Last week Janice and I spent several days in Cornwall, Great Britain, with the BYU students doing London Study Abroad. On one of those days we hired an excellent guide, Harry Glasson (a.k.a. Harry Safari). Harry knows Cornish history as well as just about anyone, and he gives a wonderful tour. His conversation is not only informed and funny, it is also often a little bit salty. If you’re starting to fall asleep because the coach driver can’t seem to figure out how to cool the coach down, Harry will keep you awake.
Besides seeing Norman and pre-Roman sites, Harry took us to a church, the church of St. Buriana, in the small village of St. Buryan. St. Buriana was a sixth century Irish saint whose remains are supposedly in a stone burial mound created by King Athelstan. It was obvious that Harry loved that church, and that he loved it as more than just an historic site. Besides enjoying the things Harry had to say, I particularly enjoyed seeing someone who minutes before had been telling slightly off-color jokes reveal his religious passion. I enjoyed it because it helped remind us that our stereotypes for what constitutes a genuinely religious person are often quite wrong, that a degree of bawdiness is not incommensurate with spiritual life.
A good deal of Harry’s presentation at St. Buriana was devoted to the legend that the British are, in some sense, Israelites, a notion captured beautifully in the William Blake hymn, “Jerusalem.” It includes at least the belief that Joseph of Arimathea, as a tin merchant, brought Christ to the British isles during the time between Jesus’s twelfth birthday and the beginning of his ministry. (It also often includes the idea that Joseph returned with Mary, Christ’s mother, after the crucifixion, and that she died here.) Later that day, we encountered the British Israelite idea again when we went to Mount St. Michaels and talked with an LDS guide there, Richard Topham. Brother Topham, like Harry, was clearly a believer in the tradition. Neither of them was naively committed to its ideas, but each also clearly believed that there is something to the legend, though they were not sure just what. (It would have been interesting to hear Brother Topham and Harry talk about their understandings of the tradition.)
I’m considerably less convinced than they. It seems to me to be a late creation with no genuine historical antecedents. But the interesting question is not whether there is something to the legend. That is impossible to decide. Instead, I’m interested in how the legend functions and has functioned in British self-awareness and in the self-awareness of early British converts. As one of the students, Kelli Skinner, pointed out, British Israelite thinking may well have played an important part in the conversion of early British Saints: being already acquainted with the idea that Christ could come to someplace other than the area around Jerusalem, that there could be other writings about his life, that those other than whom we usually associate with Israel could be Israelite, and that a new Jerusalem would be built outside of Palestine, they might well have been more open to the ideas preached by early Mormon missionaries. The history in the Book of Mormon and the doctrine of a new Jerusalem in America would have been analogous to things that they already believed.