The 'Lost Tribes' of Herbert W. Armstrong


Catholic Answers Magazine

What Lost Tribes?" you might ask. Why, the Lost Tribes of Israel, of course. You remember them: taken away by their Assyrian conquerors, roaming from here to there, finally settling in . . .

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Well, maybe we shouldn't get ahead of the story. Come to think of it, maybe we have no choice, since the booklet under review, "The United States and Britain in Prophecy," gives away the answer in its title. Yes, according to the author, Herbert W. Armstrong, the Lost Tribes of Israel are none other than the British and Americans of British descent.

Armstrong first published this booklet in 1954. It was reprinted in 1987, a year after Armstrong's death, by the religious organization he founded, the Worldwide Church of God, which is making a comeback from a series of scandals that rocked it in the late seventies and early eighties.

You might recall the excommunication of Armstrong's son and heir apparent, Garner Ted Armstrong, who was given the boot because of his philandering and who promptly went out and started his own church, the Church of God, International.

You might even recall that financial troubles forced the Worldwide Church of God to sell off many of its properties and that 35 dissident ministers broke off to form their own church, alleging financial irregularities by both Armstrongs.

But we're not giving an overview of the Worldwide Church of God in this tract. We're just looking at one of the chief doctrines of this church, what is commonly called British Israelism, the idea that the Lost Tribes of Israel are really the descendants of Anglo-Saxons, which is to say the British and Americans whose ethnic origins are found in Britain.

This beguiling doctrine had been around for decades before Herbert W. Armstrong founded his church in 1933, and it appeals, naturally enough, to those of British heritage. After all, who wouldn't want to be a member of the chosen nation (assuming there is one)? And that, in Armstrongism, is precisely what the Anglo-Saxons are—God's chosen nation, where can be found the direct descendant of David and, even today, David's throne.

The United States and Britain in Prophecy opens with this epigraph: "The prophecies of the Bible have been grievously misunderstood. And no wonder! For the vital key, needed to unlock prophetic doors to understanding, had become lost. That key is a definite knowledge of the true identity of the American and British peoples in biblical prophecy."

Only the first sentence of this epigraph is strictly correct, and a good share of the grievous misunderstanding is by people who swallow the writings of Herbert W. Armstrong.

The Argument Begins

"We know Bible prophecies definitely refer to Russia, Italy, Ethiopia, Libya and Egypt, of today. Could they then ignore modem nations like Britain and America? Is it reasonable?"

This is how the argument begins, and notice what kind of argument it is. If these lesser countries are mentioned in Scripture, would it be fair for God to ignore us, important as we are? (We won't discuss here the premise that these other, modern day countries are, indeed, mentioned in Scripture.) You might call it an argument by pride.

Never fear, says Armstrong. "The fact is, [the British and Americans] are mentioned more often than any other race. Yet their prophetic identity has remained hidden to the many." Why is that? Because the Bible doesn't refer to them by their modem names, but by an ancient name. And what is that name? None other than the name Israel.

"Hold it! " you say. The people who came from Israel are Jews. Britons and Americans, for the most part, aren't Jewish. How can the Worldwide Church of God claim otherwise?

Easily. "The house of Israel is not Jewish! Those who constitute it are not Jews, and never were! That fact we shall now see conclusively, beyond refute."

Then comes a history lesson. Israel, as you will recall, was divided into two nations. The southern kingdom was called Judah, the northern Israel. Until the division all these people, who came from twelve tribes, were known as Israelites.

After the division, the people in the southern kingdom, who carne from two tribes, were known as Jews, the word Jew being derived from the word Judah. The people in the northern kingdom, Israel, came from the other ten tribes.

"Certainly this proves that the Jews are a different nation altogether from the House of Israel," claims Armstrong. "The Jews of today are Judah! They call their nation 'Israel' today because they, too, descend from the patriarch Israel or Jacob. But remember that the 'House of Israel'—the ten tribes that separated from Judah—does not mean Jew ! Whoever the lost ten tribes of Israel are today, they are not Jews!"

"By the year 721 B.C., the House of Israel was conquered and its people were soon driven out of their own land—out of their homes and cities—and carried captives to Assyria, near the southern shores of the Caspian Sea!" So it was in 721 that the Lost Tribes got lost.

The Year Nothing Happened

Had they remained faithful to God, all would have been well. "But, if they refused and rebelled, they were to be punished seven times—a duration of 2,520 years—in slavery, servitude, and want." They did rebel, and their punishment extended from 721 B.C. to A.D. 1800.

And what remarkable thing happened in 1800 (the election of Thomas Jefferson not counting)? Well, nothing in particular, but it is from that date, says Armstrong, that Britain and America became world powers, the first, at that time, politically, the second economically (and later politically).

If you think this is convoluted reasoning—the 2,520 years, for example, are calculated by multiplying the seven years of punishment by 360, the number of days in the ancient year, on the principle that each day of punishment really stood for a whole year of punishment—just wait until you read the remainder of the argument in The United States and Britain in Prophecy. It's enough to note here that Armstrong determines from Scripture that the Lost Tribes ended up on islands in the sea, and these islands are northwest of Palestine.

He points out, for instance, that the forty-ninth chapter of Isaiah begins with, "Listen, O isles, unto me." Do you see how this suggests the British Isles? "Take a map of Europe. Lay a line due northwest of Jerusalem across the continent of Europe, until you come to the sea, and then to the islands in the sea! This line takes you direct to the British Isles!"

(The skeptic might note that the line first comes to the Aegean islands, which are also in the sea—the Mediterranean Sea—but this would mean the Greeks are the Lost Tribes, which, as Churchill would say, is something up with which Armstrong would not put.)

Linguistic Legerdemain

Do you want more proof? Armstrong has it. "The House of Israel is the 'covenant people.' The Hebrew word for 'covenant' is brit. And the word for 'covenant man,' or 'covenant people,' would therefore sound, in English word order, Brit-ish (the word ish means 'man' in Hebrew, and it is also an English suffix on nouns and adjectives). And so, is it mere coincidence that the true covenant people today are called the 'British'? And they reside in the 'British Isles'!"

Good grief! No linguist would take this seriously. Did Armstrong really believe that ish in English is derived from Hebrew? Maybe he did. Obviously his many followers do. But they should be a little less credulous when it comes to coincidences in languages. It's easy to "prove" that two entirely unrelated languages come from the same source or at least one from the other.

Take, for instance, Latin and Japanese. Here 's "proof" that one is derived from the other: In Latin, the word for "go" is ite, as in the dismissal at Mass: Ite, missa est. In Japanese, the word itte means "going," as in the phrase, itte kimasu, "I'm going and returning" (said when leaving the house and the equivalent of our "See you soon"). Notice how similar the words are in sound: ite, itte. And notice the nearly identical meaning. The conclusion: Japanese is derived from Latin, or Latin is derived from Japanese.

What logic! What erudition! What nonsense!

Armstrong couldn't resist this kind of argument. It was bad enough to suggest that the word "British" is Hebrew, but he also made another claim: If you take the name "Isaac," you see it's easy for someone to drop the "I" when speaking quickly and to end up with "Saac" as the name of the patriarch. He had descendants, of course, and these may be called "Saac's sons," from which we get the word "Saxons."

"Is it only coincidence," asks Armstrong, "that 'Saxons' sounds the same as 'Saac's sons'—sons of Isaac?" This doesn't even qualify as a coincidence, since Armstrong had to make up the nickname of "Saac" in order for the "coincidence" to exist.

Another Remarkable Coincidence?

He found other coincidences. When the Lost Tribes were scattered, he says, they "brought with them certain remarkable things, including a harp and a wonderful stone called "lia-fail," or stone of destiny. A peculiar coincidence is that Hebrew reads from right to left, while English reads from left to right. Read this name either way—and it still is "lia-fail." Another strange coincidence—or is it just coincidence?—is that many kings in the history of Ireland, Scotland, and England have been coronated sitting over a remarkable stone—including the present queen. The stone rests today in Westminster Abbey in London, and the coronation chair is built over and around it. A sign once beside it labeled it 'Jacob's pillar-stone.'"

(This line of reasoning may not be one of Armstrong's best. After all, one could note that not only Hebrew and English are read in different directions. Japanese can be read right to left, and Gaelic is read left to right, so maybe this speculation really proves the stone brought by the Lost Tribes is none other than the Blarney Stone.) We'll rush to the end of the booklet, where we find proof that "Almighty God fulfilled his promises to the descendants of Joseph in these latter years since 1800. Take these examples of recent history." The examples given are industrial statistics nearly forty years old.

"Total world petroleum output in 1950 was almost 3,800 million barrels. Of this total the United States alone produced more than one half —nearly 52 percent. Together, the British Commonwealth and the United States produced 60 percent of the crude petroleum."

Similarly, "the British Commonwealth and America produced three-fourths of the world's steel—the United States alone produced almost 60 percent in 1951. The United States produced one and one-third times as much pig iron as all other nations combined."

When "The United States and Britain in Prophecy" was reprinted in 1987, why weren't updated figures used? Because the United States and Britain no longer produce a preponderance of oil, steel, or pig iron.

Most of the world's oil comes out of the Middle East, and steel mills have been closing in America over the last two decades. Most of our steel, and the great majority of the world's, is produced in countries, such as Korea, that weren't major producers forty years ago.

If the Worldwide Church of God had used updated figures, a reader might be inclined to think the Lost Tribes ended up in Saudi Arabia and Korea.

Armstrongism's Appeal

What makes the position this book espouses so attractive? It feeds on nationalism. ("I'm of English descent, and now I see that I'm right in the thick of things, biblically speaking.") It supports ethnic prejudice. ("Thank God I'm not Italian—I never liked Italians anyway, and now I see they aren't descended from the Lost Tribes and so are only secondary players in the divine drama, which is something I always suspected.") It seems to be based on a sophisticated understanding of Scripture. ("Armstrong provides lots of citations, and I can't find fault with his arguments—they're so convoluted they must be right.")

But, still, it's wrong, no matter how satisfying it might seem to some.

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