Wednesday, 18 June 2008

British Religious Nationalism: "And was Jerusalem builded here ... ?"

This could be seen as visual representation of Barack Obama's recent comments.

My first thought was , "Wow, I'm glad we don't have anything like this in England or Germany."
On second thoughts, however, though no longer in currency, England does have a religious-national myth with quite a long history behind it. According to Meic Pearse (whose book I reviewed here), this myth has consisted of three elements:
  1. According to the Arthur legends, King Arthur was a faithful Christian whose battles against the pagan Anglo-Saxons were interpreted on a higher plane. This was encouraged by the myth of the Holy Grail, a cup containing the blood and Christ and brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, not long after the crucifixion. This enabled the English to claim that there was a strand of Christianity present in Britain stretching back to the apostolic period. The English Reformers were able to draw on this myth in order to answer the Catholic question, "Where was your church before Luther?" Apparently, it was the Synod of Whitby (663-664) that had eradicated the true faith that had been preserved by these Celtic Christians. The Celtic church became an early medieval Protestant institution, characterized by evangelical purity and wholly independent of Rome.

  2. This was picked up by William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536), John Bale (1495-1563) and the martyrologist John Foxe (1516-1587). Foxe's book gave the impression that God is concerned in some particular way with England. The message throughout is that God as always had his Englishmen who will stand for the truth and that Protestantism is to be identified closely with Englishness. Queen Elizabeth was hailed as a second Emperor Constantine in her battle against the Antichrist, identified with the Pope and thus foreign powers (mainly Spain). According to Pearse, Foxe's religious nationalism informed English people's understanding of the ongoing conflict with Spain and of the thread posted by remaining Catholics in England.

  3. Finally, there is the odd British Israel theory, first popularized by the Richard Brothers (1757-1824). Drawing on the Arthurian legends and the idea of English Protestant specialness, the theory holds that the British were and are the lost tribes of Israel. Their connection with biblical history therefore pre-dates Christ. This theory was widely credited in the 19th C. In World War I, Admiral Sir John Fisher,First Sea Lord of the British Navy advocated
"a great Commonwealth - yes a great Federation - of all those speaking the same tongue [English]. ... And I suppose now we have got [sic] Palestine that this Federal House of Commons of the future will meet at Jerusalem, the capital of the lost Ten Tribes of Israel, whom we are without a doubt, for how otherwise could ever we have so prospered when we have had such idiots to guide us and rule us?" (105)

Thanks to Halden for the image.


Anonymous said...

great stuff. i am an american fighting against nationalism over here, we inherited from the Brits and it's messing up our country and the church.

on late night am radio, i used to pick up some strange preacher from Texas talking about england being settled by the lost tribes, weird stuff, I remember him using text from Isaiah to "prove" it


Phil Sumpter said...

Crazy stuff. I'm glad you benefited from the post. This is obviously more of your area of expertise than mine. It's certainly important.

Anonymous said...

Thats nice all this religious talk and it just shows all of yous are blind to the fact that jesus has a skull for his midsection in the picture!

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