- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2008


The graceful Jefferson Memorial, majestic Capitol Building and the cloud-piercing Washington Monument exhibit our city’s extraordinary prominence. Yet away from this visible public city there exists a more private Washington where historic jewels are rarely seen.

One hidden gemstone is where Abraham prayed — the president, not the patriarch. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church; a red-brick church sitting on a triangular-shaped block so near to the White House that Lincoln could have walked to it. In my mind’s eye, he did, slowly and even paced, his ladder-like frame weighted down by an ominous awareness of thousands of Americans warring in battle, many of them only 70 miles away.

Though tall buildings surround this church today, history endures inside. Downstairs you will find a lighted case exhibiting Lincoln’s original manuscript proposing that the federal government compensate any state freeing its slaves. This was a forerunner to the Emancipation Proclamation.

When Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, he sent it to the New York Avenue pastor here, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, for reaction. A photograph of the long-side-burned Gurley can be seen in an adjoining room.

Nineteen stained-glass windows are in the sanctuary, one diffusing yellow and gold light around a silhouette of Lincoln at prayer. When he was younger, Abraham Lincoln may have been agnostic, but as the Civil War pounded on and ground down more men, spirituality seeped into Lincoln’s mind. He attended New York Avenue Presbyterian when the federal government used other churches, like Holy Trinity near Georgetown University, for hospitals. Lincoln wanted this church to remain open for worship and his attachment to it probably grew stronger when his son Willie died at age 11. On his deathbed, Willie left his savings of $5 to this church.

During the Civil War’s gloomiest months, Walt Whitman saw President Lincoln on morning walks and the two men developed a practice of exchanging cordial bows. Whitman said no picture had captured the subtle expression on Lincoln’s face, and noted the president’s face had “deep-cut lines, [the president’s] eyes always, to me, with a latent sadness in the expression.”

Abraham Lincoln wrote this self-description: “6 feet 4 inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing on average 180 pounds; dark complexion, with course black hair and gray eyes. No other marks or brands recollected.”

Church congregants could have easily discerned Lincoln amongst them by his height alone. Did they approach him? How many brief and solemn exchanges took place between Lincoln and others in this church?

“He joined the Federal Army because he believes as you sir, that no man should own another.”

“We learned three weeks ago that he was gravely wounded at Gettysburg but have heard nothing since.”

“Yes, Mr. President, we have two other sons, but he is the eldest.”

Lincoln attended Bible study classes in this church, and separated himself in a close-by room, leaving the door open enough to hear, but closed enough not to disturb others with his presence. Did he study the Psalms? The 25th? “Relieve the troubles of my heart and lead me out of distress. Look at my enemies, see how many they are, how violent their hatred of me.”

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address evidenced a familiarity with Scripture, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away … yet, if God wills it continue … The Judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” integrating the 19th Psalm.

In the same address, Lincoln said: “Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln spoke with direct knowledge, because he would have known an Episcopal Church one block away — the Church of the Epiphany — still standing today, where Sen. Jefferson Davis regularly prayed before leaving for the South to become president of the Confederate States.

The same God held the prayers of Presidents Lincoln and Davis in balance as rifles and swords were lifted for battle.

Lincoln died five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered. The Almighty has His own purposes.

One and one-half miles from the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church is the magnificent Lincoln Memorial, visited by more than 9,000 people each day who ascend its staircase and seek connection with Lincoln. The memorial sharply contrasts with this modest red-brick church, yet this is where Lincoln sought to contact God. You may not see a tourist at this church, but you may intuit some of Lincoln’s mysteriousness. Numen praesens.

The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church was rebuilt larger but in identical style 55 years ago. Lincoln’s three-foot-tall black hitching post still stands outside the stairs leading to its entrance. Seventy pews are on the sanctuary’s main floor; each combines pastel paint, light-brown wood, and burgundy cushions. Among them, just one differs in appearance with its dark wood, more elaborately carved side, and a small brass plaque engraved A. Lincoln 1861-1865. It is his original pew; this is where Abraham prayed.

J. Ben-Joseph is a Washington-based writer who prepares articles for a science association in Washington.

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