Not long ago, I ran across an extensive conspiracy theory that reminded me of one of the underpinnings of belief. It’s called British Israelism. It involves various Jews and New Testament figures making their way to Great Britain. There, they apparently influenced local genetics and customs and left behind enigmatic, mysterious artifacts that modern folks totally still wonder and marvel at today. However, mysterious outside forces don’t want anyone to know that.
Of course, it’s all absolute bollocks. Not a bit of evidence for any of it. But a lot of people believe very fervently in this conspiracy theory. To me, this conspiracy theory really speaks to some people’s need to feel special. They need it so much they’ll embrace a patently ridiculous claim like British Israelism. And today, we’re going to explore this claim and talk about why it persists.
The Monty Python sketch that sparked my interest
In 1969, the BBC aired the 8th episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s a sketch comedy show, generally regarded as one of the best ever made. One of this episode’s sketches is called “Buying a Bed.” In it, a newly-married couple comes to a furniture store to buy a nice new bed for their new home together.
However, the salespeople have a very idiosyncratic way of expressing themselves. One salesperson habitually gives measurements that are ten times the real ones, so he describes one bed as “sixty feet wide.” Another gives measurements that are 1/3 the real ones, so he describe that bed as “two foot long.” And still another calls beds “dog kennels.” At each step, the sales staff coach the couple in how to discuss this bed purchase with their fellow salespeople.
If the couple messes up their instructions, then one salesman short-circuits. He puts a bucket over his head and refuses to “come out” again. To mollify him, the staff must sing a hymn called “Jerusalem.”
Every time the couple messes up, the hymn-singing gets more and more extensive–and the rest of the furniture store staff get increasingly annoyed with the couple.
The hymn always caught my attention, though. As an American teen discovering the Pythons in the mid-to-late 1980s, I’d never heard it before.
“Jerusalem” as an expression of the British Israelism conspiracy theory
The hymn now called “Jerusalem” is based on an 1804 or 1808 poem by William Blake, “And did those feet in ancient time.” It concerns Joseph of Arimathea, a character in the Gospels. Joseph of Arimathea, a Jew who secretly followed Jesus, gave him a temporary burial place after the Crucifixion. A couple centuries after Christianity was invented, a number of legends sprang up around ol’ Joseph. He even got a fake testimony.
There’s no reason to believe he really existed, any more than any other characters did aside from the big-name rulers. If he was indeed a wealthy Jew and the member of some Jewish council in Jerusalem, no contemporary records say so. Arimathea itself didn’t exist, though later Bible scholars have tried to name towns it might have been. But none of that has ever stopped conspiracy theorists.
By the 3rd century, early Christians liked to think that they’d conquered Britain before even the Romans had. Eusebius, that reprehensible liar-for-Jesus, definitely thought so. (It should alarm Christians to know how many of their ideas come from him!) Queen Elizabeth I did too, and used this legend in her letter “On Religion, 1559” as justification for rejecting Catholic leaders’ control-grabs. Even by then, the legend had attached to Joseph of Arimathea. At some point around the 13th century, he even got tangled up in Holy Grail legends.
As for Blake’s poem — and the hymn — and the sketch’s central song, it begins:
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
Basically, it’s about building the New Jerusalem in England because it’s so gorgeous. But it alludes to a Bible character visiting England, perhaps even a young Jesus himself.
(The poem also gave us the phrase “dark Satanic mills,” by the way. Thought y’all might like that!)
How the conspiracy theory built up
Alas for William Blake, the poem got little traction at first. Eventually, though, it got included in a 1916 patriotic, inspirational book called The Spirit of Man. That’s when it — and Blake’s ideas — really took off. The guy who made it, Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, had this poem made into a song.
Now, interestingly, the poem and song don’t specifically name Joseph of Arimathea. But the legend already existed and was popularly embraced, so it sounds like everyone encountering it simply understood that’s who it meant. Other legends simply built off of this one.
Soon enough, someone envisioned tons of Jews visiting England in ancient times. This new legend is called British Israelism. It first arose in the 19th century. You can read about it at Jason Colavito’s site, where he’s kindly provided us the full text of an 1861 mythmaking book called England: the Remnant of Judah and the Israel of Ephraim, by British Israelism believer Reverend F.R.A. Glover. The idea is that the Lost Tribes of Israel ended up in England, of all places. There, they mixed with England’s existing people.
That made England sorta Israel 2.0. It also elevates their royalty to the level of divine viceroys. Who’d’a thunk?
Of course, like all conspiracy theories, we find here also a shadowy “them” who want to keep all these secrets away from popular knowledge. We find also brave, intrepid adventuring (pseudo)archaeologists willing to share them with the world.
The appeal of the British Israelism conspiracy theory
So this is like American supersessionism, just in Britain. A lot of American evangelicals believe in their heart of hearts that they are Jews 2.0, and America is Israel the Promised Land 2.0. Also, Jesus likes them best. See, Gentiles accepted him, while Jesus’ own people, the Jews, rejected him. Silly Jews!
Like supersessionism in America, the British people who go in for British Israelism tend to be the worst of the worst. Jason Colavito links this conspiracy theory to white nationalism, British imperialist ambitions, and other kinds of colonization and racism. Unsurprisingly, since wingnuts tend to accumulate wingnut ideas, British Israelism reached American shores by the 2010s and fused with similar beliefs here.
Colavito had a good time sporking the heck out of a pseudoarchaeology show called America Unearthed that tried to make the case that ancient Jewish and Christian relics had somehow gotten smuggled to America. At one point, this real archaeologist clearly enjoys describing some wingnut who claims to have a priceless relic, the real and true Stone of Destiny, in his barn. The wingnut then claims that who knows, maybe the Ark of the Covenant is in America too!
Let me help him out. No, it is not. Of course, the pseudoarchaeologist in question, Scott Wolter, also apparently thinks Jesus and Akhenaten number among his ancestors. Wolter thinks this gives him ties to Scottish royalty. And believe you me: this dude loves loves loves to imagine that he is that important and amazing.
Some people just need to feel special
Conspiracy theories contain so many elements that appeal to their believers. Regular people hear them and realize they’re preposterous, and then just reject them out of hand. But a certain kind of person hears it and immediately gloms onto it.
And that kind of person isn’t necessarily stupid or poorly-educated. I’ve met all kinds of smart, well-educated people who nonetheless glommed onto conspiracy theories with all their hearts. Endtimes fantasies are just one example of the trope. When I was Pentecostal, I knew tons of engineers and chemists and doctors who at least acted like they were all-in on the Endtimes.
I think a big part of why certain people fall for these things is that being part of a conspiracy theory community makes them feel way more important than they are. They know something other people don’t know. They are preparing and will be ready when XYZ terrible thing happens. Don’t mess with them! Their group is powerful because of this secret, hidden knowledge! Oh, just imagine all the attention that flows their way! (Even negative attention is attention, after all.)
If someone feels mediocre or less-than, or has a belligerent or ornery disposition, then it must feel downright intoxicating to hold what seems like a vast, world-changing secret that very few people accept.
Meeting our needs in healthier ways
The problem is, of course, that if we buy into false ideas, they can lead us seriously astray. They can cost us valuable time and resources that could be going elsewhere. Worse, they lower believers’ ability to discern the truth of other claims. They’ve already compartmentalized away whatever critical thinking skills they have in this area. Where else will they do that? And what will make them want to do so?
Once the conspiracy dissipates, once its predictions fail to happen, once its leaders get out of hand with overreach and abuse, obviously one hopes that believers find something better to waste their finite lifetimes on. But the unfortunate truth is that believers usually just go find another conspiracy theory to glom onto and bark about. It’s much cheaper to get those highs from conspiracy theories than to do it in healthier ways that are based on reality.
Ask me how I know this. Go ahead. Or do you need to ask? Yeah, I bought into a few in my day, before I realized what a problem they are. But the biggest one of all was my religious affiliation.
Pentecostalism as a conspiracy theory
Really, Pentecostalism itself is little more than a very wrought-up conspiracy theory. Its founders claim that TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ got warped by evil Catholics, who introduced pagan ideas like Trinitarianism to this once pristine, pure religion. Only recently, starting in 1909, had miracles revealed the truth.
Gosh, Jesus is so lucky to have Pentecostals today!
The rot goes deep. The wingnuts insisting that Joseph of Arimathea and the Lost Tribes of Israel landed in England aren’t that far removed in spirit from any Christian who believes their flavor restored the Original and True Religion of Christianity. Or that any day now, the Rapture will happen and then the UN will institute a One World Government that robs all Christians of their right to believe and practice whatever religion they wish.
Compared to the Left Behind series and its vicious attacks and smears on anyone who believes anything different from its fanbase and authors, the idea that some guy thinks that some American somewhere has totally got the Ark of the Covenant in his barn sounds, ya know, almost kind of quaint!
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