A Dictionary of Dissent: B (part 2)
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Date: 16 September, 2008

'British Israelism is not a specific sect or organisation so much as an idea that took root probably in the 17th century.'


Andrew Chapman continues his voyage through British and Irish sects and schisms

British Israelites

The notion that the British are descended from one or more of the Lost Tribes of Israel is somehow a, well, very British one, perhaps fuelled by a desire to connect this largely Celtic green and pleasant land to the somewhat distant world of the Middle East in a meaningful way.

British Israelism is not a specific sect or organisation so much as an idea that took root probably in the 17th century, then flowered a century or so later - though specific organisations have of course sprung up since.

British Israelites often lay claim to ancient documents that 'prove' the Israelite link, and a Dr Abade in Amsterdam asserted clearly in 1723 that if one seeks the lost tribes, one should look in Britain. In the 1790s, Richard Brothers declared he was directly descended from King David, and that most 'true' Jews were in fact Europeans.


The man generally regarded as the leading pioneer of these views, though, was the Rev John Wilson, who published Lectures on Our Israelitish Origin in 1840. He found parallels in English and Hebrew language and culture, and through his public lectures the idea gradually spread.

Wilson died in 1871, and Edward Hine and Edward Wheeler Bird took up the mantle, spreading the idea to the United States. Finally, in 1919 the British-Israel World Federation was set up, and it continues to this day.

In the States, the movement found harmony with the American Adventists under Herbert W Armstrong and his Worldwide Church of God, famed for its distribution of the Plain Truth magazine.

British Israelites go to great lengths to establish their heritage, finding signs of 'Isaac' in the word 'Saxon', making great weight of Joseph of Arimathea's supposed voyage to Glastonbury, and even telling a legend that St Paul visited Britain. Some have also had some interesting views about the pyramids - but we'll save those for P.


The Brownists were followers of Robert Browne (c1550-1633) of Rutland, who became a leader of early nonconformist 'separatists' seeking a break from the Church of England.

He was influenced by the Cambridge-based neo-Calvinist Thomas Cartwright, then set up there and in London as a dissident preacher. In 1580/1, along with his right-hand man Robert Harrison, Browne attempted to set up a Congregational church in Norwich, with immigrant Dutch wool workers among his target audience.

In 1581 he was arrested for preaching without a licence (he had applied for one then torn it up), and later moved the congregation to Holland itself on the advice of his relative William Cecil.

In 1583 two former members of the Norwich congregation were alas tried and hanged for selling Browne's writings, and Browne then tried to set up in Edinburgh - where he was again arrested.

Cecil later facilitated Browne's reconciliation with the Church of England, and Browne recanted, becoming a school headmaster in Southwark and living to a ripe old age. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare's Andrew Aguecheek comments: "I would as lief be a Brownist as a politician."

Bryanites (Bible Christian Church)

The Bible Christian Connection was founded in 1815 in Devon by one William O'Bryan and his 22 converts. O'Bryan was born William Bryant (but was keen to link to his Irish roots) in Cornwall in 1778, and became a keen Wesleyan preacher, spreading the word to wild corners of Devon and Cornwall previously untamed by Methodism.

His ardent and undisciplined approach led to him going it alone, but within a year he had 18 ministers and 1500 members on his side, with teams of both male and female itinerant preachers spreading the word further west to the Isles of Scilly and indeed to America.

In 1829 his despotic approach (including acquiring all church property in his own name) was rejected by them, however, and once again he went off on his own.

The movement itself continued to thrive, and by 1882 there were 300 ministers and 34,000 members, though in the US and Canada they later became absorbed by the United Methodists.

A similar process later occurred in Australia and Britain. O'Bryan continued to spread his message in America, and died in New York in 1868.

Read the introduction to this series, and the previous part

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