Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Lost Tribes and the Louisiana Purchase

I have already explained what the lost tribes theory is, and the role it played as a motivator to missionaries as part of their millenialist worldview. But would you have ever thought that Thomas Jefferson gave the lost tribes theory some thought before going ahead with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803?

As you may have learned in school, Jefferson was known for his intelligence, being not only the 3rd president of the US, but also an inventor, a scientist and more. In regards to religion, he was a Deist, and didn't think of God as being active in the course of human history. But he gave the lost tribes theory some consideration.

After trading with Indians in the southern colonies for forty years and observing their speech and practices, James Adair returned to London where his book, History of the American Indians, was published in 1775. Adair devoted hundreds of pages to specific evidence which he believed proved that American Indians were lineal descendants of the Israelites. Many whites living in the thirteen colonies believed Adair and felt that finding the lost tribes and rebelling against Britain were part of a divine conspiracy that would bring on the millenium.

So Thomas Jefferson had to decide if the American Indians really were as central to salvation history as many believed, or were they, as Richard Popkin writes, "just people," who would have to "find their place or role in a secular world, not in a fanciful voyage to the Holy Land"?

In an article in Eighteenth Century Studies, Harold Hellenbrand determined that Jefferson asked John Adams his opinion about the lost tribes theory and they ultimately agreed that "Adair's evidence was superficial and inconclusive"(Popkin, page 79). As a result, Popkin concludes: "The Louisiana Purchase was for Jefferson a commitment that the United States would develop as a secular redeemer nation, solving the problems of mankind by reason and science, and not as part of scriptural history."

For Further Reading:
  • Popkin, Richard "The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Indian Theory," a chapter in Hebrew and the Bible in America, Shalom Goldman, Editor. University Press of New England, 1993.
  • Hellenbrand, Harold. "Not 'to Destroy But to Fulfil': Jefferson, Indians, and Republican Dispensation," in Eighteenth Century Studies, 18 (1985).

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