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English National Identity and the Readmission of the Jews, 1650-1656

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 April 2015

Religions and Theology, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester Ml3 9PL; e-mail:


This article explores the presentation of English national identity in literature surrounding the 1655 Whitehall Conference on Jewish readmission to England. Writers in the 1650s suggested that England was suffering providential punishment for sins against the Jewish people. This combined with the idea that God had selected England to restore the Jews to Palestine. This form of ‘chosen’ nationhood complicates understandings of links between Jews and English national identity formation. Jews were recognised as ‘other’, but also as superior to Gentiles. England was therefore ‘chosen’ for a special purpose, but in no way replaced ethnic Israel.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 Spencer, Edward, A briefe epistle to the learned Manasseh ben Israel, London 1650 (Wing S4945A), 58Google Scholar.

2 For full discussions of the circumstances surrounding the conference see Endelman, Todd M., The Jews of Britain, 1656–2000, Berkeley 2002, 1527CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Katz, David S., Philo-semitism and the readmission of the Jews to England, 1603–1655, Oxford 1982Google Scholar; The Jews in the history of England, Oxford 1994, 107–44Google Scholar; and ‘English redemption and Jewish readmission in 1656’, Journal of Jewish Studies xxxiv (1983), 73–91; Shapiro, James, Shakespeare and the Jews, New York 1996, 5562Google Scholar, 167–94; Wilensky, Mordecai, ‘The literary controversy in 1656 concerning the return of the Jews to England’, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research xx (1951), 357–93Google Scholar; and Wolf, Lucien, Menasseh ben Israel's mission to Oliver Cromwell, London 1901Google Scholar.

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4 ben Israel, Vindiciae, 37.

5 Katz, Philo-semitism, 193–5.

6 ben Israel, To his highness, sigs A3v–A3ir. See also a reprint of the petition in the Publick Intelligencer xii (18–24 Dec. 1655).

7 Quoted in Adler, Hermann, ‘Homage to Menasseh ben Israel,’ Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England i (1893), 48Google Scholar.

8 [Henry Jessey], A narrative of the late proceedings at White-Hall concerning the Jews, London 1656 (Wing J696), 10.

9 On this possibility see Glaser, Eliane, Judaism without Jews: philosemitism and Christian polemic in early modern England, Basingstoke 2007, 713Google Scholar.

10 Shapiro, Shakespeare, 43–88; Glaser, Judaism, 92–112. On toleration of the Jews in seventeenth-century England see Coffey, John, Persecution and toleration in Protestant England, 1558–1689, Harlow 2000, 134–65Google Scholar, and Walsham, Alexandra, Charitable hatred: tolerance and intolerance in England, 1500–1700, Manchester 2006, 247–69Google Scholar.

11 See Menasseh ben Israel, The hope of Israel, 32–6, London 1651 (Wing 2535: 02) and To his Highnesse, 9. For discussion of the role of philosemitism in readmission see Katz, Philo-semitism; for claims of economic motives see Wolf, Mission, pp. xxx–xxxvi.

12 Shapiro, Shakespeare, 43–88.

13 Glaser, Judaism, 113–29.

14 All of these positions have something of merit. Philosemitism was an important current of English thought, and had clearly come to influence thinking on the Jews in the 1640s and 1650s. While they should be downplayed, claims that there were economic motives for readmission (although cried down by merchants in the conference itself) are not entirely baseless, as tracts in favour of readmission do talk in terms of financial benefit. Likewise, Glaser has done a great service to our understanding of events of 1655/6 by teasing out the allusions to contemporary legal debates in works ostensibly about the Jews. The caveat here must be that these works, for all that they say on these debates, were still about Jews and still genuinely interested in either admitting or barring them from admission into England.

15 See Cogley, Richard, ‘The fall of the Ottoman Empire and the restoration of Israel in the “Judeo-Centric” strand of Puritan millenarianism’, Church History lxxii (2003), 304–32Google Scholar, and Crome, Andrew, ‘“The proper and naturall meaning of the prophets”: the hermeneutic roots of Judeo-centrism in Puritan eschatology’, Renaissance Studies xxiv (2010), 725–41Google Scholar.

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17 D. L., Israels condition and cause pleaded: Or, some arguments for the Jews admission into England, London 1656 (Wing L9), sig. A3iv.

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19 The writers are Sir Thomas Shirley in 1607 and James Harrington in 1656. Both suggested Ireland as a possible place of settlement. Nabil Matar has suggested just this motivation – setting up a colonial state for English economic interests – behind desires to restore the Jews to Palestine in the early modern period: Islam in Britain, 1558–1685, Cambridge 1988, 167–83, and ‘The idea of the restoration of the Jews in Protestant thought: between the Reformation and 1660’, Durham University Journal lxxviii (1985), 23–35. More recently, this idea has been linked to the important current of Hebraic republicanism in early modern England. On this idea in debates on readmission specifically see Sutcliffe, Adam, ‘The philosemitic moment? Judaism and republicanism in seventeenth-century European thought’, in Karp, Jonathan and Sutcliffe, Adam (eds), Philosemitism in history, Cambridge 2011, 6789CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for the theme more generally see Nelson, Eric, The Hebrew republic: Jewish sources and the transformation of European political thought, Cambridge, Ma 2010Google Scholar.

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23 Idem, The second part of a short demurrer to the Jewes long discontinued remitter into England, London 1656 (Wing P4073), 133.

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27 Nicholas, Edward, An apology for the honorable nation of the Jews, and all the sons of Israel, London 1648 (Wing N1081), 4Google Scholar.

28 Ibid. 12–13.

29 Ibid. 6. Nicholas states firstly (p. 6) that he does not know what God intended in scattering the Jews; later (p. 13) he suggests a lack of thankfulness for ‘peculiar blessings’ might be the cause.

30 This was the continuation of the standard pre-Reformation position, which saw the Christian Church as the successor to Israel, and inheritor of her blessings. The Church was therefore seen as the ‘true Israel’ and Christians as ‘true Jews’. Although such thinking is found in Paul (see, for example, Romans ii.25–9, and Ephesians ii), the claim that the Church was the fulfilment of Israel's promises became increasingly common over the patristic period. On this see Cohen, Jeremy, ‘The mystery of Israel's salvation: Romans 11:25–26 in patristic and medieval exegesis’, Harvard Theological Review xcviii (2005), 247–81Google Scholar. This form of thinking continued into the Reformation. See, for example, Calvin's statement that ‘we must grasp this analogy in the prophets: when they discuss Christ's Kingdom, they set forth God's outward blessings as figures of spiritual goods’: Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Philadelphia 1960, 3.13.4.

31 Nicholas, Apology, 4.

32 Moses Wall, ‘Considerations upon the point of the conversion of the Jews’, in ben Israel, Hope, 49.

33 Spencer, quoted in Wall, ‘Considerations’, 57.

34 Tillinghast, John, Generation-work OR a brief and seasonable word, offered to the view and consideration of the saints and people of God in this generation, London 1655 (Wing T1175), pt ii, p. 39Google Scholar.

35 Ibid. pt i, p. 51.

36 Nathaniel Homes, Apokalypsis anastaseos. the resurrection revealed, or the dawnings of the day-star about to rise, London 1653 (Wing H2560), 72Google Scholar.

37 Ibid. 141.

38 Williams, Roger, ‘A testimony to the fourth paper presented by Major Butler’, in The fourth paper presented by Major Butler to the honourable committee of parliament, for the propagating of the Gospel of Christ Jesus, London 1652 (Wing W2763), 16Google Scholar.

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46 Cartwright, Ebenezer and Cartwright, Johanna, The petition of the Jewes, London 1648 (Wing C695), 3Google Scholar.

47 Williams, ‘Fourth paper’, 19.

48 Collier, A brief answer, sig. A2ir.

49 Philo-Judaeus, Resurrection, 18.

50 Jessey, Narrative, 4.

51 Ibid. 7.

52 Nicholas, Apology, 5.

53 Ibid. 12.

54 Ibid. 14–15.

55 Cartwright and Cartwright, Petition, 2.

56 On the hope for an alliance built on ideas of both nations' apocalyptic mission see Pincus, Steven C. A., Protestantism and patriotism: ideologies and the making of English foreign policy, 1650–1658, Cambridge 1996, 1539Google Scholar.

57 Philo-Judaeus, Resurrection, 118–19.

58 Collier, Brief answer, 12.

59 Ibid. sig. A2ir.

60 Tillinghast, Generation-work, pt i, p. 5–20.

61 Ibid. pt ii, pp. 53–4.

62 Ibid. pt ii, pp. 52–3. See also pp. 63–7, 83–8.

63 Ibid. pt ii, pp. 58–64.

64 Jessey, Narrative, 6.

65 Ibid. 4.

66 Ibid. 9.

67 Shapiro, Shakespeare, 167–83.

68 McGiffert's work has highlighted some of the difficulties that dogged the comparison of England with Israel, particularly regarding the extent of any national election (whether the nation as a whole was included, or simply the elect) and counter-productive attempts to solve this problem by placing the entire nation under the covenant of works: ‘God's controversy’, 1151–74.

69 Tillinghast, Generation-work, pt i, p. 49

70 D. L., Israels condition, 33–4.

71 Pincus argues that the failure of Barebones resulted in the side-lining of radicals and the moving away from an offensive ‘apocalyptic’ foreign policy by the Protectorate to a more positive and reactive anti-Spanish position: Protestantism and patriotism, 149–91.

72 Cromwell, Oliver, The Lord General Cromwel's speech delivered in the council chamber, upon the 4 of July, 1653, London 1654 (Wing C7169), 25Google Scholar.

73 [Jessey], Narrative, 9.

74 Goodwin, Thomas, The works of Thomas Goodwin, D. D. sometime president of Magdalen Colledg in Oxford, London 1683, ii (Wing G1220), 58–9Google Scholar.

75 Lawrence had also been an elder in Goodwin's congregation in Arnhem before returning to England in the mid-1640s. See Tolmie, Murray, The triumph of the saints: the separate churches of London, 1616–1649, Cambridge 1977, 105, 120Google Scholar.

76 See Oldenburg to Menasseh, 25 July 1657, Royal Society ms MM 1, fo. 24, repr. in Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall (eds), The correspondence of Henry Oldenburg, Madison 1965, 125–7. Oldenburg was also a Judeo-centrist. His letter concerns a book that he had been given, which confirms his belief that ‘the magnificent and splendid prophecies of the glorious restoration of the Jews to their homeland are about to be fulfilled’.

77 The classic claim for England's view of itself as ‘the elect nation’ is made in Haller, William, Foxe's ‘Book of martyrs’ and the elect nation, London 1963Google Scholar. For a rebuttal of this view see Bauckham, Richard, Tudor apocalypse, Oxford 1978Google Scholar, and Firth, KatherineThe apocalyptic tradition in Reformation Britain, 1530–1645, Oxford 1979Google Scholar. A helpful discussion of the subtleties of elect nation rhetoric in early modern England can be found in Guyatt, Nicholas, Providence and the invention of the United States, 1607–1876, Cambridge 2007, 1152CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

78 The idea of a pan-European Protestant crusade was regularly articulated in the earlier seventeenth century, and grew particularly fervent at the time of the start of the Thirty Years' War. This was always seen as a fight against international papal influence, rather than having any specific geo-political aims of Jewish restoration. See Gribben, Crawford, The Puritan millennium: literature and theology, 1550–1682, rev. edn, Milton Keynes 2008, 106–12Google Scholar, and Williamson, Arthur H., ‘Britain and the beast: the apocalypse and the seventeenth-century debate about the creation of the British state’, in Force, James E. and Popkin, Richard H. (eds), Millenarianism and messianism in early modern European culture, III: The millenarian turn: millenarian contexts of science, politics, and everyday Anglo-American life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dordrecht 2001, 1527Google Scholar.

79 Tillinghast, Generation-work, pt ii, p. 54.

80 Guyatt, Providence and the invention of the United States, 6–52.

81 Philo-Judaeus, Resurrection, 93–4.

82 D. L., Israels condition, 37–8.

83 Kumar, Krishan, The making of English national identity, Cambridge 2003Google Scholar.

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85 Smith, Anthony D., The cultural foundations of nations: hierarchy, covenant and republic, Oxford 2008, 107–34Google Scholar.

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88 Walsham, Providence, 281–325. See also Thomas, Keith, Religion and the decline of magic, Harmondsworth 1971, 90132Google Scholar.

89 Worden, Blair, ‘Oliver Cromwell and the sin of Achan’, in Beales, Derek and Best, Geoffrey (eds.), History, society and the Churches: essays in honour of Owen Chadwick, Cambridge 1985, 125–45Google Scholar.

90 Jessey and Dury, for example, undertook charitable collections to aid Jews then suffering in Jerusalem. See Katz, David S., ‘Menasseh ben Israel's Christian connection’, in Kaplan, Yosef, Méchoulan, Henry and Popkin, Richard H. (eds), Menasseh ben Israel and his world, Leiden 1989, 117–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Popkin, Richard H., ‘Rabbi Nathan Shapira's visit to Amsterdam in 1657’, in Michman, Jozeph and Levie, Tirtsah (eds), Dutch Jewish history, i (1984), 185205Google Scholar; and Crome, Andrew, ‘Friendship and enmity to God and nation: the complexities of Jewish-Gentile relations in the Whitehall Conference of 1655’, in Classen, Albrecht and Sandidge, Marilyn (eds), Medieval and early modern friendship, Berlin 2011, 749–77Google Scholar.

91 The classic study of the controversy remains Perry, Thomas W., Public opinion, propaganda and politics in eighteenth-century England: a study of the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753, Cambridge, Ma 1962Google Scholar. Further detailed examinations can be found in Endelman, Todd M.The Jews of Georgian England, 1714–1830: tradition and change in a liberal society, Ann Arbor 1999, esp. pp. 185Google Scholar; Felsenstein, Frank, Anti-semitic stereotypes: a paradigm of otherness in English popular culture, 1660–1830, Baltimore 1995, 187214CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Katz, Jews in the history of England, 240–80; Rabin, Dana, ‘The Jew Bill of 1753: masculinity, virility and the nation’, Eighteenth-Century Studies xxxix (2006), 157–71Google Scholar; and Shapiro, Shakespeare, 195–224.

92 Endelman, Jews of Britain, 127–80; Felsenstein, Anti-semitic stereotypes, 90–122; Katz, Jews in the history of England, 284–323; Lewis, Donald M., The origins of Christian Zionism: Lord Shaftesbury and Evangelical support for a Jewish homeland, Cambridge 2010, 4966Google Scholar; Matar, Nabil I., ‘The controversy over the restoration of the Jews: from 1754 until the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews’, Durham University Journal lxxxii (1990), 2944Google Scholar.

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94 See Kiracofe, Clifford A., Dark crusade: Christian Zionism and US foreign policy, London 2009, 104–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Sizer, Stephen, Christian Zionism: roadmap to Armageddon?, Leicester 2004Google Scholar.

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96 Koenig, William, Eye to eye: facing the consequences of dividing Israel, Alexandria, Va 2004Google Scholar.

97 Pawson, David, Defending Christian Zionism, Bristol 2008, 153–6Google Scholar.

98 For a recent link between historical Judeo-centrism and contemporary policy see Smith, Robert O., ‘Anglo-American Christian Zionism: implications for Palestinian Christians’, Ecumenical Review lxiv (2012), 2735Google Scholar.