Getting to Know the Hebrew Israelites

How the “problem of the color line” spawned today’s black nationalist religious practices.

“The problem of the twentieth century is the color line.” This is the poignant refrain in W. E. B. DuBois’ classic sociological analysis of the United States of America, simply titled, The Souls of Black Folk. Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, I’m not sure if Dr. DuBois would have imagined that his prophetic challenge was also a chilling prediction for the twenty-first century.

The “color line” problem garnered headline attention earlier this year after a complex racialized incident at the nation’s capital. The incident was initially reported as a confrontation between a Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, and MAGA-cap wearing high school students from the Covington Catholic High school in Kentucky. As the details emerged, it was revealed that the elder had positioned himself as a barrier of peace between the young Trump supporters and a small group of men who identified as Hebrew Israelites.

In the aftermath, journalists rushed to define the Hebrew Israelites to the public. Unfortunately, most have presented a simplistic explanation that tends to view the various groups through a uniform lens. However, while the term “Hebrew Israelites” can be utilized to describe black people who claim genealogical affinity to the biblical Israelites, it should not be used as a catchall category for a specific religious orientation. From an organizational perspective, black people who identify with Israel can be divided into two general categories.

“Traditional” Congregations

The first category includes those groups that are organized along commonly identifiable religious structures. The oldest appears to be Frank Cherry’s Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations. Purportedly established in 1886, this Chattanooga, Tennessee based collective eventually moved to Philadelphia and apparently dissipated after Cherry’s death in 1963.[i]

Then there is The Church of God and Saints of Christ. Founded in 1896 in Lawrence, Kansas by William Saunders Crowdy, this self-identified “Judaic Christian” denomination currently has churches in North America, Africa and the Caribbean.[ii]

The third “traditional” congregation was founded in Harlem, New York, by Wentworth Arthur Matthew in 1919. Known as The Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, members claim direct lineage to the ancient Israelites and follow a pattern of worship similar to Jewish synagogues. Their sanctuaries are mostly in New York and New Jersey.[iii]

Missionary Movements

The second category of Hebrew Israelites includes movements that are more mission-minded. Their task is to call black people back to their original faith. The first emerged in 1966 at the Abeta Hebrew Israel Cultural Center in Chicago. The leader, who assumed the name, Ben Ami Ben Israel, claimed to have received a vision from the angel Gabriel commanding him to lead the black Children of Israel to the land of promise. By 1970, he and forty-eight families had settled in Israel after a brief stay in Liberia. The Israeli government granted them residency in 1990 and they currently reside in the city of Dimona.[i]

The second movement also encouraged repatriation to Israel, but established its headquarters in Miami, Florida. Founded in 1979 by Yahweh ben Yahweh, The Nation of Yahweh was a philosophical counterpart to The Nation of Islam. The city of Miami publicly commended them for their community service and business initiatives. Following Ben Yahweh’s death, the organizational headquarters was moved to Texas.[ii]

The final “movement” is comprised of several loosely related groups that are collectively referred to as “One West.”[iii] This movement was founded in the late 1960s by Ebner ben Yomin who had been a member of Matthew’s aforementioned Commandment Keepers congregation. Adopting the name Israeli School of Universal Practical Knowledge, the leaders taught that Christ would return in the year 2000. One prominent group operates under the revised name Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, and another embraces the militant label, Sicarii. Collectively, these teach that all non-European people who reside in the Americas are the true descendants of Israel and see it as their duty to recruit them to the faith.

The Real People of God

While each of these groups has distinct doctrines, people are attracted to them for some of the same reasons. Although an estimated 79% of African Americans identify as Christian, there are some who feel that conventional Christianity has been used as a tool of white supremacy. Most who reject Christianity for racial reasons align themselves with one of the two major black Islamic movements. However, a smaller number have found a home in one of the groups that fall under the Hebrew Israelite banner.

Looking for Liberation

Interestingly, like the Nation of Islam, Hebrew Israelites have not totally severed themselves from the teachings of the Bible but have appropriated its teachings for the sociological empowerment of black people. Jesus plays a central role in their theology and many of their doctrines are based on creative interpretations of New Testament passages. Young people, especially, probably view the movement as a branch of Christianity that has been liberated from imperial oppression.

As long as the dominant narrative in Christianity parrots the Eurocentric distortions that shift the biblical world from the African continent to Europe, black nationalist movements like the Hebrew Israelites will continue to attract African-Americans who are on a quest for a spiritual identity that resonates with their history and culture. If it is to remain relevant, the black church has a responsibility to lead the effort to recover the African roots of scripture.

[i] For an informative documentary on this movement, see Nicholas Philipides and Ben Schuder, directors, Village of Peace (Affinity Vision Entertainment, 2014). Available on Amazon Prime.

[ii] For a critical assessment of Yahweh ben Yahweh and his movement, see Sydney P. Freedberg, Brother Love: Murder, Money and a Messiah (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1994).

[iii] Their name is derived from One West 125th Street in Harlem, New York.

[i] For a brief orientation to Cherry’s group, see Anthony B. Pinn, “Church of the Living God, Pillar of Truth for All Nations,” pp. 166-169 in Anthony B. Pinn, ed., African American Religious Cultures (Santa Barnbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009).

[ii] For a comprehensive study see Elly M. Wynia, The Church of God and Saints of Christ: The Rise of Black Jews (New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 1994).

[iii] See Janice W. Fernheimer, “The Commandment Keepers of Harlem,” pp. 169-174 in Anthony B. Pinn, ed., African American Religious Cultures (Santa Barnbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009).

What the Hebrew Israelites Got Right

Reclaiming Me

Passing through two layers of security I emptied my pockets, opened my backpack, and showed a government issued ID just to meet him. His name was William Hayes. He was born in Thomas County, GA in the year 1843 —  exactly twenty years before the emancipation proclamation would change his national status from property to citizen. William would meet an untimely death some time between the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census, but not before making six beautiful new lives with his wife, Maria Hayes.

William and Maria are my Great-great-great grandparents, and likely the first of my ancestors to taste freedom on these American shores.

Recently, I’ve been slightly obsessed with making visits to the National Archives and Records Administration here in Washington, DC. Their ancestry, census and military record database has given me a rare peak into a past previously obscured. I’ve been able to meticulously piece together bits of data to build a larger family tree than I ever anticipated.

I discovered that my Great-great-grandfather, also named William Hayes, married Ms. Patty Early on March 31, 1888 and that they decided to name their first-born son Early Hayes, to preserve her family name. Early met Estelle and they decided to pass the name Early down another generation. In an interesting turn of events, however, Baby Early eventually decided that neither his name or his hometown of Thomasville, GA was for him; So he changed the E to a C dropped the Y and began to go by Carl Hayes. Carl Hayes then moved to Atlanta where he met my grandmother and had my dad, who eventually named me Garrison Karl Hayes.

As I discovered this fascinating narrative, I became deeply aware of two things: One, I am who I am because of the decisions of my ancestors. If my grandfather had not made the decision to change his name, and move to a new city, two of my most basic personal identifiers — name and hometown —  would be totally different. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a profound power in reclaiming one’s own historical narrative.

In the halls of the National Archive I reclaimed pieces of myself. By reclaiming the story of my ancestors my family’s history ceased to be narrated by our oppressors. Suddenly, the contours of my family’s story were no longer broad and unspecific. Suddenly, it danced in the light of autonomy and agency.

The Need to Reclaim

In January 2019, you may remember the highly scrutinized incident involving a Native American elder, a group of rowdy MAGA-hat wearing high school students, and an inflammatory group known to many as the Black Hebrew Israelites. This incident was picked up by media outlets across the world and sparked a national conversation parsing through the actions of all three parties involved.

The Black Hebrew Israelites, who self-identity as simply Israelites, were introduced to many through this incident for the first time as a racist extremist group with ties to anti-Semitism, homophobia and black nationalist rhetoric. For others, like myself, with prior knowledge of the Israelites, the incident depicted the shallow end of the group’s ideological swimming pool.

Growing up in the West End community of Atlanta, I had the privilege of knowing and interacting with many Israelites, literally all of whom were nice people. They were easy-going with delicious vegetarian food, and a reformation-like message for Black and Brown people. And while Christians could form a laundry list of theological disagreements with the Israelites, specifically fundamentally diverging on topics of hermeneutical process, one must take a moment to ask why the group has picked up so much cultural steam amongst black young people in recent years. With thirteen-time Grammy Award winning rapper Kendrick Lamar, a Christian, providing a platform for some of the Israelite ideologies in his music, it may be time to narrowly apply the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “test all things [and] hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

For all of the things the Israelites have done and believe, some of which I may disagree with, there is one thing they have done well that I see incredible value in — they have reclaimed the Biblical narrative for people of color. They have firmly situated black and brown people at the center of the Bible’s redemptive story, reclaiming a lost history formerly narrated by oppressors. They have told the truth about the ethnicity of some of the most powerful figures in history, the Children of Israel, and in so doing they have empowered the disinherited of America to live with righteous dignity.

A Theology That Reclaims

Perhaps there is a broader lesson to be learned from my anecdotal experience in the National Archives. As I comb through the pages of census documents, old marriage licenses and World War II draft cards, I see a brilliant dignity emerging in my family’s narrative. I see survivors, businessmen, homeowners, opportunity seizers, and an ever-broadening family tree that tells me what’s in the blood that pumps through my veins.

Perhaps tracing a direct link between one’s biological bloodline and the heroes of Scripture is only mildly important, if possible at all. But what is undeniably important, however, is developing a redemptive theological lens that reclaims the experiences of both historical and contemporary people from the white-washed voices that narrate Christianity. You’ve likely heard some of these theological voices today: the ones that ignore the disparities in Black communities in exchange for a theology of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. The theological voices that shout “one nation under God” until it’s time to show compassion to the foreigner. The theological voices that prominently display images of a white Jesus, but choose not to support women in ministry for the sake of so-called “biblical accuracy.”

We desperately need a reclamation theology. A theology that allows the truth of scripture to serve as an experiential family tree, connecting and reclaiming what has been lost through the years of a perverted and oppressive history and present.

Perhaps a reclamation theology would allow Emerald Garner to trace her father, Eric Garner’s, experience to that of John the Baptizer, whose head, too, was ensnared by a crooked government. Perhaps a reclamation theology would allow Rep. Ilhan Omar to trace her maternal lineage back to another woman rejected by society because of issues with her blood. Maybe she, too, could encounter a Christ that was willing to claim her as a daughter even when society sought to send her back to where she came from. Perhaps the AD 36 census might tell the story of Emmett Till’s ancestor, simply known as Stephen, stoned to death by those who hated him for being different. A reclamation theology might reveal the truth that every black man, woman, boy, or girl who has ever been hunted by an angry lynching mob, unlawfully arrested, wrongly convicted, falsely imprisoned, or capitally punished can find a common ancestor in Jesus Christ who, indeed, experienced it all just to reclaim us.

I believe that we desperately need a theology that reclaims. One that combs through the pages of scripture, to unearth the truth of a God who is touched by the feelings of our infirmities, and habitually errs on the side of the oppressed.