]

Arguably, the most significant work of the seventeenth century was Joseph Eyre’s Observations upon the Prophecies relating to the Restoration of the Jews (1771), which was written in response to Bishop William Warburton’s allegorical approach to scripture, which denied Israel’s future restoration. He writes, “…appears to me to be no other way applicable to any state of Christianity that has ever yet existed, but to relate to the conversion and restoration of the literal Israel, the Jews and the ten tribes.”[36]

According to Kobler, the Puritan era has been called the Golden Age of England and was really the cradle of the British Movement for the Restoration of the Jews to Palestine.[37]

 

1800 to 1850

The 1800’s marks a high point in British premillennialism and a corresponding apex for Christian Zionism. Many contemporary accounts critical of Christian Zionism focus their emphasis upon John Nelson Darby and the rise of dispensationalism as the foundation for British Restorationism, but this is not the case. Surprisingly, the real advocates of Christian Zionism in Britain during this century were primarily Anglican premillennialists. By the mid-nineteenth century, about half of all Anglican clergy were evangelical premillennialists.[38]

Edward Irving (1792–1834) was described as a ‘bizarre figure in the London of the 1820’s’ and ‘a scrappily educated Scot’ who achieved ‘unexpected eminence’.[39] He was a Church of Scotland minister with a reputation as “the greatest orator of the age” and was credited as a key figure who helped turn the eschatological tide toward premillennialism.[40] His work Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed (1826) caused the belief in the promised restoration of Israel to rise to prominence following its publication. His influence was widespread, and made a lasting impression on a young Horatius Bonar.[41]

Christian Zionism went from the theological realm to the political realm with Anthony Ashley Cooper (1801–1885), later known as Lord Shaftesbury from 1851. His activities in the first half of the century included lobbying Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, using political, financial and economic arguments to convince him to help the Jews return to Palestine. And Palmerston did so. What was originally the religious beliefs of Christian Zionists became official British policy (for political interests) in Palestine and the Middle East by the 1840s.[42] Lord Shaftesbury believed that the Jews would return to their homeland in conjunction with the second advent, he “never had a shadow of a doubt that the Jews were to return to their own land. . . It was his daily prayer, his daily hope.”[43]

The Bonar brothers were both ministers of the Free Church of Scotland who were involved with revival movements and adhered to the doctrine of premillennialism. Horatius Bonar (1808–1889) is better known today as a hymn writer, yet his overall ministry in Scotland was of far greater dimensions, both practically and scholarly, especially in regard to his preaching and teaching.[44] He wrote a number of works but his most significant contribution to Christian Zionism came from The Jew (1870). In it he says, “I am one of those who believe in Israel’s restoration and conversion; who receive it as a future certainty, that all Israel shall be gathered, and that all Israel shall be saved.”[45] and prophetically claims, “I believe that the sons of Abraham are to re-inherit Palestine, and that the forfeited fertility will yet return to that land; that the wilderness and the solitary places shall be glad for them, and the desert will rejoice and blossom as the rose.”[46]

Horatius’ younger brother Andrew was also a minister of the Free Church of Scotland and like his older brother, also wrote a number of written works. The two most prominent was the biography The Biography of Robert Murray M’Cheyne and A Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland in 1839 which was based on a fact finding tour of Palestine embarked upon by himself, Alexander Keith, Alexander Black and Robert Murray M’Cheyne under the auspices of the Church of Scotland. On their return, their report was widely publicized in Great Britain and it was followed by a ‘Memorandum to Protestant Monarchs of Europe for the restoration of the Jews to Palestine.’ This memorandum was printed verbatim in the London Times, including an advertisement by Lord Shaftsbury igniting an enthusiastic campaign by the Times for the restoration of the Jews.[47]

Other men who made contributions to Christian Zionism in the first half of the nineteenth century include, George Stanley Faber, J.B. Webb, Edward Bickersteth, Charles Simeon, Charles Jerram, John Aquila Brown, John Fry, John Hooper, William Wilberforce, Henry Drummond, Hugh McNeile, William Cuninghame, Lewis Way, William Witherby, Thomas Witherby, Samuel Roffey Maitland, William Burgh and Joseph Tyso.

Moving into the second half of the nineteenth century, Christian Zionism continued to advance both theologically and politically. Theologically through the likes of J.C. Ryle, Charles Spurgeon and significantly John Nelson Darby as he took his dispensational brand of Christian Zionism over to America, where it began to spread like wildfire at the turn of the twentieth century.

Politically, the latter half of the nineteenth century would continue to gather momentum that would payoff later in British control of Palestine. Other political advocates who made contributions included, Lord Lindsay, Lord Palmerton, Disraeli, Lord Manchester, Holman Hunt, Sir Charles Warren and Hall Caine. It was in this period that one observes the “gradual drift from purely religious notion to the political.” These two influences, of religion and politics, would merge into a powerful team the lead to the Balfour Declaration and the eventual founding of the Jewish state in the twentieth century.[48]

Considering the vast evidence of the groundswell of Christian Zionism between Luther and Darby, the critics of Christian Zionism continue to blame for the origins of the movement in an effort to discredit it as historically shallow before Darby arrived on the scene. Wagner continues this theme when he says, “Lord Shaftsbury, was convinced of Darby’s teachings.”[49] Fellow anti-Christian Zionist, Stephen R. Sizer, echoes Wagner’s misguided views when he says of Shaftsbury: “He single-handedly translated the theological positions of Brightman, Henry Finch, and John Nelson Darby into a political strategy.”[50] Yet, this could not be further from the truth. Dispensational scholar Thomas Ice makes this powerful observation:

I have never found, within the writings of the specialists on Christian Zionism, anyone who makes more than a brief mention of Darby. No one includes him among those who could be considered even a quasi-significant Restorationist. In fact, Barbara Tuchman, whose work Bible and Sword is considered the most significant and comprehensive treatment of British Christian Zionism does not even mention Darby at all.[51]

So the brave individuals who endured persecution and ridicule over the centuries for the belief in God’s plan for the Jewish people to be restored back to their land, have the high honour of playing a part in a remarkable period of prophetic fulfilment as foretold in the Holy Scriptures.

God’s plan to bring back his people to the land was always going to happen in the fullness of his time. Nowhere in the scriptures does it imply that the Jews would be shut out permanently from the land, but rather we read in Deut 30:1-5 that it is always in God’s plan to bring them back after their period of punishment for their disobedience has taken its course. Interesting that it was three years after the horrors of the Holocaust that the Jewish people would rise from the ashes and find rebirth as a nation for the first time in 2000 years in the land of their ancestors. The prophet Ezekiel’s prophecy rings true,

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” – Ezekiel 37:11-14

 


[1] Thomas D. Ice, ‘Lovers of Zion: A History of Christian Zionism’, in Article Archives, Paper 29 (2009), p. 1. Online: http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/pretrib_arch/29 [cited: November 22, 2012]

[2] Donald E. Wagner, Anxious for Armageddon (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995), p. 89.

[3] Paul R. Wilkinson, For Zion’s Sake: Christian Zionism and the Role of John Nelson Darby, (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007), 135.

[4] Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (eds), A Case for Historic Premillennialism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 94.

[5] Crawford Gribben, Evangelical Millennialism in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1500-2000, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 23. Online: http://ebookscentral.com/book/4069/evangelical-millennialism-trans-atlantic-world- [cited: November 18, 2012]

[6] Martin Luther, ‘On The Jews and Their Lies’ in Luther’s Works, Vol 47 (1543). 1.

[7] Barry E. Horner, Future Israel, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 151.

[8] Wilkinson, For Zion’s Sake, 138.

[9] Ice, Lovers of Zion, 4.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wilkinson, For Zion’s Sake, 144.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ice, Lovers of Zion, 5.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Wilkinson, For Zion’s Sake, 142.

[18] Ice, Lovers of Zion, 5.

[19] Gribben, Evangelical Millennialism, 23.

[20] Ibid., 38.

[21] Wilkinson, For Zion’s Sake, 139.

[22] Ice, Lovers of Zion, 5.

[23] Wilkinson, For Zion’s Sake, 142.

[24] Wilkinson, For Zion’s Sake, 142.

[25] Ice, Lovers of Zion, 5.

[26] Wagner, Anxious for Armageddon, 86.

[27] Ibid., 87.

[28] Ibid., 89.

[29] Ice, Lovers of Zion, 6.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Franz Kobler, The Vision Was There. A History of the British Movement for the Restoration of the Jews to Palestine, London (1956), 15. Online: http://www.britam.org/vision/Kobler.pdf [cited: November 24, 2012]

[33] Ice, Lovers of Zion, 6.

[34] Gribben, Evangelical Millennialism, 56.

[35] Wilkinson, For Zion’s Sake, 157-158.

[36] Joseph Eyre, Observations upon the Prophecies relating to the Restoration of the Jews, (Oxford: T. Cadell, 1771), 15. Online: http://books.google.com.au/books/about/Observations_upon_the_prophecies_relatin.html?id=ipYCAAAAQAAJ&redir_esc=y [cited: November 24, 2012]

[37] Kobler, The Vision Was There, 15. Online: http://www.britam.org/vision/Kobler.pdf [cited: November 24, 2012]

[38] Ice, Lovers of Zion, 8.

[39] Wilkinson, For Zion’s Sake, 184.

[40] Ibid., 185.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ice, Lovers of Zion, 9.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Horner, Future Israel, 8.

[45] Horatius Bonar, ‘The Jew’ in The Quarterly Journal of Prophecy, (July 1870) p. 411. Online: http://bunyanministries.org/books/israel_and_millennialism/19_app_i_the_jew_bonar.pdf [cited: November 25, 2012]

[46] Ibid., 411-412.

[47] Ami Isseroff, British Support for Jewish Restoration, Online: www.mideastweb.org/britzion.htm [cited: November 25, 2012]

[48] Ice, Lovers of Zion, 11.

[49] Wagner, Anxious for Armageddon, 91.

[50] Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: And The Road Map To Armageddon, (PhD thesis – 2004), 73. Online: http://www.newlifetabernacleofchattanooga.org/attachments/File/Zionism/Christian_Zionism_PhD_Thesis.pdf [cited: 25 November 2012]

[51] Ice, Lovers of Zion, 12.

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