Sermon from Apr. 19, 1865

The Murder of the President

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    The Murder of the President

  • Description

    Sermon delivered at Zion Temple on 19 April 1865. English translation by Alisa Rethy.

  • Transcription

    The Murder of the President


    by Rabbi Bernhard Felsenthal



         In this same hour, dear friends, as we are gathered in this house, thousands of houses of God are open for the same purpose – hundreds of thousands of people are gathered for the same purpose. Just as this temple of ours is furnished with the symbols of sorrow and the emblems of grief, innumerable public and private buildings are clothed in the garb of mourning. The same feeling of deep pain which permeates the souls of all who are present here lives in the breast of millions. What, then, is the reason for the truly great, imposing and momentous mourning of the nation? – A father has been suddenly snatched from his family, the father of the fatherland has fallen by the murderer’s hand. The highest official of the land and its first and most excellent citizen has departed this life in a way never before recorded in the annals of the United States. To be sure, we have already expressed the feelings of our heart at this site twice over the course of this week. Returning to honor the great deceased once more today, we follow indeed just as much a powerful urge of our heart as we meet a demand issued upon the nation by Washington.


         In this very hour, in the capital city of the Union, the mortal remains of President Lincoln are surely being transferred, in a solemn procession, from the White House to the Capitol. We here accompany the body in spirit and fulfill the duty of the Israelites, held high through all time, to honor the dead. Millions of others also follow the coffin in spirit as we do. Every eye is filled with sorrow. A magnificent funeral procession! One, the likes of which has honored only a few!


         But what shining light issues forth from the deceased? We answer this with the word of the prophet:


         Thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of God shall be thy reward. (Isaiah 58:8)


         His righteousness goes before him! In the language of the Bible, “righteousness” means none other than what we now call greatness of spirit and a powerful morality, the sum of glorious and noble works. And Lincoln was great. He was great in that he 1. Undertook to complete the task that fell to him – the restoration of the union – with wisdom and steadfastness, and truly completed it; 2. In that he made the glorious principle of the emancipation proclamation – “all men are free and equal!” – a reality; and 3. In that he paired justice and steadfastness with clemency and love in every undertaking.


         1. His righteousness goes before him. The glory of having restored the union goes before him. Nearly eighty years ago, in 1787, a great alliance of states was created through the acceptance of the constitution, and this alliance most gloriously rose to reveal its innate power and greatness. The Union, dear to all friends of Liberty on the earth, became an object of hatred for all enemies of Liberty, a cause of inner fear for all bearers of the crown. The star-spangled banner, the emblem of Liberty to which all oppressed nations looked up in love and hope, aroused hatred and hostility in every place where Liberty is hated. Unjustifiably, led by the most abominable motives, a party of aristocrats which had grown too powerful in the south now wanted to shatter the union, to trample the flag in the dust. What would have been the consequence, had the aims of the rebellion been permitted to transpire without any attempt to prevent them? The nation and her government would have stood defiled before the world, an object of derision and contempt. And what would have been the consequence, had the rebellion advanced and the union been torn apart? Two rival powers would have emerged, which would maul each other in endlessly recurring wars, powers which would have no influence in the council of nations and would not possess the strength even to provide for their own basic needs. The history of the world gives us manifold examples of how disastrous it is for nations when the unity destined for them by land and history is destroyed. Our old German fatherland is weak and politically meaningless because it is divided into so many states and, despite every struggle, could not be unified. But even our own Jewish history gives an enlightening example of the deleterious results brought by the shattering of a union. After Solomon’s death the kingdom was divided into two kingdoms: Judah and Ephraim. But what misery this brought upon the people! What a plaything and a bone of contention these kingdoms became for their neighbors! How this hastened their demise! The prophets, those patriots and community members without equal, indeed often express, in words of deep pain, the unluckiness of a divided people. And when, with a transfixed gaze, they look into the longed-for glorious future, they see a nation, one and undivided, before them. As says Ezekiel (37:22): And I will make them to one nation in the land… and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms.


         To shatter the rebellion and to restore and secure the union, that was the great task that fell upon the departed president Lincoln. With an unwavering gaze he steered the ship of the state through high and threatening waves. With a stable hand he saved the Union from perilous storms. With his wisdom and statesmanlike gaze he knew the right men to join him and the appropriate means to seize in order to reach that longed-for destination, the harbor of peace. The safe port lies before us; the storms abate; excitement runs high; salvation lies before our eyes. But then, the rudder sinks from the arm of the helmsman. Death calls: “all is lost!” – death, brought by the hand of the assassin. As an old Jewish sage once said, “Woe is the ship that has lost its helmsman!” But no! Lincoln saved the ship from the gravest dangers, and the easier task is now left for his successor. But for now, we survey his work, bring him our thanks, and profess to him our utmost admiration. And more unbiased than our grief-stricken veneration will be the verdict of history, who will sit soberly in judgment and, with an incorruptible stylus, will inscribe in her tablets: Abraham Lincoln, the restorer of the Union!


         2. His righteousness goes before him. Glory also goes before him – the glory of having made the principle of freedom and equality a deed and a truth. “All men are created equal.” Surely no greater, more glorious principle has been expressed in a political document than this declaration of the American people represented in Congress, solemnly issued on July 4, 1776. But strangely, this sentence has remained a dead letter until now. While it is true that men are not equal with regard to gifts of the body and mind, and property, they ought still to be considered equal in the halls of legislation and before the gates of the court. But that the inclusion of this sentence in the legal codes and its recognition in everyday life was met with resistance, that the institution of slavery was tolerated in a free land, was not merely tolerated but allowed to intensively strengthen, not merely allowed to intensively strengthen, but to extensively spread – that had great consequences in the end. He who reads the history of the Union during the last half century without prejudice cannot close his eye to the recognition that slavery alone was the source of mischief from which this great war finally emerged. He who names other causes remains at the surface of things and does not penetrate to the ultimate cause of the rebellion. We comprehend the reasons, although we do not condone them, that brought some to the notion that aggressive action against slavery cannot be taken. We understand if some were led by the consideration that the abolition of slavery would threaten the prosperity of the country and the existence of the Union. Such misgivings disappear now, and those once ruled by such thoughts must now declare before all: “slavery is dead; we ensure that it will never again carry the seed of horrible wars in its womb, never again hide the spark that could erupt into a destructive blaze.”


         Who above all is entitled to the glory of having carried the gleaming banner in this direction? It was Lincoln, the emancipator; Lincoln, who with his immortal proclamation freed the land of the Union from the disgrace of slavery. And for this we would like to give him our warmest thanks, our sincerest veneration. The distant future will still venerate and admire him, and furthermore, impartial history will proclaim yet another radiant name among the benefactors of the human race: Abraham Lincoln, the liberator!


         3. His righteousness goes before him. This also includes the sublime unity of justice and clemency in his essence and action. This was evident throughout his time at the apex of the government, and today everyone must admit that the accusation of tyrannical appetites was nothing but groundless and biased insinuation and that nothing was further from him than a despotic and autocratic nature. And yet, his mild, loving spirit did not show itself until his last days, not until then did it become clear that he was inclined to handle the rebellion with the utmost mercy, to open the gate wide for the rebels and to say: “come and be true members of our national family, and let our word be: Forgive and forget!” – In the beginning, as the talmudic writings tell us, God wished to rule the world in strict justice; but for the good of the world he combined this justice with compassionate love. The late president also unified justice with love. May we take this as an example! May we also nurture no feelings of hatred and vengefulness toward the rebels, after their power has broken! Suffering must better and elevate a nation, not worsen it. A tragedy may jar us, but it must purify and hallow us within. And indeed! The latest generations will still read it from the pages of unbiased history: Abraham Lincoln, the man who most beautifully unified justice and love, strength and clemency in all realms of his life.


         The relatively short history of America already has several glowing names to proclaim, radiant stars in the heavens of the history of the fatherland: Roger Williams, the tested fighter, who was first in the modern world to bring the principle of freedom of belief and conscience to governmental validation; George Washington, the noble patriot, who was first in war, first in peace, and first in the heart of his countrymen; Benjamin Franklin, unassuming and yet so distinguished, who stole the lightning from heaven and the scepter from the tyrant; Alexander Hamilton, the genial statesman, who built our financial system upon a secure and stable foundation; Thomas Jefferson, that president who, in his passion for Liberty brought the principles of a pure, true government by the people to lasting validity; Andrew Jackson, the unyielding one, who spoke these solemn words: “By God, the Union shall and must be preserved!” Next to them the name Abraham Lincoln now gleams as a star of the first rank, – Abraham Lincoln, the restorer of the union, the liberator, the man of justice and love! “May the memory of the righteous one be a blessing!”

  • Source

    American Jewish Archives. Translation by Alisa Rethy.

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    Use of this item for research, teaching and private study is permitted with proper citation and attribution.

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    Bernhard Felsenthal. "The Murder of the President". Remembering Lincoln. Web. Accessed June 24, 2019. https://rememberinglincoln.fords.org/node/545