We spent a few minutes discussing British Israelism, the peculiar doctrine that won the support of thousands of Pakeha New Zealanders in the first half of the twentieth century. The British Israelites believed that Anglo-Saxons were the descendants of a lost tribe of Jews. Like their ancestors in the Old Testament, they were God's chosen people, and the British empire's anabolic growth in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a sign of their special mission. The enemies of the Anglo-Saxons were Satanic, and were doomed, like the fallen angel himself, to suffer defeat when Christ returned to the earth and reigned over a global British empire.
Elers' argument was ridiculed by Alan Duff and by David Farrar, who both defended William Massey as 'a man of his time' who should not be judged by standards set in the twenty-first century. To remove Massey's name from public places would mean, Duff and Farrar warned, losing some of New Zealand's history.
But Duff and Farrar seem, in their own way, to want to forget the past. When they suggest that virtually all Pakeha Kiwis thought like Massey a century ago they stereotype the inhabitants of the past, and ignore the diversity and tumult of early twentieth century New Zealand. The tens of thousands of workers who staged a general strike in 1913 and fought street battles with the mounted special constables they nicknamed 'Massey's cossacks' did not share a worldview with the Prime Minister. Nor did the thousands of New Zealanders that Massey sent to prison for refusing to fight in the First World War. Massey's super-imperialism, as well as his hostility to trade unionism, were regularly attacked by the Maoriland Worker, the paper of New Zealand's radical left.
Despite his political success, William Massey was in some ways an unusual inhabitant of fin de siecle New Zealand. He emigrated to this country from northern Ireland, where he had learned a sectarian contempt for Catholics and an almost parodic love of the British empire. He graduated to British Israelism from the Protestant supremacist Orange Order.
Massey always remained a member of the Presbyterian church, but it is possible to argue his belief in the divine destiny of the British people, and the inferiority of non-Britons, influenced the decisions he made during his long tenure at the top of New Zealand politics. Massey interpreted the war against the Kaiser as a struggle against Satan, and was therefore unforgiving of men who would not fight. I have argued that his decision to allow untrained Legion of Frontiersmen to join the New Zealand army that occupied Samoa was influenced by the similarities between the beliefs of the Frontiersmen and British Israelite ideas.
Paul Janman and I have been trying, without much success, to find some folk memories of AH Dallimore and the British Israelites. Our audience at Otahuhu was amazed that such a strange ideology as British Israelism ever existed, and incredulous that its adherents had raised a church locally. A few of us chuckled at the thought of what Dallimore, the prophet of a racially pure British empire, would make of contemporary Otahuhu's ethnic diversity.
It is very easy to laugh at a creed like British Israelism. It is also easy to ignore the parallels between British Israelite beliefs and ideas that are popular in our own time.
The notion that Britain is a divinely inspired nation may now seem quaint, but at the beginning of our century the idea that America had a special, religiously mandated destiny motivated the invasion of Iraq and was defended by powerful neoconservative thinkers. The American alt-right, with its belief in the inherent superiority of whites and its opposition to miscegnation, has unpleasant beliefs in common with the British Israelites. Some of Donald Trump's more excitable supporters have asserted that he is the instrument of a God anxious to restore America's greatness and domination over the globe.
Instead of dismissing William Massey as an exemplar of the thinking of a bygone and irrelevant era, as Alan Duff and David Farrar want to do, we should treat him as one of the carriers of a virus that still infects some of us today.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]