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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Abraham Lincoln: Friend of the Jews but Not Jewish

By Shelomo Alfassa

(December 24, 2008) In the last few years, many rumors have circulated on the Internet, the one I am focusing on concerns the issue of whether or not President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was of Jewish extraction. The subject was injected back into the media and popular Internet culture in December 2008 when an article published in an old synagogue bulletin by Rabbi Jeff Kahn,1 began to circulate again. The article was entitled "Was Lincoln Jewish?", and mentioned that when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, rabbis across the USA eulogized the murdered President and Jewish communities observed the shivah (the formal Jewish period of mourning) in his honor. This of course is nothing exceptional, as it was not (and is not), unusual for rabbinical leaders to call on their congregations to pray for the welfare of their leaders or their country during times of crisis.

Examination of the Myths

When Lincoln was murdered, New York's Congregation Shearith Israel, then the largest Jewish congregation in America, was grief-stricken, as was the entire country.2 One of the most established catalysts to the myth that Abraham Lincoln was Jewish may be found in a eulogy of him, spoken on April 28, 1865 by Rabbi Isaac M. Wise (founder of the Reform movement) which was subsequently published in The Israelite of Cincinnati, Ohio. The newspaper transcription reads "…The lamented Abraham Lincoln, believed to be bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh. He supposed to be a descendant of Hebrew parentage. He said so in my presence."3 Yet, even if Lincoln may have mentioned at one time that he was descendant of Hebrew parentage, this would be nothing extraordinary. Many Christians feel they were descendants of the Jews. Further, historian Bertram W. Korn,4 author of American Jewry and the Civil War, declared, and "Lincoln is not known to have said anything resembling this [to Isaac Wise] to any of his other Jewish acquaintances."5

We do not have a speech or any other sort of transcript from Lincoln himself indicating any connection to Judaism. Additionally, if we did find anything to indicate Lincoln stated he was "descendant of Hebrew parentage," we still would never know if Lincoln stated it as a respectful nicety to Jews in his presence, or if he stated it because he truly believed his ancestors were Jews-something a multitude of Christians can claim-as it's well established that Christianity developed as a split from Judaism.

Jewish Prayer & Jewish Patriotism

In May 1762, during the height of the French and Indian War, the Jews of New York engaged in a service of "solemn humiliation before the Almighty." As they also did on May 17, 1776, as Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas prayed that "God soften the heart of the [British] oppressor."6 During the War of Independence (Revolutionary War), Jews from New York City; Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, fled to Philadelphia seeking refuge from the British. There, they engaged in prayers led by their rabbi, praying for the new nation to be safe and free. In 1789, General George Washington proclaimed November 26 as a national Thanksgiving to God for protecting the colonies and its people from the British war machine. Jewish congregants heralded this call from Washington and institute many prayers, including a Prayer for the Government and the reading of special Psalms on the occasion.7 During the War of 1812, President Madison called upon all Americans to pray and fast, and the Jews in the young United States did; they prayed not only for peace, but for the safety of the President himself.

When President William Harrison died in office, Congregation Shearith Israel of New York draped their synagogue furniture in black as a sign of mourning 8 and respect for a man who was a known devoted Christian. On January 4, 1861, when Abraham Lincoln appealed for fasting and prayer so that the calamity of disunion did not occur,9 Jews issued poignant prayers in observance of the President's call.10 It's only natural that Jews (who also were fighting and suffering during the bloody Civil War), would observe Lincoln's call for humility and repentance.

In Judaism, one does not have to be Jewish to be mourned over. Many Jews wept and prayed after Presidents James Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901) and later John F. Kennedy (1963) were assassinated. In modern times, Jews have mourned as a community for their government leaders and their country, such as when the Space Shuttles exploded and when other tragedies shook their lives, such as the attacks by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001.

Lincoln and His Christianity

Abraham Lincoln was not a typical Christian of the period. One biographer even reports that there were claims the young Lincoln wrote an essay "against Christianity, Jesus Christ, and the Bible," which was read and discussed until his friend tore it up and burned it;11 still, there is no evidence indicating that this is even true. It was reported that Lincoln originally rejected the New Testament as a book of divine authority12 and on many occasions that he denied Jesus was the Son of God as Christianity dictates.13 We also know that Lincoln did not use the word Jesus or Christ as often as most Christians of the period did as a matter of demonstrating their allegiance to that faith. Even so, on some occasions he was known to have used the phrase "Our Lord" which referred to the Christian leader.14 We also know that Lincoln was a "constant reader of the Bible" according to a biography. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President says that in adult life, Lincoln suffered too many doubts to be a member of a church, despite the political gains to be made by doing so. Lincoln had little religion as a young man, but demonstrated he was (or became) a devout Christian in his later years. Journals of visiting Swedenborgian missionaries record and confirm that Lincoln was an interested student:

He was a religious man, a very conscientious man, and his conscience was formed by the Ten Commandments and the Word of God, which, in private, he read much. His views concerning the Lord Jesus Christ as God manifest, concerning the moral government of the universe, and the civil government of nations, the humanity of man, the duty of rulers to protect and preserve the principles of humanity wherever found...15


While many people throw around theories on the Internet, there is nothing but what could be called "junk research" that exists on the subject. Anything that claims to prove Abraham Lincoln was Jewish is based upon that petty and unrelated fact he had a Jewish first name or that even a town in England named Lincoln had many Jews living there. The President's obituary and family never mentioned he was Jewish, and nothing that exists today indicates so.

What we do know is that unmistakably Lincoln had many Jewish friends and colleagues. And while Abraham Lincoln was obviously esteemed by the Jewish population, there is absolutely nothing to prove that he was of Jewish extraction himself. There may be a great deal of interesting speculation, but that's all there is-speculation.


The author is the US Director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries based at the Center for Jewish History in New York City.

1. Kahn was formerly with Temple Har Shalom (reform) in Warren, NJ; he is no longer affiliated with that institution and today lives outside the United States.
2. de Sola Pool, David and Tamar. An Old Faith in the New World: Portrait of Shearith Israel 1654-1954. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956. 130-134
3. Many thanks to Jennifer M. Cole, Associate Archivist of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of The American Jewish Archives who provided me with a copy of The Israelite on December 8, 2008.
4. Reform rabbi and historian who served as a Marine chaplain and later in a congregation in Mobile, Alabama.
5. American Jewry and the Civil War. Philadelphia, 1951.
6. Old Faith in the New World 130
7. Old Faith in the New World 126-127
8. Old Faith in the New World 134
9. Shearith Israel Minutes: Dec 30, 1860 p432 qtd. in Old Faith in the New World 131-132
10. Johnstone, William Jackson. Abraham Lincoln, the Christian. New York: Abington Press. 1920. 108
11. Abraham Lincoln, the Christian. 31
12. Lamon, Ward Hill; Black, Chauncey F. The Life of Abraham Lincoln. Boston: Osgood and Co. 1872. 502
13. The Life of Abraham Lincoln. 489
14. Abraham Lincoln, the Christian. 62
15. Smith, Eldon. "The Swedenborgian Church of North America "Abraham Lincoln's Religious Beliefs" February 11, 1996

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© Shelomo Alfassa