Abraham Lincoln is generally considered the greatest president in American history. This is a view held not only by American citizens: a recent poll of nearly 200 political scientists also ranked Lincoln as America’s greatest president. Indeed, Lincoln distinguishes himself from other presidents in many ways. One of these ways is that he is the only president in American history to not be a member of any church.
Although his family was officially Baptist on paper, Lincoln himself was never baptized. He often spoke disparagingly of Christianity, but toned it down when he realized how much it hurt his chances for the presidency. In all of his celebrated speeches, he never once invoked the name of Jesus. This has led many to suggest that Lincoln was an atheist. Yet, he did speak of God many times, and did write that “I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures”.
The term “Scriptures” is quite vague, and might very well refer only to the Tanakh, ie. the “Old Testament”. This may be all the more likely when we keep in mind how he spoke negatively of Christianity, avoided mentioning Jesus, but did speak of God regularly (and that it was “God’s will” to abolish slavery). Dr. Yvette Alt Miller writes:
According to historian Jonathan Sarna, Lincoln quoted from the Old Testament much more often than from the New Testament. In his surviving letters, Lincoln mentions God over 420 times, yet remarkably never refers directly to Jesus.
So, what if Lincoln was secretly Jewish?
Other than his supposedly Jewish appearance, and the strange preponderance of Jewish names in his extended family (including his famous uncle Mordecai Lincoln, whose mother was named Batsheba), is there any evidence that Lincoln came from a Jewish background?
Stuart Schoffman dug up a February 19, 1863 article in HaMagid, a Jewish newspaper published in East Prussia, which reads:
The ruler Abraham Lincoln, head of government of the Lands of the North (president) in America, during a recent visit of the learned rabbis Wise and Lilienthal from the city of Cincinnati, and attorney (advocat) Martin Ligur from the city of Louisville, who had come to vent their anger regarding General Grant (see HaMagid No. 7), and ask him to reverse the evil decree issued by the general upon all the Jews in the territory of Tennessee, told them in the course of conversation, after promising to reverse the decree, that he (the president) sprang from the belly of Judah, and his forefathers were Jews; and these emissaries indeed report that the facial features of the president are evidence of his descent from the loins of the Hebrews.
While there is no way to prove the authenticity of this story, the chief Reform rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise said in his eulogy of Lincoln:
Brethren, the lamented Abraham Lincoln believed himself to be bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh. He supposed himself to be a descendant of Hebrew parentage. He said so in my presence. And, indeed, he preserved numerous features of the Hebrew race, both in countenance and character.
We know that Lincoln had many Jewish friends at a time when doing so was still tremendously frowned upon, to say the least. In fact, his best friend was Abraham Jonas, a prominent Jew who founded at least two synagogues. Jonas is actually credited with securing Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency, and campaigned heavily on his behalf. It is highly unlikely that Lincoln—America’s greatest president—would have ever become president were it not for the efforts of his Jewish friend Jonas.
Lincoln went on to appoint many Jews to important military positions. His personal photographer was a Jew as well. Most significantly, it was Lincoln that introduced a new law in 1862 to allow Jews to serve as military chaplains. He appointed Rabbi Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia as American’s first Jewish chaplain.
The Founding Fathers and the Hebrews
Having said all that, the Lincoln family clearly comes from English roots. Lincoln’s great-grandfather, Samuel Lincoln, moved to America in 1637, two decades before England permitted Jews to resettle there in 1655. From that line of his father’s side, at least, Lincoln had no Jewish connection. It is still possible he had a distant connection to Jews, possible from a motherly line. Professor Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman of Rutgers University proposed that Lincoln had Melungeon roots—Melungeon referring to a mixed breed of Sephardic Jews and Christian Spanish explorers who first settled the Americas in the 16th century. Even if this is the case, it is too far away to make any serious suggestion that Lincoln was Jewish.
In the end, we can conclude that Lincoln was a smart man who understood the folly of Christianity. He still believed in God, and had a great deal of respect for the Prophets of the Tanakh. This was a very popular sentiment in America’s early days. We mustn’t forget that the Pilgrims and the first settlers of America saw themselves as “New Israelites”. They compared Europe to Egypt, and the rulers they were fleeing from to Pharaohs. They saw their crossing of the Atlantic Ocean as a Splitting of the Red Sea, and the Native Americans as Canaanites.
In fact, learning Hebrew was common in America’s first universities (some of their logos still bear Hebrew symbols and letters), and it wasn’t rare to hear commencement speeches delivered in Hebrew! The first Great Seal of the United States, as designed by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, depicted the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea. (Is it a coincidence that America began as 13 states—two of which were Carolinas—just as the Torah states ancient Israel had 13 tribal provinces—two of which were Menashes?)
In short, America’s Founding Fathers admired the Torah and the Jews. One of those Founding Fathers, John Adams (later second president of the US) expressed it best in an 1809 letter to F.A Van Der Kemp:
… I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of another sect… I should still believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate for all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization… They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a bauble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more, and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.