Few men have had better relations with their pastors than President Abraham Lincoln had with his, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley. The two men were very close. And yet, during a Sunday morning service, Lincoln slowly rose to his feet and before the entire congregation boldly opposed his pastor with a few carefully chosen remarks.
Dr. Gurley knew Lincoln was right, and the opposition only strengthened their warm friendship. To understand this we must go back to the time when Lincoln first moved to Washington as President. Immediately after the inauguration, the Lincolns began to attend the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Dr. Gurley was the minister. Mary Lincoln chose pew number fourteen, in the sixth row from the front.
Lincoln’s parents were Primitive Baptists, and although Mary Lincoln had been a Presbyterian in her youth, she had joined the Episcopal Church in Spring-field. Perhaps the Lincolns began to attend the New York Avenue Church in Washington because of the great kindness of Dr. James Smith, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, which they had attended before the election. Dr. Smith had preached the funeral sermon for their second son, Eddie, during the absence of the Episcopal rector, the Reverend Charles Dresser. His help and understanding during their days of sorrow had led them to attend his church.
From the very beginning the Gurleys and the Lincolns found strength in one another’s company, and their friendship grew. Lincoln liked his pastor’s preaching and remarked to a friend, “I like Gurley. He don’t preach politics. I get enough of that during the week, and when I go to church I like to hear the Gospel.”
The President especially enjoyed the pastoral prayer and made a habit of standing when Dr. Gurley began. He also attended the prayer meeting during the week. To avoid the excitement his presence would cause if he sat in the sanctuary, he listened carefully from the pastor’s study, with the door slightly ajar so that he would not miss a word.
The ups and downs of the war years deepened Lincoln’s love for the church and his pastor. Dr. Gurley’s daughter, Fannie, made it a point to greet the Lincolns at the close of each service. This they appreciated, and they developed an intimate friendship with her. Before long Mrs. Lincoln noticed that Fannie was falling in love with a West Point cadet, William Anthony Elderkin.
When the news of the fall of Fort Sumter reached Lincoln, he summoned Dr. Gurley to the White House for prayer. After several hours of earnest conversation, during which the two sought to discover God’s will, the pastor got up to leave. “What about your daughter?” asked Lincoln, suddenly changing the subject. “She’s engaged to young Elderkin, is she not? And he is a member of the graduating class at West Point, and must be called to the front at once. It will be hard for the little girl.”
President Lincoln approached Fannie and suggested that she get married immediately. “But I don’t have any wedding clothes,” she objected. “Well, I’ll see what I can do about that,” said Lincoln, his eyes shining and a crooked smile forming on his haggard face. Without delay he sent his carriage around the city to borrow a trousseau, and by evening the entire outfit had been gathered. The wife of one of his secretaries lent a veil and some lace that had a long, interesting history; another woman sent a fan that had been presented by a distinguished ambassador to the United States; and another lent some satin slippers that had been worn by a girl during a party with Lafayette. Dr. Gurley performed the ceremony, and the President stood with the bride as she received the guests.
Early in 1862 young Willie Lincoln developed a heavy cold. Complications developed, and as his illness worsened Dr. Gurley was summoned to his bedside. Willie sensed that God was calling him home, and toward the end he whispered to his mother while Dr. Gurley was visiting that he wanted the contents of his little bank to be given to the church, and that it should be spent for Sunday school missionary work. The five dollars was sent to the church and spent as Willie had asked. The record of this contribution is in a faded book at the New York Avenue Church.
An interesting letter from Mrs. Lincoln to the pastor’s wife has been preserved. The letter, sent to the manse along with a turkey, said this:
MY DEAR MRS. GURLEY:
It affords me much pleasure to hear that your family are recovering. We had so serious a time with our little Taddy, but we can deeply sympathize with you in any such trouble.
We have received from Baltimore a small supply of poultry, am I taking too great a liberty with you, to ask your acceptance of a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner? Hoping soon to have the pleasure of seeing yourself and the Dr. remain.
No. 25, 1864
For some reason Lincoln always presented his gift to the church by a check made out to Dr. Gurley. Perhaps it was an indication of his confidence in the man. As the war dragged on, Lincoln sought more and more the comforts and strength of the church. Often before a battle he would send his carriage for Dr. Gurley, and the two of them would get on their knees and pray that God’s will would be done.
In an uncompleted manuscript Dr. Gurley wrote about one of his visits with Lincoln:
One morning, as Mr. Lincoln’s pastor and intimate friend, I went over to the White House in response to an invitation from the President. He had me come over before he had breakfast. The night before we had been together, and Mr. Lincoln had said, “Doctor, you rise early, so do 1. Come over tomorrow morning about seven o’clock. We can talk for an hour before breakfast.” This I did, as before stated.… As I passed out the gateway which leads up to the White House and stepped on the street, I was joined by a member of my congregation. “Why doctor,” said my friend, “it is not nine o’clock. What are you doing at the Executive Mansion?” To this I replied, “Mr. Lincoln and I have been having a morning chat.” “On the war, I suppose?” “Far from it,” said I. “We have been talking of the state of the soul after death. That is a subject of which Mr. Lincoln never tires. I have had a great number of conversations with him on the subject. This morning, however, I was a listener, as Mr. Lincoln did all the talking.”
President Lincoln felt that the church and its doctrines were most essential. But one morning as he sat in the family pew, Dr. Gurley shocked him and the rest of the congregation with the announcement that there would be no more church services at New York Avenue “until further notice.”
Lincoln had undoubtedly wondered at the piles of lumber just outside the sanctuary. Now he learned the reason. Dr. Gurley was worried about the need for space to care for the wounded who were pouring in from various battlefields. Since many schools and churches had been transformed into hospitals, he proposed to do this with New York Avenue Church. The newly cut lumber would be placed on top of the pews to make a temporary floor for hospital beds. He probably felt that his action would please the President, who was deeply concerned over this problem, and perhaps because of this had not mentioned the matter to him.
The announcement was barely finished when Lincoln was on his feet. “Dr. Gurley,” he said in his high-pitched voice, “this action was taken without my consent and I hereby countermand the order. The churches are needed as never before for divine services.” The President’s order was, of course, final, and everyone rejoiced—especially Dr. Gurley.
Lincoln knew that neither he nor the nation could get along without Jesus Christ. He was a constant student of the Bible and spent much time studying the old family Bible from which his mother, Nancy Hanks, had read to him in his early boyhood.
The confidence of the Lincoln family in Dr. Gurley was shown when he was chosen to preach at the President’s funeral. Later, Mrs. Lincoln presented him with the hat her husband had worn when he gave his second inaugural address.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.