Sunday, November 13, 2011

Eliza Gurney Meets Abraham Lincoln

As I continue my work on "Southern Heroes", I would like to present the story of Eliza Gurney, the widow of Joseph John Gurney, meeting Abraham Lincoln.

Eliza P. Gurney of Burlington, N. J., the widow of Joseph John Gurney, was a Friend minister of deep spirituality, refined tastes, and much ability. Her sympathies were enlisted for Abraham Lincoln during the dark days of the war, and she felt constrained in the love of the Gospel to visit him. It was on a rainy morning of the first day of the week in 1862, that she and her friends were introduced into the private apartments of the President, who received them very cordially. John M. Whitall, of Philadelphia, one of the party says: “It was a time not soon to be forgotten. I cannot possibly describe the scene; the solemnity of the silence, and the impressive address of our friend, during which the tears ran down the cheeks of our honored President. During the earnest prayer for the nation and himself, he seemed much affected, and as we arose to go he retained the hand of Eliza P. Gurney and made a most beautiful response to what had been said. This response began and ended with the words, ‘I
am glad of this interview.’”

More than a year after, Abraham Lincoln sent Eliza P. Gurney a request to write him a letter, which she did, and so highly did he prize that letter, that it was found in his breast pocket at the time of the fatal shot of J. Wilkes Booth, nearly two years afterwards. Below is a copy of the letter:

Earlham Lodge, 8/18,1863.
To the President of the United States.
ESTEEMED FRIEND, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Many times, since I was privileged to have an interview with thee nearly a year ago, my mind has turned toward thee with feelings of sincere and Christian interest; and as our friend Isaac Newton offers to be the bearer of a paper messenger, I feel inclined to give thee the assurance of my continued hearty sympathy in all thy heavy burthens and responsibilities, and to express not only my own earnest prayer, but, I believe, the prayer of many thousands whose hearts thou hast gladdened by thy praiseworthy and successful efforts "to burst the bands of wickedness, and let the oppressed go free," that the Almighty Ruler of the universe may strengthen thee to accomplish all the blessed purposes which in the unerring council of His will and wisdom, I do assuredly believe He did design to make thee instrumental in accomplishing when He appointed thee thy present post of vast responsibility, as the Chief Magistrate of this great nation.

Many are the trials incident to such positions, and I verily believe thy conflicts and anxieties have not been few. May the Lord ‘hear thee in this day of trouble, the name of the God of Jacob defend thee, send thee help from his sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion.’ The Lord fulfil thy petitions that are put up in the name of the Prince of Peace, of the increase of whose government and peace there shall never be an end.

I can hardly refrain from expressing my cordial approval of thy late excellent proclamation appointing a day of thanksgiving for the sparing and preserving mercies, which in the tender loving-kindness of our God and Saviour have been so bountifully showered upon us; for though, as a religious people, we do not set apart especial seasons for returning thanks, either for spiritual or temporal blessings, yet, as I humbly trust, our hearts are filled with gratitude to our Almighty Father that His delivering arm of love and power has been so manifestly round about us; and I rejoice in the decided recognition of an all-wise and superintending Providence, which is so marked a feature in the aforesaid document, as well as the immediate influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, which perhaps never in any previous state paper has been so fully
recognized before.

Especially did my inmost heart respond to thy desire "that the angry feeling which has so long sustained this needless and cruel war may be subdued, and the hearts of the insurgents changed, and the whole nation be led through paths of repentance and submission to the divine will, back to the perfect enjoyment of union and fraternal peace." May the Lord in his infinite compassion hasten the day.

I will not occupy thy time unduly, but, in a feeling of true Christian sympathy and Gospel love, commend thee and thy wife and your two dear children to the preserving care of the unslumbering Shepherd, who, in his matchless mercy, gave his life for the sheep, who is alone able to keep us from falling, and finally, when done with the unsatisfying things of mutability, to give us an everlasting inheritance among all them that are sanctified through the Eternal Spirit of God.

Respectfully and sincerely, thy assured friend,

During the next year President Lincoln sent to Eliza P. Gurney the following acknowledgment of her visit and letter:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, September 4, 1864.
My Esteemed Friend: I have not forgotten–probably never shall forget–the very impressive occasion when yourself and friends visited me on a Sabbath afternoon two years ago. Nor has your kind letter, written nearly a year later, even been forgotten. In all it has been your purpose to strengthen my reliance upon God. I am much indebted to the good Christian people of the country for their constant prayers and consolations, and to no one of them more than to yourself.

The purposes of the Almighty are perfect and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this, but God knows best and has ruled otherwise. We shall yet acknowledge His wisdom and our own error therein, and meanwhile we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make and no mortal could stay.

Your people, the Friends, have had and are having a very great trial. On principle and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this dilemma some have chosen one horn of the dilemma, and some the other. For those appealing to me
on conscientious grounds I have done, and shall do, what I could and can, in my own conscience under my oath to the law. That you believe this I doubt not, and believing it, I shall still receive for our country and myself your earnest prayers to our Father in Heaven.
Your sincere friend,


  1. It is so odd to imagine a time when Friends weren't just another "interest group!" Thank you so much for sharing this exchange. I must say that Eliza Gurney's commendation of Abraham Lincoln's invocation of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a state document is completely opposed to many modern Friends' liberal sensibilities regarding the separation of church and state. It gives food for thought, as well as a humble satisfaction about Friends' fidelity to the Lord in giving solace even to the highest officeholder in the land.

  2. Thank you for what has been entered here. A glance back at Lincoln reveals a man of light in a time of great darkness. Such times are again upon us, and only those willing to stand in the darkness and let the light shine out, will cause any change. Lincoln carried a great burden and his consciousness that insisted on him dealing with such great oppression of his fellow man, it caused him to drip with melancholy and even today we would consider him "mentally ill." And yet he was no longer able to deny his conscience or the inconvenient truth of his day. Lincoln wasn't the one who was ill, but those who refused to deal with the truth and hid behind any manner of religious distraction or otherwise. What a great man of God and this suffering led him to also realize God was the Savior of the world and there was no one else.