Holy Land

views updated May 21 2018

Holy Land

The concept of sacred space has held an important meaning for members of numerous religious traditions in America. However, in America the term "Holy Land" has been used almost exclusively by Christians and Jews to refer to the biblical Land of Israel, the modern geopolitical region of Palestine.

American interest in the biblical Holy Land goes back to the early European settlements in America. The New England settlers related to America as Canaan, and to themselves as the Sons of Israel, who had entered into a covenant with God and reached the promised land. English settlers gave their towns biblical names and looked on their experience as building the kingdom of God on Earth. The American-Protestant understanding of the Holy Land shifted with the "rediscovery" of Palestine by Western nations in the early nineteenth century. American Protestants began traveling to Palestine as missionaries and explorers of the land. For many of those who adhered to a premillennialist messianic outlook, exploring and evangelizing in Palestine held a special meaning and remained high on their agenda. American missionaries labored in Palestine throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leaving their mark on the educational, medical, and cultural infrastructure of the country. A number of American groups motivated by messianic hopes settled in Palestine in the mid- and late nineteenth century, expecting to witness the events of the end times firsthand.

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, a new school of messianic hope, dispensationalism, strongly influenced American understanding of the Holy Land, particularly among the conservative evangelical segment of American Protestantism. For believers in the Second Coming of Jesus, Palestine, or modern Israel, is not only the historical site where Jesus taught, suffered, and was crucified, but also the place to which he will return to defeat Antichrist and establish his thousand-year reign on Earth. Accordingly, American evangelicals have taken special interest in the developments in Palestine and in the Jewish national movement. They have interpreted such events as the building of Jewish settlements in Palestine, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 as "signs of the time," indicating that the messianic era is near, and that the events of the end times are beginning to unfold. The reading of current events in the Holy Land as the fulfillment of prophecy has been strongly enhanced by the Six-Day War of 1967 and its aftermath. The Israeli conquest of the historical parts of Jerusalem has stirred the messianic imagination and convinced many American premillennialists that the State of Israel has been established for a purpose, and that the time is near for the arrival of the Messiah. Leading American evangelists, such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Hal Lindsey, have openly speculated on the connection between developments in the area and the messianic timetable.

The Mormon understanding of the Holy Land is similar to that of conservative Protestants. Like the Puritans, the Mormons have perceived America as the promised land and have expected the gathering of the Saints, the Sons of Israel of the tribe of Joseph, to take place in America. At the same time, the Book of Mormon describes a return of the Jews to Judea before the events of the end times begin. Mormon interest in Palestine remained strong throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in the 1970s the Mormons built a center for Middle Eastern studies in Jerusalem. To establish their presence in the land and to secure the trust and cooperation of the Israeli government, the Mormons promised to refrain from evangelism, a concession they have rarely, if ever, made elsewhere.

For Roman Catholics, Palestine has traditionally been Terra Sancta, the Holy Land, an object of pilgrimage. Throughout the twentieth century, American Catholics have shown concern about the integrity of Catholic shrines and privileges in the Holy Land. From 1947 to 1949, Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York headed the worldwide Catholic demand for the internationalization of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, towns holding special meaning for Christianity.

Similarly, Jews in America have looked on Palestine as the biblical land of Israel, their ancestral home. This became a subject of debate among nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American Jews. Like the Puritans, many of them, including prominent Reform rabbis, declared America to be their Zion and eliminated prayers for the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from Reform liturgy. Zionism became an accepted component of American Judaism in the 1920s, following the ideological path of U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, who viewed the Jewish hope for the building of a national Jewish center in Palestine as going hand in hand with Jewish loyalty to America. American Jewish financial and political support for the building of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine has been of great importance to the rise and survival of the State of Israel.

Palestine is also a holy land for the growing Muslim community in America, for whom Jerusalem is "the holy city." In addition to the three Abrahamic religions, a number of new religious movements influenced by Christian-Messianic notions also relate to Palestine as the Holy Land. One such group is the Raelians, who expect the arrival of the Messiah in a UFO in Jerusalem in the year 2035, to take his true believers to heaven.

The special relations that major American religious groups have with the Holy Land have influenced American attitudes toward the contemporary land of Palestine, including policies adopted by the U.S. government. Christian evangelical notions of the importance of Israel and its role in history have been particularly instrumental in the latter decades of the twentieth century in determining American financial, military, and political support for that country.

See alsoChurchand State; Churchof Jesus Christof Latter-day Saints; Dispensationalism; Evangelical Christianity;Islam; Jewish Identity; Judaism; Mainline Protestantism; Premillennialism; Roman Catholicism; Second Coming; Zionism.


Ariel, Yaakov S. On Behalf of Israel. 1991.

Davis, Moshe. America and the Holy Land. 1995.

Davis, Moshe, ed. With Eyes Towards Zion. 1977.

Greenberg, Gershon. The Holy Land in American Religious Thought, 1620 –1948: The Symbiosis of AmericanReligious Approaches to Scriptures' Sacred Territory. 1994.

Grose, Peter. Israel in the Mind of America. 1983.

Handy, Robert T. The Holy Land in American ProtestantLife, 1800 –1948. 1981.

Yaakov S. Ariel

Holy Land

views updated May 29 2018


An overall characterization of the area in the Middle East connected with biblical and New Testament narratives.

References to the Holy Land are found in Jewish biblical and rabbinic literature and later in Christian tradition. The area is centered at Jerusalem, and it extends from modern Israel to Egypt, which is associated with Jesus' family in the Gospels, and to Asia Minor, which is associated with the Virgin Mary and Saint John. As the dwelling place of the divine presence, the Holy Land has been the location of pilgrimage sites since the era of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century. It began to take on distinct borders with the resurgence of Christian interest in the holy sites and the development of archaeology during the nineteenth century. The area is also holy to Muslims because it is home to important shrines associated with the prophet Muhammad and the early days of Islam, including Islam's third holiest mosque, in Jerusalem.

See also jerusalem.


Ben-Arieh, Yehoshua. "Perceptions and Images of the Holy Land." In The Land That Became Israel: Studies in Historical Geography, edited by Ruth Kark. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Long, Burke O. Imagining the Holy Land: Maps, Models, and Fantasy Travels. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

Peters, F. E. Jerusalem and Mecca: The Typology of the Holy City in the Near East. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

Wilkin, Robert. The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

reeva s. simon
updated by michael r. fischbach

Erez Israel

views updated Jun 11 2018

Erez Israel (Heb., ‘Land of Israel’). The Jewish Promised Land. Erez Israel was the Hebrew name given to the land governed by the British mandate, 1919–48.

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