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!

Sharing Favorite Scripture Passages

Do you have a favorite prayer or passage from scripture, something you know by heart and go to in times of trouble? At February’s First Sunday FaithTalk, we began by talking about how we read the Bible, from proof texting to puzzle solving, from scholarly to spiritual, and then shared passages and prayers that are particularly meaningful to us. For some of us, singing is how we remember scripture. We also talked about the power of posting scripture and prayers on a mirror or refrigerator.

Here is a partial list of what was shared. Maybe you’ll see yours – or discover a new one!

This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 118: 24


In the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God.
– John 1:1 (especially when sung!)


Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.

– Psalm 51:10-11 (especially when sung!)


He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

– Micah 6:8


Thank you God for giving me another day: May I do your will.
– From the film, Milagro Beanfield Wars.


I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!
– John 16:33


I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
-Psalm 139: 14


[B]ut let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.
– Jeremiah 9:24


I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

– Hosea 11:8-10


Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
– Philippians 4:4-9


Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings] shouted for joy?

– Job 38:4-7


The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

– Lamentations 3:22-23


Be still, and know that I am God!
Psalm 56:10


Hymns like Amazing Grace and Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee

Former White House Press Secretary Leads Class on Election Returns

by Paul Dornan

Mike McCurry, formerly President Clinton’s Press Secretary and currently Director of the Center for Public Theology at Wesley Seminary, led the first of two virtual adult church school classes at New York Avenue on Saturday, Nov. 7.

McCurry, insightful and affable, began his class on impressions of the election returns with introductory remarks and then opened it up for questions from the 50 participants. His remarks came only hours after President-Elect Biden was announced the winner, which made his observations all the more immediate.

He stressed the institutional reinforcement of the division, with a new Democratic president, a barely Democratic House and a still-Republican Senate, which he interpreted to mean that progress might be sluggish even on subjects in which there appears to be significant consensus. He saw resentment of the apparent know-it-all elites as the source of the survival and intensity of the Trump coalition.

Second Class This Saturday. As a preview for his second class with us, on Nov. 14 at 4 pm, on the response of the faith community to the election results, he posed these questions:

• How do we counter and defuse such resentment?

• How do we convey as individuals, as communities, to those so resentful, that they have genuinely been heard?

For the Nov. 14 class (4 pm):

Go to Zoom or dial 1 301 715 8592 and enter Meeting ID 847 5246 6884