Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) is considered the father of modern Zionism, but many may not realize that there was also a big Christian influence on Herzl. The 19th century is sometimes called the missionary church age and Philadelphian age with reference to the letter to Philadelphia in Revelation 3. There was a lot of anti-Semitism in church history, not only with the Catholic church, but also with early Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.
With the impact of the Reformation and the ability to study of the Biblical text by everybody, not just the church hierarchy arose a movement for the Jews to return to their homeland. This was a focus of John Nelson Darby bringing to light the separation of the Church and Israel in a method of Biblical interpretation called “Dispensationalism”, but even one of the most quoted pastors of the 19th Century, Charles Spurgeon, a “Reformed Baptist” minister stated of the Jews:
“They are the seed of Abraham, God’s friend. We have nobles and dukes in England, but how far could they trace their pedigree? Why, up to a nobody. But the poorest Jew on earth is descended linearly from Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham. Instead of treating them with anything like disrespect, the Saviour says, “Begin at Jerusalem.” Just as we say, “Ladies first,” so it is “the Jew first.” They take precedence among races, and are to be first waited on at the gospel feast. Jesus would have us entertain a deep regard to that nation which God chose of old, and out of which Christ also came, for he is of the seed of Abraham according to the flesh. He puts those first who knew him first.” 1
This was the era that Herzl’s dream of a Jewish state in their ancient homeland took root. Christians often say that “God’s timing is perfect” and if Theodore Herzl was born at another time in history, his dream would amount to little more than wishful thinking. There was still a lot of anti Jewish sentiment in Europe at this time politically, but for the first time since the first century, Christians were openly reaching out to the Jews.
Herzl himself desired to create a homeland for the Jews mainly for academic and pragmatic reasons. He wanted a safe place for Jews to immigrate to in order to escape persecution. They were not safe in Europe as history has shown. While Jewish, Herzl was an atheist who understood that persecution against the Jews was not going to stop. He had a mentor who was a Christian named William Hechler. Herzl says of Hechler:
“A likeable, sensitive man with the long grey beard of a prophet. He waxed enthusiastic over my solution. He, too, regards my movement as a ‘prophetic crisis’ – one he foretold two years ago.” 2
Prof. Yaakov Ariel writes of Herzl’s relationship with Hechler:
“Herzl did not take seriously Hechler’s messianic faith and considered his Christian friend to be a naive visionary but nonetheless trusted him. Hechler, for his part, considered the Zionist project to be a very welcome development, one prophesied and predicted long in advance,” 3
The first Zionist Congress took place 120 years ago on August 29-31, 1897 in which Herzl invited 10 Christian guests including William Hechler. Herzl’s relationship with Christians made Jews at the time uneasy and considering the anti-Semitism in Europe at this time, likely made some Christians uneasy as well. It’s very likely that Herzl saw the Christian support for a Jewish state in their homeland as strategic, Christians in this era saw an opportunity to share the love of Yeshua with the Jews. There was 1800 years of anti-Jewish sentiment on the part of Christians and distrust of Christians from Jews to work through, this early relationship between Herzl and Christians set the stage for Christian support for Israel that continues today.
Christians during the 19th century including not only C.H. Spurgeon and J.N. Darby but many others who are not known today saw that God still loves the Jewish people and were vocal in their support for the Jews. This didn’t simply translate into the popular Christian statement: “we’ll keep you in our thoughts and prayers”, but they took actual steps towards helping the Jews.
Herzl’s dream of a Jewish state didn’t happen for another 50 years from the first Zionist council and we can see not only God blessing the land from a deserted dustbowl in the 19th century to a thriving and abundant country today. Not only is Israel a jewel in the region, but there are numerous ministries that reach out to the Jews with the Gospel, something that may not have been possible had there not been a return to Israel.
We can see right from the start of the Zionist movement that God’s hand played a part in Israel becoming a nation again.