The Protocols Conspiracy
Despite such rising expectations, it would take 30 more years and another world war to establish a Jewish state. But the events of 1917-18 gave dispensationalists ample assurance that they were reading the Bible correctly; and further evidence was pouring in: Ecclesiastical wars between fundamentalists and modernists confirmed the rise of religious apostasy. The public schools were overrun by evolutionists and secularists. Personal and public morals took a nosedive, with increasing divorce rates, the obscenities of the "new woman," and the open flouting of Prohibition laws. Dispensationalists watched the rise of fascism in Europe, the spread of communism, and growing anti-Semitism. Civilization was obviously spinning out of control, and for the prophecy pundits, everything fit and was right on schedule.
During the twenties and thirties, a number of leading dispensational teachers promoted right-wing conspiracy theories and even fell prey to Nazi propaganda. Shortly after World War I, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion started making the rounds in Europe and America, purporting to be the secret minutes of a group of Jewish conspirators plotting to take over the world by destroying Christian civilization. When Henry Ford serialized them in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, in the early 1920s, many people believed what they read. From then on, American anti-Semites made The Protocols "exhibit A" in their propaganda campaign.
Not all dispensationalists were fooled by The Protocols, but a number of leading Bible teachers were. In 1921, James M. Gray, president of Moody Bible Institute, called The Protocols "a clinching argument for premillennialism and another sign of the possible nearness of the end of the age." Arno Gaebelein also believed that the plan outlined in The Protocols was consistent with Bible prophecy. Well known as an evangelist to Jews, Gaebelein obviously loved some Jews more than others. He liked Orthodox Jews because they still expected the coming of Messiah, read Bible prophecies with expectancy, and honored their traditions. But he had no use for Reform or secular Jews, whom he considered apostates capable of anything. Though he could not be sure, Gaebelein thought that The Protocols were "from the pen of apostate Jews" who were responsible for Russian Bolshevism, the illegal liquor traffic in the U.S., and the general decline in morals. "There is nothing so vile on earth as an apostate Jew who denies God and His Word."
Most dispensationalists paid little attention to The Protocols until Gerald Winrod gave them a new lease on life. In 1933, Winrod, founder of the Defenders of the Christian Faith in Wichita, Kansas, published an elaborate exposé to show that Jews were in charge of the world's banking system and responsible for World War I, the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and just about everything else.
In 1934, William Bell Riley, who presided over a fundamentalist empire in the upper Midwest, published The Protocols and Communism to show that the same conspiracy that turned Russia communist was at work in Roosevelt's New Deal. "Today in our land many of the biggest trusts, banks, and manufacturing interests are controlled by Jews…. Most of our department stores they own…. The motion pictures, the most vicious of all immoral, educational and communistic influences, is their creation." Riley preached such views regularly from his pulpit at the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, which some Jewish leaders considered a major center of anti-Semitism.
Gray, Winrod, Gaebelein, and Riley strenuously denied that they were anti-Semites. They were simply explaining events in light of biblical prophecy. But most dispensationalists quickly figured out that using such arguments put them in very bad company. By the thirties, The Protocols were identified with the peddlers of virulent anti-Semitism, which dispensationalists said was a horrible sin against God.
Eventually The Protocols split the dispensational movement. Jewish-Christian believers objected to their use, arguing that it was not enough to distinguish between good Jews and bad: when people believed conspiracy theories, all Jews suffered, even Christian ones. Others concluded that some of their colleagues had been duped by Nazi propaganda. Harry Ironside, pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, was grieved "to find that the Protocols are being used not only by godless Gentiles, but even by some fundamentalist Christians to stir up suspicion and hatred against the Jewish people as a whole."
In 1938, Keith Brooks, a former Winrod associate, founded the American Prophetic League in California to put as much distance as possible between dispensationalism and Nazi anti-Semitism. The next year Brooks published a "Manifesto to the Jews," signed by 60 leading dispensationalists, which condemned the spread of pro-Nazi propaganda under the guise of biblical prophecy and disavowed further use of The Protocols. Three years later, Brooks was still trying to get fellow prophecy teachers to "clear the church at large from the charge laid against it by unbelievers, that it had been a tool of Hitler and the Jew-baiters." Before his death in 1935, Gray swore off ever using The Protocols again; but Winrod and Riley never backed down. Some time after the "Manifesto" appeared, Gaebelein tried to get his name added to the list of signers. The fact that he never told his own constituency and continued to sell Conflict of the Ages until he died in 1945 made the gesture disingenuous.
Suffering with a purpose
Dispensationalism had a dark side that grew out of its beliefs about the Jews' complex role in prophecy. Jews are God's chosen people and heirs to all the prophetic promises; but present Jews are under the power of Satan and contributing to the decline of the present age. The glory of Israel is future.
It is no surprise that dispensationalists received news of the Holocaust with a combination of horror, resignation, and hope. They were among the first to warn the world of the coming catastrophe. In 1930, Gaebelein told his readers about Hitler and what might happen to Jews if he ever got control of Germany; and by the late thirties, premillennialist leaders had figured out what was going on in places like Buchenwald long before most people realized what the Nazis were capable of.
While dispensationalists condemned persecution of the Jews, they believed such things were inevitable and were happening for a reason. Just like Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians centuries before, Hitler and the Nazis were God's instruments of judgment. God was using them to increase the Jews' desire for a homeland of their own in Palestine. As Harry Rimmer observed, "By driving the preserved people back into the preserved land, Hitler, who does not believe the Bible…, is helping to fulfill its most outstanding prophecy." Needless to say, once their awful work was done, God would judge the Nazis just as he judged the Babylonians.
Sometimes dispensationalists took comfort in their belief that persecution made Jews more susceptible to the gospel. Moody Bible Institute president Will Houghton claimed that Jewish youth in Warsaw turned to Christ en masse in the summer of 1939, immediately before the Nazi invasion. "Perhaps that is the reason the Devil saw to it that Warsaw was wrecked and the Jews scattered."
Later the same year dispensational leaders called for an international day of prayer for the Jews. Interestingly, the organizers did not advise people to pray for the persecutions to stop, only that Jews might turn to Christ in their despair. The best thing people could do for Jews under the circumstances was send them more New Testaments and missionaries.
The State of Israel
As bad as things got, dispensationalists knew that the Nazis would never annihilate the Jewish people. After all, God's entire prophetic plan hinges on getting a Jewish remnant back to Palestine to establish their own state in preparation for Armageddon and the Second Coming. Prophetically speaking, the most crucial point was not that millions were dying, but that some would survive.
In the thirties and forties, dispensationalists thought that the formation of a Jewish state was imminent. But the British were not so sure. For obvious reasons, the Palestinians, who greatly outnumbered Jews in the Holy Land, disliked the Balfour Declaration and mounted a massive resistance campaign. They went on strike, rioted, and occasionally committed acts of terrorism against the British and the Jewish population. The British did what they could to stop the protests, including restricting Jewish immigration and suggesting in the spirit of compromise that the Holy Land be partitioned into both Arab and Jewish states. But nothing worked. In 1939 the British issued a white paper that essentially abandoned the Balfour Declaration.
By the end of the war, not much had changed, except the Jews were now well armed and ready to force the issue of statehood, sometimes through their own brand of terrorism. Looking desperately for a way out, the British appealed to the newly organized United Nations. In August 1947, the UN Special Committee on Palestine also recommended that the area be partitioned into Arab and Jewish states; but Arabs refused to relinquish their land, so the UN abandoned the idea. By the spring of 1948 it was obvious to everybody that a political solution was not possible.
The British finally announced plans to withdraw their forces from the region on May 14, 1948. On that day the Jewish National Council declared statehood; and Arab armies invaded. Almost immediately, the U.S. recognized the new state. The fighting was fierce. By November the better-trained Israeli troops had prevailed, and a cease-fire was called. In May 1949 Israel was admitted to the UN.
Dispensationalists were ecstatic. This was the "sign of all signs." Louis Talbot of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles declared, "I consider it the greatest event, from a prophetic standpoint, that has taken place within the last one hundred years, perhaps even since 70 A.D. [sic], when Jerusalem was destroyed."
In the flush of prophetic fulfillment, most evangelicals showed little or no concern for Palestinian rights—which was ironic since there have always been more Arab Christians in the Middle East than Jewish ones. During the thirties and forties, a few evangelicals raised questions of justice, self-determination, and fair play for Arabs. After all, Palestinians had been there for centuries, much longer than the United States had been a nation. But most evangelicals believed that God's prophetic purposes were more important than such local concerns. Their attitude seemed to be, "This is the fulfillment of prophecy; the Palestinians will just have to get used to it."
Many evangelicals saw the establishment of an Israeli state as the beginning of the end. But there were unresolved problems: The new Israel occupied only a fraction of the land it held in Bible times. Therefore, dispensationalists were eager to see Israel expand its territory. In 1956, with French and English support, Israel attacked Egypt: the Israelis wanted the Sinai; their European allies wanted the Suez Canal. The U.S. government opposed the action. Most dispensationalists objected to the U.S. position because they considered it anti-Israel. For dispensationalists, not to support Israel was to align oneself against the purposes of God.
Evangelicals who thought this way were elated by the Six-Day War of June 1967. Fearing an imminent attack from Soviet-supplied Egyptian and Syrian forces, Israel struck first. In less than a week, the Israelis defeated the Arab coalition and occupied the Sinai peninsula, territory west of the Jordan River, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. Now the modern State of Israel looked more like the "Bible Lands" maps on the walls of Sunday school rooms. The most important result of the Six-Day War was that Israel controlled all of Jerusalem. Nelson Bell wrote in CHRISTIANITY TODAY, "That for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible" (CT, July 21, 1967, p. 28). Here was an obvious fulfillment of Luke 21:24: "Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (NRSV).
For most evangelicals, the war for Jewish statehood and the Six-Day War were nothing short of miraculous. News reports on the wars of 1948 and 1967 read like excerpts from Exodus and Joshua. How could Bible believers complain or question what was happening? One did not have to be a dispensationalist to see that God was obviously in control and vitally concerned with Israel. After 1967, many people who had not given it much thought before were willing to consider Israel's prophetic significance.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Timothy Weber is professor of church history and dean at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois.
October 5, 1998 Vol. 42, No. 11, Page 38