The Holy Land of England

By Liam Hoare
Thursday, November 10, 2011

The King James Bible, along with the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare, and Milton, transformed the English language, introducing a vibrant lexicon that is used to this day.  It also fused biblical mythology with concepts of English national identity—becoming, as Simon Sebag Montefiore argues, the "national epic of Britain" and placing "the Jews and Jerusalem at the very heart of British life."  The King James translation was part of the Reformation's attempt to break the Catholic monopoly on European Christian worship.  It was equally an attempt at nation-building.  It sought to elevate England's Church, its monarchy, and the nation to pre-eminence by linking the histories of the English and Jewish peoples and tying the city of Jerusalem to a nation emerging as not only a European but a global superpower.

In 2 Samuel, when David builds Jerusalem, he "perceived that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for his people Israel's sake" (5:12).  The prophet Nathan later instructs David to build a permanent dwelling for God in Jerusalem.  David's line is established in perpetuity and his bond with God set eternally: "I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (7:14). Jerusalem is given to the people of Israel "that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more" (7:10).

It is no accident that David's Psalm 122, "I was glad," has served since the 17th century as a coronation anthem, most famously in the arrangement by Sir Hubert Parry that was first played at the accession of Edward VI and most recently at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (or Wills and Kate, if you insist).  Monarchs enter Westminster Abbey to the words, "I was glad when they said unto me, / Let us go into the house of the Lord. / Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem. / Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together" (1–3)—that is, at unity in itself. 

This ritual attempts to establish an unshakeable connection between Jerusalem, city of King David and of God, and the English royal line, the Church, and the nation.  The monarch has a divine right to rule over British subjects and a duty, as Defender of the Faith, to maintain the Church of England against heresy.  Successors, like David's sons, receive the Lord's continued protection.

Indeed, Christopher Hitchens argues that the production of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were "impressed by the nascent idea of English Manifest Destiny," in which the English people "replaced the Hebrews as God's chosen."  Thus, when Jerusalem is praised in Psalm 122 as the place to which "the tribes go up, / the tribes of the Lord, / unto the testimony of Israel" (4), the description refers to not just the Jews but the people of England.

The bond between England and Jerusalem was fixed in the English popular imagination through the poetry of William Blake—more precisely, Blake's lyrics set to Parry's music. When Englanders are asked what song they would choose for their national anthem if the United Kingdom were (as seems increasingly likely) dismembered, they select Blake's "Jerusalem."  The poem is based on the apocryphal tale—England's own Mormon myth—that Jesus once visited Britain.  "And did those feet in ancient time," the poem begins, "Walk upon England's mountains green / And was the holy Lamb of God / On England's pleasant pastures seen!"

Blake speaks to an England of industrial revolution and imperial expansion.  "And did the Countenance Divine," he worries, "Shine forth upon our clouded hills? / And was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic mills?"  Yet Blake ends with a declaration of mission: "Bring me my Bow of burning gold" he calls.  "I will not cease from Mental Fight / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: / Till we have built Jerusalem / In England's green and pleasant land."  Jerusalem represents an aspiration—the idea that England, by assembling an empire, is enlightening territories previously untouched by English political and theological doctrine.  As Montefiore states, there is a link between the biblical Jerusalem and "Britain's mission to civilize the world"—and Jerusalem itself.

Britain renewed, then surrendered its colonial ambitions in the land of Israel with the capture of Jerusalem in 1917 and the conclusion of the Mandate in 1948.  But the desire to build Jerusalem continued, particularly in the British socialist tradition.  After World War II, Clement Attlee ran on a pledge to erect a new Jerusalem.  But Attlee's vision was one of retreat from empire and the mission civilisatrice associated with Blake's 19th-century verse.  Instead, Jerusalem was to be constructed upon socialist principles aimed at improving the lives of ordinary Britons. The Labor government nationalized the coal, steel, and railway industries and instituted a mass housing construction program.  Most famously, it established the National Health Service, taking medical care out of the hands of doctors, charities, and private institutions and making it free at the point of use. 

Labor's new socio-economic order was itself derived from biblical scripture: "Thou shalt surely give" to the needy, and "thine heart shall not be grieved," because "for this thing the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works" (Deuteronomy 15:10).  Today, at the conclusion of Labor Party conferences, delegates still sing Parry and Blake's "Jerusalem"—before their final chorus of the blood-drenched "Red Flag."  Former Labor leader Harold Wilson once remarked that British social democracy owed more to Methodism than it did to Marx.

This new shining city would ultimately crumble to dust.  Still, if Jerusalem has a meaning that continues to resonate today, it is the sense of moral superiority and betterment that inspired Clement Attlee, William Blake, and those who forged the King James Bible.  And at a time when England is attempting to find its place in the United Kingdom and establish its national and regional identity, to build Jerusalem in England's land means to construct a nation that is not fragmented, tribal, or insular but rather everlasting and at unity in itself.

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer whose work has featured in the Forward and the Jewish Chronicle.


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