“O Lord God, save Thy chosen people of England.” These, reportedly, were the words Edward VI of England on his death bed in 1553.
England understood itself as an elect nation, as John Milton said, England was the “Nation chosen before any other that out of her as out of Sion should be proclaim’d and sounded forth the first tidings and trumpet of Reformation.” As the English poet and politician John Lyly explained in 1580, God loved England like “a new Israel,” the English were “his chosen and peculiar people.”
England, however, was not the only chosen people in 16thcentury Europe. At the height of the Reformation, it was one of a series of chosen peoples, Protestant New Israels. The Scots, Danes, Swedes, Hungarians, Czechs, and Dutch each understood that they had been uniquely chosen by God. But each also understood that other nations could be chosen as they had been,as Rev. John Dury told the English Parliament, God is “more interested in you, and in Scotland, than in any Nation whatsoever.”
These new Israels did not merely compare themselves to the Hebrew children of the Old Testament. They believed that God had made a new covenant with Christians, a covenant (testament) that replaced the old covenant with the Jews. Each“New Israel” understood itself as direct heir to the Biblical patriarchs, the history of Israel was the history of each chosen Christian people.
Christians, of course, also understood the church as the new Israel, and each Christian as entering directly into a covenant with God. But the entry of Christians into personal covenants with God, the entry of the church as a whole into the new covenant, and the entry of Protestant nations into covenants were viewed as non-contradictory events. The same individual could experience personal salvation, be part of a chosen people, and part of the covenant of all believers. In the image coined by poet and Calvinist theologian Jacobus Revius, the Church was the Bride of Christ, and the Dutch Republic “the abode of the Bride.”
Far from wasting time asserting the uniqueness of their national chosenness, the various chosen nations received one another’s political refugees, printed Bibles and shipped them clandestinely across borders, and sent armies to defend a “rival” chosen nation from Catholic armies. They prayed not for an exclusionary prestige of chosenness, but that additional peoples would choose to be chosen.
Chosenness was a powerful tool for binding people into a sense of mutual commitment because it entails both special favor and special obligation. “You are God’s own people to whom the Lord has come so close, and whom He has elected to his own in a special way and of whom he therefore reasonably expects more than of the rest.” Just as God could choose a people and set it as a light unto the nations – like a candle set on a candlestick – so too could God ‘transfer his candlestick’ away from a nation.
This is deeply Biblical. God’s covenant with Israel is a legal contract; with dire consequences for non-fulfillment. But while the Hebrew Bible is a national chronicle, the story of the particular relationship between God and the children of Israel, it also describes God’s care for other nations.
Abraham is promised not only that Israel will be a great nation, but that “as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.” (Gen. 17:20 KJV)
Nor is it only descendants of Abraham who receive God’s special care and attention, “Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the Lord. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” (Amos 9:7 KJV)
It would be odd to assume that an omnipotent God was limited to choosing only one people.
(References in Biblical Nationalism and the Sixteenth Century States, Journal of National Identities)