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!

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