Rev. William Smith: “Isles Afar”

The Rev. William Smith, first provost of the College of Philadelphia and founder of the settlement of Huntingdon in Pennsylvania, was an American episcopalian and advocate of Westward expansion into the Ohio Valley during the colonial and revolutionary eras. Dr. Smith was fascinated by America’s role in bible prophecy. Since Identity students often treat the “Isles Afar” as referring to the British Nation, the Rev. Smith’s learned insights on the same phrase is worthwhile to mention. There is also a related question regarding what constitutes, in terms of geographic boundaries, ‘the world’. Here, Smith also offers sound thoughts. The quotes below are taken from Smith’s 1760 Sermon addressing Christian Education, delivered to the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. 

Smith discusses Isa. 66.19 with an interest in distant Isles as elsewhere mentioned in scripture. From the KJV, this particular passage reads:

19. And I will set a sign among them, and I will send those that escape of them unto the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, that draw the bow, to Tubal, and Javan, to the isles afar off, that have not heard my fame, neither have seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the Gentiles.

The Rev’d Smith begins with praise for the Book of Isaiah. Smith says among the OT prophets, Isaiah is the most evangelical, declaring the will of Jehovah to national Israel but also the conversion of peoples across the earth. In this sense, Isaiah speaks “with the fullest view of the Gospel-state, from the very birth of the Messiah to that glorious period, whereof we are now speaking, when the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.”

Smith next provides several scriptural proofs showing the conversion of Gentiles in the latter-days or Gospel Dispensation, saying the last chapters of Isaiah especially predict the coming of a world-wide Kingdom. Among verses repeatedly quoted by Smith in this and other sermons especially are two favorites from ch. 11 and 49:

THE earth, shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek, and his rest shall be glorious.” is. 11.10

AND again the spirit of God, speaking by the same Prophet concerning the Messiah says, “It is a light thing for thee, [or a small part of thy undertaking] that Thou [the saviour of the world] shouldst be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel. I will also give thee for a light to the GENTILES, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.” Is. 49.6

So, in the plain language of scripture, it would appear Christ’s kingdom will extend to all quarters of the inhabited world. And, getting back to Is. 66, Smith observes a similar division of the world into four geographic-parts that are to receive the Gospel. Regarding that division, represented by the names Tarshish, Pul and Lud, Tubal and Javan, and the Isles, Smith says:

“Now, according to our learned Commentators, Tarshish denotes the East, Pul and Lud the South, Tubal and Javan the North, and the Isles the West. For, in holy scripture, the Isles, the Sea, and the West are frequently put for one another; so that “the islands afar off which have not heard of God’s fame, nor seen his glory,” may well be understood to comprehend this American continent, or West-Indies generally so called, as the learned Dr. Lowth has observed in his accurate commentary upon this passage.”

The identification with the names of these peoples with the four-points of the compass is very typical of period-commentators. However, Smith somewhat speculates about the West Indies or the American continent, backing this opinion with the scholarly Lowth. From Dr. William Lowth’s Commentary on Isaiah (1710), first, asserts the return or calling home of dispersed Israel, and they in turn will seek out the believing Gentiles.

“Ver. 19 And I will send those that are escaped of them into the  Nations] The escaped of Israel are mentioned before, ch. 4.2 and mean those that are escaped of the Nations, ch. 45.20., i.e., who are returned home out of their several dispersions. Some of these, God saith he will send to be Preachers and Apostles to the unconverted Gentiles, as St. Paul when he was converted, was ordained to be an Apostle of the Gentiles, whose Conversion, according to Mr. Mede, carries in it an Earnest, and an Emblem of the general conversion of that Nation. Without Question their Conversion will be a signal instance of the power of God’s Grace, and a convincing Argument to others of the Truth of the Gospel, as hath been observed upon v. 10.”

Lowth’s account squares with most impressions of the early church consisting of the believing rump of Jewry (with Galilean leaders). Nonetheless, upon Pentecost and Peter’s preaching to their assembly, the whole returned to the provinces from which they came, marking the extension of the gospel beyond Samaria and Judea. However, especially among Identity students, these bounds are usually understood to be no further than the Roman Empire or the civilized world at the time of the Apostles. For example, Pul and Lud denote the ‘south’, typically thought, even among reputed interpreters, as Libya and sometimes Egypt. The Isles could be Cyprus but also signify the West in general, even Gibraltar and Briton. But, Lowth, in his 1710 commentary, is willing to consider shores further afield, even across the Atlantic, and as far as I know this was unprecedented opinion:

Ibid. To the Isles far off] This Expression denotes the westerly parts of the World, for the Islands of the Sea, a phrase elsewhere used, mean the same with the Islands of the Western Sea.. See the Notes upon ch. 11.11, 24. 14. And the Prophet Hosea, speaking of the return of the Jews from their dispersions in several parts of the world, saith, When the Lord shall roar like a Lion (which denotes some efficacious Call of Providence, or powerful Preaching of the Gospel) then the Children shall tremble (or come flying as the following verse explains it) from the West. Hos. 11.10. So that by the Isles afar off, which have not heard God’s Fame may be meant even the West-Indies themselves.

Dr. Lowth appears to be squaring scripture with certain scientific thought or what was known by navigation and cartography. Interestingly, Smith takes the cue, discussing how the expanse of science readies the completion of prophecy. This approach was also prescribed by Joseph Butler, 1750 Bishop of Durham, and has been used elsewhere (see Titcomb, Ch. 4).

Interestingly, Smith uses the analogy of the Sun’s heavenly course, dividing the Providence of scripture into two or more Eras. The first Era is the Dawn of the true faith where Abraham is chosen. This extends to the last prophet, St. John the Baptist. We then reach the “Meridian” of revelation where Christ (re)inaugurates his Kingdom, which indeed, during primitive times, likely knew no West further than the Isles contained within the Roman Empire’s boundaries. These Isles, including Briton, are described as belonging to Japhet. Though we might have some nuances with Japheth’s possession of Briton, notice Smith makes an interesting point regarding the Apostolic roots of the English Church, perhaps imagining room even for legends of Joseph of Arimethea:

“IN the primitive ages of Simplicity, the first indications of Divine Will were given to the Patriarchs of mankind in the Eastern parts of the world, by God himself, conversing with them face to face, as they tended their flocks, or journeyed on from pasture to pasture. This was the Dawn of things. Soon afterwards followed the Law, and then the Prophets, advancing nearer and nearer to a full and perfect Revelation, till at last it broke forth in its Meridian glory, by the coming of the son of God, at that period already referred to, when the situation of the world had prepared the way for its more effectual reception. The Wisdom of God was visible in all this; and soon did the Christian Religion spread itself Westward, till it reached the vast Atlantic ocean, and the Isles of the Gentiles, where the posterity of Japhet dwelt.

NOW among these Isles, or places on the Ocean, or Western parts, as they are indifferently phrased, GREAT-BRITAIN, our Mother-country, that ultima Thule of the ancients, bore a principal figure. Early was the Gospel preached in her, if not by the Apostles themselves, yet certainly by some of their followers, in their days, and before the destruction of Jerusalem.”

So far, this is pretty typical commentary with the exception of Smith’s very early date for Christening Briton. But, Smith goes on to accommodate the discovery of hidden parts of the Globe, taking up from where Lowth left when positing the ‘West-Indies’.

“HERE the matter rested. This was the first State of the Gospel-progress. To the Westward of Britain the ancients seem to have known nothing. They considered these islands as the ends of the world; and extensive as the Roman empire was at our Saviour’s coming, this American continent, more extensive than it all, lay entirely hid from their knowlege, and seems to have been reserved as the stage of a second remarkable period in the Gospel-progress. Not a vestige, therefore, of Christianity was propagated hither, till after it had kept possession of the Old World, in various forms and under various corruptions, for at least fifteen centuries. But, at the expiration of that period, it pleased God to open the way to the discovery of new countries, which likewise opened the way to the establishment of the Gospel in them. For it is obvious to remark, that the nations, which were raised up for this purpose, were those among whom Christianity was openly professed, and consequently they carried their religion along with them.

Hence, Smith believes this the most rational explanation of ‘ends of the earth’, using Lowth’s opinion regarding ‘Isles Afar’ for a spring board. Smith insists the prophecies in both Isa. 11 and 49, about the fullness of the Gentiles, make no sense unless the habitations of the heathen in remotest New World parts are included.

Now, although these Prophecies may, in part, have had their completion, by the vast rapidity with which the Gospel spread itself into almost every known corner of the old world, soon after our SAVIOUR’s Ascension into heaven, yet, methinks, it is impossible that they should ever have their full accomplishment without the conversion of the Indian Natives around us, and the propagation of Christ’s kingdom to the remotest parts of this continent. We have many of the strongest arguments to induce this belief. For, in the first place, none of these Texts, which I have read, put any shorter limit to the spreading of the Gospel than the Ends of the Earth, and from the Rising of the Sun to the Going-down of the same.

Finally, Smiths adds a second proof regarding ‘trodden Jerusalem’ showing how incomplete is the gathering of the Gentiles. This last claim of Smith is a special consideration for Identity students who may not  believe modern-day Israel is possessed by actual Jewry– or at least by believing Jews. Perhaps, in either case, we can say Gentiles (at least spiritual ones) still trod? Anyhow, Smith includes this caveat:

“And secondly our Saviour himself, that last and greatest of all the Prophets, has expressly told us that “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, till the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.” Now Jerusalem is still trodden down by the Gentiles, and consequently their times are not yet fulfilled.

Conclusion:
Smith gives us some flexibility to the identification of “Isles Afar”. It’s a proposition that’s inclines itself to ‘and-both’ rather than ‘either-or’. He is rather unabashed about the centrality of Britain in his prophecy, even implying an Apostolic– albeit perhaps legendary– missionary visit of St. Paul or Joseph of Arimethea. However, Smith does not restricted us to the confines of the anciently known World (say, the bounds of the Roman Empire), instead, expanding the ‘West’ in scripture to the wilderness of America– a sensible conclusion given the Earth and all therein indeed belongs to the Glory of an infinite and almighty God– the supreme Potentate of all rulers, all men, all creatures, all lights, and all spirits, powers, etc..

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Rev. William Smith: “Isles Afar”

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