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'Four Score and Seven Years Ago': A Jewish Connection

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July 4, 1863 was a Saturday, and Rabbi Sabato Morais, a Sephardi immigrant from Italy serving as religious leader of Philadelphia's Mikveh Israel Congregation, delivered his Sabbath morning sermon. His sermon contains a phrase that might well have influenced the most celebrated speech in American history.

This particular Sabbath 150 years ago was unusual for several reasons. It was the American Independence Day, an occasion for celebration. However, in the Jewish calendar, it was also the 17th Day of Tammuz, a traditional day of mourning, commemorating the Roman breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE, beginning a three-week period of solemnity that culminates with the 9th of Av, when the Temple was destroyed. This contrast in moods between the American and the Jewish calendars created a significant challenge for the preacher.

But there was a third complicating component that made the 1863 date unique: it followed immediately upon the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg. On Saturday morning of July 4th, the news of the outcome of the battle was not yet accessible to Morais in Philadelphia -- it would not be published until special-edition newspapers that afternoon. When he prepared the text of his sermon, and when he delivered the words from the pulpit, it was still unclear to the preacher and his congregants whether the Confederate Armies that had penetrated into Pennsylvania would break through the Union lines and threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, D.C.

Morais' sermon attracted enough attention to be published in a New York Jewish weekly six days later. The headline states that it had been delivered "at the request of the Philadelphia Union League." This patriotic organization was founded in December 1862 in strong support of the war effort and President Lincoln's policies. Weeks in advance, the League had urged all Philadelphia clergy to devote their July 5th Sunday morning sermons to a celebration of the July 4th national holiday. Following news of the victory at Gettysburg, the mood of those Sunday sermons was unambiguous. But for Morais, preaching on the 4th, the task was much more complex.

In his sermon, Morais confirms that he was officially asked to recall Independence Day, and that "A stirring oration on political topics may perhaps be anticipated as the most fitting manner of complying with the request."

Yet Morais says that -- both because of the date in the Jewish calendar and the bleakness of the current military circumstances--he cannot give the up-beat, inspirational, patriotic address that the Union League plainly desired. For his biblical text, [rather than selecting the verse recommended by the Union League for all sermons by Philadelphia clergy -- the Liberty Bell verse from Leviticus, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants there of Morais reflected the prevailing mood (which would change so dramatically in just a few hours)] by choosing King Hezekiah's words spoken during the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem: "This is a day of trouble, of rebuke, and derision" (Isa. 37:3). Morais continues with an alarming allusion to the great battle some ninety miles away.

But the preacher could not totally ignore the July 4th occasion being commemorated throughout the North. And so he says, 'I am not indifferent, my dear friends, to the event, which four score and seven years ago, brought to this new world light and joy.'

Three days later, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a small group and, according to the New York Times, he said, "How long ago is it? -- eighty odd years -- since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that 'all men are created equal'." [2] Morais also could have said "eighty odd years ago"; instead he used wording that echoes the King James translation "threescore years and ten" (Ps. 90:10), evoking an unusual event with what was then a highly unusual phrase -- followed by "brought to this new world..."

Needless to say, some three months later, for the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, Abraham Lincoln elevated the level of his discourse from "eighty odd years" to "four score and seven years, our fathers brought forth to this continent," possibly borrowing from the published text by the Philadelphia Sephardic preacher who, without knowing it, may have made a lasting contribution to American rhetorical history.[3]

[This article is based on the Preface to my Jewish Preaching in Times of War, 1800 - 2001 (Littman Library, 2008)]

[1] The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, 1953), 6: 319.

[2] The Morais sermon was published in the "Jewish Messenger" on July 10, and it is conceivable that Lincoln was sent it and stored the phrase away for later use. The full text published in the "Jewish Messenger" is available on the website of the University of Pennsylvania Library:

http://sceti.library.upenn.edu/pages/index.cfm?so_id=1661&PagePosition=40&level=2