Since the unexpected discovery in 1492 of humans not accounted for in the Bible, Europeans were keen to find out where they had come from. An ingenious solution was proposed: they were the tribes of Israel that disappeared from history with the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the middle of the first millennium BC. A whole religion (the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints) has been built on these shaky foundations.
There was also a movement in the late nineteenth century to identify the English with the same lost tribes. There are still traces of the ‘British-Israelite’ movement today.
The Israelite hypothesis
Very quickly after the discovery of the New World, Europeans began to treat its inhabitants as little more than their possessions. There was some debate about whether they were fully human and thus descendants of Adam. At first, few of their fellow Europeans protested, but in the early sixteenth century, Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566) became a champion of the Native American cause. He spent many years trying to improve the conditions under which they lived in the Spanish colonies in the West Indies, Peru and Guatemala. Las Casas believed that the Native Americans should be converted to Christianity, as he was convinced that they originated in Ancient Israel and felt that the Bible contained the proof that they were members of the Lost Tribes of Israel. He was not alone and it was in no small measure thanks to his efforts that Pope Paul III (1468-1549; pope 1534-49) declared that the Native Americans were fully human, after all, in 1537.
A report by the seventeenth-century Portuguese traveller, António Montezinos (also known as Aharón Leví de Montezinos), published in 1644, reawakened interest in the subject. He claimed that there was a Jewish tribe living beyond the mountain passes of the Andes and that he had heard them recite the She‘ma Yisro‘el (the expression of the Jewish faith) and saw them observe Jewish rituals. Alas, Montezinos was a fantasist whose stories were accepted uncritically.
Having decided that some of the Native Americans practised Hebrew rites and were therefore ancient Canaanites or the lost tribes of Israel, this meant that they were in dire need of conversion. Thomas Thorowgood’s Jewes in America, or, Probabilities that the Americans are of that race, first published in 1650, was one of the first to argue for the need to convert these lost tribes. The second edition of 1660 quotes the authority of John Eliot (1604-1690), the ‘Apostle to the Indians’, who went on to publish a translation of the bible into the Massachusetts dialect of Algonquin in 1663. Groups like the Corporation for Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England were founded by English settlers who believed that the Native Americans were lost Jews who would need to be reconciled with Christ at the end of time. Although the belief that Indians were Hebrews quickly faded as knowledge of their languages, customs and beliefs increased, Edward Johnson (1598-1672), author of The Wonder-Working Providence of Sion’s Saviour (published in 1654), argued that a mass conversion of Indians was necessary if America were to be the site of the new heaven and new earth.
Menasseh ben Israel (born in Madeira as Manoel Dias Soeiro, 1604-1657), a respected Dutch Jewish scholar, was heavily influenced by the account of António Montezinos and wrote his best-selling booklet, The Hope of Israel, which he dedicated to the English Parliament. Meeting Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658; Lord Protector of England 1653-1658), he petitioned for the recall of the Jews (who had been expelled from England in 1290) and expressed his belief that the dispersion of Jews to all corners of the Earth was the beginning of the redemption. Certain Christian traditions claimed that when the Ten Tribes of Israel were found and restored to the Holy Land, the return of Christ to reign supreme was not far off, a belief that is still had by some, especially American, fundamentalist churches. There was thus a considerable vested interest among some believers to identify the Lost Tribes. Now that apparently Israelite tribes had been discovered in the Americas, ben Israel argued, Cromwell must readmit the Jews to England to bring about the Messianic era.
Similar sentiments were expressed, albeit in more humanistic terms, in the second half of the eighteenth century during the American and French revolutions. Some abolitionists, for instance, claimed that the Messianic Age would be ushered in when the slaves were freed and when the native Americans, as descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes, were converted to Christianity. The sometimes eccentric religious beliefs of the pioneer settlers developed political overtones, with the production of bizarre propaganda works such as the Apocalypse de Chiokoyhikoy, chef des Iroquois (published in 1777 by the newly-formed Congress and condemned by the Inquisition in 1779). This purported to be an account of the end of the world by an Iroquois prophet, denigrating the English to support the cause for American independence by showing how the Iroquois would be better off under American rule.
The most long lasting effect of these ideas about the Israelite origins of the Native Americans was the establishment of a completely new religion, which its founder, Joseph Smith (1805-1844), claimed to have been directly revealed to him in 1827. According to the Book of Mormon, the holy text of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (more popularly known as the Mormons), a people known as the Jaredites arrived in America around 2247 BCE. The Jaredites were a group of people from the Middle East who had fled their homeland, following the destruction of the Tower of Babel and built a thriving civilisation. Their civilisation was subsequently destroyed in a great battle at Hill Cumorah; there is much debate within the church about the location of this hill, which places it anywhere between the Gulf of Mexico and New York. The Jaredites were followed around 600 BCE, before the fall of Jerusalem, by further groups of Israelites, the Lamanites and Nephites, who were the builders of the earthen mounds of the eastern USA. When war broke out between the Lamanites and the Nephites, the Lamanites eventually won and wiped out the Nephites c 421 CE. The Lamanites were cursed by god for their sinful behaviour and accordingly he turned them red-skinned.
As an apparently historical narrative, the story told by the Book of Mormon ought to be testable, just like the bible, but despite many years of effort by Mormon archaeologists, no archaeological evidence has ever been found to support any of this story. Indeed, it looks like an obvious justification for European supremacy: the Lamanites (who are the Native Americans) are not only not the original inhabitants of the Americas, as the much superior Jaredites were there first, but they have also committed a sin so terrible that they now bear its mark for all time. This is exactly the same argument that was once used by Christian apologists for the apartheid régime in South Africa, who argued that the Africans, as descendants of Ham, had been cursed by Jehovah and bore the mark of the curse as their black skin. The arrival of the Jaredites corresponds neither to the arrival of the first humans in North America (the precise date is hotly disputed, but they were there by 13,000 BCE at the latest) nor to the first flourishings of any American civilisation. This causes problems for Mormon archaeologists, who are able to detect numerous civilisations in North America, none of which appears to be of the right date or to possess any of the characteristics attributed to them in the ‘divinely inspired’ Book of Mormon.