The Preachers: Phineas D. Gurley

Phineas D. Gurley Headshot
Phineas Gurley at Old Age
Phineas Gurley Photo

“I like Gurley,” said President Lincoln of his pastor, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley. “He don’t preach politics. I get enough of that through the week, and when I go to church, I like to hear the gospel.”1 During 1861, wrote historian David Rankin Barbee “pleasant official, if not pastoral, relations had been established between the President and Doctor Gurley, for we find the former consulting the latter about the appointment of chaplains in the army – a very sore trial with Mr. Lincoln – and twice in the month of October, 1861, Doctor Gurley wrote the Executive about this delicate matter. He thought the best of ministers were none too good for the soldiers, especially the sick and wounded. In one of these letters, he called attention to the two hundred casualties in the hospitals of Alexandria, with ‘no minister of the Gospel to visit them and minister to their wants.'”2

When Mr. Lincoln came to Washington, he declined the offer of a pew in the First Presbyterian Church, where many Democrats, many rich Washingtonians, many Southerners, and many previous presidents had worshipped. Instead he chose the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The church was formed in 1859 by a merger of the Second Presbyterian Church and the F. Street Presbyterian Church, where Gurley had been pastor since 1854. “Gurley stood squarely in the American Old School Presbyterian understanding of Reform theology,” wrote religious historian Ronald C. White, Jr..3 “His sermons returned again and again to the Calvinist emphasis on providence, albeit usually acknowledging the elements of ambiguity and mystery in discerning that providence,” wrote White.4

Gurley’s friendship with President Lincoln was strengthened when he ministered to the Lincoln family when son Willie died on February 20, 1862. On February 24, 1862, Dr. Gurley presided over the funeral service for William Lincoln in the White House’s East Room. According to Benjamin Brown French, ” Doctors P.D. Gurley & John C. Smith, conducted the services with great solemnity and propriety and then, followed by a procession in carriages about ½ a mile long, the body was borne to Oak Hill cemetery in Georgetown and temporarily deposited in the tomb of the Chapel, finally to be removed to Illinois. I returned to the President’s, and then home…’5

It was the second time that a son’s death had brought a preacher closer to Mr. Lincoln. According to Ronald White, Gurley centered his sermon on what was finally ‘very comforting’ – namely, ‘to get a clear and a scriptural view of the providence of God.’ The meaning of this divine providence was that ‘His kingdom ruleth over all.'”6 In his funeral sermon, Dr. Gurley said:

Sad and solemn is the occasion which brings us here today. A dark shadow of affliction has fallen upon this habitation and upon the hearts of its inmates. The news thereof has already gone forth to the extremities of the country. The nation has heard it with deep and tender emotion, the eye of the nation is moistened with tears as it turns today to the Presidential Mansion. The heart of the nation sympathizes with its chief magistrate while to the unprecedented weight of civil care which presses down on him is added the burden of this domestic sorrow, and the prayers of the nation ascend to heaven on his behalf, and on behalf of his weeping family, that God’s grace may be sufficient for them, and that in this hour of sore bereavement and trial they may have the presence and succor of Him Who said: ‘Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’ Oh, that they may be enabled to lay their heads upon this infinite bosom and find, as many other smitten ones have found, that He is their truest refuge and strength and a very present help in trouble.7

Journalist Noah Brooks, who had just arrived in Washington from California, wrote on December 4, 1862: “Last Sunday [November 30] I saw the President and his wife at church at Dr. Gurley’s (Presbyterian),where they habitually attend. The building was crowded, as usual, with dignitaries of various grades, besides sinners of lesser note and rank. Conspicuous among them all, as the crowd pour out of the aisles, was the tall form of the Father of the Faithful, who is instantly recognized by his likeness to the variety of his published likenesses. The President and his wife are both in deep mourning for their son, who died last Spring, and his Excellency has grievously altered from the happy-faced Springfield lawyer of 1856, whom I then met on the stump in Illinois for Fremont. His hair is grizzled, his gait more stooping, his countenance sallow, and there is a sunken, deathly look about the large, cavernous eyes, which is saddening to those who see there the marks of care and anxiety, such as no President of the United States has ever before known. It is a lesson for human ambition to look upon that anxious and careworn face, prematurely aged by public labors and private griefs, and to remember that with the fleetingly glory of his term of office have come responsibilities which make his life one long series of harassing care, and, while compelling him to save himself and his country from disgrace and reprobation, mark him with the daily scars of mental anxiety and struggle. Whatever may be said of Abraham Lincoln by friend or foe, no one can ever question the pure patriots and the unblenching honesty of the man. He inspires that feeling by his personal presence as much as by his acts, and as he moves down the church aisle, recognizing, with a cheerful nod, his friends on either side, his homely face lighted with a smile, there is an involuntary expression of respect on every face, and men, who would scorn to ‘toady’ to any President, look with commisserating admiration on that tall, mourning figure which embodies Abraham Lincoln, whom may God bless.”8

Dr. Gurley and his wife were frequent guests at the White House. Sometimes, Dr. Gurley brought religious delegations and personal requests to the President. In one letter to President Lincoln on March 13, 1863, Dr. Gurley successfully requested a job for a friend, who was placed at the Treasury Department:

Permit me to commend to your confidence and kindness my highly esteemed friend, Mr. Amos Young. Formerly he resided in Georgetown; now he is residing in this city. Our civil troubles have made his home a desolation. The extent of his losses he himself will tell you, and you can rely with the most implicit confidence upon his every statement. His character is so pure, his loyalty so unwavering, and his need so urgent, that I really hope you will take such an interest in his case as will secure him employment. He is a worthy and suffering servant of Christ, Mr. President, and, as a minister of Christ, I earnestly entreat you to consider his claims and favor his appeal. His habits have such as to give him excellent qualifications for a clerkship.9

More often, according to historian David Rankin Barbee, Dr. Gurley intervened on behalf of Northern or Southern clergymen who had been arrested and imprisoned by the Union army. In one letter to Mr. Lincoln, Dr. Gurley wrote: “Pardon me, Mr. President, for saying that I think the business of suppressing churches with pastors, which the War Department seems disposed to undertake, will not only be difficult and troublesome, but rather injurious than beneficial to the Government.”10In November 1864, Dr. Gurley even intervened on behalf of a minister whose newspaper had been closed for its Confederate sympathies. He wrote President Lincoln a cover note for the minister’s letter in which he called him a “great rebel.”11

In the fall of 1864, Dr. Gurley appealed to the President to commute an execution sentence that had been imposed on Norman L. King, the Confederate son of a member of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. In February 1865, the loyal father of the imprisoned soldier sought a full pardon and went to the White House despite Dr. Gurley’s advice against this approach. The minister nevertheless sent along a note of support for the pardon, listing five reasons “which lead me to desire and to hope that you will set the young man at liberty.”

My esteemed friend and neighbor Mr. King, the life of whose Son you have recently saved, will call to﷓morrow with Senator Pomeroy to see you further about the case. I would gladly have accompanied them, but am prevented from doing so by sickness. I deeply and fully sympathize with them in their desire that he should be released from his imprisonment as well as saved from death. The reasons which lead me to desire his release are mainly these: 1. His age: he is now only in his eighteenth year. 2. The uncertain character of the proof against him, and the probability, that, if guilty as charged, his guilt was the result of a sudden impulse, and not of a premeditated purpose. 3. The fact that he has already been severely punished, by physical suffering from a painful wound, and by six months imprisonment. 4. The reason I have to believe, from testimony upon which I can rely, that these recent trials have been a blessing to him, – have wrought a marked change in his character, which makes it more sure, than any other pledge could, that no evil will come from his release. 5. Finally – The well known character and thorough loyalty of his father, whose sympathies have been with the Government from the very commencement of our National troubles. – These, Mr. President, are the reasons which lead me to desire and to hope that you will set the young man at Liberty.12

A year later, Dr. Gurley related what happened: “When the father made known his errand the President became very much excited and fiercely said: ‘I saved the life of your son after he had been condemned to be shot; and now you come here so soon when you know I am overwhelmed with care and anxiety, asking for his pardon. You should have been content with what I have done. Go; and if you annoy me any more, I shall feel it to be my duty to consider whether I ought not to recall what I have already done.”

A few days after the President sent for the father, apologized for the way he had spoken to him, and, to his utter astonishment, handed him a pardon.

Not long after, and before knowing what had transpired, Dr. Gurley met the President. Having transacted his business, he was about to go when Mr. Lincoln said:
“By the way, Doctor, you signed the petition for Mr. King’s son’s pardon, didn’t you?”

The Doctor replied that he had done so, but explained that he had advised against making the application at that time, and was induced to sign it only by the statement of the father that he found his wife would lose her mind if something were not done to relieve her.

The President then remarked: ‘Well, Mr. King came to see me with the petition. It made me very angry and I dismissed him roughly. Afterward I felt so ashamed of myself for having lost my temper that I made out a pardon for the man and gave it to him. And then, after a pause, and with a broad smile, he added:

“Ah, Doctor! These wives of ours have the inside track on us, don’t they?”13

“Evidence of Lincoln’s growing faith in the Almighty is plentiful during the war years, usually from his own speeches and private letters,” wrote Lincoln biographer Reinhard H. Luthin. “In September, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving and thanks to the Almighty, to be observed on the coming last Thursday of November. And in October he spoke significant words to members of the Baltimore (old school) Presbyterian Synod. The Reverend Phineas Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, introduced them to the President. Lincoln assured them that he was ‘profoundly grateful’ for any form of support from the nation’s religious bodies. When he assumed the presidency, he told them, ‘I was brought to a living reflection that nothing in my power whatever would succeed without the direct assistance of the Almighty.’ He added, ‘I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am. Nevertheless, amid the greatest difficulties of my Administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance on God, knowing that all would go well, and that He would decide for the right.'”14

“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 his breakfast. The night before we had been together, and Mr. Lincoln had said, ‘Doctor, you rise early, so do I. Come over tomorrow morning about seven o’clock. We can talk for an hour before breakfast.’ This I did, as before started…As I passed out of 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 many conversations with him on the sujbect. This morning, however, I was a listener, as Mr. Lincoln did all the talking.’15

Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “There was much that Lincoln admired in Gurley’s rhetorical gifts as a preacher, and he once remarked to John Hay that it had to be a good sign that Gurley’s ‘faith in ultimate success’ in the war was so vast. Gurley ‘spoke with an authoritative air of sincerity,’ and ‘his preaching was confined with remarkable closeness to the great central doctrines of the cross,’ but, happily, he also managed to stay away from politics. [Government printer] John DeFrees believed that Lincoln ‘had several conversations with the Rev. P.D. Gurley…on the subject of religion,’ and on at least three occasions Lincoln allowed Gurley to present petitions for pardons or appointments. Yet Lincoln never developed a particularly close relationship with Gurley, apart from inviting Gurley to the White House from time to time and allowing Gurley to be generally understood by Washington society as the Lincolns’ pastor.”16

On April 14, 1865, Dr. Gurley was called to the bedside of the assassinated President. A few months later, Dr. Gurley said that after Mr. Lincoln died “that for four or five minutes there was not the slightest noise or movement in that awful presence. We all stood transfixed in our positions, speechless, breathless, around the dead body of that great and good man. At length the Secretary of War, who was standing at my left, broke the silence, and said, ‘Doctor, will you say anything?’ I replied, ‘I will speak to God.’ Said he, ‘Do it just now.’ And there, by the side of our fallen chief, God put into my heart to utter this petition, that from that hour we and the whole nation might become more than ever united in our devotion to the cause of our beloved, imperiled country.” After Dr. Gurley again offered his prayer, there was a chorus of “amen” before a tearful Secretary Stanton said: “Now he belongs to the ages.”17


  1. Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 139.
  2. David Rankin Barbee, “President Lincoln and Doctor Gurley”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume V, March, 1948, No. 1, p. 7.
  3. Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 132.
  4. Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 140.
  5. Benjamin Brown French, Witness to the Young Republic, p. 389.
  6. Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, .
  7. Edgar DeWitt Jones, Lincoln and the Preachers, p. 37-38.
  8. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 13-14.
  9. David Rankin Barbee, editor, “President Lincoln and Doctor Gurley”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume V, March, 1948, No. 1, p. 9.
  10. David Rankin Barbee, “President Lincoln and Doctor Gurley”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume V, March, 1948, No. 1, p. 14.
  11. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 222.
  12. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Phineas D. Gurley to Abraham Lincoln [With Endorsement by Lincoln]1, February 17, 1865).
  13. David Rankin Barbee, “President Lincoln and Doctor Gurley”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume V, March, 1948, No. 1, .
  14. Reinhard N. Luthin, The Real Abraham Lincoln, p. 398.
  15. Edgar DeWitt Jones, Lincoln and the Preachers, p. 37 (From an unpublished manuscript owned by Gurley’s daughter, Emma H. Adams).
  16. Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 321.
  17. W. Emerson Reck, Abraham Lincoln: His Last 24 Hours, p. 157.