Henry Cohen, rabbi, the son of David and Josephine C. Cohen, was born in London, England, on April 7, 1863. He attended a London Jewish boarding school and from 1878 to 1881 worked with the Board of Guardians, Britain's principal Jewish welfare agency. He studied at Jews' Hospital and Jews' College but did not graduate. In 1880 he traveled to Capetown Colony, South Africa, where he served as an interpreter for the British government. He returned home in 1883 and graduated from college in 1884, when he was ordained a rabbi. Cohen assumed his first assignment in Kingston, Jamaica, where Sephardic Jews composed a significant portion of the congregation. There he began to preach and develop a reform philosophy. In 1885 he became a rabbi at Woodville, Mississippi, where he taught romance languages at the female seminary, wrote poetry, and developed a strong community. In 1888 he moved to Galveston, Texas, as rabbi for Temple B'nai Israel, then comprising 175 families. In 1889 he married Mollie Levy; they had two children.
After the Galveston hurricane of 1900 Cohen served as a member of the Central Relief Committee, which kept law and order with the help of shotguns and ministered to people of all religions. He became nationally known for his work. He helped immigrants who arrived at the port of Galveston to find homes in less populated areas and families in the New York slums to move to various regions of the South and Midwest. He helped to establish Galveston's Jewish Immigrant Information Bureau in 1907 and later distributed relief for Mexican immigrants.
During World War I Cohen served as a lieutenant of the American Expeditionary Force in France and was responsible for getting Congress to provide Jewish naval chaplains. During the 1920s he battled the Ku Klux Klan, and in 1926 Governor Dan Moody appointed him to the Texas Prison Board (see PRISON SYSTEM). Cohen won statewide recognition as a prison reformer advocating segregation of hardened criminals from first offenders, better medical facilities, and vocational training, recommendations that were later adopted. Though he considered Jews to have only the citizenship of the country where they lived and joined the American Council for Judaism, he reacted to the restriction of immigration with efforts to build Jewish settlements in Palestine and support for the United Jewish Appeal.
In 1924 Cohen received an honorary doctor of Hebrew law degree from Hebrew Union College, in 1939 an honorary doctor of divinity from the Jewish Institute of Religion, and in 1948 an honorary doctorate from Texas Christian University. A recognized authority on the Talmud who was proficient in over ten languages, Cohen wrote Talmudic Sayings (1894) and did a study for the American Jewish Historical Society; published a number of monographs, including Settlement of the Jews in Texas (1894), Henry Castro, Pioneer and Colonist (1896), The Galveston Immigration Movement, 1907–1910 (1910); and coauthored One Hundred Years of Jewry in Texas (1936?). In the 1890s he wrote articles for the Texas Journal of Education, along with translations and poems.
He was a member of the advisory board of Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Publication Society, president of the Texas Historical Society of Galveston, advisory chairman of the Lasker Home for Homeless Children, president of Seamen's Bethel, member of the Executive Council of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, founder and president of the Galveston Open Forum, deputy member of the Council of the Jewish Agency, twenty-year director of the Galveston Community Chest, and one of seven charter members of the Galveston Equal Suffrage Association. After an injury Cohen retired in September 1949 but continued to serve his congregation as rabbi emeritus. He died on June 12, 1952. His papers and library are housed at the Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin.