What is the Black Hebrew Movement?

B lack Hebrew Israelites are varying groups of people, largely of Black African ancestry and mostly situated in the United States, who believe that they are descendants of the ancient Israelites.

...even if it could be demonstrated that there is a racial descent from a particular branch of the Jewish family of some of these people (and it could not be more than 'some,' for it is genetically impossible for it to be anything like a majority), this could never be anything other than a somewhat ambiguous point of mild antiquarian or historical interest.

These 'Black Hebrews' adhere in varying degrees to the religious beliefs and practices of mainstream Judaism. Despite this, they are generally not accepted by Jews as being any part of the greater Jewish community. Undeterred by this, however, most Black Hebrews often consider themselves — and not mainstream Jews — to be the only authentic descendants of the ancient Israelites who one may read about in the Old Testament.

The Black Hebrews mostly believe (but cannot prove, nor supply convincing evidence of the claim), that they are descended from Israelites who were expelled from Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. They believe that they then formed part of the diaspora, spreading around Europe and Asia for more than 1,000 years before reaching West Africa, and later, the United States as slaves. Their Shemetic ancestors (they believe) were sold by Hametic Africans, to Ishmaelite-Arabian slave traders, who (in turn) sold them to European, trans-Atlantic slave traders in the 1600s.

Mostly (though not always) they assert that, not only the Negroes, but the Indians of North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean are all descended from the twelve tribes of Israel (about which more later). However, presented "evidences" of this are widely considered to be unconvincing, indeed, even more unconvincing than the 'British-Israelite' claim that the British are descendants of ancient Israel.

As a religious movement, the actual origin of the Black Hebrew Israelites in the United States is believed to stretch back to a period somewhat before the American Civil War, possibly as early as the 1840s/1850s. By the 1890s, these groups became a little more organised. About 1896, William Crowd founded one such grouping in Kansas. Shortly after that, new congregations sprouted in several major cities, and, during the 1970s-1980s, some of these groups really appeared to surge ahead.

In many ways, Black Hebrew Israelite beliefs (which are often - though not always - black racial supremacist in approach), can be seen as a sort of mirror image of the white supremacism which has been evident among certain sections (but certainly not all) of American fundamentalist Protestantism in the 'deep south' of the past. Some of these people (especially those of a 'British-Israelitism' flavour) have held that it was white northern Europeans who are God's true chosen people. Contrastingly, the groups which we are considering here have often considered that it was black Americans, especially from a slavery background, who are God's 'true Jews,' or at least an influential part of that group.

Young people representing the 'Black Hebrew Movement.'

In the 1990s, the 'Alliance of Black Jews' estimated that there were 200,000 African-American Jews, including Black Hebrews and "those recognized as Jews by mainstream Jewish organizations." (See Michael Gelbwasser; http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/8029/organization-for-black-jews-claims-200-000-in-u-s/ : 'Organization for black Jews claims 200,000 in U.S.'). However, the 'recognition by Jews' comment must be taken with a mighty pinch of salt! In general, white racial Jews remain highly unimpressed with the credentials of the Black Hebrew movement.

There are several Black Hebrew Israelite-type sects including 'The Stream,' 'The Original African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem,' 'The Nation of Yahweh (sometimes called, Yahweh Ben Yahweh),' 'New York Yahweh,' and the 'Black Hebrews.' However, there is some confusion because certain group titles are used interchangeably.
One Florida-based sect was started by a certain Yahweh Ben Yahweh. Other sects include the 'Commandment Keepers,' 'The Law Keepers,' and 'The House of Judah,' but there have been - and continue to be - many such groupings, so studying the various groups and factions is no exact or easy task!

One interesting group was founded around 1967 by Ben Carter from Chicago. He renamed himself 'Ben Israel,' and started 'The Kingdom of Yahweh.' Ben Israel started to preach to black people the belief that African-Americans were descended from the biblical tribe of Judah. He led others to believe that, because of this, Israel was the true land of their birthright. Carter claimed a vision in which the angel Gabriel revealed to him that the time had come for the "biblical Israelites" (the African-Americans) to return to Israel (the promised land) and to establish the kingdom of God upon earth. As a result of his preaching, eventually something like 400 black Americans, mainly from Chicago, started a journey to Israel. In 1969 they reached Israel, setting up what they believed to be the foundation for the kingdom of God. Here is a website claiming to represent this particular group.

Possibly the oldest known of the more established Black Hebrew organizations is the (so-called) 'Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations,' sometimes simply known as 'The Church of the Living God' (not to be confused with a similarly named Armstrongist group). This group was founded in 1886 by F. S. Cherry of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Theologically, it mixed Judaism and Christianity, although the Jewish Bible and the Talmud were considered the most essential scriptures. Several Jewish practices and prohibitions were observed by Cherry’s group. It has been reported that the movement continued to survive for a while under the leadership of Cherry’s son, but little information about the sect now seems to be available.

Theologically, all of these groups have been highly legalistic, placing a high emphasis on Old Covenant law and, as already pointed out, black racial supremacism has often been obvious among such groups. The place of Christ - Who is, after all, the inaugurator of the New Covenant - is patchy among these groups; some groups seem to reject Christ while most grant what seems like a grudging recognition of Christ's work upon the cross, yet since it is 'justification by works' which is the accepted teaching, rather than 'justification by faith,' none of these groups can be considered 'Christian' from any serious doctrinal point of view.

Most groups of Black Hebrews even believe (without having any convincing evidence) that various groups in the Americas correspond to the biblical tribes of Israel. One such linking of nations/peoples (of several which may be found) is:

The aforementioned African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem say this of their background:

"The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem are comprised of approximately 2,000 men, women and children residing in three development towns - - Dimona, Arad and Mitzpe Ramon - - in southern Israel. We maintain a vibrant culture which includes a communal lifestyle, a vegan diet, a system of preventive health care and high moral standards - - a holistic approach to life based on righteousness. Our intent is to live according to the laws and prophecies of God.

Since our arrival in Dimona, in 1969, it has been our objective to be the foundation for the establishing of God’s Kingdom on Earth. The accomplishments of the past years have only strengthened our faith in the words of the prophets. " (source: http://africanhebrewisraelitesofjerusalem.com/Our_Philosophy.htm).

We do not doubt the sincerity of these people but, theologically, they simply do not represent the writings of the Hebrew prophets in the manner which they suggest.

The main point about the Black Hebrew Movement is, even if it could be demonstrated that there is a racial descent from a particular branch of the Jewish family of some of these people (and it could not be more than 'some,' for it is genetically impossible for it to be anything like a majority), this could never be anything other than a somewhat ambiguous point of mild antiquarian or historical interest - certainly, it would not prove nor demonstrate anything of any real or meaningful spiritual merit since the coming of Jesus Christ has opened the path of salvation to people of any and every race.

'A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.' (Romans 2: 28-29).

'So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.' (Galatians 3:26-29, NIV throughout).

So even if the racial and ancestral claims of the Black Hebrew Israelites should be correct - a thing one really must consider to be highly dubious - one would have to retort by asking, 'So what?' For, in Christ, race becomes an irrelevant matter.
Robin A. Brace, December 22nd, 2010.