Depth of Elvis’ Christian Faith Explored in Upcoming Book
Although speculation has swirled for decades about Elvis Presley’s possible Jewish identity, a new book by his half-brother reveals the star’s deep Christian faith.
Billy Stanley said the king of rock would pray silently before every concert, the Observer reported on Saturday, citing an interview given by the author of “The Faith of Elvis”.
“When we saw him nod his head, we knew,” Stanley said. “It was probably about 15 seconds.”
Stanley said he once asked Elvis why he was praying and the singer explained, “It calms my nerves a bit, but I also want God to help bless this gig, so make it a good one.”
“He always turned to God whenever he needed help,” Stanley recalled.
He described Elvis as a Sunday school teacher to him and his brothers, but said the superstar never accompanied them to church because he feared attracting too much attention.
After Elvis’ mother, Gladys, died, his father, Vernon, married Dee who already had three sons – Billy, Ricky and David – who all moved to Graceland in 1960.
Elvis was particularly close to his mother, who died of heart failure in 1958 at the age of 46.
Gladys’ headstone reignited discussions about Elvis’ Jewish identity when it was put on display at Graceland after being in storage for decades. Although Gladys was originally buried in a public cemetery in Memphis, as her son was later, both of their remains were moved to the Graceland estate following an attempt to steal Elvis’ body. Gladys’ headstone was put away but then removed in 2018.
The stone, designed by Elvis himself, features a cross in one corner – and a Jewish Star of David in the other. It sits in Graceland’s meditation garden, just outside the mansion and a few yards from Elvis’ own grave. An accompanying sign proclaims “Gladys’ Jewish heritage.”
Since Judaism is matrilineal, if Gladys was Jewish, so was Elvis.
Elvis’ maternal great-great-grandmother was a Jewish woman named Nancy Burdine. Little is known about Burdine, but it is believed that his family immigrated to America from what is now Lithuania around the time of the American Revolution. According to Ancestry.com, Burdine was born in Mississippi in 1826 and died in 1887.
Burdine’s great-granddaughter was Gladys Love Smith, who married Vernon Presley in 1933. Two years later, Gladys gave birth to Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi. The family moved to Memphis when Elvis was 13.
Angie Marchese, Graceland’s vice president of archives and exhibits, said in an interview last year that “the Jewish faith has given [Elvis] comfort when he was looking for answers” to help him cope with her [Gladys’s] who passed”
There is broader evidence than the symbol on the headstone of Elvis’ identification with Judaism. He gave generously over the years to various Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Center of Memphis, a gift honored with a plaque that hangs in Graceland today. Elvis’ personal library included several books on Judaism and Jewish history.
During the last years of his life, Elvis was often photographed wearing necklaces with the Star of David and the Hebrew word “chai”, which means life.
The chai necklace is kept in a cabinet at Graceland next to the keys to the singer’s famous pink 1955 Cadillac. Never accused of subtlety, Elvis had the necklace designed with 17 diamonds. He bought the jewelry in 1976, a year before his death.
“He would often make a joke, ‘I don’t want to be let down on a technicality,'” Marchese said at the time. “So he would wear a Star of David, a chai and he would also wear a cross. He wanted to keep all his bases covered.
His own tombstone, however, is surmounted by a simple cross.