New York Avenue Church and Lincoln’s Emancipation Year

July 14, 1862 is a significant date for New York Avenue Presbyterian, the Lincoln family’s church in Washington. One of the Lincoln artifacts that remains on permanent display at the church is a draft of an emancipation bill written by the president himself on that date. The church history committee and the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia commemorated the day this year by sponsoring a conference on President Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Decisions. I was on a panel of presenters along with Burrus Carnahan, JD, immediate past-president of the Lincoln Group, and John T. Elliff, Ph.D, a noted Lincoln scholar and lecturer. Over 40 attended and most were eager to participate. Also there in support was Dr. Edna Greene Medford, this year’s recipient of the Lincoln Award and co-author of The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views (2006).

The 13 months leading up to January 1, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, were days of surprise and wonder for both friends and foes of abolition. Lincoln’s decisions and behaviors seemed often to be contradictory to his privately announced intentions. Lincoln had confided in Senator Charles Sumner (MA) in December 1861 and again just before July 4, 1862, that he was going to take a dramatic step against slavery. But after continuing to propose compensated emancipation to the Border States, and over-ruling emancipation declarations by military commanders in the field, the president truly shocked his cabinet members, Welles and Seward, with what he told them while riding to the funeral of Edwin M.Stanton’s infant son on July 13, 1862. That was when Lincoln first said that he was preparing “a military proclamation freeing Rebel-owned slaves.” Nine days later he read to his cabinet the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

That brings us to the July 14, 1862 document. The church that the Lincolns had attended was rebuilt in 1950. At the dedication, Paramount Pictures president, Barney Balaban, gave the church a Lincoln document that he had recently acquired from a private collector. Though he was Jewish, Balaban felt that Lincoln’s church was the most fitting place to house this treasure. He gave it as a tribute to his immigrant parents for their sacrifice that made his success possible. The document is a draft of a compensated emancipation bill that was read in the House two days later, but wasn’t passed. This could certainly have reinforced his intent to press for the Emancipation Proclamation. The document had for 60 years been in the possession of the family of a War Department custodian who had saved it from the incinerator. It is now on permanent display in the Lincoln Parlor at the church.

This is the neighborhood of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York Ave. at H Street. The Treasury Department and the White House are at lower left. Church is indicated by center right arrow. Pastor Gurley’s House, 390 I Street, near 12th, is shown by upper right arrow. Other churches visited by Lincoln are: St. John’s Episcopal, at left above Lafayette Square; Foundry Methodist, lower center; and Church of the Epiphany, lower right.

According to Mary Lincoln’s sister, Elizabeth Todd Grimsley (Six Months in the White House; J Ill State Hist. Soc., 1927), “Our first Sunday in the White House (March 10, 1861), we all went to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley’s, which had been decided upon as the church home ever after…” The “family” then included not only the president, his wife and three sons, and Mrs. Grimsley, but also Mrs. Elizabeth (Todd) Edwards, Mrs. Margaret (Todd) Kellogg, niece Elizabeth Edwards, Capt. Lockwood Todd, Nicolay and Hay, and Col. Ward Hill Lamon.

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1862 was just two years old. The current church building, on the same site, was opened in 1950. Lincoln would have had no difficulty recognizing it today.

Sunday attendance at New York Avenue swelled as people knew they were likely to see the president there. An old friend from Illinois, Noah Brooks, knew to go there when he first arrived in town. “On the Sunday after my arrival in Washington I took a long look at him (Lincoln) from the gallery of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church,” Brooks wrote, after seeing his friend for the first time in two years on November 30, 1862. “His eyes were almost deathly in their gloomy depths, and on his visage was an air of profound sadness. His face was colorless and drawn, and newly grown whiskers added to the agedness of his appearance.”

According to church records, Lincoln attended Wednesday evening prayer meetings. The president would avoid disturbing the sessions by entering from a side entrance and sitting in the pastor’s study with the door ajar so that he could listen. A church member wrote that when he was a boy, he and a friend followed a tall man who had left the church at night. He led them right to the White House, appearing not to notice his pursuers. Turning into the driveway, the president stopped, leaned back and thanked the boys “for the escort.” (A History of the NYAPC; Frank E. Edgington, 1961).

Rev. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley

Abraham Lincoln’s commitment to the extinction of slavery was evident from the earliest days of his political life. That he connected with this church in Washington may not have directly advanced his thought process for how to accomplish it, but it did allow him time for quiet reflection while he worked out an effective strategy. The pastor, Rev. Phineas D. Gurley became a confidant and spiritual advisor to the president. Lincoln once commented that he liked Gurley because he didn’t tell the president how God wanted him to manage the country, as other preachers did.

Lincoln quickly developed a personal relationship with the Gurley family and secured leave for a new West Point graduate, Lt. William A. Elderkin, so that he could marry the Gurley’s elder daughter, Fanny. And, after the wedding on that June 12, 1861, he stood by the bride at the family’s home, 390 I Street, to greet their guests. Mrs. Grimsley had recalled that this wedding occurred after Bull Run in July, but newspaper accounts confirm the June 12 date reported by the church.

Another notable event that Lincoln attended at the church was the funeral of cavalry General John Buford, a hero of Gettysburg. Buford was in Washington waiting for reassignment when he died, probably of typhoid fever. His funeral at NYAPC on December 22, 1863, was reported in local papers. Rev. Gurley was asked to preside at the East Room funeral of Willie Lincoln. He was summoned to be with the president on the morning that he died, and later conducted the funeral service.

New York Avenue Presbyterian was rebuilt in the 1950’s, but appears much like the original that Lincoln knew, with the high front stairs and steeple. The Lincoln family pew that Mary chose, and the president reserved each year for $50, is still in its approximate same location. There are many Lincoln artifacts, including the president’s desk set, a lock of his hair, and a letter from Mary Lincoln conveying the hat that he wore to his second inauguration. Sadly, the hat has long been lost.

This stained glass window in the church depicts the president standing in prayer as he would during services.

This stained glass window in the church depicts the president standing in prayer as he would during services.

See: Capital Witness: A History of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC (2011). Edited by Dewey Wallace, Jr., Wilson Golden, and Edith Holmes Snyder.

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