England Considers a New Anthem
The House of Commons is debating a proposal to establish a new English national anthem. One leading candidate for the anthem may come as a surprise.
An interesting debate is currently being waged in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons. Members of Parliament (MPs) are currently debating (and will soon vote on) whether to establish an official national anthem for England. Currently, England’s de facto anthem is “God Save the Queen,” which is also the national anthem for the entire United Kingdom and many nations within the Commonwealth realm.
National anthems are mainly sung at sporting and national events and express a people’s national pride and identity. Since the countries of the U.K. and Commonwealth compete against each other in many sports, they tend to sing their own regional national anthems. When Scotland competes against England, two Scottish anthems are sung: “Scotland the Brave” and “Flower of Scotland.” In Northern Ireland, “Londonderry Air” is used as the anthem. In Wales, “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (“Land of My Fathers”) is sung.
English MPs have pointed out that it doesn’t make sense for the shared anthem, “God Save the Queen,” to be used as England’s national anthem when it competes against other countries with the same anthem.
But this debate should also be seen within the context of bigger trends in the U.K.
The British quest for identity
The British have been referred to as a people searching for their identity. Having lost their empire and international prestige, the British are being torn in different directions to determine their future. Scottish nationalists continue to debate withdrawal from the U.K. and forming a sovereign state. The U.K. as a whole is currently in a fractious debate on whether to withdraw from the European Union (being called “Brexit”). Withdrawal from the EU could push the British farther from Europe and may result in Scotland leaving the U.K.
The Christian Science Monitor summarized the current state of Britain well: “Britain finds itself at a hinge moment, searching for its place in a postimperial, postindustrial, globalized age” (“The Waning of Great Britain,” Sept. 15, 2014, p. 28).
Having lost their empire and international prestige, the British are being torn in different directions to determine their future.Proposed English anthem
One of the four songs currently being discussed to become England’s national anthem is “Jerusalem,” which was written in 1808 by William Blake (alternatively titled “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time”). This hymn is popular with many Britons and has also received support from Prime Minister David Cameron.
The possibility of Blake’s “Jerusalem” becoming the national anthem of England is fascinating. Not only is it abnormal (read, unheard of) for a nation to use a song named for the capital of another sovereign nation as its national anthem, but national anthems typically focus on patriotically glorifying national greatness—not religious themes.
Here are the lyrics to “Jerusalem”:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
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
(Click here to watch a video of this hymn being sung at an English rugby game.)
The hymn begins by reciting ancient legends that Jesus Christ visited an area near the English town of Glastonbury in His teenage years. It continues by asking if God (“the Countenance Divine”) could be building a new Jerusalem “in England’s green and pleasant land.” Blake identifies “dark Satanic Mills”—a reference to industrialization or the Church of England—as the enemy that must be fought to build this new Jerusalem. The hymn reflects on England being a type of a new Israel.
Why would the English, who are notoriously nonreligious, support such an overtly religious hymn as their national anthem? Why would a hymn describing England as a new Israel be supported by many in England today?
British biblical traditions
The idea that Britain has a biblical connection and destiny has long roots in British history.
The British Isles are filled with legends connecting them to the Bible. There are ancient legends that connect the prophet Jeremiah with Ireland. In Scotland, there are legends that connect the “Stone of Destiny” with Jacob’s pillow stone of Genesis 28:11. In England, there are legends that Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea spent time near Glastonbury.
And many British traditions and national symbols have biblical roots. For instance, the traditional British coronation ceremonies reflect the biblical accounts of the coronation of King Solomon. The coat of arms of the British monarchy is filled with symbols derived from the Bible. Even the current U.K. national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” is derived from 1 Kings 1:39 (King James Version).
Is there any significance to Britain’s historic tendency to connect itself to biblical themes—including England possibly using “Jerusalem” as its official anthem?
Britain’s biblical roots
As Britain searches for its modern identity in a postimperial world, it is important to understand its ancient identity. The majority of the British population descends from two major ethnicities—the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons.
The Celtic peoples can be traced back from the British Isles to the Middle East—as recent DNA discoveries have demonstrated. The Anglo-Saxons reached the British Isles from central Europe and descended from various Germanic tribes that wandered the Eurasian steppes on the outskirts of the Roman Empire—which include the ancient Scythians. The Scythians first appear in the historical record in the Middle East adjacent to the crumbling neo-Assyrian Empire.
What is even more fascinating is that the location where the genesis of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peoples can be traced is the same general location where the northern 10 tribes of Israel were taken captive by Assyria in the eighth century B.C. (2 Kings 17:6). These 10 tribes became known as the lost 10 tribes because they vanished from recorded history shortly after their captivity and never emerged as a cohesive, identifiable people. But thousands of people do not just disappear. Israel was actually prophesied to become a wandering people who would migrate away from their homeland through other lands (Zechariah 10:9; Hosea 9:17).
These prophecies perfectly describe the progenitors of the British people today—the Celts and Anglo-Saxons. Not only can we trace these peoples back to the Middle East through secular studies, but they both begin in the area where Israel was taken captive and were both tribal pagan nomads—wandering throughout Eurasia and Europe before migrating and settling in the British Isles.
In fact, we can find the roots of modern Britain even farther back in the book of Genesis, where the descendants of Joseph’s son Ephraim were prophesied to become a “multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19). Ephraim never became a multitude of nations, in ancient times. That promise was fulfilled in modern times when the British Empire became history’s largest empire.
An innate sense of destiny and identity
Throughout the era of the British Empire, the British were driven by a sense of destiny that there was a divine purpose behind their possession of over one-fourth of the world’s land and sea lanes. “The connection between God and Great Britain was found in the mission that the Empire was supposed to carry. It was Britain’s divine destiny to carry light and civilization into dark places of the world, to touch the mind of Asia and of Africa with the ethical ideas of Europe, and offer peace and security which millions would otherwise never know” (Sharron Gu, Language and Culture in the Growth of Imperialism, 2012, p. 153).
The British people made remarkable contributions to the world through the Empire, but it was not without its own sins. Along with the story of great progress, there are also realities of misrule that cannot be ignored. Because of their national sins—both domestically and internationally—the British lost the power of their empire and today, as the Commonwealth, are just a semblance of their former glory.
But remarkably, the British still have an innate sense of their identity and destiny. If England adopts “Jerusalem” as its national anthem, this will not bring back the glory of what it once was, but it can serve as another clue to help us identify the lost Israelite tribe of Ephraim.
Note: Since the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8, 2022, Britain’s national anthem is now “God Save the King.”