“Black Israelite” faith centers on the belief that African Americans are the direct biological descendants of ancient Israelites, God’s “chosen people.” By adopting the Hebrew identity and its special religious status, followers of this movement connect themselves with a grand narrative of oppression, revolution, and triumph as well as at least partially reject the religion of White Christian colonizers.
The term encompasses a variety of distinct groups, which may claim separate titles, including Black Hebrews, Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI), and Black Jews—among others, and may hold somewhat divergent religious beliefs: some worship Christ, others practice more orthodox forms of Judaism, while others seem to mix several religious traditions.
However, it would do a great disservice to this movement to categorize it as solely—even primarily—a religious phenomenon; the historical, political, and sociological factors that spurred the creation of the first Black Israelite church in the immediate post-slavery era, and the circumstances that have molded this movement throughout American history are integral to any investigation of Black Israelite belief systems, as well as any potential revival of BHI membership in the current age.
A Brief History of the Black Israelite Movement
- Post-slavery: William Corwdy’s Church of Gods and Saints of Christ
The African American Israelite movement is typically credited to a former Oklahoma slave in named William Saunders Crowdy, who in 1892 reportedly had a vision that the ancient Israelites were Black, and established the Church of Gods and Saints in Christ shortly thereafter. The development of Crowdy’s New Religious Movement was intimately tied to conditions following the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Black “freedom” in the South. For many of his converts, religion served as a way to turn the horrors of slavery on their head—to wear trauma as a badge of honor saved only for the sacred elite and to prepare for a long, brutal fight for equality.
Crowdy, who was soon considered a prophet by his followers, taught that African Americans belonged to the lost tribes of Israel, and therefore instructed members to adhere to elements of Judaic law, including holding the Sabbath on Saturday and observing Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Passover. However, Crowdy’s movement was not exclusively Jewish; rather, it held up Jesus as an example of moral perfection—without explicitly citing (or not citing) him as the Jewish messiah—and blends in many traditionally Christian beliefs and practices.
- Black Power & Civil Rights: The African Hebrew Israelites & the Israelite School of UIniversal Practical Knowledge
Naturally, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement saw a resurgence of the Black Israelite membership, as well as a sharp change in theology and politics for many BHI groups. During this time, the Black Israelites adopted more nationalistic ideas regarding the role of Black people in American society, with some advocating total separation from the US.
One such group is the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK), founded by Eber ben Yomin (also known as Abba Bivens) in 1969 as an outgrowth of the Commandment Keepers, a more orthodox group started in 1919 by Wentworth Arthur Matthew. Members of ISUPK believe that African Americans are descended from the ancient tribe of Judah and that other racial minority and historical oppressed groups, including Latinos and Native Americans, constitute the remaining 11 tribes. The ISUPK’s website describes the founding thusly,
“In the 1960s a man by the name of Abba Bivens, who at one time followed Judaism, study [sic] the Bible and found out that Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Indians were truly the Lost 12 Tribes of the Nation of Israel. He found out that the same people who suffered and died in slavery; and the same people who continue to suffer and die in the ghetto, were The Chosen People of God. Upon his discovery Bivens left his synagogue with many followers along with him. Bivens and his followers begin to teach out on the streets and try to lead black people back to their true heritage.”
The group has since split into the modern ISUPK and the closely-related Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, both of which do not shy away from claiming Christ as their holy King. These groups define themselves in opposition to the Edomites—their term for White people—who were one of the fiercest enemies of the ancient Judeans (see 2 Sam 8:13; 2 Chron. 28:17; and Psalm 137:7).
Another notable Civil Rights era group was the Hebrew Israelites of the Abeta Hebrew Israel Culture Center (also referred to as the African Hebrew Israelites), which collectively relocated to Israel in the late 1960s amid heightened racial tensions and growing civil unrest in their home city of Chicago. The group’s leader, Ben Ammi, was said to have had a vision calling for the return of the Children of Israel to the Promised Land, claimed diaspora status, and, along with 400 congregants, eventually settled in Southern Israel in 1969. Important to note: this group is separate from the better-known Ethiopian Falasha Jewish community (Beta Israel), who were brought to Israel in the late-twentieth century.
The move caused significant “cult” controversy within Israel, and the sect endured decades of social stigma and legal battles over its claim to Israeli citizenship under the “Right to Return.” In 1994, as relations with their Israeli neighbors improved, the group was finally granted permanent residency status. An active community of African Hebrew Israelites remains in the United States as well.
- A New Age of Black Israelite Participation?
Jacob S. Dorman, a leading scholar of Black Hebrew Israelites, identifies three distinct historical periods of the BHI movement, each as a response to pressing social and political issues of their time: (1) with the Protestant Christian Holiness church movement in the post-Civil War era of the 1890s; (2) a spiritual resurgence before the start of World War II; and (3) within the Black nationalist and Black Power movements of the 1960s.
However, the current age may one-day qualify as a forth era in the history of the BHI movement. With routinely reported Police violence against African Americans, the ubiquity of “Black Lives Matter,” and an upsurge of White supremacist resistance movements, today’s sociopolitical climate seems ripe for a Black Nationalist response. Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports that Black Separatist groups, including Black Israelites, are currently witnessing a striking increase in membership, and attributes that rise to contemporary conditions that include the election of Donald Trump.
Contemporary Black Israelite Groups
Much of the media has focused on the recent emboldening of right-wing hate groups and White Nationalists in the US, but an equally intense reaction has been brewing among racial minority extremist groups, including Black Separatists like the modern Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, the Nation of Islam, and the New Black Panther Party. ,
Many of these groups view the accession of right-wing nationalist leaders as a sign that an escalation in existing efforts to oppose the oppressive White social class is needed. Some political commentators have argued that a defining factor in the 2016 election was the desperation of White working-class Americans to hold on to their social dominance as the US inevitably transitions into a “majority-minority” nation. Essentially, this widespread anxiety brought on by changing demographics and a latent sense of socioeconomic hopelessness among the White working class finally boiled over., But a similar stew seems to be simmering within many minority communities, who perceive the Trump Administration’s prioritization of the values and desires of White Christian America as a threat.
Minister Farrakhan, the leader of one modern manifestation of the Nation of Islam, regularly uses Trump’s name in Tweets to evoke Black unity and revolutionary sentiments among his followers.,,,, Many Black Israelites have responded similarly to Trump’s rise to power, preaching that Trump’s election signals that Judgment Day is near. The ICGJC preaches, “Trump is the end of the world,” the devil, and that he will bring about WWIII.,
Allegations of Violent Black Supremacy, Anti-Semitism, Homophobia & Transphobia
Certain subsets of the Black Israelite movement have been accused of harboring hateful ideologies. The SPLC labels the ICGJC and the Nation of Yahweh as “Black Separatist” organizations “on the extremist fringe of the Hebrew Israelite movement,” the latter of which has reportedly been linked to 23 murders, including “those of a temple dissident beheaded with a dull machete and several whites whose ears were hacked off as trophies.”
The SPLC claims that these groups often vocalize anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ, and racist beliefs, but is careful to note that the majority of historical and contemporary Black Hebrews do not feel “other people deserved condemnation or attack.” Though the SPLC does not explicitly name these non-violent BHI groups, it notably does not classify the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Harlem or the African Hebrew Israelites as hate groups.
Accusations of racism and anti-Semitism are most common, and understandably so. While all BHI groups are united in the belief that African Americans are descended from the ancient Israelites, these more radical groups have a sharply hostile attitude toward other Jewish communities, which they view as “fake” Jews. In their own words, the ICGJC employs classic anti-Semitic stereotypes in suggesting that non-Black Jews are evil imposters:
“The white man calling himself ‘Jewish’ today doesn’t fit the description or the prophecy for the tribe of Judah. First off all, the suffix ‘ish’ means to be like. Calling himself ‘Jewish,’ the white man acknowledges that he is trying to be like a Jew, by stealing our identify and what he thinks are our customs, culture, and beliefs, but he can never be the real Jew. The white man over in Israel today is not in mourning. They own the diamond district and every major banking institution on the planet; and they have our land. Their gates have not languished, as Israel commands one of the most technologically advanced militaries on earth, they have nuclear weapons, and America supports them with about $80 billion in foreign aid each year. The white man who calls himself a Jew is NOT BLACK! The white man is the devil that the bible speaks of. He is an identity thief and a culture bandit. In Revelation 2:9, Christ calls them the synagogue of Satan.”
Similar to the Nation of Islam (NOI), to which it is often compared, the BHI movement as whole may be described less as a religious phenomenon and chiefly as a black empowerment movement. Centering on the idea of a biological holiness imbued within them by the Abrahamic God, Black Israelite beliefs appropriate arguments of racial superiority used to justify crimes against African Americans by whites and perhaps offer a way to make sense of their collective trauma, adding further motivation to continue the fight against racial oppression.
Also like the NOI, which is reportedly rejected by most mainstream Muslims as heretical and identified by many religious studies scholars are exhibiting few authentic characteristics of Islamic faith, the Black Israelites are snubbed by most mainstream Jews of European and Middle Eastern descent in the US and in Israel., However, there are exceptions; the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation and the African Hebrew Israelites have both worked their way into the Jewish mainstream by practicing traditional forms of Judaism, cultivating positive relationships with non-Black Jewish communities, and publically maintaining that they acknowledge worshippers of all pigmentations.,,
These two communities are distinctly more Jewish than BHI “hate groups” like the ICGJC, as well as their predecessors, such as Crowdy’s Church of Gods and Saints in Christ. They follow strict orthodox Jewish laws and customs, including referring to their house of worship as a “synagogue,” encouraging members to wear traditional Jewish attire, speaking and reading in Hebrew, observing dietary laws, and serving “kosher soul food.” Unlike the ICGJC, these groups also do not reference the New Testament or Christ in their literature or worship services.
Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, the founder and leader of the Commandment Keepers until his death in 1973, closely studied the Hebrew Bible for clues to the holy lineage of Black people, specifically those of African Ethiopian decent. He believed that the children of Abraham and ancient Ethiopians intermixed while in Egypt and that even Moses himself had a Black wife, identifying his two sons as the ancestors of modern Black Jews—the inheritors of the Promised Land. He believed that he found evidence in the Ethiopian Falasha form of Judaic practice, which was distinctly different from Rabbinic Judaism practiced by European Jews, and “more closely resembled the temple-based Israelite religion that existed before the emergence of synagogue-based Judaism.”
Judaism therefore, in Matthew’s view, was the “original religion” of the African diaspora, a truth that was stripped from Black slaves as a necessary condition for subjugation. Ben Ammi, the leader of the migration of the African Hebrew Israelites to the Negev, similarly believed that after witnessing centuries of their own “black Holocaust,” it was time for African Americans to accept their ancestral fate and escape persecution by returning to their God-given homeland in Israel.
The current sociopolitical climate begs for the emergence of a new leader like Wentworth Arthur Matthew or Ben Ammi. Is it surprising that possibly the two most iconic civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, were both also religious leaders? The fight for racial justice in the US has always been a fight to rectify colonialism, and progress in the religious sphere has always played a key role in revolutionizing that narrative. What is unclear now is how that adaptation will look today. How will today’s Black Israelites respond to another wave of heightened animosity?
Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions by Jacob S. Dorman (Oxford University Press, 2013).
African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom by Sylvester A. Johnson (Cambridge University Press, 2015)
 Importantly, these groups are distinct from Black Jews, who may not place such importance on the genetic roots and may observe more conventional forms of Judaism.
 This point is made by Göran Larsson in Controversial New Religions with respect to Black Nationalist Islamic groups, and I think also would apply to a discussion of the BHI movement.
 Many writers on this group prefer to use the term “Black Hebrew Israelites” or “BHI,” as a simple subjective matter of preference, I am choosing to used the term “Black Israelites,” especially in reference to the more radical elements of the movement, but will attempt to use “Black Israelites,” “Black Hebrew Israelites,” and “Black Hebrews” relatively interchangeably throughout. The latter will be used in reference to the majority of non-violent, less extreme members and especially those that practice more traditional forms of Judaism (versus those that more closely resemble Christian traditions).
 Jacob S. Dorman, Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions, 2013.
 Other precursor individuals, incl. F.S. Cherry, and movements, incl. Southern Pentecostal Holiness, that likely influenced Crowdy are beyond the scope of this post.
 Crowdy is considered a prophet by the Church of God and Saints of Christ, which still exists today. See http://churchofgodandsaintsofchristjamaica.org/-our-history.html.
 Anthony B. Pinn, Ed., The African American Religious Experience in America, 2006.
 “This secret and great knowledge about our people in The Holy Scriptures was revealed to us through The Holy Spirit to breakdown because we are the true prophets of The Most High God and His son Jesus Christ.” http://www.icgjcmd.org/; “The true nationality of the Negroes, Hispanics, Native Indians, and West Indians of North, Central, and South America are the true decedents of the Lost 12 Tribes of the Nation of Israel, and Jesus Christ is their King.” http://www.1west.org/about/
 Communities also still remain active in the United States. Anthony B. Pinn, Ed., The African American Religious Experience in America, 2006.
 Jacob S. Dorman, Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions, 2013.
 James R. Lewis, Ed., Controversial New Religions, 2014.
 Sylvester A Johnson, African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom, 2015.