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May 10, 2008

my d.c.: the church that lincoln built (kinda)
posted by soe 12:20 am

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church

This is the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Not only is this the church closest to my office (the one that tolls every quarter hour to make it abundantly clear to me as I’m rushing from the Metro exactly how late I am), but it’s also a historic fixture of the downtown area.

Remodeled in the 1950s from its original 1860 structure, the church has been home to many illustrious D.C. political celebrities — Abraham Lincoln and Justice John Marshall Harlan were both regular congregants, while other luminaries, including Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower, have periodically attended services.

The church originally started as two separate congregations — the F Street Presbyterian Church (formed by the Scottish stonemasons who built the White House) and the Second Presbyterian Church (which appealed to the higher echelon of society, including Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams) — which opted to unite together in 1859 due to their proximity (and the Second Church’s budgetary problems).

The religious home to the Lincoln family during the Civil War, NYAPC served a key role in Lincoln’s search for moral authority in a period of immense strife for the country and for himself. The pastor of the church, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, offered suggestions to the president on the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation and officiated at the funeral of his son Willie. Several years later, Gurley would again be called upon to help bury a Lincoln — this time the assassinated president. He uttered the final prayer at Lincoln’s deathbed, conducted services at the White House, and accompanied Lincoln’s body back to Illinois, delivering remarks at each train stop along the way, as well as at the interment in Springfield.

Civil rights has remained key to the church’s central mission. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King preached at the church, so it was perhaps not unsurprising that after his death in 1968 the congregants reacted strongly. D.C. was burning due to the riots in predominantly African American neighborhoods and a curfew was in effect. Members of the church ventured north to the Shaw neighborhood, to homes of children and teens in the church’s tutoring program, to provide food and to offer refuge in the church hall to anyone who needed shelter. The tutoring program, part of the Community Club created in 1962, continues to this day.

The church also still prides itself on the legacy of its connection to Abe Lincoln. Chimes (those ones I hear every day, I assume), donated by Lincoln’s granddaughter, still ring in the Lincoln Memorial Tower, a gift of the Robert Todd Lincoln family in 1928 (later reconstructed in 1951). The Lincolns’ pew was saved from the original building. And, most importantly, the NYAPC is the guardian of the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, presented to the congregation in 1951.

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