GCI: The Central Plank Cracks
Transformed by Truth, by Joseph Tkach
British or Anglo-Israelism is a doctrine of little interest to most Evangelicals. Some with a seminary or Bible college background might remember it as an esoteric doctrine associated with sects and cults, but for those of us in the WCG is was the central plank of our theology. We believed that we were a faithful remnant of the people of God. We believed that we were the true Israel. We observed the Sabbath and the feasts for a very good reason. We were biological descendants of Abraham. We were not Gentiles. This doctrine formed the basis for how we lived each day and for our view of the world and its future in prophecy.
In 1989 and 1990 we took a survey of all our North American pastors, asking them what they thought of British-Israelism, a doctrine that helped shape our church far more than most people realize. Only a small percentage responded. The responses we received fell into three categories:
1. A handful of ministers thought this doctrine was revealed to Mr. Armstrong and should never be questioned.
2. At the other extreme, several said they were aware of serious problems with the idea of the United States being Manasseh, the United Kingdom being Ephraim, and Western Europe being the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. They knew there were weighty challenges to this idea from both secular history and Scripture.
3. In between was a group who said, “You know, I don’t even worry about this.”
We found those responses revealing. The doctrine of British-Israelism had been crucial in the thought of Herbert W. Armstrong ever since he founded the church back in the early 1930s. Yet a number of our pastors either were uneasy with the theory or simply ignored it. How could this be?
What Is Anglo-Israelism?
Before we begin to understand the place of Anglo-Israelism in the history of our church, we should probably review what the theory teaches. Herbert Armstrong considered it the key to unlocking biblical prophecy and allowed it to shape much of his teaching and preaching.
In a booklet called Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath? Mr. Armstrong outlined his fundamental teaching on the subject:
The peoples of the United States, the British Commonwealth nations, and the nations of Northwestern Europe are, in fact, the peoples of the Ten Tribes of the House of Israel. The Jewish people are the House of Judah.1 The people of ten-tribed Israel migrated northwest after Babylon overthrew Assyria. They continued their journey into Western Europe, the Scandinavian peninsula, and the British Isles.2 After several generations, the tribe of Joseph divided into the two tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh which today are the British and American people. The tribe of Reuben settled in the country that is France today… The reader, if he has not already carefully read it, should write immediately for our free booklet, The United States and Britain in Prophecy. It explains the dumbfounding, astonishing truth that the people of the United States, the British, the peoples of Northwestern Europe, are, in actual fact, those very “Lost” Ten Tribes of the nation of Israel – and not by birth Gentiles at all!3
If you have not read much about this dubious theory before now, no doubt you are wondering how such an odd idea could gain such influence over a church. That’s what I hope to show in this chapter. (And by the way, don’t bother writing for a copy of The United States and Britain in Prophecy. You won’t get it from us. And therein lies a story.)
Why Call It the Central Plank?
I’ve called this chapter about why our church discontinued the teaching of British-Israelism “The Central Plank Cracks.” Why do I call this theory the central plank? It affected nearly everything we did. Its influence was both pervasive and powerful.
One of the strongest reasons Mr. Armstrong taught Sabbath-keeping so forcefully was that he regarded it as the sign that the United States was one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. As long as Americans worshiped on Sunday rather than on the Sabbath, they would forget their true heritage as Israelites – and would be in grave danger of divine judgment.
If Americans lost the Sabbath, they wouldn’t know who they were; they would lose the knowledge that they were really Israel. Once they lost the Sabbath, they wouldn’t have the physical sign that they were the physical people of God. Herbert Armstrong insisted that this was why America was in such a spiritual decline. Our whole commission was to tell people to start keeping the Sabbath; then they would recover their identity and then they would be ready for the Lord’s imminent Second Coming.
Without British-Israelism, much of the reason for a passionate proclamation of the Sabbath is taken away. As one of our study papers said a couple of years ago: “In Mr. Armstrong’s eyes, this doctrine directly affected the preaching of the gospel. It gave it power, at a time in world history that the gospel needed more power. Jesus was about to return!”4
The version of the gospel Mr. Armstrong preached was that the kingdom of God was not present – it was coming as a future reality – and those who believed and obeyed were going to be rulers and priests in the kingdom. That message overshadowed the essence of the gospel, the life and death and resurrection and ascension of Christ. Mr. Armstrong did not deny those truths; he simply de-emphasized them. He would say things like, “Yes, that happened, and that’s what the Protestants are always weeping about. But the message is not about the messenger; this message about the coming kingdom is the message Christ came to deliver. The gospel is this future to which we look forward. That’s the real gospel. So don’t be fooled. Our calling is to preach this gospel to these Israelitish countries first, only then to the Gentiles.”
He claimed British-Israelism held the key to unlocking biblical prophecy – it made clear who “the beast” was going to be, who the “ten nations” of Daniel 2 and Revelation 13 were, that Russia was not going to attack the U.S. so no one should worry about that. In Mr. Armstrong’s view, Hal Lindsey and other evangelicals writing about prophecy had only part of the truth about prophecy. In Mr. Armstrong’s system, the identity of the ten lost tribes was bound up with the proclamation of the gospel.
A few years ago when we realized this theory was unbiblical and actually served to cloud the real gospel, we stopped preaching and teaching it. Thus the central plank cracked. Yet none of us foresaw the effect this would have on our theology as a whole. To a large degree, most of us did not realize (any better than a few of our members still do) how central Anglo-Israelism was to our entire system. When this plank finally cracked, it created a snap heard ’round our theological world.
How did it become our central plank? I think that’s an important element of our story.
A Brief History of Anglo-Israelism
No one is certain who first originated Anglo-Israelism. Some believe the theory first appeared in 1649 with the publication of John Sadler’s Rights to the Kingdom, in which Sadler speculated that the English descended from Israel’s “lost” ten tribes. Others think a Canadian named Richard Brothers first formulated the theory. Around 1800 Brothers started calling himself a prophet sent by God to warn London of its impending doom. He singled out Parliament for God’s special wrath, identifying it as the beast of Revelation to which God gave the number 666. Brothers said it had been revealed to him that the English people were really Israelites. He was imprisoned for a time and died insane in 1824.
While we don’t know for certain who originated the theory, we do know that John Wilson had success in popularizing the idea. In 1840 he published Our Israelitish Origin to great public demand. Several editions were produced, in both England and America.5
Several writers and theorists took over from there. Anglo-Israel supporters got a boost for their theory in World War I when Britain captured Jerusalem from Turkish control. They claimed that Ephraim (the British Empire) had liberated the Holy City in order to give it to their “brothers,” the Jews. And it all happened in fulfillment of biblical prophecy, they said.6
In 1917 a classic book on the topic was released, J. H. Allen’s Judah’s Sceptre and Joseph’s Birthright. Allen’s work would soon influence the thought of a few leaders in the Church of God (Seventh Day) – and along with them, Herbert W. Armstrong.
Before he had ever entertained the idea of starting his own church, Mr. Armstrong had become fascinated with Anglo-Israelism … as well as with some other highly esoteric doctrines:
Through the years, bizarre beliefs have sometimes become attached to Anglo-Israelism. Among the oddest has been pyramidology. Pyramidologists claim that if one correctly interprets the measurements of the inner tunnels of the Great Pyramid of Giza one can know the future. Therefore, they believe that the Great Pyramid was inspired by God to help biblical prophecy.7
Mr. Armstrong began to read whatever literature he could find on both Anglo-Israelism and pyramidology. In 1927 he wrote to the Rev. Lincoln McConnell, pastor of the First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg, Florida, an author on both subjects. Rev. McConnell wrote back:
The most recent book on The Great Pyramid and a much easier one to read if you want this, is by “Discipulus,” and can be had of the same people…. Its special value lies in the fact that it connects Pyramid truth with “British”-Israel truth in a fine way…. I must say that if you really want to KNOW your Bible you will have to get the books on “Anglo-Israel”…. You will never know the real truth the BOOK is teaching without this key. This sounds radical perhaps, but you will see when you study it that it’s simple truth.8
By 1927, Mr. Armstrong was starting to forge some lasting links between Anglo-Israelism and Bible prophecy. And the connections would continue to increase.
Mr. Armstrong’s Interest in Anglo-Israelism
From the beginning, prophecy had played an important role in the life of Herbert Armstrong. It was prophecy that led to his conversion. He said he “realized that the place to start was to prove whether God exists and whether the Holy Bible is His revelation.” Ultimately it was his investigation of Bible prophecy that led him to believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible.9
Yet when Mr. Armstrong began observing the Sabbath in the 1920s, he didn’t do so because he was absolutely convinced it was mandated by God’s law. His early writings show he thought the Protestants had a good argument that the law was nailed to the cross (in the terminology of Colossians 2:14). In a letter, Herbert Armstrong asked a Church of God (Seventh Day) leader by the name of A. N. Dugger to help him understand the Sabbath. But Herbert Armstrong started keeping the Sabbath “just in case” it was what God wanted. When he began this practice, he was still attending the Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, as well as fellowshiping with an isolated Church of God (Seventh Day) in the area.
It took several steps for Mr. Armstrong to identify the Sabbath as the “key sign” of God’s true church. One of the major steps was his acceptance of Anglo-Israelism. Herbert became convinced that even if the Gentiles did not keep the Sabbath, those who are Israelites should, for God’s law demanded it. So if America and the British commonwealth were actually Israel and not Gentiles, then they ought to observe the Sabbath. So Anglo-Israelism and the Sabbath became interrelated, and he began to believe that keeping the Sabbath was a law, not something to do “just in case.”
In the late 1920s Mr. Armstrong wrote a test manuscript to quiz the Church of God (Seventh Day) about whether they would accept his ideas. In that paper he presented the Sabbath and Anglo-Israelism as interrelated. The church ultimately rejected his views partly because it had no interest in Anglo-Israelism; it wanted only to promote the Sabbath in the context of what was called the “Third Angel’s message.”
This teaching was based on a misunderstanding of Revelation 14:6-13. Verses 9-11 of that passage read:
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the
smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.”
Early Sabbatarian interpreters declared that the first angel’s message in this passage described the proclamation of the gospel in the apostolic age. The second angel’s message referred to the Protestant Reformation. The third angel sounded his message as a final warning to the world before the return of Christ. It was especially associated with observance of the Sabbath; some interpreters stated (as some still do) that “the mark of the beast” should be connected with Sunday-keepers who refused to worship on the Sabbath.
Mr. Armstrong took in all this discussion and soon came to believe that God had revealed to him – and only to him – Anglo-Israelism’s connection to the Third Angel’s Message. By 1929 he believed that God had commissioned him to broadcast this message worldwide. 10 As he wrote, “I was made to see clearly that I have been given a commission to get this warning message out with the loud shout to the world.”11
By this early date he already saw himself as God’s prophet, warning the “Israelites” to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Everything he did thereafter sprang from this belief. Occasionally in his later ministry he would downplay the Anglo-Israelite message, but it continued to pop up all through the years, even in Mystery of the Ages, the book he considered his crowning achievement. He was the special messenger called to deliver this end-time warning message to Israel. The message involved the Sabbath, the true gospel, dietary laws, and the holy days. And everything revolved around Anglo-Israelism.
Connecting Anglo-Israelism with the Sabbath
While discussions about the Sabbath and prophecy and Anglo-Israelism were raging in many quarters by the late 1920s, it was Herbert Armstrong who connected the Sabbath with Anglo-Israelism in a unique way:
The union of Anglo-Israelism with Sabbatarianism later became an important part of Mr. Armstrong’s preaching on these subjects. The union he created between these two doctrines explains much of his future work.12
In his letter [to A. N. Dugger] Mr. Armstrong presented Anglo-Israelism with a new twist, a twist he hoped would make his book more attractive to Dugger. He claimed that Anglo-Israelism, as he presented it, shed new light on a longstanding Church of God doctrine, the Third Angel’s Message. Dugger replied that he would welcome any new information Herbert Armstrong could provide on that subject.13
Later Mr. Armstrong would come to renounce the doctrine of the Third Angel’s Message, but in 1928 he united it with Anglo-Israelism. To understand why the union, realize that Herbert Armstrong took Anglo-Israelism to its logical conclusion. Previous Anglo-Israelites emphasized God’s blessings to Israel. Nobody said anything about the curses.
Herbert Armstrong noticed the curses. He realized that to be consistent, an Anglo-Israelite needed to preach them as well. In Ezekiel, God foretold Israel’s defeat and enslavement.
Herbert Armstrong failed to see that Ezekiel was written to Israel in anticipation of Jerusalem’s fall in 587 b.c. Beginning from an Anglo-Israelite world view, he saw Ezekiel’s references to the House of Israel not as evidence of an Israelite presence in Judah, but as proof that Ezekiel was written to the lost tribes. Ezekiel was, he believed, not for the Jews but for Israel. Therefore, even though Ezekiel clearly spoke of the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of its temple, Herbert Armstrong concluded that Ezekiel’s message had nothing to do with those historic events. He insisted on an Anglo-Israelite interpretation. From this faulty premise he reasoned that God intended Ezekiel’s book to be a warning to end-time Israel.
Since Mr. Armstrong believed that the Anglo-Saxons were the remnant of the House of Israel, he believed the message of Ezekiel was a warning for the United States and British Commonwealth. Herbert Armstrong noticed something else as well. He noticed what he thought were the reasons for the curses. Listed prominently among those reasons was Sabbath-breaking (Ezekiel 20 and 22). It was then a simple step for Mr. Armstrong to merge Anglo-Israelism with the Sabbatarianism of the Third Angel’s Message.14
In 1930 Herbert Armstrong wrote:
Unless we know our identity as Israel, we cannot understand the mighty personal warning which the Almighty has published in every English Bible to every individual Israelite…. just as surely as it was given to God’s holy prophets to foretell 2,500 years ago that in the year 1917 a.d. the Army and Air forces of the British throne should take Jerusalem … so he has revealed thru those same prophets what is yet to take place before all things are fulfilled…. These things could never be understood except thru a knowledge of Israel’s twentieth-century identity. For instance, the book of Ezekiel is addressed primarily to the United States and Great Britain, and to those of our present generation. In it are recorded events destined to take place within the NEXT SEVEN OR EIGHT YEARS.15
Since he had concluded that Ezekiel was written to modern America and not to ancient Israel, Mr. Armstrong then tried to show why America should keep the Sabbath. He transformed God’s judgment on ancient Israel for breaking the covenant into an indictment against America for flouting the Ten Commandments.
Yet he saw one major theological hurdle standing in the way of this understanding. Why didn’t a great man like Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, explicitly teach his converts to observe the seventh day? And why were the eyes of such “great men of God as Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Moody, Finney, Cartwright, et al.” blinded to this truth? And why didn’t “the Holy Spirit lead these men into this truth, when they unquestionably were men filled with the Holy Spirit?” – especially since the Sabbath was “the final test of obedience”? The answer, Mr. Armstrong said, had to do with Israel:
Israel was blinded in part, until the end of the times of the Gentiles (1917-1936) … and in the case of those individuals who repented, and returned to the true God, and accepted salvation, God winked at this blindness…. That is why Dwight L. Moody was blinded to the Sabbath truth! That is why Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and all these great latter-day men of God were blinded to this truth! Israel was blinded to it until the fullness of the Times of the Gentiles (Rom. 11:25), because God did not desire the House of Israel to be identified or known by the world until then.16
Since Mr. Armstrong believed that “the Times of the Gentiles” ended in 1917, it follows that he would come to believe it was in that year that the Sabbath became “a final test of obedience.” And since Luther, Calvin, Moody, Finney, and the rest all lived before that time, naturally they would have been “blinded” to this Sabbath truth.
In our day, however, there would be no such excuses. God could no longer “wink” at such a major transgression of His law. Keeping the Sabbath was paramount, as Mr. Armstrong insisted in his booklet Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath?:
God commanded His people to keep His Sabbath as a sign. It is a sign between God’s people and God – “…a sign between me and you,” the Commandment says. It is a badge or token of IDENTITY. It advertises, or announces, or proclaims certain identifying knowledge. But what knowledge? God answers: “…that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you.”
Note those words carefully! It is the sign that identifies to them who is their God! It is the sign by which we may know that He is the Lord! It identifies God!17
The Sabbath also was given as a sign which identifies who are the people of God and who are not.18
How significant! The Sabbath command is the only one of the ten which is a sign identifying who are the real and true Christians today! It is a real TEST command!19
The reason why the House of Israel came to be known as the “Lost Ten Tribes,” according to Mr. Armstrong, was that they had lost their national identifying sign, the Sabbath. So he concluded, “Yes, the Sabbath, God’s day – the true Lord’s day – is, after all, the day for our people doubly – first, because it was made for all people, even Gentile-born people who are now, spiritually, through conversion, Christ’s; secondly, because racially, even by flesh birth, it is God’s day which He gave our own forefathers, and commanded to keep holy forever!”20
Consequences of the Doctrine
As I said, our acceptance of Anglo-Israelism affected practically everything we did. It helped shape what we preached, to whom we preached, how we spent our money, where we spent our time, how we related to various ethnic groups.
I think there were a number of people who didn’t think of themselves as racists, who really tried to operate on a racially neutral perspective. Nevertheless, in the back of their minds, there existed this Anglo-Israelite doctrine that silently worked to foster racial prejudice. As much as our members might have tried to treat everyone equally and with respect – a few people tried actively to fight against racism in our midst – they faced an uphill battle as long as this doctrine held sway among us. Anglo-Israelism had a profound effect on how we wrote about social issues in the sixties. It explains why we viewed the Civil Rights movement so negatively – we viewed it through an Anglo-Israelite perspective.
I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion reached a couple of years ago in a study paper done by one of our ministers, Ralph Orr, on Anglo-Israelism:
It saddens us when Christians erroneously justify their racist attitudes through misuse and misunderstanding of the Bible. While one might expect that those new in the faith might harbor racial prejudice, as God’s Spirit leads them, they should come to see how poisonous such thinking is. They should then seek God’s help in conquering such attitudes. Unfortunately, some found the Anglo-Israel belief in The United States and Britain in Prophecy as excuse enough not to repent of racism….
In the Church, non-Anglo-Saxons sometimes found fellow Christians looking down on them simply because they were not “Israelites.” To these people, being German, African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Ukrainian, Italian, Polish (or a member of any other ethnic group) was to be inferior. Perhaps as a form of psychological self-defense, a few of Eastern or Southern European descent would speculate that, perhaps due to Israel’s wanderings, they were Israelite, not Gentile. It somehow seemed inferior to be 100 percent Gentile. Obviously, such views do not belong among God’s people.21
Rejecting the Theory
Within two years of Mr. Armstrong’s death, several church leaders began discussing Anglo-Israelism with my dad. The more we studied, the more its “biblical” and “historical” foundations began to crumble. And for good reason.
When you start carefully reading Anglo-Israelite literature, you begin to notice how it generally depends on folklore, legends, quasi-historical genealogies, and dubious etymologies. None of these sources proves an Israelite origin for the peoples of northwestern Europe. Rarely, if ever, are the disciplines of archeology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, or historiography applied to Anglo-Israelism. Anglo-Israelism can operate only outside the sciences. And its handling of the biblical data is no better. To make many of its conclusions plausible, it must ignore large portions of Scripture which would immediately puncture it with holes the size of football fields.
Such an unscientific and unbiblical approach must be taken because anything else would pop Anglo-Israelism’s balloon. We discovered that those who apply sound hermeneutics, scientific disciplines, and the principles of accepted historiography to this subject eventually dismiss the theory. That is certainly what happened with us.
In June 1988 my father withdrew The United States and Britain in Prophecy from circulation. Soon thereafter all mention of Anglo-Israelism disappeared from the church’s publications. We stopped sending out The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last. We stopped sending out Who Is the Beast, which essentially identifies Sunday-keeping (as opposed to Sabbath-keeping) as the mark of the beast.
In July 1995, the church announced in the Pastor General’s Report that Anglo-Israelism lacked any credible evidence and that the church would no longer teach it. This was followed by a study paper sent to the ministry giving detailed reasons why this was so.
We had come to believe that Anglo-Israelism had distracted us from giving our full attention to our truly God-given commission – the preaching of the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ and the duty to make disciples of Christ of all nations.
In 1995 we wrote the following in our study paper titled The United States and Britain in Prophecy:
In the past we taught that The United States and Britain in Prophecy explained an important key that unlocked biblical prophecy – the identification of the Anglo-Saxon peoples as the leading representatives of the lost tribes of Israel. We reasoned that God commissioned his end-time Church to warn those peoples of his coming wrath. The United States and Britain in Prophecy was one of our principal means of fulfilling that perceived commission.
The foundation of our faith and preaching is not The United States and Britain in Prophecy. The foundation o our faith is Jesus Christ, the One who has commissioned us, the One in whom we have faith and the One we seek to imitate.
Of course we have always preached that Jesus is our Savior. Nevertheless, for many of us, it has not been our central and foremost message. Some have erroneously thought that The United States and Britain in Prophecy was the primary message God wanted us to preach to the world. This is evident from those who have expressed concern that failure to distribute that book meant we were not doing God’s work. As we have already seen, such a view is biblically unsound.22
We do not insist that our members give up their personal belief in Anglo-Israelism if they wish to maintain such a conviction, but our church no longer endorses or teaches the theory.
Whether or not we or our members or ministers perceived Anglo-Israelism as essential, once it was dethroned, a major support for many of our distinctive doctrines quickly fell away. What would fill the void? Our answer would get to the heart of the gospel – to Jesus Christ Himself. He would fill the void, for that is His rightful place. Yet when we began speaking more and more about Jesus, a question kept coming up. It’s a question that deserves a chapter all its own.
1. Herbert W. Armstrong, Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath? (Pasadena, Calif.: Worldwide Church of God, 1976), 41-42.
2. Ibid., 44.
3. Ibid., 44-45.
4. Study Paper: How Anglo-Israelism Entered the Churches of God, November 1995, 3.
5. Ibid., 4.
6. Ibid., 9.
7. Ibid., 9-10.
8. Ibid., 10.
9. Ibid., 2.
10. Ibid., 19-20.
11. Ibid., 14.
12. Ibid., 12.
13. Ibid., 13.
14. Ibid., 14.
15. Ibid., 18.
16. Ibid., 19.
17. Armstrong, Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath? 35.
18. Ibid., 37.
19. Ibid., 39.
20. Ibid., 44.
21. Study Paper: United States and Britain in Prophecy, November 1995, 2-3. [Click here for the study paper.]
22. Study Paper: The United States and Britain in Prophecy, 1-2.
Author: Joseph Tkach