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 a Religion News Service article appearing in 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.
But Christian Zionism didn't just produce the "anything for Israel" activism noted, and derided, by the Post. Its momentum could take unexpected turns, as the story of Horatio Spafford's American Colony illustrates.
Spafford, the Chicago lawyer—and friend of William Blackstone—who famously lost four daughters at sea, didn't just write about the day when "the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend." He wanted to be in the Holy Land when it happened. So, in 1881, he and what remained of his family moved to Jerusalem and established the American Colony. "Jerusalem is where my Lord lived, suffered and conquered," Spafford said, "and I wish to learn how to live, suffer and especially to conquer."
Members of the colony, known as "Spaffordites" or "Overcomers," firmly believed in dispensational premillennialism. For a while, they journeyed daily to the Mount of Olives in hopes of being the first to greet the returning Savior. They even packed snacks for him. But the colony poured far more effort into religious education and humanitarian aid.
The colony extended an especially warm embrace to a large group of impoverished Jews who came to Jerusalem from Yemen in 1882, but members also provided education and healthcare for local Arabs. Medical work gained importance during World War I, when the colony was used as a Red Cross facility. Eventually humanitarian concerns edged out millennial fervor completely, and by 1930 the colony dropped its explicitly religious character. Significantly, by this time the colony had also reversed its position on Zionism, viewing it as a threat to the indigenous, mostly Arab population.
As Moshe Fox told the Post, it would be interesting to know what President Bush thinks of all this history. His answer, though, might not yield the sort of information journalists and pundits could plug into a policy-defining formula. If he did confirm a connection to Christian Zionism, would that put him in the camp of millennial evangelist William Blackstone, diplomat Arthur James Balfour, or the humanitarian Spaffordites? It certainly wouldn't paint him into the most conservative corner of conservative Christianity, no matter what the Post tries to insinuate.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
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Timothy Weber explored this topic at greater length in an October 5, 1998, Christianity Today article, "How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend."
A November 1998 article in The Christian Century also examined the early connections between evangelicals and Zionism.
"God's Little Errand Boy" provides a biographical sketch of William E. Blackstone
The University of Southern Colorado's history department offers a paper on Bertha Spafford Vester, The American Colony, and The Red Cross
Evangelicals and Israel: Theological Roots of a Political Alliance
The Jerusalem Post regularly profiles Christian Zionists. Past articles have included:
On wings of faith | How and why are evangelical Christian groups facilitating Jewish immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union? (Dec. 16, 2001)
Evangelical Christians taking their support to capital's streets (October 4, 2001)
A bridge to life | Jonathan Miles is an American on a mission who helps bring desperately ill Palestinian children from the Gaza Strip to Israeli hospitals (Sept. 26, 2001)
Christian Zionists know when Israel needs them (Feb. 21, 2001)
One Jerusalem rally draws a real crowd (Jan. 9, 2001)
Zionist Christians cap solidarity visit (Dec. 7, 2000)
Sharon dazzles Christian Zionists (Oct. 22, 2000)
The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday how "Christian missionaries are developing a growing Messianic Jewish movement in Israel," especially in the Russian immigrant community.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Final Solution, Part II | The Nazis planned to obliterate Christianity, too, according to newly published Nuremberg documents. (Jan. 25, 2002)
Tell Me a Story | The most helpful church history scholarship is both broad and narrative. (Jan. 18, 2002)
State of the Fragmentation | If "society" denotes a group with mutual interests and common culture, the American Society of Church History almost doesn't qualify. (Jan. 11, 2002)
Spurgeon's Epiphany | The event he recounted more than 280 times in his sermons first occurred on January 6, 1850. (Jan. 4, 2002)
Christmas Kettles | The history behind a Yuletide institution. (Dec. 21, 2001)
O Christmas Tree | A truly "traditional" tree would be unrecognizable—and flammable. (Dec. 14, 2001)
Christmas Countdown | When does the holiday season really start? (Dec. 7, 2001)
Serving God with Mammon | John Wesley's wisdom for hard economic times: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. (Nov. 30, 2001)
Eat, Drink, and Relax | Think the Pilgrims would frown on today's football-tossing, turkey-gobbling Thanksgiving festivities? Maybe not. (Nov. 21, 2001)
Where Are the Women? | The Christian tradition includes few female history-writers but plenty of female history-makers. (Nov. 20, 2001)
God Bless, More or Less | Irving Berlin's anthem captures America. (Nov. 2, 2001)