Read CHAPTER V of Chosen Peoples Being the First "Arthur Davis Memorial Lecture" delivered, free online book, by Israel Zangwill, on

But although, as with all other manifestations of genius, Science cannot tell us why the Jewish race was so endowed spiritually, it can show us by parallel cases that there is nothing unique in considering yourself a Chosen People as indeed the accusation with which we began reminds us. And it can show us that a nation’s assignment of a mission to itself is not a sudden growth. “Unlike any other nation,” says the learned and saintly leader of Reform Judaism, Dr. Kohler, in his article on “Chosen People” in the Jewish Encyclopædia, “the Jewish people began their career conscious of their life-purpose and world-duty as the priests and teachers of a universal religious truth.” This is indeed a strange statement, and only on the theory that its author was expounding the biblical standpoint, and not his own, can it be reconciled with his general doctrine of progress and evolution in Hebrew thought. It would seem to accept the Sinaitic Covenant as a literal episode, and even to synchronise the Mission with it. But an investigation of the history of other Chosen Peoples will, I fear, dissipate any notion that the Sinaitic Covenant was other than a symbolic summary of the national genius for religion, a sublime legend retrospectively created. And the mission to other nations must have been evolved still later. “The conception or feeling of a mission grew up and was developed by slow degrees,” says Mr. Montefiore, and this sounds much nearer the truth. For, as I said, history is the sole clue to the Bible history, which according to Bacon, is “philosophy teaching by example.” And the more modern the history is, and the nearer in time, the better we can understand it. We have before our very eyes the moving spectacle of the newest of nations setting herself through a President-Prophet the noblest mission ever formulated outside the Bible. Through another great prophet sprung like Amos from the people through Abraham Lincoln, America had already swept away slavery. I do not know exactly when she began to call herself “God’s own country,” but her National Anthem, “My Country, ’tis of thee,” dating from 1832, fixes the date when America, soon after the second war with England, which ended in 1814, consciously felt herself as a Holy Land; far as visitors like Dickens felt her from the perfection implied in her soaring Spread-Eagle rhetoric. The Pilgrim Fathers went to America merely for their own freedom of religious worship: they were actually intolerant to others. From a sectarian patriotism developed what I have called “The Melting Pot,” with its high universal mission, first at home and now over the world at large.

The stages of growth are still more clearly marked in English history. That national self-consciousness which to-day gives itself the mission of defending the liberties of mankind, and which stands in the breach undaunted and indomitable, began with that mere insular patriotism which finds such moving expression in the pæan of Shakespeare:

This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
. . . . . . .
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
. . . . . . .
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land.

This sense of itself had been born only in the thirteenth century, and at first the growing consciousness of national power, though it soon developed an assurance of special protection “the favour of the love of Heaven,” wrote Milton in his “Areopagitica,” “we have great argument to think in a peculiar manner propitious and propending towards us” was tempered by that humility still to be seen in the liturgy of its Church, which ascribes its victories not to the might of the English arm, but to the favour of God. But one hundred and twenty-five years after Shakespeare, the land which the Elizabethan translators of the Bible called “Our Sion,” and whose mission, according to Milton, had been to sound forth “the first tidings and trumpet of reformation to all Europe,” had sunk to the swaggering militarism that found expression in “Rule, Britannia.”

When Britain first at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sung this strain:
Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.

The nations not so blest as thee
Must in their turn to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish, great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.

To thee belongs the rural reign,
Thy cities shall with commerce shine:
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles, thine.

It is the true expression of its period a period which Sir John Seeley in his “Expansion of England” characterizes as the period of the struggle with France for the possession of India and the New World: there were no less than seven wars with France, for France had replaced Spain in that great competition of the five western maritime States of Europe for Transatlantic trade and colonies, in which Seeley sums up the bulk of two centuries of European history. Well may Mr. Chesterton point to the sinking of the Armada as the date when an Old Testament sense of being “answered in stormy oracles of air and sea” lowered Englishmen into a Chosen People. Shakespeare saw the sea serving England in the modest office of a moat: it was now to be the high-road of Empire. The Armada was shattered in 1588. In 1600 the East India Company is formed to trade all over the world. In 1606 is founded the British colony of Virginia and in 1620 New England. It helps us to understand the dual and conflicting energies stimulated in the atmosphere of celestial protection, if we recall that it was in 1604 that was initiated the great Elizabethan translation of the Bible.

In Cromwell, that typical Englishman, these two strands of impulse are seen united. Ever conceiving himself the servant of God, he seized Jamaica in a time of profound peace and in defiance of treaty. Was not Catholic Spain the enemy of God? Delenda est Carthago is his feeling towards the rival Holland. Miracles attend his battle. “The Lord by his Providence put a cloud over the Moon, thereby giving us the opportunity to draw off those horse.” Yet this elect of God ruthlessly massacres surrendered Irish garrisons. “Sir,” he writes with almost childish naïveté, “God hath taken away your eldest son by a cannon shot.” We do not need Carlyle’s warning that he was not a hypocrite. Does not Marvell, lamenting his death, record in words curiously like Bismarck’s that his deceased hero

The soldier taught that inward mail to wear
And fearing God, how they should nothing fear?

The fact is that great and masterful souls identify themselves with the universe. And so do great and masterful nations. It is a dangerous tendency.

At the death of Queen Anne England stood at the top of the nations. But it was a greatness tainted by the slave-trade abroad, and poverty, ignorance, and gin-drinking at home. We recapture the atmosphere of “Rule, Britannia” when we recall that Thomson wrote it to the peals of the joy-bells and the flare of the bonfires by which the mob celebrated its forcing Walpole into a war to safeguard British trade in the Spanish main. Seeley claims, indeed, that the growth of the Empire was always sub-conscious or semi-conscious at its best. This is not wholly true, for in “The Masque of Alfred” in which “Rule, Britannia” is enshrined, Thomson displays as keen and exact a sense of the lines of England’s destiny as Seeley acquired by painful historic excogitation. For after a vision which irresistibly recalls the grosser Hebrew prophecies:

I see thy commerce, Britain, grasp the world:
All nations serve thee; every foreign flood,
Subjected, pays its tribute to the Thames,

he points to the virgin shores “beyond the vast Atlantic surge” and cries:

This new world,
Shook to its centre, trembles at her name:
And there her sons, with aim exalted, sow
The seeds of rising empire, arts, and arms.

Britons, proceed, the subject deep command,
Awe with your navies every hostile land.
Vain are their threats, their armies all are vain:
They rule the balanced world who rule the main.

But you have only to remember that Seeley’s famous book was written expressly to persuade the England of 1883 not to give up India and the Colonies, to see how little “Rule, Britannia” expressed the truer soul of Britain. The purification of England which the Methodist movement began and which manifested itself, among other things, in sweeping away the slave-trade, necessitated a less crude formula for the still invincible instinct of expansion, and in Kipling a prophet arose, of a genius akin to that of the Old Testament, to spiritualize the doctrine of the Chosen People. The mission which in Thomson is purely self-centred becomes in Kipling almost as universal as the visions of the Hebrew bards.

The Lord our God Most High,
He hath made the deep as dry,
He hath smote for us a pathway to the ends of all the earth.

But it is only as the instrument of His purpose, and that purpose is characteristically practical.

Keep ye the Law be swift in all obedience;
Clear the land of evil, drive the road and bridge the ford,
Make ye sure to each his own,
That he reap where he hath sown;
By the peace among our peoples let men know we serve the Lord.

And it is a true picture of British activities. Even thus has England on the whole ruled the territories into which adventure or economic motives drew her. The very Ambassador from Germany, Prince Lichnowsky, agrees with Rhodes that the salvation of mankind lies in British imperialism. But note how the less spiritual factors are ignored, how the prophet presents his people as a nation of pioneer martyrs, how the mission, finally become conscious of itself, gilds with backward rays the whole path of national advance, as the trail of light from the stern of a vessel gives the illusion that it has come by a shining road. Missions are not discovered till they are already in action. Not unlike those archers of whom the Talmud wittily says, they first shoot the arrow and then fix the target, nations ascribe to themselves purposes of which they were originally unconscious. First comes the tingling consciousness of achievement and power, then a glamour of retrospective legend to explain and justify it. Thus it is that that great struggle for sea-power to which Spain, Portugal, Holland, England, and France all contributed maritime genius and boundless courage, becomes transformed under the half-accidental success of one nation into an almost religious epic of a destined wave-ruler. There could not be a finer British spirit than Mr. Chesterton’s fallen friend, the poet Vernede, yet even he writes:

God grant to us the old Armada weather.

Thomson was not poet enough nor the eighteenth century naïve enough to create a legend in sober earnest. But the fact that he throws “Rule, Britannia” eight centuries back to the time of Alfred the Great, before whom this glorious pageant of his country’s future is prophetically unrolled, serves to illustrate the retrospective habit of national missions.

The history of England is brief, and the mission evolved in her seven centuries has not yet finally shaped itself, is indeed now shaping itself afresh in the furnace of war. Her poets have not always troubled with the soul of her. They have often, as Courthope complained of Keats, turned away from her destinies to

Magic casements opening on the foam
Of faery lands in perilous seas forlorn.

But Israel had abundant time to perfect her conception of herself. From Moses to Ezra was over a thousand years, and the roots of the race are placed still earlier. Can we doubt it was by a process analogous to that we see at work in England, that Israel evolved into a People chosen for world-service? The Covenant of Israel was inscribed slowly in the Jewish heart: it had no more existence elsewhere than the New Covenant which Jeremiah announced the Lord would write there, no more objective reality than the Charter which Britain received when “first at Heaven’s command” she “rose from out the azure main,” or than that Contrat Social by which Rousseau expressed the rights of the individual in society. But to say this is not to make the mission false. Ibsen might label these vitalizing impulses “Life-illusions,” but the criteria of objective truth do not apply to volitional verities. National missions become false only when nations are false to them. Nor does the gradualness of their evolution rob them of their mystery. Hamlet is not less inspired because Shakespeare began as a writer of pothooks and hangers.

If it is suggested that to explain the Bible by men and nations under its spell is to reason in a circle, the answer is that the biblical vocabulary merely provides a medium of expression for a universal tendency. Claudian, addressing the Emperor Theodosius, wrote:

O nimium dilecte deo, cui militat aether.

The Egyptian god Ammon, in the great battle epic of Rameses II, assured the monarch:

Lo, I am with thee, my son; fear not, Ramessu Miammon!
Ra, thy father, is with thee, his hand shall uphold thee in danger,
More am I worth unto thee than thousands and thousands of soldiers.

The preamble to the modern Japanese Constitution declares it to be “in pursuance of a great policy co-extensive with the Heavens and the Earth.”