How did Abraham Lincoln view religion, Jews? - opinion

Lincoln often championed the rights of Jewish Americans, many of whom he counted among his closest friends.

Abraham Lincoln (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Abraham Lincoln
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
 It is well known that Abraham Lincoln was a man of many parts, not the least of which were his religious beliefs.
Though a skeptic as a young man, Lincoln seldom shared his views on religion, except occasionally to ridicule revivalists and express his decidedly unorthodox opinions, such as on the innate depravity of man.
But on the afternoon of August 12, 1861 – exactly six months after Lincoln’s fifty-second birthday and a few fortnights since the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina – Lincoln solemnly called for a national day of humiliation, fasting and prayer. 
“It is peculiarly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation,” said the characteristically shy president, “and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals to humble ourselves before Him, and to pray for His mercy.”
Despite his disdain for church, Lincoln’s pious invocation that day should not have been surprising. He’d grown up in a devoutly religious family. His parents were well known as “hard shell” Baptists in both Lincoln City, Indiana and New Salem, Illinois, to where they later moved. He had a deep knowledge of the Bible, and frequently referred to an all-powerful deity who shaped events.
Lincoln’s religious views became more pronounced after he married Mary Todd in 1842. With the untimely deaths of two of their children, he began to attend Protestant church services. During his 1846 run for the House of Representatives, he put out a handbill stating that he had “never denied the truth of the Scriptures,” and by 1865 he was expressing those ideas in major speeches. (In his surviving letters he mentions God more than 420 times, most often quoting passages from the Old Testament.)
At the end of March 1863, in the midst of a Civil War that ultimately cost the lives of 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers, Lincoln appealed for another day of humiliation, fasting and prayer. 
“We have forgotten the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us.... Let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high and answered with blessing no less than the pardon of our national sins and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace.”
Both of Lincoln’s entreaties for days of national prayer were duly observed, the first in September 1861 and the second in April 1863. Six months later, on the afternoon of November 19, came the 242-word Gettysburg Address, in which he famously and inaccurately predicted that “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here” and prayed that “this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom.” (Edward Everett, the famed orator and featured speaker at the dedication that day, later wrote to Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”)
Less well known is that Lincoln also often championed the rights of Jewish Americans, many of whom he counted among his closest friends. The first was probably Julius Hammerslough, a young merchant in the Illinois state capitol of Springfield. At a time when Jews were widely viewed with suspicion, Lincoln treated Hammerslough as an equal and, after becoming president, frequently invited him to the White House.
Lincoln also befriended Abraham Jonas, a Kentucky lawyer from an Orthodox Jewish family who helped establish Congregation B’nai Abraham in Quincy, Kentucky. Jonas was one of the first public figures to encourage Lincoln to run for president.
IN 1858, when campaigning for the Senate, a then-beardless Lincoln had his portrait taken by a Jewish photographer in Urbana named Samuel Alschuler. Lincoln was dressed in a shabby linen coat; Alschuler offered him his own velvet-trimmed jacket. After he was elected president two years later, Lincoln again sat for Alschuler; this time he’d brought his own formal coat, and he’d just started to grow his famous beard.
Unlike many of his contemporaries who routinely disparaged Jews, Lincoln had no compunctions about making them military officers. During the Civil War, a man named Cheme Moise Levy, from a distinguished New York rabbinic family, applied to become a military quartermaster. 
“I believe we have not yet appointed a Hebrew,” Lincoln wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, urging his approval. Levy ultimately became a captain in the Union Army, ministering especially to Jewish soldiers who’d been wounded in battle.
Federal law at the time required that all chaplains be Christian. Isaac Mayer Wise, a Reform rabbi from Cincinnati and publisher of a newspaper called The Israelite, urged Jews across the country to demand that Congress modify the regulation. Petitions began to pour in from both big cities with large Jewish populations like Baltimore, as well as from small towns with hardly any Jews, like Edinburgh, Indiana, and Columbus, Iowa.
In December of 1861, Lincoln invited a well-known rabbi from Philadelphia named Arnold Fischel to the White House. Fischel later recounted that he “was received with marked courtesy,” and that the president “believed the exclusion of Jewish chaplains to have been altogether unintentional on the part of Congress [but that] he truly admitted the justice of my remarks [and] that something ought to be done to meet this case.”
Lincoln went on to personally lobby Congress, and – despite strong opposition from some Christian denominations – eventually succeeded. Almost a year later, in September 1862, he appointed the first Jewish military chaplain: Rev. Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia’s Rodef Shalom Congregation.
Antisemitism in the military nevertheless persisted. In December 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant issued his now-famous “General Order No. 11,” which expelled all Jews as a class from the wide swaths of territory under his control in Mississippi and Tennessee. It was no secret that Grant viewed Jews as speculators and war profiteers.
Cesar Kaskel, a prominent Jewish resident of Paducah, Kentucky – whose city elders had immediately followed Grant’s order by giving all Jewish residents, including the sick and elderly, 24 hours to leave – rushed in person to Washington, where a congressional friend quickly arranged for an audience with Lincoln. The president had not yet been informed of Grant’s anti-Jewish decree, but assured Kaskel that he knew “of no distinction between Jews and gentiles,” noted his revulsion at Grant’s original orders, and immediately ordered them countermanded.
Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, ardent theater-goers, seemed particularly fond of plays with Jewish themes. One was called The Jewish Mother, which they saw several times. They also liked The Merchant of Venice and Leah, the Forsaken, about a Jewish woman facing down prejudice and persecution.
According to a number of biographers, minutes before Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Washington’s Ford’s Theatre, he and his wife chatted amiably about how one day they could visit the Land of Israel together. (At least one Jewish doctor was among those who treated the wounded president: Charles Liebermann, one of the founders of Georgetown Medical School, tried to pour brandy down Lincoln’s throat in a desperate effort to revive him, but was unsuccessful.
Among the millions who mourned the 16th president, many Jewish congregations held special prayer services of their own. When Lincoln’s coffin passed through the streets of New York, a local newspaper estimated that 7,000 Jews came out to pay their respects. In Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln was buried on May 4, 1865, his old friend Julius Hammerslough closed his store and displayed a portrait of Lincoln alongside a declaration that captured what so many felt: “Millions bless thy name.”
The writer is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he teaches in the areas of civil liberties, law and religion and international human rights.