Notable Visitors: Eliza Paul Kirkbride Gurney (1801-1881)

English-born widow of Quaker leader Joseph John Gurney, Eliza Paul Kirkbride Gurney visited President Lincoln in 1862 and subsequently corresponded with him.

Eliza P. Gurney visited the White House on October 26 1862 – in the company of three other Quakers – John M. Whithall, Hannah B. Mott, and James Carey. There was a driving rain outside the Executive Mansion, but the reception in the White House was warm. It was remarked that “Deep thoughtfulness and intense anxiety marked his countenance, and created involuntary sympathy for him in this great national crisis.” It took more than two days to obtain an interview with the President. Their visit was a time of prayer and silent meditation which apparently charmed President Lincoln. Before offering a prayer for divine guidance for the President, Mrs. Gurney reported told him:

I can truly say it is not from any motive of idle curiosity that I have requested this interview. I come in the love of the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, - that blessed gospel which breathes glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and good will to men. In common with the members of my own Society, - may I not say in common with every true-hearted citizen of the United States? - my spirit has been introduced into near sympathy with our Chief Magistrate in the heavy weight of responsibility that rests upon him; believing, as I do, that in the faithful discharge of his various and important duties he does endeavor to preserve a conscience void of offense toward God and man. And earnestly have I desired that when weighted with cares and anxieties he may commit his way unto the Lord, that he may be careful for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, he may let his requests be made known unto God; and then, whatever the trials and perplexities he may have to pass through, the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, will keep his heart and mind, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In common with thousands and tens of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic, my heart has rejoiced in the noble effort which our honored President has made to keep the true fast, - the fast which the Lord hath chosen, to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burthens, to let the oppressed go free; and I assuredly believe that for this magnanimous deed the children yet unborn will rise up and call him blessed in the name of the Lord. But trials and persecutions are the lot of all who endeavor to maintain a just weight and a just balance, and who desire to be found walking in the path of uprightness. Then how sweet is the assurance to the Christian believer that God is his refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. There is a river the streams whereof make glad the whole heritage of God. And seeing how difficult it is to accomplish that which we wish, and how vain is the help of man, I have earnestly desired that the President might repair day by day, and oftener than the day, to this river of God, which is full of water, even to the well-spring of Eternal Life, that thus his spirit may be strengthened and refreshed, and be fitted for the right performance of his various and arduous duties; and by the grace of God he may be made an instrument in hastening the coming of that glorious day when the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ, and He shall rule and reign forever and for evermore; when swords shall be beaten into pruning-hooks, when nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation, nor the people learn war any more. What a glorious transition would be witnessed here, from a scene of desolation and sorrow and suffering to one of. peace and joy and love! The wilderness would become as Eden, the desert as the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness would be found therein, thanksgiving and the voice of melody. And now, my dear friend, if so I may be permitted to call thee, may the Lord bless thee and keep thee, lift up the light of His glorious countenance upon .thee, and give thee peace! How precious is the assurance, contained in the blessed book of Divine inspiration, that they that dwell in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty! He shall cover them with His feathers, and under His wings shall they trust. His truth shall be their shield and buckler. A thousand may fall at their side, and ten thousand at their right hand, but it shall not come nigh them, because they have made the Lord their refuge, even the Most High their habitation; there shall no evil befall them, neither shall any plague come nigh their dwelling.

May this be thy blessed experience! May our Father in heaven guide thee by His own unerring counsel through the remaining difficulties of thy wilderness journey, bestow upon thee a double portion of that wisdom which cometh down from above, and, finally, when thou shalt have served thy generation according to the will of God, through the fullness of His atoning, pardoning love and mercy in Jesus Christ our Lord, receive thy ransomed spirit into that rest which remaineth for the people of God, unite it to the glorious company of victors whom the apostle saw standing on the sea of glass mingled with fire, having the harps of God in their hands ! And they sang the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb, saying, "Great and marvelous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty, just and true are all Thy ways, thou King of saints. Who shall not fear before Thee and glorify Thy name, for Thou only art holy!1
After Gurney prayed, the President responded: “I am glad of this interview. In the very responsible situation in which I am placed, as an humble instrument in the hands of my heavenly Father, I have desired that all my words and actions may be in accordance with His will; but if, after endeavoring to do my best with the light which He affords me, I find my efforts fail, then I must believe that, for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been; but, nevertheless, it came. If I had had my way, the war would have ended before this; but, nevertheless, it still continues. We must conclude that He permits it for some wise purpose, though we may not be able to comprehend it; for we cannot but believe that He who made the world still governs it. I repeat that I am glad of this interview.”2

One of Gurney’s companions wrote: “It was a time not soon to be forgotten; the deep solemnity, the almost awful silence reigned within that room formed, as thou wilt believe, a striking contrast to the fearful scene of strife and carnage that was enacted, almost within sight, just on the other bank of the Potomac. And then to see the tears run down the cheeks of our honored President as E. P. Gurney solemnly addressed him. I cannot possibly describe the impressive scene. When prayer was offered, he reverently bowed his head, and certainly evinced deep feeling. When we rose to go, he very kindly took leave of us all, and, retaining E. P. Gurney’s hand, he made a beautiful response to what had been previously said.”3

President Lincoln followed up with a letter on October 26: “I am glad of this interview, and glad to know that I have your sympathy and prayers. We are indeed going through a great trial – a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid – but if after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that he who made the world still governs it.”4

Political Scientist Joseph Fornieri wrote: “The rare personal tone of this correspondence suggests that Lincoln was sincerely moved by Gurney. Perhaps it was the nondoctrinal character of her Quaker faith, or perhaps it was her humble effort to serve the president in his time of anguish. Many of the religious figures in Lincoln’s time came to the White House not for spiritual consolation, as did Gurney, but to further their own political agenda. Since the Quakers were conscientious objectors, Gurney could make no partisan demands on Lincoln as a member of the war coalition.”5

Mrs. Gurney wrote President Lincoln on August 8, 1863 at the request of a fellow Quaker, Agriculture Commissioner Isaac Newton: “Many times, since I was privileged to have an interview with thee, nearly a year ago, my mind has turned towards thee with feelings of sincere and christian interest, and, as our kind friend Isaac Newton offers to be the bearer of a paper messenger, I feel inclined to give the assurance of my continued hearty sympathy in all thy heavy burtherns 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 effort ‘to burst the bands of wickedness, and let the oppressed go free’ that the Almighty...may strengthen thee to accomplish all the blessed purposes, which, in the unerring counsel 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...’6

Lincoln scholar Joseph Fornieri wrote: “Lincoln’s correspondence with Gurney reveals him reaching out to divine grace for assistance through his terrible time of trial. Rather than attempting to rely upon his own resources to overcome adversity, Lincoln acknowledged his reliance on God. 6” In September 1864, President Lincoln replied to Mrs. Gurney: “I have not forgotten – probably never shall forget – the very impressive occasion when yourself and friends visited me on a Sabbath forenoon two years ago. Nor has your kind letter, written nearly a year later, ever been forgotten. In all, it has been your purpose to strengthen my reliance on 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. 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.”7


Footnotes

    1. Eliza Paul (Kirkbride) Gurney, Memoir and Correspondence of Eliza P. Gurney, p. 309-312.
    2. Eliza Paul (Kirkbride) Gurney, Memoir and Correspondence of Eliza P. Gurney, pp. 312-313.
    3. Eliza Paul (Kirkbride) Gurney, Memoir and Correspondence of Eliza P. Gurney, p. 309.
    4. CWAL, Volume V, p. 478 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Eliza P. Gurney, October 26, 1862).
    5. Joseph Fornieri, Abraham Lincoln’s Political Faith, p. 62.
    6. Joseph Fornieri, Abraham Lincoln’s Political Faith, p. 63.
    7. CWAL, Volume VII, pp. 535-536 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Eliza P. Gurney September 4, 1864).

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