Last week Janice and I spent several days in Cornwall, Great Britain, with the BYU students doing London Study Abroad. On one of those days we hired an excellent guide, Harry Glasson (a.k.a. Harry Safari). Harry knows Cornish history as well as just about anyone, and he gives a wonderful tour. His conversation is not only informed and funny, it is also often a little bit salty. If you’re starting to fall asleep because the coach driver can’t seem to figure out how to cool the coach down, Harry will keep you awake.

Besides seeing Norman and pre-Roman sites, Harry took us to a church, the church of St. Buriana, in the small village of St. Buryan. St. Buriana was a sixth century Irish saint whose remains are supposedly in a stone burial mound created by King Athelstan. It was obvious that Harry loved that church, and that he loved it as more than just an historic site. Besides enjoying the things Harry had to say, I particularly enjoyed seeing someone who minutes before had been telling slightly off-color jokes reveal his religious passion. I enjoyed it because it helped remind us that our stereotypes for what constitutes a genuinely religious person are often quite wrong, that a degree of bawdiness is not incommensurate with spiritual life.

A good deal of Harry’s presentation at St. Buriana was devoted to the legend that the British are, in some sense, Israelites, a notion captured beautifully in the William Blake hymn, “Jerusalem.” It includes at least the belief that Joseph of Arimathea, as a tin merchant, brought Christ to the British isles during the time between Jesus’s twelfth birthday and the beginning of his ministry. (It also often includes the idea that Joseph returned with Mary, Christ’s mother, after the crucifixion, and that she died here.) Later that day, we encountered the British Israelite idea again when we went to Mount St. Michaels and talked with an LDS guide there, Richard Topham. Brother Topham, like Harry, was clearly a believer in the tradition. Neither of them was naively committed to its ideas, but each also clearly believed that there is something to the legend, though they were not sure just what. (It would have been interesting to hear Brother Topham and Harry talk about their understandings of the tradition.)

I’m considerably less convinced than they. It seems to me to be a late creation with no genuine historical antecedents. But the interesting question is not whether there is something to the legend. That is impossible to decide. Instead, I’m interested in how the legend functions and has functioned in British self-awareness and in the self-awareness of early British converts. As one of the students, Kelli Skinner, pointed out, British Israelite thinking may well have played an important part in the conversion of early British Saints: being already acquainted with the idea that Christ could come to someplace other than the area around Jerusalem, that there could be other writings about his life, that those other than whom we usually associate with Israel could be Israelite, and that a new Jerusalem would be built outside of Palestine, they might well have been more open to the ideas preached by early Mormon missionaries. The history in the Book of Mormon and the doctrine of a new Jerusalem in America would have been analogous to things that they already believed.

12 comments for “Jerusalem

  1. Nate Oman
    October 14, 2005 at 10:43 am

    I haven’t read it, but Barbara Tuchman wrote a book called The Bible and the Sword which is a history of the relationship between Britain and Palestine from the Bronze Age to the Balfour Decleration. I imagine it talks quite a bit about this tradition, and I have always enjoyed Tuchman’s stuff.

  2. Kevin Barney
    October 14, 2005 at 11:09 am

    Two articles that discuss British Israelism in the Mormon context are:

    (1) Armand L. Mauss, “In Search of Ephraim: Traditional Mormon Conceptions of Lineage and Race,”5 and (2) Arnold H. Green, “Gathering and Election: Israelite Descent and Universalism in Mormon Discourse.”6

    5 In Journal of Mormon History 25/1 (Spring 1999): 131-73.

    6 In Journal of Mormon History 25/1 (Spring 1999): 195-228.

  3. Ronan
    October 14, 2005 at 11:10 am

    Ah Jim, now you’re talking…. Cornwall, what a place!

    As to British Israelitism and its connection to early converts, I don’t know. I’ll look into it.

  4. Ronan
    October 14, 2005 at 11:21 am


    The British-Israel idea is an old one (for example, John Sadler, The Rights of the Kingdom (1649)), as was certainly around in the 1840s (John Wilson, Our Israelitish Origin (1814)). But I’m not sure how popular it was at that time–the first British Israelite society was the Anglo-Saxon Association founded in 1879.

    I think that it was the millennial ideas of Mormonism that were most appealing to the early British converts, but this is certainly something worth considering.

    Incidentally, one of the major American proponents of British-Israelism was Herbert Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God and publisher of the Plain Truth. Interestingly (from a personal perspective) my father, a convert to the church, toyed with Armstrong’s ideas before settling on Mormonism. So there was at least one English fan of the British-Israel idea (my dad) who ended up joining the Church, but in 1960 not 1840!

  5. Wilfried
    October 14, 2005 at 12:43 pm

    Interesting topic, Jim. Thanks for letting us enjoy your travels! As far as I remember reading about British converts in 1840s-1850s in Britain, I don’t think I ever encountered the idea that the British-Israel connection was a factor in conversion. But it might have escaped my attention. At least it would not have been a major factor or it would have been used a lot in the missionary approach, wouldn’t it? Historians?

    Ronan: Ah, Armstrong and “The Plain Truth” brings back memories. As a teenager I used to receive the magazine in my pre-Mormon years, more because it was free and it allowed to practice English. I don’t think it had any influence on my conversion to Mormonism though. But I remember that some articles were strongly pro-Word of Wisdom-principles and helped sustain arguments. And some articles reflected Mormon thought of the 50s and 60s, e.g. on creationism, “age of the earth” etc. Where is the time….

  6. October 14, 2005 at 1:37 pm

    There are other weird traditions of being a tribe of Israel as well. One many are familiar with are the Basques in Spain. And apparently patriarchal blessings of people from there do tend to follow the tradition.

  7. Richard
    October 14, 2005 at 1:45 pm
  8. Jim F
    October 14, 2005 at 4:29 pm

    Nate, I’m also a fan of Tuchman, but I’ve not read The Bible and the Sword. I’ll have to have a look.

    Ronan, you’re right. Though I confess to being a Francophile, I am also absolutely in love with Devon and Cornwall. Thanks for the information. I’m not surprised that the first mention is in the 17th century.

    Thanks also to Richard for the link.

    Wilfried, neither had I ever heard anything about the use of the British Israelite idea in missionary work, though I know it has been (and I think continues to be) very popular among some in authority. But I thought Kelli’s suggestion provocative enough to think about and–were I an historian–to look into.

    Clark: I didn’t know about the Basques, but I know that the idea isn’t an uncommon one and can be found on many continents.

  9. Ross Geddes
    October 14, 2005 at 5:06 pm

    I like a statement made by E. A. Freeman, a Victorian historian, on the Glastonbury legends (King Arthur’s grave, Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, etc): “We need not believe that the Glastonbury legends are records of facts; but the existence of those legends is a very great fact.”

    In 1947 there was a book published by an LDS author, Earnest L. Whitehead, called “The House of Israel”, which is full of British Israelite ideas. I don’t know what sort of influence, if any, it had on members back then.

    I love Cornwall. Many of my ancestors came from there.

  10. GeorgeD
    October 14, 2005 at 5:50 pm

    My Scandanavian grandfather certainly subscribed to Israel in the north countries. He said that Denmark was where the Tribe of Dan settled. Who knows. It is an interesting concept. On the one hand the New Testament (Galatians) is quite clear that accepting the gospel is what it takes for one to become heir to the blessings of Abraham we have many scriptures that suggest that the gathering of Israel in the latte days is literal (as to the seed of Israel) and not all just adoption.

    The older I get the more I believe that there really is a chosen seed that is genetically predisposed to live the gospel. It is a rough concept in our egalitarian world but it seems to either that or go for the lowest common denominator approach to righteousness.

  11. cje
    October 14, 2005 at 10:43 pm

    Growing up in with my dad as Stake President of the Plymouth Stake (which used to take in Cornwall) I for one leaned about the legend exclusively from my dad who firmly believes that Christ visited ancient Briton. To me that legend is very much linked to Arthurian legend and I’m a strong supporter of those too. I specifically remember singing “Jerusalem” in Stake Conference when I was 16ish and feeling the most brilliant synergy of patriotism and spirtuality.


  12. JLB
    October 19, 2005 at 3:37 pm

    Heber C. Kimball, upon relating to the Prophet Joseph the tender and poignant and unusually powerful spiritual feelings he had experienced on his mission to England, was told by the Prophet, “Did you not understand it? That is a place where some of the old Prophets traveled and dedicated that land, and their blessing fell upon you.” (JD, 5:22.) In referring to this incident between his grandfather and the Prophet, President Spencer W. Kimball told the British Saints in the First British Area General Conference, “I should like to think that the whole of this great land is blessed and still carrying a blessing from our Heavenly Father from great and holy men who have walked upon its shores.”

    We also know that the blood of Ephraim is strong in the British Isles and in Scandinavia (see, e.g., statements by Brigham Young to this effect). Is it too improbable to believe that the Savior and/or his apostles ministered to those people? Perhaps, some day, we shall be able to read accounts of such ministrations, as we have hitherto been permitted to read the account of His visit to the Nephites.

Comments are closed.