Abraham Lincoln and Religious Liberty

Abraham Lincoln

Today is Presidents Day.

Presidents Day, also known officially as Washington’s Birthday, is a federal holiday set aside to honor all the Presidents of the United States.

Presidents Day is a good occasion to learn more about some of the achievements of those who served in the highest political office of our nation.

In an article published in the Jewish World Review, Michael Feldberg wrote about Abraham Lincoln’s concern for religious liberty for all.

In his article, Feldberg discusses Lincoln’s effort to make possible for Jewish chaplains to serve in the Army. The following is an excerpt from Feldberg’s article:

Hoping to create a test case based strictly on a chaplain’s religion and not his lack of ordination, Colonel Max Friedman and the officers of the Cameron’s Dragoons then elected an ordained rabbi, the Reverend Arnold Fischel of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, to serve as regimental chaplain-designate. When Fischel, a Dutch immigrant, applied for certification as chaplain, the Secretary of War, none other than Simon Cameron, for whom the Dragoons were named, complied with the law and rejected Fischel’s application.

Fischel’s rejection stimulated American Jewry to action. The American Jewish press let its readership know that Congress had limited the chaplaincy to those who were Christians and argued for equal treatment for Judaism before the law. This initiative by the Jewish press irritated a handful of Christian organizations, including the YMCA, which resolved to lobby Congress against the appointment of Jewish chaplains. To counter their efforts, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, one of the earliest Jewish communal defense agencies, recruited Reverend Fischel to live in Washington, minister to wounded Jewish soldiers in that city’s military hospitals and lobby President Abraham Lincoln to reverse the chaplaincy law. Although today several national Jewish organizations employ representatives to make their voices heard in Washington; Fischel’s mission was the first such undertaking of this type.

Armed with letters of introduction from Jewish and non-Jewish political leaders, Fischel met on December 11, 1861 with President Lincoln to press the case for Jewish chaplains. Fischel explained to Lincoln that, unlike many others who were waiting to see the president that day, he came not to seek political office, but to “contend for the principle of religious liberty, for the constitutional rights of the Jewish community, and for the welfare of the Jewish volunteers.”

According to Fischel, Lincoln asked questions about the chaplaincy issues, “fully admitted the justice of my remarks … and agreed that something ought to be done to meet this case.” Lincoln promised Fischel that he would submit a new law to Congress “broad enough to cover what is desired by you in behalf of the Israelites.”

Lincoln kept his word, and seven months later, on July 17, 1862, Congress finally adopted Lincoln’s proposed amendments to the chaplaincy law to allow “the appointment of brigade chaplains of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religions.” In historian Bertram Korn’s opinion, Fischel’s “patience and persistence, his unselfishness and consecration … won for American Jewry the first major victory of a specifically Jewish nature … on a matter touching the Federal government.”

Korn concluded, “Because there were Jews in the land who cherished the equality granted them in the Constitution, the practice of that equality was assured, not only for Jews, but for all minority religious groups.

This case shows once again the reason Abraham Lincoln is considered one of the greatest Presidents of the United States.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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4 Responses to Abraham Lincoln and Religious Liberty

  1. Nate says:

    >During the Civil War, the Union side had several bouts of anti-semitism that Jews in the North had to contend with. (Interestingly enough, many Jews from the South had fought for the Confederacy and held high rank in the Southern government.)At one point, future President Grant issued an order (known as Order #11, http://www.jewish-history.com/civilwar/go11.htm ) expelling Jews from land he had conquered. Accordingly, Jewish representatives went to meet Lincoln, who subsequently revoked the order:On learning the object of their visit he remarked: “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?” Kaskel replied: “Yes and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom asking protection.”Lincoln responded: “And this protection they shall have at once.” Abraham Lincoln and the Jews By Isaac Markens


  2. >Nate,Thank you very much for teaching me more about Abraham Lincoln. I did not know about this event in his Presidency. I appreciate the input you offer to my posts.Claude Mariottini


  3. Nate says:

    >Thank you for sharing this story, it was not one I had heard before. But upon reading your post, it reminded me of the story of Lincoln regarding Order No. 11. I don’t know how much of the story is apocryphal, but I think it accurately represents the character of the 16th President, as the chaplain story also bears out.


  4. >Nate,Lincoln revoked General Order No. 11, which was issued by Ulysses S. Grant in 1862. Grant tried to remove the Jews from the military under his command.Lincoln’s action was a brave action which probably did not please a lot of people.Claude Mariottini


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