In December, my family had the chance to spend several weeks with my sister-in-law and her family, who, fortuitously, happen to live in New Zealand.
Aside from the usual daily chores (sea-kayaking, snorkeling for kina, fishing for snapper, collecting and cooking shellfish, cavorting in the waves, hiking, bone-carving, photography…), one of the activities we enjoyed most was visiting Maori historical and cultural sites.
Imagine my surprise when I kicked up a post-tour conversation with a Maori guide about the Treaty of Waitangi and heard him tell of how some 19th century Maori drew theological support for bloody resistance to British rule from a belief that the Maori were Israelites, and that the Old Testament provided those Maori both hope and permission for a violent uprising against their perceived oppressors.
Since returning home, I’ve researched some of my NZ blind spots so I’ll be better prepared next trip (for example, I couldn’t prepare sea urchin roe so that it was consistently excellent, and I obviously hadn’t absorbed lesson 18 of the 1937 LDS Junior Genealogical Class manual, titled “Maori Traditions and Genealogies,” and I couldn’t have answered that lesson’s question #9, “Can you show that the natives of New Zealand are also of the covenant people of Israel?”).
Here’s the overly simplistic scoop on Maoris and Israelism:
As early as the 1820s, some protestant missionaries who had visited NZ were preaching that the Maori were descendants of either the Jews or the ten lost tribes. Parallels that missionaries proffered as evidence of a genetic link included a similarity between some Maori and Hebrew words, a shared trading prowess, shared cannibalism, and that a Maori would decapitate a foe killed in battle–like David with Goliath.
Tudor Parfitt writes that “By the middle of the nineteenth century many Maoris had internalized the colonial fantasies about them and started declaring themselves to be Israelites.” This was apparently without appreciable Mormon assistance. According to the LDS Church Almanac, Mormons missionaries arrived in NZ in 1854, but only sought out English-speaking immigrants. It wasn’t until 1881 that the Mormons appeared to establish a successful teaching relationship with the Maori.
From the 1870s and into the 1900s there are examples of Maori Christian prophets leading followers in revolt against the British. Some were visited by the angel Gabriel or Michael, some considered themselves to be Moses or Moses-like, some recreated the ark of the covenant or an Israelite temple. In 1871, followers of the prophet Te Ua Jew Ua captured the crew and passengers of a British ship. They released the crew’s two Jewish members because they considered them to be kinfolk. Parfitt writes that after decapitating a passenger the Maori priest prayed, “Hear o Israel, this is the word of God, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We are the Jews who were lost and have been persecuted!” [The priest] then gouged out [the passenger’s] eyes and gave orders that his head be smoke-cured.” (I’m suspicious about some of the detail of this story, Parfitt recounts it on p. 171)
I cite the Maori example of Israelism as comparative context which may be helpful in contemplating Israelism within the Mormon community.
Vern Swanson’s hefty new (2006) book, The Dynasty of the Holy Grail: Mormonism’s Sacred Bloodline, is probably the most recent (and certainly the heaviest) Mormon work to suggest that Mormons are significantly descended from a “royal” lineage (mostly from Ephraim, with some descent from Judah). Of course, his work has garnered notoriety for his main focus: the additional suggestion that some church members, and perhaps most apostles and seventies, are literal genetic descendants of Jesus.
Kraut’s 1969 book, Jesus Was Married, includes some of the known details about what O.Hyde, BY, O.Pratt, J.Taylor, HC. Kimball, GQ Cannon, and L. Snow taught regarding Saints (usually church leaders) being descendants of Christ. Swanson provides a more complete account of teachings by 19th century Mormon leaders on the matter. He also adds a fair amount of scriptural analysis, comparisons to Arthurian legends and other literature, and introduces viewpoints of Joseph Fielding Smith, Bruce McConkie, and other 20th century Mormon writers.
However, I don’t mean to initiate a debate over (a) whether Jesus was married (b) whether Mormons or Maori are genetic descendants of an Israelite tribe or Jesus, or (c) whether if (a) and (b) were true it would have any more religious significance than would genetic descent from a female peasant from the Chinese Han Dynasty.
Instead, let me ask for your thoughts on some of the reasons or motivations a people, be they Maori or Mormon, might have for defining themselves as genetic descendants of the Israelites.
Here’s my initial list of potential influences:
1. A Sticky Narrative. The Old Testament was such a vibrant, living text for the Saints that they found it easy to read themselves into the narrative. They read about Israelites, they dreamed about Israelites, and when they looked into the mirror, they saw Israelites (as did other OT-focused groups of the same era, including William Blake and many other English, the New Israelites of Vermont, the Hau Hau Maori, etc.). Perhaps Joseph Smith’s imaging of Missouri as the Garden of Eden can be viewed as geographic instance of the same phenomena: the Old Testament text formed such an important part of his world view that it was easy to locate his own geography and history in sacred narrative.
2. Religious Primitivism. Our forebears were trying to restore the culture and experience Old Testament Israelites in many respects (prophets, patriarchy, polygamy, the exodus, etc.). Since lineage mattered to the tribes of the Old Testament, it mattered to the early Mormons.
3. Literal scripture interpretation. A belief that genetic Israelite lineage made an actual difference to God in that it specially qualified someone for a priesthood or other religious blessing or authority. As Swanson shows, this motivation was/is likely to rely on Old Testament prophecies of a day when the then-wicked Israelites would repent, be gathered, and blessed with glory and power, along with restoration scriptures that speak of a lineal right to priesthood or power (e.g., D&C 107:40).
4. Psychology: a subsconscious attempt to increase a community’s self esteem, especially in a context of significant persecution. I think I remember (but I can’t find it now) Bringhurst, in Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, suggesting this may have been a factor for the acceptance of Israelism (and the denigration of some non light-skinned ethnic groups) among early Mormons. Parfitt points out that “The Maoris began to see themselves as the children of Israel, enslaved in a white man’s bondage and bound to resist by what ever means they could, as had the Israelites of old. The biblical stories provided them with a manifesto of resistance. The myth of the Lost Tribes was used as a means of restructuring their own Maori identity in the cause of this resistance and of enriching their own past with a myth that carried with it clouds of glory in the eyes of their all-powerful conquerors.” (169)
5. Historical accuracy.
6. Power grab. Cherie Woodworth’s “The Tsar’s Descent from Caesar” discusses 16th century tsars inventing a genetic lineage connecting them to Ceasar in order to justify their rule. That’s one instance of the popular category of “People invent royal genealogies in order to justify a claim to power or wealth.”
I welcome your improvements, criticism, or additions.
Cherie Kartchner Woodworth, “The Tsar’s Descent from Caesar: Clans, Genealogy, Mythmaking, and Statehood in Russia, 1400-1550.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale, 2001.
Ogden Kraut. Jesus Was Married. Salt Lake City: Self published, 1969.
Tudor Parfitt, The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth. London: Orion Press, 2002.
William E. Phipps, “The Case for a Married Jesus,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 7: 4, Winter 1972
Vern G. Swanson, Dynasty of the Holy Grail: Mormonism’s Sacred Bloodline. Springville: Cedar Fort, 2006.
Children of the Covenant: A Lesson Book for Second year Junior Genealogical Classes. Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1937.