British Zionism

by Ibn Warraq (January 2010)

advocacy of Palestine as a homeland for the Jews must, of course, be seen against the background of Nineteenth Century Britain’s “Restorationism” as Zionism was then termed, as well as the Nineteenth Century German and Italian national liberation movements. Eliot’s novel is set during the period when the Kingdom of Prussia defeated the Austrian Empire at the Battle of Königgrätz, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Sadowa in Bohemia, on July 3, 1866-a battle often listed as one of the twenty decisive battles of the world. We could also take a much longer view, and place Eliot’s ideas in the context of Britain’s entire historical rapport with Palestine.

Barbara Tuchman takes the story of Britain’s attachment to Palestine to the early Middle Ages. Britain had been developing such an attachment for various religious, spiritual and cultural reasons for a very long time, and the principal one among these was, of course, the English Bible and its prophecies. The Bible came to be adopted, in the words of Thomas Huxley, as “the national epic of Britain.” Even the origins of the British Church were sought in Palestine, and they were found in the person of Joseph of Arimathea, the rich Jew and secret disciple of Jesus, and a member of the Sanhedrin. He is said to have founded the Abbey of Glastonbury in 63 C.E. More certainly, Britons showed a decided propensity to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land beginning within two generations of the conversion of Constantine. And by the time of St. Willibald of Wessex, who arrived in Palestine in 721 C.E. the custom was well-established, though we do not know the names of the British pilgrims. One of the later known pilgrims was Saewulf, who wended his way to Jerusalem in 1102. In the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer [died 1400], the Wife of Bath boasts that she has been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times.

Rather strangely, the Crusades did not really penetrate into English consciousness as one might have expected. King Richard the Lionheart, who hardly spent any time in England, did inspire some legends and folklore about his adventures in Palestine, as did the valorous deeds of Robert Curthose [died 1134] in the First Crusade. The exploits of Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, were celebrated much later by Thomas Heywood, the Elizabethan playwright, in about the year 1600 when the latter’s play Four Prentices of London was staged to enthusiastic crowds.

Enter Robert and Tancred, Godfrey [of bouillon] and Charles,
with their shields and scutcheons, drum and soldiers:
Godfrey’s shield, having a maidenhead with a crown
in it; Charles’s shield the Haberdasher’s Arms.

Robert. Behold the high walls of Jerusalem,
Which Titus and Vespasian once brake down:
From off these turrets have the ancient Jews
Seen worlds of people mustering on these plains.
Oh, princes, which of all your eyes are dry,
To look upon this temple, now destroy’d?
Yonder did stand the great Jehovah’s house,
In midst of all his people, there he dwelt:
Vessels of gold did serve his sacrifice,
And with him for the people spake the priests.
There was the ark, the shewbread, Aaron’s rod,
Sanctum sanctorum, and the Cherubins.
Now in that holy place, where God himself
Was personally present, Pagans dwell,
False gods are rear’d, each temple idols bears.
Oh, who can see this, and abstain from tears?

Godfrey. This way, this sacred path our Saviour trod,
When he came riding to Jerusalem,
Whilst the religious people spread his way
With flowers and garments, and Hosanna cry’d.
Yonder did stand the great church, where he taught,
Confuting all the Scribes and Pharisees.
This place did witness all his miracles:
Within this place did stand the judgment seat,
Where Pontius Pilate with the elders sate,
Where they condemn’d him to be whipp’d and crown’d,
To be derided, mock’d, and crucified,
His hands bor’d through with nails, his side with spears.

Oh, who can see this place, and keep his tears?


By the time of Queen Elizabeth, the English had become familiar with Jerusalem and its environs thanks largely to the availability of the Bible in English, to which we now turn. In the Thirteenth Century, “the first question ever asked by an Inquisitor of a ‘heretic’ was whether he knew any part of the Bible in his own tongue.”
[2] The story of the Bible in English is the story of the brave individuals who defied the Inquisitor, and who were determined to make the Bible available in the vernacular so that everyone from the ploughman to the baker had direct access, without the intermediation of a priest, to the words and deeds of Jesus and all those patriarchs and prophets inspired by God.

The story of the Bible in English picks up really with the work of John Wycliffe [alternative spellings Wyclif, Wycliff, Wiclef, Wicliffe, or Wickliffe], born circa 1328 – died 31 December 1384]. However, it would be churlish to pass by the efforts of earlier sages who quoted from the Bible in Latin, or who rendered the Bible into Anglo-Saxon. Saint Gildas, who probably died in the year 570 C.E. wrote a sermon in three parts, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae or On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, recounting the conquest of his land by Saxons, Jutes, and Danes. “After every battle he cites an Old Testament analogy and on every page quotes from the Pentateuch, the Prophets, or the Psalms.”

Caedmon [died between 679- 684] is said by Bede to have devoted himself to religious poetry, and to translations from the Old and New Testaments into Old English, the language of his only surviving lines, the opening of his poem known as Caedmon’s Hymn. The Heliand is an epic poem in Old Saxon composed in the first half of the Ninth century recounting the life of Jesus, and is based on pseudo-Tatian’s Gospel Harmony. The author of the Heliand is also thought to have written a poem on Genesis, based largely on the Bible account.

Aelfric of Eynsham
[c. 955 – c. 1010], also Alfric, and known as Aelfric the Grammarian, was an

These old and Middle English verses, paraphrases, and translations had no influence on the translations into English of the Old and New Testament that began in earnest only with John Wycliffe. As I hope to devote an entire article in several parts to the Bible in English, I shall only adumbrate the story of translations leading upto the magnificent Authorised Version of King James of 1611.

John Wycliffe [c.1328 -1384] defended the right of every man, whether cleric or layman, to examine the Bible for himself. Only the Bible could be the standard by which Church doctrine must be tried; the opinions of popes, cardinals and friars were worthless except in so far as they were founded on Scripture itself. The only way to free Christian minds of the corrupt tyrannies of papal rule was to make the Bible available to them directly so that they could judge for themselves.
[6] A full literal translation of the Bible into English was the only way make it accessible to everyman and woman, the partial translations into Old English or Anglo-Saxon of the Middle Ages were inadequate since the latter languages were no longer comprehensible to the majority of Englishmen.

By Wycliffe’s day, against a background of English patriotism and the birth of English literature with the works of William Langland [c.1332 – c 1386], John Gower [c. 1330 – 1408], and his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer [c. 1343 –1400], the call for a complete translation became more and more frequent and adamant, and had taken a nationalistic cast.

William Tyndale [1494-1536], often called the Father of the English Bible, studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and became proficent in Greek. Like Wycliffe, Tyndale wanted to have the New Testament in a language that the ordinary man or woman could understand. His translation of the NT came out in 1525, and was the first to be printed, and the first to be translated from the original Greek. He also began to translate the OT from the Hebrew, but never completed his task.

Miles Coverdale [1488-1569], educated at Cambridge was an Augustinian

The Authorised Version of 1611, also known as the King James Version [KJV], was the work of 54 scholars, and prepared in Shakespeare’s England, containing some of the most sublime English prose and poetry, poetry and prose that has influenced the English language and the course of English literature. Strictly speaking it was not an original translation, even though many of the scholars had some knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but more of an inspired redaction relying upon previously published work, such as the Bible translations of Tyndale, Coverdale, and others. It has been calculated that 80 per cent of the words for the NT come from Tyndale, for example.

T. H. Huxley reminds us, writing in the Nineteenth Century, the importance of the Bible to England and English culture,

“And then consider the great historical fact that for three centuries, this Book has been woven into the life of all that is best and noblest in English history; that it has become the national epic of Britain, and is familiar to noble and simple, from John-o ‘Groat’s Mouse to Land’s End, as Dante and Tasso once were to the Italians; that it is written in the noblest and purest English, and abounds in exquisite beauties of mere literary form; and, finally that it forbids the veriest hind who never left his village to be ignorant of the existence of other countries and other civilizations, and of a great past, stretching back to the further limits of the oldest nations in the world. By the study of what other book could children be so much humanized and made to feel that each figure in the vast historical procession fills, like themselves, but a momentary space in the interval between two Eternities; and earns the blessings or the curses of all time, according to the effort to do good and hate evil?”

Barbara Tuchman summarises the significance of these English translations as well, “With the translation of the Bible into English and its adoption as the highest authority for an autonomous English Church, the history, traditions, and moral law of the Hebrew nation became part of the English culture; became for a period of three centuries the most powerful single influence on that culture. It linked, to repeat Matthew Arnold’s phrase, ‘the genius and history of us English, and our American descendants across the Atlantic, to the genius and history of the Hebrew people’.

In the Age of Discovery, especially in the Sixteenth century, commerce, not salvation, was the chief attraction of the East. And yet, there were always travellers to the East, moved by curiosity and the Renaissance spirit of inquiry, who left journals and diaries that kept alive acquaintance with the Holy Land.

On January 5, 1648, the following petition was addressed,


The petition of the Cartwrights, two English Puritans living in the Netherlands, reflects the extent to which attitudes in Seventeenth Century England had changed, a change wrought by the English Bible working through the Puritan movement. In earlier centuries, Palestine had been seen as a land of largely Christian Associations. “Now it came to be remembered as the homeland of the Jews, the land carrying the Scriptural promise of Israel’s return.”
[13] It is at the beginning of the Seventeenth century that the movement among the English for the return of the Jews to Palestine began, but it was not a movement for the sake of the Jews, but for the sake of the promise made to them.[14]

“According to Scripture the kingdom of Israel for all mankind would come when the people of Israel were restored to Zion. Only then would the world see the advent of the Messiah or, in Christian terms, the Second Advent. The return was visioned, of course, only in terms of a Jewish nation converted to Christianity, for this was to be the signal for the working out of the promise.”

As early as 1621, Sir Henry Finch, a British Member of Parliament and Puritan common lawyer, had exhorted, in “The World’s Great Restauration [Restoration], or The Calling of the Jews and with them of all Nations and Kingdoms of the Earth to the Faith of Christ,” the Jews to reclaim the Holy Land, “Out of all the places of thy dispersion, East, West, North and South, His purpose is to bring thee home again and to marry thee to Himself by faith for evermore.”

It is from the middle of the Seventeenth century we do find the second of the two motives that compelled the British to take an interest in Palestine. We have already emphasized the religious motive, but from now on we shall encounter the profit motive, whether commercial, military, or imperial.

By the Nineteenth Century, an evangelical version of Protestatantism also believed that the conversion of the Jews could not come about until the restoration of the Jews to Palestine. Among the early advocates of Restorationism were Lord Lindsay, Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Palmerston, Disraeli, Lord Manchester, Holman Hunt, Sir Charles Warren, Hall Caine, Charles Henry Churchill, and of course, George Eliot. For example, Lord Lindsay

While Charles Henry Churchill, a British resident of Damascus, wrote in 1841 a letter to the Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore stating, “…I consider the object to be perfectly obtainable. But, two things are indispensably necessary. Firstly, that the Jews will themselves take up the matter unanimously. Secondly, that the European powers will aid them in their views…”

Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, an Evangelical Christian, was also a fervent restorationist, and perhaps the greatest influence on the views of George Eliot. He wrote, “The inherent vitality of the Hebrew race reasserts itself with amazing persistence. Its genius, to tell the truth, adapts itself more or less to all the currents of civilization all over the world, nevertheless always emerging with distinctive features and a gallant recovery of vigor.” Shaftesbury had confessed to his biographer, Edwin Hodder, in his belief in the Second Advent, which “has always been a moving principle in my life, for I see everything going on in the world subordinate to this great event.” And since the restoration of the Jews was required for the Second Advent, Shaftesbury “never had a shadow of a doubt that the Jews were to return to their own land…It was his daily prayer, his daily hope. ‘Oh pray for the peace of Jerusalem!’ were the words engraven on the ring he always wore on his right hand.”

Lord Shaftesbury undoubtedly influenced Prime Minister Palmerston and his successors in the government, whom he also urged to protect the Jews already living in Palestine. A report in The Times in 1840 hinted that Lord Shaftesbury had tried to ascertain the views of the Jews on the proposed restoration, and whether and when they were ready to live in Palestine and invest their capital in agriculture, whether they would pay for their own passage, whether they would be willing to live under Turkish rule, protected by Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, Austro- Hungary. Shaftesbury had convinced Palmerston to write to the British Ambassador in Constantinople:

“There exists at the present time among the Jews dispersed over Europe, a strong notion that the time is approaching for their nation to return to Palestine…It would be of manifest importance to the Sultan to encourage the Jews to return and to settle in Palestine because the wealth which they would bring with them would increase the resources of the Sultan’s dominions; and the Jewish people, if returning under the sanction and protection and at the invitation of the Sultan, would be a check on any future evil designs of Mehmet Ali or his successors… I have to instruct Your Excellency strongly to recommend to hold out every just encouragement to the Jews of Europe to return to Palestine.”


[1] Barbara Tuchman. Bible and Sword. England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. New York: Ballantine Books, [1956] Reprinted 1984, p. 53.

[2] Benson Bobrick. Wide as the Waters. The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. New York: Penguin Books, [2001 1st Edn.], 2002, p.11.

[3] Barbara Tuchman. Bible and Sword. England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. New York: Ballantine Books, [1956] Reprinted 1984, p.3

[4] Barbara Tuchman, op.cit.,p.87.

[5] Alec Gilmore. A Dictionary of the English Bible and its Origins.Sheffield (U.K.): Sheffield Academic Press, 2000, p.145.

[6] Bobrick Benson, op.cit., p.50

[7] Bobrick Benson, p.52.

[8] Alec Gilmore. A Dictionary of the English Bible and its Origins.Sheffield (U.K.): Sheffield Academic Press, 2000, p.186.

[9] T.H.Huxley. Science and Education. Essays. New York: D.Appleton and Company, 1896, p.398

[10] Matthew Arnold. Culture and Anarchy. New York: The Macmillan Company,[1869, Ist Edn.] 1920, p.101

[11] Barbara Tuchman, op.cit.,p.80

[12] Stephen C. Manganiello. The Concise Encycopledia of the Revolutions and wars of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 1639-1660. Lanham [MD] : Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2004, p.285. [Tuchman gives 1649 as the date of the petition.]

[13] Barbara Tuchman, op.cit.,p.122.

[14] Barbara Tuchman, op.cit., p.122

[15] Barbara Tuchman, op.cit., p.122

[16] British Zionism at :, accessed 3 Jan. 2010.

[17] Crawford, A.W.C. (Lord Lindsay), Letters on Egypt, Edom and the Holy Land, London, H. Colburn 1847, V II, p 71.

[18] Barbara Tuchman, Bible and Sword, p.178.

[19] Barbara Tuchman, Bible and Sword, p 175.


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