Before Pastor Hagee, There Was Lord Shaftesbury

The Victorian roots of evangelical Zionism.

October 20, 2013 | Gertrude Himmelfarb
About the author: Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922-2019) wrote extensively on intellectual and cultural history, with a focus on Victorian England. Her recent books include The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot and The People of the Book: Philo-Semitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill.
This is a response to Evangelicals and Israel, originally published in Mosaic in October 2013

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, by John Collier.

The following comments are a historical footnote to Robert Nicholson’s splendid essay, “Evangelicals and Israel.” Addressing himself to American Jews, he rebukes them for being distrustful of the millions of evangelical Christians who have been staunch supporters of the Jewish state and the Jewish people. But he also rebukes the growing minority of evangelicals who have recently withdrawn that support and are now actively hostile to Israel and Jews.

Two years ago, I was provoked to write The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill, in a similarly critical mode, reproaching the present-day English (not English Jews) for betraying their own evangelical tradition, which was so respectful of the Jewish religion and people and so enthusiastic in favor of a Jewish state, and for succumbing to an anti-Israel fervor very nearly indistinguishable from anti-Semitism.  

Evangelicalism was at its height in England in the early 19th century, with Lord Ashley (later the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury) its most prominent and vigorous champion. “An Evangelical of the Evangelicals,” he described himself. It was evangelicalism that prompted both his zeal as a social reformer (of factories, education, and child-labor practices) and as a “missionary,” as he saw it, to and from the Jews. “Who will be the Cyrus of Modern Times,” he inquired in his diary in 1826, “the second Chosen to restore the God’s people?” (Cyrus, king of ancient Persia, permitted the exiled Jews to return from Babylonia to the land of Israel.) 

Ashley was all of twenty-five and a newly elected member of Parliament when he took upon himself that role. A decade later, he helped organize the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (the Jews’ Society, as it was known), one of whose aims, and soon its principal aim, was “encouraging the physical restoration of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel—the Land of Israel.” Two years later, he persuaded Lord Palmerston, then the foreign secretary, to appoint a British vice-consul to Jerusalem. “What a wonderful event it is!” he exulted. “The ancient city of the people of God is about to resume a place among the nations.”

Three years later, over the strong objections of William Gladstone and other Anglicans, Ashley prevailed upon Robert Peel, the new prime minister, to support a bill creating a bishopric in Jerusalem. The first bishop appointed to that post was Michael Solomon Alexander, a converted Jew, the son of a rabbi and himself a former rabbi. Ashley, who had been involved in the choice of Alexander, was delighted, he confided to his diary, “to see a native Hebrew appointed by the Church of England to carry back to the Holy City the truths and blessings which Gentiles had received from it.” For the rest of his life he wore the ring the bishop had given him before leaving for Jerusalem. It was inscribed with a quotation from the Psalms, “Oh, pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee.”

In 1854, with the outbreak of the Crimean war, Ashley, now Lord Shaftesbury, urged Lord Clarendon, the foreign minister, to persuade Turkey to cede some land to the Jews. In his diary, again citing the decree of Cyrus, he argued that this was the time for another, “analogous” action: 

All the East is stirred; the Turkish empire is in rapid decay; every nation is restless; all hearts expect some great thing. . . . The territory must be assigned to someone or other; can it be given to any European potentate? to any American colony? to any Asiatic sovereign or tribe? . . . No, no, no! There is a country without a nation; and God now, in His wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a country. His own once loved, nay, still loved people, the sons of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.

Those italicized phrases—“country without a nation” and “nation without a country”—have since become memorable, echoed in the famous Zionist slogan, “A land without a people for a people without a land.” It was later charged that this slogan willfully and wrongly implied that there were no “people” in Palestine. But Shaftesbury, like the later Zionists, clearly meant by “people” a recognizable people, a nation. A dozen years later he established the Palestine Exploration Fund to prepare the country for “the return of its ancient possessors.” This “great event,” he felt assured, was not far off. “A nation must have a country. The old land, the old people. This is not an artificial experiment; it is nature, it is history.”


“And yet,” Nicholson pauses midway in his essay as he introduces the disturbing subject of those American evangelicals who have begun propounding a new evangelical anti-Zionism. The historian of Victorian England must register a different “and yet.”

In 1847, Lionel Rothschild had been elected to Parliament but was not seated because he refused to take the required oath “upon the true faith of a Christian.” A Jewish Disability Bill, introduced the following year, was meant to remove this last “civil disability” suffered by English Jews: they could vote, but as Jews they could not serve in Parliament. After a memorable debate, in which some supported the bill on the grounds of liberty and justice, others for reasons of expediency and consistency (Catholics and Dissenters having already been admitted to Parliament), it passed the Commons with a comfortable majority but was defeated in the House of Lords.

Ashley (as he then still was), well-known as an admirer of Jews and Jewish causes, might have been expected to speak in favor of this so-called “Jew Bill.” Yet he was among its most vigorous opponents. Unmoved by Disraeli, who reminded his Christian colleagues that Jews should be admitted because they were “the authors of your religion,” and unpersuaded by the prime minister, Lord Russell, who argued that Christianity should “prevail in private life” but not in public, Ashley insisted that it was precisely in public that Christianity must prevail, else Christianity itself was “altogether needless.” To admit Jews would violate the essential, unalterable Christian character of the state.

It was a passionate speech, and it concluded on an equally passionate note—a tribute to the very Jews whom Ashley was disqualifying from Parliament. He hoped he had not given offense, he said, to

the Hebrew people . . . , the most remarkable nation that had ever yet appeared on the face of the earth . . . , a people of very powerful intellect, of cultivated minds . . . , their literature extended in an unbroken chain from the days of our Lord down to the present time . . . , embracing every subject of science and learning, of secular and religious knowledge . . .

and so on for a discourse on their honorable and distinguished history from antiquity to modernity. Ashley was prepared to make every effort to contribute to “their honor and comfort,” but he could not in good conscience eliminate the vital oath testifying to the Christian nature of the English state.

A decade later, a similar bill was introduced and accepted by both Houses. Rothschild took his seat, wearing a hat and swearing the oath “So help me Jehovah” on a large Hebrew Bible. He served for fifteen years without making a single speech.

To compound this series of “and yets,” Shaftesbury voted for that second bill, explaining in his diary that he did so because he could no longer resist, “pertinaciously and hopelessly,” the will of the Commons. Ten years later, recalling this event, he urged Gladstone, then the prime minister, to show regard for “God’s ancient people” by giving a peerage to Sir Moses Montefiore, “a noble member of the House of Israel.” “It would be a glorious day for the House of Lords when that grand old Hebrew was enrolled on the lists of the hereditary legislators of England.” (Gladstone did not act on that suggestion; Montefiore remained the Sir he had been since his knighthood in 1837.) It is ironic that Shaftesbury should propose to seat Montefiore in the House of Lords, having once denied Rothschild a seat in Commons; but perhaps not altogether ironic—the lords being, at least rhetorically, more exalted, more lordly, than mere commoners.

It may also be ironic if this long-ago episode should confirm today’s Jews in their distrust of evangelicals, preferring instead to see their civil rights defended on the more prosaic, secular grounds of equity and tolerance. Suspecting the motives of evangelical Zionists for whom Israel is allegedly merely a prelude to the Second Coming and the conversion of the Jews, many Jews may also prefer to see Israel defended in terms of the American national interest rather than religious zeal.

Yet secularism itself has its perils, as I think Nicholson would agree, lending itself all too readily to anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. The dismissal or disparagement of religion as an inspiring force, on the part of Jews or Christians, also has the unfortunate and perhaps unintended effect of impoverishing, diminishing, even trivializing the very idea of Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish state.


Gertrude Himmelfarb, the eminent historian of Victorian thought and culture, is the author of, among other books, Victorian Minds, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, Marriage and Morals among the Victorians, and The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot. She is currently preparing a volume of essays on Jews and Judaism by her late husband, Irving Kristol.