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Christian History Home > News > 2002 > Zion Haste

Zion Haste
Does the passion of a few nineteenth-century Chicagoans still influence American policy in the Middle East?
Elesha Coffman | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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President George W. Bush's ardent support for Israel surprises no one. After all, America has been one of Israel's main allies since it gained statehood. But the president's evangelical Christianity makes some foreign policy observers wonder whether his pro-Israel bent has deeper-and to many eyes, more dangerous-roots. This week the Washington Post probed a possible link to Christian Zionism, which Moshe Fox, minister for public affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, identified as "one of the common explanations [of] … why and how Bush is sympathetic to Israel and its cause."

Christian Zionism began with William E. Blackstone, a real estate developer and unconventional minister who settled in the Chicago suburbs in 1870. Intense emphasis on Palestine's role in the upcoming end of the world began even earlier, notably with the work of Plymouth Brethren leader John Nelson Darby. Yet Darby's views, known as dispensational premillennialism (think Left Behind, or look at the definition here:, had more detractors than supporters in the late nineteenth century. This didn't bother Blackstone.

Blackstone, who could almost hear the clock ticking down humanity's final days, called Palestine "God's sun-dial." He frequently advised, "If anyone desires to know our place in God's chronology, our position in the march of events, look at Israel." By the mid-1880s, Blackstone had shifted from mere timekeeping to attempts at speeding up the cosmic chronology. In 1887, he helped form the Chicago Committee for Hebrew Christian Work to evangelize Jews and thus ready them for Christ's harvest. On a parallel track, he agitated for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, both to shield Jews from oppression (particularly in Russia) and to fulfill biblical prophecy.

Blackstone's adventures in statecraft yielded a remarkable document known as the Blackstone Petition, or Memorial, of 1891. Addressed to President Benjamin Harrison, but also sent to Czar Alexander III, Queen Victoria, and other European leaders, the petition noted that, "[a]ccording to God's distribution of nations," Palestine belonged to the Jews. The document also asserted, "We believe this is an appropriate time for all nations and especially the Christian nations of Europe to show kindness to Israel. A million of exiles, by their terrible suffering, are piteously appealing to our sympathy, justice, and humanity. Let us now restore to them the land of which they were so cruelly despoiled by our Roman ancestors."

The 413 signatories included prominent journalists, businessmen, and clergy members from Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore-among them Cyrus McCormick, J.P. Morgan, John D. and William Rockefeller, D.L. Moody, A.T. Pierson, Philip Schaff, James Cardinal Gibbons, and future president William McKinley. The names of a few rabbis and other Jewish leaders appeared as well, but only a few.

At this point, Zionism was primarily a Christian concern. Theodor Herzl wouldn't publish The Jewish State (a response to the 1894 Dreyfus case in France) until 1896, and even then, many Jews even opposed the idea. Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch said, "We modern Jews do not wish to be restored to Palestine … the country wherein we live is our Palestine."

If Blackstone's petition had set the Western agenda toward the Middle East, its connection with current foreign policy would be easier to establish. Instead, the policy-setting distinction goes to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, a product more of British imperial concerns than of biblical interpretation. Of course, Christian Zionism didn't end with Balfour or the founding of modern Israel; if anything, the movement's proponents became more outspoken as world events appeared to bolster their vision of the future.

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