Perhaps you’ve been in a large urban area and seen African-American men dressed in Jewish-type robes. Maybe you’ve read about the Black Hebrew Israelites in the news and wondered who they were. This article will unpack everything you need to know about the groups who identify as the Black Hebrew Israelites.
Who are the Black Hebrew Israelites?
The Black Hebrew Israelites are several African-American religious groups who believe they are the biological descendants of the Biblical Israelites. They are also known as Black Israelites, Black Hebrews, and Hebrew Israelites and form multiple sub-groups. Some accept Hispanics and Native Americans as also part of the descendants of the Hebrews.
Freemasonry strongly influenced the founders’ teachings of the first Black Hebrew Israelite groups, including skewed concepts about Jesus and salvation by works. They don’t refer to themselves as Jews but use the terms “Israelite” and “Hebrew.” The Black Hebrew Israelites are not part of the Jewish community: some groups appreciate the Jews for preserving the religion, while others denounce them as pretenders. They are also not part of traditional Christianity as their teachings of Jesus Christ are heresy.
What do Black Hebrew Israelites believe?
The Black Hebrew Israelite movement has several major subgroups with specific theology and practices. The one thing on which they all agree is that they are the descendants of God’s chosen people: the Israelites.
One dominant group – The Church of God and Saints of Christ – teaches that African Americans descended from the lost tribes of Israel and that all Jews are a black race. They believe their founder, William Saunders Crowdy, was a prophet. They think that heaven and hell are not geographic locations. They believe the “plan of salvation” is based on “seven keys,” which include keeping the ten commandments, observing Biblical holy days, the 7th-day Sabbath (Saturday), and so on.
Ben Ammi of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem taught that Abraham and Moses were black and that his group (which emigrated from Chicago to Ethiopia and then to Israel) were the only true inheritors of Israel. He rejected both Judaism and Christianity as practiced today.
Black Hebrew Israelites view of the Bible
The Black Hebrew Israelites mostly follow their unique interpretation of Old Testament teachings, and some include parts of the New Testament. Each group has different beliefs about the Bible. All deviate from mainstream Christianity on Biblical inspiration, on which books are genuinely part of the Bible, and if other books are equally authoritative.
For instance, the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations believes the Talmud is authoritative. The Talmud, primarily written in the 2nd and 3rd century AD, is a collection of debates by Jewish rabbis on how the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) should be interpreted.
Ben Ammi of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem accepted the Tanakh (Old Testament) as divinely inspired and the “light” that leads followers back to God. This group rejects the Talmud. The Black Hebrews interpret the Bible with elements of African-American culture and do not follow the Talmud.
Origin of the Black Hebrew Israelites movement
In the late 1800s, two men – Frank Cherry and William Saunders Crowdy – each claimed to have had visions that revealed that African Americans descended from the biblical Hebrews. In 1886, Cherry founded the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations, saying that “white” Jews were “interlopers.” Cherry taught that Jesus would come back in AD 2000; when this prophecy proved false, it led to massive splintering within the group.
A decade later, William Saunders Crowdy, a Freemason, established the Church of God and Saints of Christ.
In 1919, Wentworth Arthur Matthew established the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem, influenced by New York City’s large Jewish population. He was profoundly affected by Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political activist and first president of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey taught that the Jewish exile was a metaphor for North American black people.
Matthew discovered that a group of Jews (Beta Israel) lived in Ethiopia, having relocated there at some point in Old Testament times. Matthew identified his movement with these Ethiopian Jews. He taught that African Americans descended from Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba: all black people are Jews, and all true Jews are black. Nevertheless, he respected Semitic (non-black) Jews for preserving Judaism’s teachings for thousands of years.
In Chicago in 1966, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel founded the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, part of which immigrated to Liberia in Africa. In 1969, about thirty immigrated from Liberia to Israel, forming a population today of about 2,500 Black Hebrews in Israel’s Negev region. Another section remained in Chicago, later spreading to St. Louis, Washington D.C., and other large American cities.
Practices vary in the different branches of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement.
The Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations forbids collecting tithes or playing the piano during worship. The members face east when praying.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ follow both Jewish and Christian practices. They use the Jewish calendar, celebrate Passover, circumcise newborn boys, wear yarmulkes (skull caps), and worship and rest on Saturday (Shabbat). They practice baptism by immersion and foot washing.
Likewise, the Commandment Keepers observe Jewish holidays and practices. They follow Jewish dietary laws, circumcise newborn males, and separate men and women at worship with a mechitza divider. When boys and girls come of age, they celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
The Black Hebrews keep Shabbat and Jewish holidays like Passover and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Black Hebrew men wear African print shirts with tzitzit (a fringe or tassel) and can have more than one wife. They circumcise newborn males, follow a vegan diet, and do not permit birth control.
Are black people the real Israelites?
The biblical Israelites were the descendants of Israel (Jacob), the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. The Bible doesn’t mention skin color, facial features, or hair, but the biblical Israelites weren’t as “white” as many Jews are today after 2000 years of intermarriage with Europeans.
Abraham was a descendant of Noah’s son Shem. Shem was the father of many tribes (Semites) who settled in today’s Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, including the Assyrians, Elamites, Aramaeans, and the Israelites. (See Genesis 10-11)
The Israelites intermarried with Egyptians. Abraham’s second wife (concubine) Hagar was Egyptian, Israel’s son Joseph married an Egyptian princess, and Solomon had an Egyptian wife. A host of Egyptians left Egypt with the Israelites (Exodus 12:36) and became part of Israel’s nation.
Ancient bas relief carvings of Israelites from around 840 BC (here[i]) and other Semitic people like the Assyrians (here,[ii] here,[iii] and here[iv]) show them looking like typical Middle Eastern people today: long curly dark hair, long beards, and often a hooked nose. It’s hard to discern skin color from the ancient carvings.
To summarize, the Biblical Israelites were mostly Semitic with some African DNA, and they were similar to today’s Middle Eastern people.
Are Black Hebrew Israelites racist?
All Black Hebrew Israelites believe they are biologically God’s chosen people – the Israelites – and thus inherently superior to both white people and non-black Jews. Some groups are antagonistically racist toward Jews and whites. Since 2000, these extremist fringe groups have been steadily ramping up a rhetoric of a God-ordained race war.
The Anti-Defamation League’s statement is: “Some, but not all, are outspoken anti-Semites and racists.” In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed 144 Black Hebrew Israelite sub-groups as hate groups. They categorize the extremist fringe of the movement as “black supremacists,” who believe Jews are imposters and whites are “evil personified, deserving only death or slavery.” However, the SPLC points out that most Black Hebrew Israelites are non-violent and do not teach racist ideas or anti-Semitism.
The extremist groups, of course, get most of the attention, as they often engage in street preaching in high-traffic areas, provoking whites and Jews with hateful rants. They gained national publicity in January 2019 by targeting a group of Covington Catholic High School kids who had participated in the March for Life in Washington, D.C. A group of about a half-dozen black-robed Black Israelites called the students “white crackers,” “faggots,” and “incest kids.”
One Black Israelite, “General” Mayakaahla Ka, has said, “Every white person who doesn’t get killed by Christ when he returns is going into slavery!”
Of course, this flies in the face of Biblical teaching. God expressly warned the Israelite’s not to oppress foreigners (non-Israelites) living among them. “Do not oppress a foreign resident, since you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners; for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
Foreigners living among the Israelites followed the same Mosaic law and the regulations for Passover as native-born Israelites, including circumcision (Exodus 12:19, 48-49). It wasn’t a matter of DNA as much as faith. God never told the Israelites to enslave or kill the foreigners living among them; He said to treat them kindly. Even if the Black Israelites are genuine descendants of the Biblical Israelites, they are not following God’s commands when demonizing Jews and white people.
Jesus’ message was all about love. The two greatest commands are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus said, “By this, all people will know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Accosting people on the sidewalk with hateful diatribes is at odds with Jesus’ message.
BHI and the fruit of a Christian
“Beware of false prophets. . . by their fruit you will recognize them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-17)
A sign of a false prophet is their fruit. Are they reaching out in love? Or are they stirring up pride, hate, and sometimes even violence?
“Therefore, produce fruits that are consistent with repentance, and do not start saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children for Abraham.” (Luke 3:8)
The fruit of the Spirit marks genuine followers of God:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things, there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Jesus came to fulfill the Law
Most Black Hebrew Israelites still follow the Mosaic law. “If there is no law, then there can be no sin. If there is no sin, then there can be no judgment. The laws are what deem men righteous or wicked. Nowhere in scripture are the laws done away with, Yahshuah the Messiah [has] never done away with the laws, [and] Yah [has] never done away with the laws.”[v]
However, Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17). We are made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ, not through obeying the law. No one can be made right with God by following the law (Galatians 2:15-16). The law exposes our sin and need for salvation, pointing to our need for a savior!
The divinity of Jesus – BHI denies the Trinity
“For in Him [Christ], all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
The deity of Christ is the bedrock of Christianity, yet the Black Hebrew Israelites deny Jesus’ divinity. Various groups have diverse ideas about who Jesus is and who the Messiah is. Some leaders even try to insert themselves into the Trinity, claiming to be the “anointed one” or God’s son.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ teaches that Jesus was not God, nor was he God’s son; He was a prophet that followed Judaism.
Ben Ammi of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem taught that Jesus (Yeshua) was among the multiple “anointed ones” that God sent to keep the Israelites on the path of righteousness. He declared that he was another “anointed one,” first receiving the title Nasi Hashalom (Prince of Peace) and later the name Adoni Rabbey (My Lord and Master).
The Nation of Yahweh sect believed their leader Hulon Mitchell Jr. (Yahweh Ben Yahweh) was the Son of God. He taught that God was black and that as God’s Son, black people could know their true history through Yahweh Ben Yahweh. He was convicted of conspiracy to murder in 1990 and served 11 years in prison. Today, on their website, his followers sell a 2-disc DVD set entitled, “Yahweh Ben Yahweh is the True God and Eternal Life.”
Jesus is worshiped
The Church of God and Saints of Christ believe the Lord is One, and beside Him, there is no other. He alone is to be worshipped, glorified, and prayed to. Most Black Hebrew Israelite groups speak of Jesus as a prophet and not part of the Godhead; thus, they would not worship Jesus.
However, Jesus received the worship of people multiple times when He walked the earth (Matthew 9:18, 14:33, 20:20, 28:9, Mark 5:6, John 9:38). Heaven resounds with songs of worship to Jesus: “To Him who loves us and has released us from our sins by His blood, who has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father— To Him be the glory and power forever and ever!” (Revelation 1:5-6) “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” (Revelation 5:12)
Since heaven worships Jesus, we ought to worship Him as well!
Jesus broke down the wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles
“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles in the flesh and called uncircumcised . . . at that time you were separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has torn down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments and decrees. He did this to create in Himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace and reconciling both of them to God in one body through the cross, by which He extinguished their hostility.” (Ephesians 2:11-16)
God has brought Israel and non-Israelites together into one body in Christ Jesus through faith in Him. There is no hostility. Ethnicity is irrelevant. All are one in Christ. Everyone who belongs to Christ is Abraham’s seed. (Galatians 3:28-29)
God’s plan for all nations
“Now it will come about that in the last days, the mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it.” (Isaiah 2:2)
“All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is the LORD’S, and He rules over the nations.” (Psalm 22:27-28)
“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)
The Israelites were God’s chosen people, but it doesn’t mean that the others were left out. God desires all people to come to Him – black, white, Asian, Israelite, everyone! All people are His chosen people when they place their faith in Jesus – they are grafted in. (Romans 11)
People from every nation, tribe, and tongue will worship the Lord in Heaven
“And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are You to take the scroll and to break its seals; for You were slaughtered, and You purchased people for God with Your blood from every tribe, language, people, and nation. You have made them into a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign upon the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)
Jesus isn’t just the Messiah for the Israelite nation – He is the Savior of all humankind who place their faith in Him.
A message to Black Hebrew Israelites and those considering this movement
Many urban African-Americans and Caribbean people feel marginalized by the church because, at one time, many white churches promoted and defended slavery and later objected to civil rights for black Americans. Many minorities perceive the “white” church as oppressive to people of color. The Black Hebrew Israelite groups have expanded upon this narrative, undermining the Gospel.
But the Black Hebrew Israelites promote an ethnocentricity just as harmful as the “white” church. They bring a sense of empowerment and identity to the black community, but they twist scripture. The Bible never says that obeying the law brings salvation – it says the opposite: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.” (Romans 8:3)
Christ is the Savior and Healer of the nations: He is the Prince of Peace. God chose Israel as a favored nation so they could be a light to the other nations of the world (Isaiah 49:6). God never intended to exclude anyone. All are welcome who put their trust in Jesus the Messiah.
“If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. . .there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “EVERYONE WHO CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.” (Romans 10:9-13)