Changing Minds: Lincoln and Gurley in 1862

Notes from a class with John O’Brien by Meg Hanna House

In February 1862, after the death of his 11-year-old son Willie, President Abraham Lincoln began meeting with NYAPC’s Rev. Phineas Gurley as he worked through his grief. At the same time, Lincoln was also planning his most controversial decision of the war, proclaiming Emancipation. 

How did meetings between President Lincoln and Rev. Gurley affect each man’s thinking? In his adult education class on May 8, John O’Brien traced the parallel tracks of Lincoln’s and Gurley’s thoughts about the war, slavery, and God before and after 1862.

Lincoln’s speeches and correspondence before and after this time show him developing ideas about a more personal yet mysterious God, who cannot be harnessed to human desires.

As for Gurley? After the war, he moderated the 1868 General Assembly, which united New School and Old School Presbyterians in the north, changing American Presbyterianism and setting the stage for the Social Gospel movement, O’Brien explained.

Presbyterians and Slavery
American Presbyterianism “started off on the right foot,” said O’Brien, declaring in 1801 that slavery was immoral. But as the power of the cotton culture grew, the church moved away from “political issues,” stating that the Bible did not explicitly condemn slavery.

By 1860, the Presbyterian church positions fell into three categories:

  • One faction, represented by Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary, argued that the US could place limits on slavery, but largely agreed that the Bible did not condemn slavery.
  • Another, represented by Robert J. Breckinridge, reflected border state thinking and argued that the Constitution was a gift from God and that decisions about slavery should be based on the Constitution.
  • Finally, the leader of the Southern Presbyterian Church most strongly defended slavery and secession, citing both the constitution and the Bible.

Gurley, God, and Slavery
Gurley most closely aligned with Breckinridge’s thinking. He preached a gospel-based theology that avoided the political issues of the day, said John O’Brien. God is all present, all powerful and all loving, and desires a personal relationship with humans. But God’s ways are mysterious, said Gurley. Human’s ways are not God’s ways and God’s time is not human time. As such, Gurley thought the church should have no political opinion. Still, God works through human beings – “human instrumentalities” – who can use their own free will to fulfill God’s purposes.

In his sermons, said O’Brien, Gurley encouraged his listeners to take their cares to God, to read the Bible and accept that it reveals how God wants us to live, to make a public confession of faith in Christ – and to avoid theaters.

Lincoln never made a public confession of faith, and “we can only wish Lincoln would have paid attention” to Gurley’s warning about theaters, said O’Brien. Nevertheless, his thinking evolved during this time.

Lincoln’s Reflections on God
Lincoln’s faith appears to have been primarily a “public religion” going into this time. Writing in 1850, he subscribed to the “doctrine of necessity” (God as an impersonal watchmaker). Later, in his first inauguration speech, Lincoln portrayed God as a referee who will decide who wins. In addition, he initially focused on the issue of secession as the cause of the Civil War, not slavery. But by July of 1862, Lincoln had written a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation and was thinking about how to sell it to the country.

O’Brien shared several quotes from Lincoln’s writing that show Lincoln’s thinking evolving. One, a “Meditation on Divine Will,” discovered after Lincoln died, seems to accept a more personal, active God, said O’Brien. If the war was only about the Union, then one side surely would have won. But God must want something different. O’Brien said this reflects conversation going on in Presbyterianism as well, and Lincoln’s use of the phrase “human instrumentalities” echoes Gurley’s theology.  

In other writing after Willie’s death, Lincoln also seems to pick up on Gurley’s belief that God’s ways are mysterious, pushing back on the idea that humans can know the will of God. In addition to this change in his perspective on God, Lincoln begins to write about slavery as the cause of the war more frequently, said O’Brien, citing several excerpts from his writing.

Was Lincoln religious in the end? As John O’Brien noted, most mainstream scholars are not religious. But, he added, it’s hard to read Lincoln’s correspondence after 1862 and not see Lincoln working out what God was doing, even though Lincoln never subscribed to a specific doctrine.

Phineas Gurley, on the other hand, went on to lead the reconciliation of the New School and Old School churches of the northern Presbyterian church, much to the dismay of Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary, who had hoped the Old School would join the Southern church. The New School was more revivalist and open to reaching out to African Americans, and this Old School-New School reunification set the stage for the Social Gospel movement to come.

Thank you, John O’Brien for a fascinating class!

From Rev. Heather Shortlidge

Dear Friends,

Much has shifted following last week’s CDC updated guidance on masking and distancing. As we begin to re-emerge from fifteen months of restrictions, I look forward to a more relaxed summer. Worship will still continue online, however, there will be several opportunities to physically gather together throughout the summer months. Stay tuned for updated events and a summary of the recent congregational survey.

For the time being, masks will still be required inside the church. While it is true that many people are getting vaccinated, it is also true that many are not – including children and those at risk, all of whom are important parts of our community. Continuing to wear a mask indoors is a way we can honor and respect the community as a whole.

Currently, our Facilities Staff is working inside the building, managing the HVAC construction project and readying the 5th floor for our tenant, the McClendon Center, to return in a couple of weeks. The rest of the NYAPC church staff, including your pastors, continue to work remotely with occasional trips to the building.

In worship this Sunday May 23rd, we’ll celebrate Pentecost, the day the church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit, which came with wind and flame, empowering the disciples to proclaim the good news of the risen Lord to all people. Worshippers are encouraged to wear red as part of Sunday’s celebration. Guest preacher, Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia, currently serves as the pastor at Hillsborough Presbyterian Church in New Jersey and works as a consultant with Vandersall Collective. Previously she served as the Vice Moderator of the 221st General Assembly. This Sunday’s worship is one of our simplified summer services, still live on Zoom, but with a more streamlined liturgy, recorded guest preacher, and a few less bells and whistles.

Join us on Zoom at 10:00am
Dial: 1-929-436-2866 with Meeting ID: 150 620 342

Finally, a Pentecost blessing from Jan Richardson to nourish your spirit this week:

This Grace That Scorches Us
A Blessing for Pentecost Day

Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone.

It is stubborn
about this.
Do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself,
thinking you can carry it
on your own.

To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.

Bring your sorrow.
Bring your grief.
Bring your fear.
Bring your weariness,
your pain,
your disgust at how broken
the world is,
how fractured,
how fragmented
by its fighting,
its wars,
its hungers,
its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses
to rise above.

I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.

But in the place
where you have gathered,
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.
See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom

or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones,
a clarity
in your heart
that tells you

this is the reason
we were made:
for this ache
that finally opens us,

for this struggle,
this grace
that scorches us
toward one another
and into
the blazing day.

—Jan Richardson
from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons

Peace and Courage,


May 16 Is Youth Sunday

Worship this week is Youth Sunday. The middle school and high school youth have written liturgy, recorded special music, and prepared to lead us all in worship this week. Linda Kelly prepared the sermon, with help from Leo Brigham, and will preach on John 8:2-11 about the woman accused of adultery. There is a youth choir piece, along with some solo and duet hymns. Gather on zoom to experience God at work in this congregation. Linger after worship this week for fellowship and conversation with the youth and one another. It’s been a privilege to walk with them in planning and developing this worship service.

Join us on Zoom at 10:00 am
Dial: 1-929-436-2866 with Meeting ID: 150 620 342

We had an extensive response to the congregational survey. Thank you for your intentionality and time in articulating your perspectives. This information is one of several sources of input for the discernment and planning of church life this summer and fall.

I will be on vacation this week and on a personal spiritual retreat the week after, returning to work on June 2. Email me today or tomorrow if you need anything before I leave.

May you experience God’s love surrounding you this week.



Summer Worship Plans

In anticipation of returning to the sanctuary for worship this fall (Alleluia! Amen!), the Session has approved a summer worship schedule that has us continuing to worship virtually through at least the end of August. (Our return depends not only on the pandemic but also completion of the HVAC replacement currently underway.)

See the full summer worship schedule here

The summer schedule includes a mixture of regular Zoom worship services (what we’ve been doing throughout the pandemic), simplified Zoom worship services with guest preachers, and two virtual visits to experience how other congregations are worshipping. Each of these visits will be followed the next Sunday by a time of conversation facilitated by Rev. Shortlidge, so we can share our experiences.

Going ‘Hybrid’
This summer worship plan allows our pastors, tech team, and Worship & Music Committee members the space and time they need to think through and build what’s next—a hybrid worship service, broadcast from inside the NYAPC sanctuary.

Throughout the pandemic, a wonderful virtual worshipping community has been cultivated, and we don’t want to lose our virtual worshippers by returning to what was—a one-way livestream from the balcony.

The plan is to use the summer months to organize, build, and practice a hybrid worship service, which includes installing new technology inside the sanctuary. Eventually, the congregation will be welcomed back to the sanctuary for a hybrid service consistent with health guidance at the time.

We understand that some of you are hungry to return to in person worship. This summer plan allows us to do that as quickly and comfortably as our staff, our building, and health guidelines all allow. In the meantime, we’re excited by the variety of voices you’ll be hearing from our virtual pulpit this summer.

Grace and Peace,
The Worship & Music Committee
Co-Chairs, Don Campbell and Meg Neill

What’s Going On? Worship Plans, Youth Sunday, Breeze How-to

Plan to stay after worship this Sunday, May 9, for an information session with our Worship and Music Committee, chaired by elders Meg Neill and Don Campbell. The committee has been hard at work planning our summer worship schedule and preparing for our return to in-person worship in the fall. There will also be an update on the HVAC project, which of course affects our return to the sanctuary.

And if you haven’t had a chance to complete the survey about summer and fall programming, please take the five to ten minute survey now.

Speaking of worship, Sunday, May 16, is Youth Sunday! Pastor Rachel reports that our youth are planning, writing, and recording music for the service, which will focus on the story of religious leaders trying to trick Jesus as they condemn a women accused of adultery (John 8:2-11).

Finally, if you missed last Sunday’s “Intro to Breeze,” the new membership database that the office uses to track membership, directory, and pledge and contribution information, never fear. You can see a pdf of the presentation here. Email or with questions.