In the early 19th century—well before the rise of dispensational premillennialism—British evangelicals became fascinated with the Jews. From the early 18th century, German Pietists had promoted the view that the Jews were "God's time-piece" and that the conversion of the "Jewish nation" was key to the evangelization of the world. These ideas found fertile soil in England, in part because of the 17th-century Puritan fascination with the Jews as God's chosen people.

Beginning in the mid-1790s, the convulsions of the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars created a climate of fear and expectation. This led to an explosion of interest in prophecy—especially among evangelical Calvinists, and particularly among evangelical Anglicans, Baptists, and Scottish Presbyterians. Because of the Reformed emphasis on the election of the Jewish people and on the immutability of God's decrees, Calvin's theological descendants were very interested in the ongoing role of the Jews as an "chosen nation" who were to be protected by God's more recently "chosen nation": Britain. This had an impact well beyond evangelicalism and helped to create a British Christian identity that was profoundly favorable to the Jews.

Anti-Catholic and Pro-Semitic

This new interest in the Jews was curiously related to anti-Catholicism. By championing the Jews as a persecuted minority, evangelicals distanced themselves from Roman Catholicism, which they regarded as responsible for the persecution of European Jews in the Middle Ages. "Persecuting Rome" had mistreated the Jews, just as they had mistreated French Protestants and other religious dissidents. Evangelicals came to see themselves as the Protestant protectors of the Jews, shielding them from the same sort of Catholic intolerance that they had suffered.

This identification with the Jews over against the Catholics became a key aspect of Victorian evangelical self-identity. The conversion of Jews to Christ vindicated evangelicals' understanding of themselves as the true inheritors of "apostolic" identity. Rome might claim the apostolic succession of bishops from St. Peter; Anglo-Catholics might claim apostolicity by their focus on the early Church Fathers; evangelicals would settle for the New Testament church's experience of seeing Jews won to faith. They gave large amounts of money to evangelize Jews, creating the massive (Anglican) London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (LSPCJ) and numerous similar, smaller societies. By the late 19th century, the LSPCJ had scores of missionaries (mostly Jewish converts) working in Jewish communities throughout Britain, Ireland, the European continent, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Evangelicals emphasized the importance of combating any form of anti-Semitism. They promoted positive attitudes toward the Jews in the Jewish Expositor (the monthly journal of the LSPCJ), in LSPCJ public meetings, and in large meetings organized to protest incidents targeting Jews throughout Europe. In the 1830s, before the rise of a Jewish press in the UK, the LSPCJ's journal regularly brought cases of mistreatment of Jews in Europe and the Middle East to the attention of the British public and government. The British Board of Jews issued public statements of thanks. The LSPCJ republished works highlighting Jewish history—especially accounts of the history of anti-Semitism—and sought to create what may best be described as a "Teaching of Esteem" to counter the negative stereotypes associated with what historians often call the "Teaching of Contempt" for Jews. They also produced a remarkable amount of literature aimed at a largely female Christian audience and featuring Jewish-Christian converts. In the process, they shaped public perceptions of Jews and Judaism in ways that are still attracting scholarly attention, especially since the evangelicals' portrayals had a profound effect on the work of Jewish novelists later in the century.

A Jewish homeland

British evangelicals also introduced another factor to this concern for the Jews: they emphasized with new fervor the Puritan conviction that the Jewish people were destined to return to their ancient homeland in Palestine. This view had never been popular in German Pietist circles but was widely accepted among 17th-century Puritans in England and America. It was almost a commonplace in Christian thinking in the 18th-century English-speaking world, even among non-evangelicals. The Congregationalist/Unitarian president John Adams held such a view—a remnant of Congregationalism's Calvinistic roots.

British evangelicals were profoundly activistic and used their considerable cultural and political power to prepare the way for the return of the Jews to Palestine. Chief among these powerful evangelical supporters was Anthony Ashley Cooper, who became the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (also known for his support of Florence Nightingale and child labor reform). British missionaries arrived in Jerusalem in the 1820s. Evangelicals lobbied the British government to establish a consular presence there, which happened in 1838. They instructed British foreign secretaries to pressure the Ottoman government to allow the building of an Anglican church in the ancient city, and Prussia and Britain even agreed to set up a joint Anglican-Lutheran bishopric in the city to welcome the Jews as they returned. By the mid-1840s, the British, Prussian, and American consuls in Jerusalem were evangelicals or pietists selected largely because of their religious concern for the Jews. The British interest in this ignored area of the Ottoman empire created a scramble for power and position among European nations. Eventually the architecture and institutions of Christian Europe began to impact the region.

The theological writers who promoted such views—particularly Edward Bickersteth, the most popular Anglican evangelical of the 1830s and 1840s—were widely read in America and throughout the English-speaking world. Bickersteth was a historicist premillennialist. Historicists tended to set specific dates for the fulfillment of prophecies because they understood the prophetic passages of the books of Daniel and Revelation to be descriptions of the past history of the church. Futurist premillenialists understood the prophecies to be describing future events and did not commit themselves to date setting. The futurist premillennialist view known as dispensational premillennialism—which eventually came to dominate evangelicalism both in England (up to World War I) and in America (throughout the 20th century)—had a different schema from historicism but a common emphasis upon the Jews and their ongoing significance in world history.

The rise of Zionism

1917 marked the most important political development for Zionism between the emergence of the Zionist movement in the 1890s and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. In November of that year, just before Palestine fell to Britain as the spoils of war, the British cabinet issued the "Balfour Declaration," which pledged British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The League of Nations wrote this commitment into the British Mandate for Palestine in 1922. Seven of the ten members of the war cabinet that issued the declaration were from evangelical homes; six of the seven were from Calvinist backgrounds, including Balfour (the foreign minister) and Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Ironically, the only Jewish member of the cabinet was opposed to the Balfour Declaration, regarding it as anti-Semitic. All of this points to a remarkable web of evangelical influence in the rise of modern Zionism.

Behind all of this interest in the Jews was the evangelicals' understanding of the New Testament injunction to preach the gospel "to the Jew first." Evangelical interest in the Holy Land and the Jews' return to their ancestral homeland was driven more by their missional concern to bring the Christian gospel to the Jews than by a specific prophetic schema—something that is important to keep in mind when considering modern expressions of Christian Zionism.

Donald M. Lewis is professor of church history at Regent College in Vancouver. His book The Rise of Christian Zionism: Lord Shaftesbury and Evangelical Support for a Jewish Homeland will soon be published by Cambridge University Press.