In some ways, Joseph and the early Saints set about restoring, not just the practices of early Christianity, but also of ancient Israel. As such, they/we were both Christianand Old Testament “primitivists,” seeking to restore the primitive, and presumably superior, institutions of a previous culture.
Since much of the bible is the story of the relationship of one tribe, ”the Israelites”with God, the primitivist Mormons were intensely interested in that tribe. They prepared for the “literal gathering of Israel,” the Book of Mormon identified a new world people as Israelites, and the European Saints, though non-Israelite “Gentiles,” considered themselves to be spiritually of Israel, or to be of Israel through adoption.
But many Saints came to view themselves as literally of Israel; they believed they were genetically descended from Israel (through Ephraim). The Mormon tendency towards a literal “Israelism” seems to have played out over time. First the Smith family was identified as literal descendants of Israel. Later, as Brigham Young was describing Joseph Smith as a “pure Ephraimite,” many Mormons began to assume that all or almost all of the Saints were Israelites. Mauss and Green show this trend was strengthened in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries as the Saints were influenced by the Protestant religious movement of “Anglo” or “British Israelism.”
Anglo Israelism was the belief that the peoples of Northern European nations were descended principally from the “lost” tribes of Israel who migrated there after Assyria conquered Israel in 877 B.C. British Israelism was a variant on the theme that viewed the British Isles as being populated principally by descendants of the favored tribe of Ephraim.
Did we Mormons become adherents of Anglo Israelism / British Israelism? I suggest that we didn’t formally adopt the belief as official doctrine/theology. But, for a few decades we repeated and extended the claims of British Israelism in sufficient numbers of church-published books, magazines, lesson texts, and sermons, that it could appear we certainly had accepted British Israelism.
After giving some examples below of Mormons preaching British Israelism in the previous century, the questions I’m going to get to are:
1. When was the last time (if ever) you heard British Israelism passed around within Mormonism as a valid concept?
2. I think our literal Israelism is fading, and that as a church we are taking a more allegorical/symbolic/spiritual view of “Abrahamic lineage.” Do you have counterexamples or related anecdotes? Do you disagree?
A quick and incomplete primer on the history of British Israelism:
We Mormons weren’t unique in creating for ourselves a literal Israelite heritage that had a distinctly English air. Other contemporaneous Christian groups had done the same, including the Christian Israelites in England (ca. 1822), Nathaniel Wood and the New Israelites of Middletown, Vermont (ca: 1800), and the followers of London-based Richard Brothers, who in 1794 pronounced himself the “Prince and Prophet of the Hebrews.”
The most prominent early book that preached British Israelism was John Wilson’s 1840 Lectures on Our Israelitish Origin.
By the 1870s, British Israelism had become a formal movement among protestant Christians, complete with societies, chapters, and monthly magazines in both England and the U.S. Many Mormons who had already come to view themselves as Israelites were receptive to the movement. In the 1870s George Reynolds published a series of articles in the Millennial Star that promoted British Israelism using arguments and quotes from the prominent B-I writers of the day, including John Wilson, A. B. Grimaldi, and Charles Smyth. In 1883 George Reynolds published his Israelism writings in a book, Are We of Israel? Reynolds became one of the 7 presidents of the 70 in 1890, and the book went through at least 7 editions; the 1916 edition was published as a class text by the Church’s Deseret Sunday School Union; the last edition was published in 1952 by the church-owned Deseret News Press.
But that was just the first Mormon British Israel work. There were dozens that followed. The high point of excitement for British Israelism within Mormonism seems to have been the middle 1920s through the 1930s, and into the first part, at least, of the 1940s. This follows just a few years after the high point of British Israelism in England, and it roughly matches the timeline of an international interest in lineage and racial “purity.” A few of many examples are found in Mexico (ejecting the Chinese), the United States (think of our immigration laws, our eugenics movement, the racial purity laws), and with hindsight, most strikingly, Germany.
If you grew up Mormon in the first half of the 20th century, you were likely to be taught over and over–in Sunday School, genealogy, and priesthood lessons, in stake and general conferences, in church magazines, books, and pamphlets–that you were literally an Israelite, directly descended from Ephraim. This teaching would come in at least two forms:
1. The teaching one might call “Mormon Israelism” was that Ephraim’s descendants were scattered among all nations, but that almost all Mormons were Ephraimites (for some, even “pure” Ephraimites) because the people that had responded to the missionary message were the select few with Israel in their veins. It was taught (including by Joseph Smith) and assumed by some that the more pure the Israelite blood, the more open a person was to the Mormon message.
2. Somewhat in conflict with this, you would also have been taught Mormon Anglo or British Israelism: that almost all Mormons were Israelites (and to some, pure Israelites), because the Saints were of Northern European stock (largely British), which was the place the not-so-lost tribes (mainly Ephraim) had settled.
In the 20th century, the main church leaders and authors who preached Israelism and British Israelism were Church Historian and Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, apostle and First Presidency member Anthony Ivins, Asst. Church Historian Andrew Jenson, and officers of the Utah Genealogical Society such as Archibald Bennett and James Anderson.
In dozens of articles, books, and general conference talks, these men played a significant role in teaching a couple of generations of Saints that they were literal descendants of Israel, with detailed proofs that the not-so-lost ten tribes had settled either Northern Europe or Great Britain taken directly from the prominent British-Israel works. Anderson, in God’s Covenant Race, From Patriarchal Times to the Present, a 1937 book published by the Deseret News Press, even claimed (incorrectly) Mormon credit for starting the British-Israel Movement through the church’s 1830s missionary work in England (154-155). The 1938 and later editions of the book included an appendix with 127 pages of articles copied verbatim from the “Anglo-Israel Federation” magazine Destiny.
One collection of Mormon British-Israelism teachings was the 1942 Sunday School course book, Birthright Blessings; its 48 lessons included topics such as “The Chosen Race Being Gathered,” “Early Israelite Colonies,” “Mound Builders of Europe,” “Sagas and Civilization of Scandinavia,” “Who Are the Anglo-Saxons?,” “Early Welsh Customs,” ” Ancient Irish Pedigrees,” and “The Royal House of David.”
A very similar collection was the 1937 Junior Genealogy Class manual, Children of the Covenant. Its 40 lessons covered most of the Birthright topics mentioned and others such as “A White and a Blessed People,” “The Day of Ephraim,” and “The New Race of Israel.” The activity for one of the lessons instructed students to “Write a one page explanation, and read it in class or in a public meeting, of the topic: “My Heritage as a Descendant of Ephraim.”
Articles preaching British Israelism and Mormon Israelism were also common in the quarterly journal of the Church’s Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine.
The latter even contained a detailed explanation and ancestral charts explaining how the Norse God Odin (Woden) was ancestor of “most of the kingly and noble races of the north,” and therefore, of Anglo-Saxons and Mormons. Consequently, you can find Mormon family trees from that period that include both Odin and Thor (there’s a current example of this in my extended family). Odin is also discussed in detail in the Birthright Blessings and Children of the Covenant manuals, in a lesson called Sagas and Civilization of Scandinavia that recounts Icelander Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga Saga. Both books included a photo of a B.E.F. Fogelberg’s statute of Odin (the graphic at the top of this post).
Returning to the questions:
1. I think our literal Israelism (the belief that most Mormons are genetic descendants of Israel, particularly Ephraim or Manasssah) is fading, and that as a church we are taking a more allegorical/symbolic/spiritual view of “Abrahamic lineage.” Do you have counterexamples or related anecdotes? Do you disagree?
2. When was the last time (if ever) you heard British Israelism passed around within Mormonism as a valid concept?
- Arnold H. Green, “Gathering and Election: Israelite Descent and Universalism in Mormon Discourse,” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 25 (Spring 99)
- Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (University of Illinois Press, 2003), esp. 17-36, 269-272.
- Mauss, “In Search of Ephraim: Traditional Mormon Conceptions of Lineage and Race,” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 25 (Spring 99) 131-173
- Mauss, “Mormonism’s Worldwide Aspirations and its Changing Conceptions of Race and Lineage,” Dialogue, 34:3-4 (Fall/Winter 2001) 103-133.
- Birthright Blessings: Genealogical Training Class (Deseret Sunday School Union Board, 1942), 48 Sunday School Lessons
- Children of the Covenant: A Lesson Book for Second Year Junior Genealogical Classes (Genealogical Society of Utah, 1937), 40 lessons
- Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Issues from the 1920s-1940s.