A Nod From Lincoln

During the early years of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, I spent about a third of my time working in the White House, with the rest spent in the Pentagon.

But Sunday mornings were always special occasions because I took an early Metro ride to New York Circle NW, which was three blocks from the White House, so I could enter the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church. If I got there early enough, I could sit in either of my two favorite pews — the Abraham Lincoln pew on the second row up front, or a parlor side pew next to the framed wall display of Lincoln’s original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

During those years, I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading Lincoln’s hand-written words that were a decisive step forward in ending the practice of slavery in the United States.  

On Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, we celebrated the 151st anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclamation.
The history of how the proclamation found its way to the church and its coveted display position on the parlor wall is repeated many times each Sunday by church historians.

After Lincoln was inaugurated, First Lady Mary took her children to the church and they were warmly greeted by the pastor, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, the former Chaplain of the United States Senate. Mrs. Lincoln inquired of Dr. Gurley about renting a pew, which was a customary tradition at that time for people who could afford one.

Upon checking the availability of pews, Gurley discovered that one had just been vacated by a tenant who had moved back to Pennsylvania. By coincidence, that tenant was James Buchanan, the 15th president and Lincoln’s predecessor.

Mrs. Lincoln paid the pew’s one-year rental fee of $50.

She also explained that her family, along with a driver and two security agents would arrive for Sunday church services in a horse drawn carriage.

By noon the following day, Gurley had completed the arrangements for securing the carriage.

The 40-inch high hitching post the pastor installed is still in its original position on the west side of the church at 1313 New York Avenue NW.

The proclamation itself also has an interesting origin.

President Lincoln was taught by his father to always stand in church during the pastor’s prayer. So sometimes, when Lincoln was late in attending church, he and his family avoided the distraction of walking down the long aisle to the second row pew and standing during the prayer, by sitting in the pastor’s window-enclosed study in the rear of the church.    

In early 1862, while Lincoln was sitting in the pastor’s study during a Sunday service, Gurley gave a spirited, rational and strongly worded sermon on why slavery must end.

Lincoln took some blank papers from the pastor’s desk and took notes of the sermon.

When Lincoln returned to the White House, he hurried to his study upstairs and used several of the pastor’s words, phrases, clauses and descriptions while writing the original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.                

It is that draft, with Gurley’s proud blessing, that is displayed with sacred honor on the parlor wall.

To sit in a pew near the document, a visitor should enter the church sanctuary and take an immediate right turn. Step to the parlor wall and turn left. The display is about eight feet ahead on the right.

The Lincoln stained glass window is directly across the sanctuary on the other side.

High above the church is the Lincoln Memorial Tower with its belfry and four-sided clock.

When you leave the church, look up and listen to the beautiful chimes.

Lincoln died on a Saturday morning, the day before Easter Sunday, in April 1865.

At Mrs. Lincoln’s request, Gurley officiated at funeral services in the First Presbyterian Church, at the capitol and in the White House. The pastor also rode on the train beside Lincoln’s coffin the entire way to Springfield, Ill., then presided at the burial service.

Over my years in Washington, I found that one of the best ways to honor Abraham Lincoln was to visit his Memorial late at night, around 1 or 2 a.m. It’s quiet then. The security guard will observe from his booth but will not bother you. And there are no crowds.

Just walk up to Abe and look at his face. Tell him how grateful you are for all he did.

If you listen and look carefully, you just might see him nod and smile. I did. Several times.

Elvin C. Bell, who served three tours in the White House, is a retired USAF colonel who now lives in Destin. His 10th book, “The Event Makers I’ve Known,” is currently in bookstores.

Categories: Opinion