When I was in school, I was taught that Religious Zionism started with R. Yehudah Alkalai and R. Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer. While this is still essentially true, it seems that their views -- particularly R. Kalischer's -- were not as innovative as once thought. Over the past few decades, documents have emerged from the early 1800s that show that R. Kalischer's view of settling the land in order to bring the redemption was anticipated and actually acted upon. A little over 20 years ago, Dr. Arie Morgenstern published a book in Hebrew that attempted to demonstrate this thesis. Thanks to The Shalem Center, this book was recently translated into English as Hastening Redemption: Messianism and the Resettlement of the Land of Israel (another excellent translation by Joel Linsider). To scholars of this subject, this is probably old material. However, to me, this was eye-opening information.
Morgenstern made a careful study of letters, journals and publications from Palestine and Europe of the first half of the nineteenth century and arrived at the following fairly substantiated conclusion: The students of the Vilna Gaon, following his teachings, had determined that the messiah would come in the year 1840 and, in preparation for this event, began settling the land of Israel. Their belief was that any Divine act would have to follow a human act (Is'arusa Di-Li-Sasa), and their settling the land was the necessary requirement for the messiah to come. They explicitly stated that general repentance was not necessary and even tried tracking down the ten lost tribes who, according to some traditions, had maintained the chain of ordination (semikhah) that traces back to Moses and the reinstitution of which, again according to some traditions, is a necessary prerequisite for the messiah's appearance.
What of the three oaths that prevent Jews from settling the land of Israel? Morgenstern discusses this on page 87:
We have already seen how Israel of Shklov [author of the classic Pe'as Ha-Shulchan] argued, in one of his main epistles, that the Three Oaths do not bind the Jews unconditionally, but depend, rather, on the other nations' attitude toward them... When the nations break their side of the bargain and persecute the Jews intolerably -- as by the Russian army draft -- they thereby annul the Jews' obligations as well...However, when 1840 came and the messiah did not appear (and then also in 1846), and not only that but conditions worsened quickly and dramatically, there was widespread disappointment, with some (very few) even converting to Christianity in the face of heavy missionizing. (The decade following 1840 saw frantic printing of countermissionary tracts, such as Troki's Chizzuk Emunah.) After this, the leadership generally abandoned their messianic approach and focused more on communal and individual survival. Indeed, such messianic theologies lost favor and became criticized when they were later brought up.
Aviezer of Ticktin offers a different account of how the prohibition in the Three Oaths came to be annulled. In his view, the ban on pressing for the end, as referred to in the Talmud, remains in force as long as -- but only as long as -- times remain normal. Once the "time of divine visitation" (`et peqidah) arrives, as it now has, advancing the redemptive process by pressing for the End becomes not only permitted but even obligatory...
The Vilna Ga'on interpreted the oath's prohibition to apply not to aliyah to the Land of Israel or even to pressing for the End, but only to rebuilding the Holy Temple...
In a private communication, I asked Dr. Morgenstern why R. Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer did not quote any of this when presenting his similar theology. He responded that Prof. Jacob Katz had asked this question and answered that, since the community of the Vilna Gaon's disciples had eventually rejected this position after the disappointment of 1840, R. Kalischer did not want to associate himself with this rejected approach when he made his own push for settling the land some two decades later.
What I find interesting, albeit admittedly speculative, is that had the disciples of the Vilna Gaon lived long enough to see what their settlement has since turned into, I suspect that they might not reject their earlier approach. It could be just that history goes much slower than we might want or expect. Every two steps forward might include a step back, but the thrust of the resettlement of the land of Israel begun by those disciples of the Vilna Gaon has led to historically astonishing results. Just like they were expecting too much and, therefore, were disappointed, we, too, must be cautious not to expect too much too fast. The past 60 years has seen historically unprecedented events, but that does not mean that we do not still have to wait for the final events to take place on their own schedule, and not necessarily ours.
It is hard for me to evaluate the evidence for Morgenstern's thesis in translation and, I suspect, even in Hebrew I would want to see the original letters and other primary material in order to become comfortable with Morgenstern's interpretations. However, his book raises possibilities that I find amazing and that essentially rewrites the history of Religious Zionism. The book is academic and hard reading, but well worth the effort.