Lincoln, Hay, and the “Church of the Presidents”

Just across from the White House on Lafayette Square, St. John’s Episcopal Church is often referred to as the “Church of the Presidents.”  Beginning with James Madison, every sitting president has attended services there — and there is a tradition that the incoming president attends a service just before going to the Capitol to be inaugurated.  Pew 54, about seven from the front oddly enough, is designated as the “President’s Pew.”

The very last pew in the back is “Lincoln’s Pew.”  It is documented that President Abraham Lincoln would walk over from the White House for evening services periodically.  He would unobtrusively slip into the church, pray silently, and then go back to the White House — or often the telegraph office next door for the latest war news.

Directly across from St. John’s church is the Hay-Adams hotel.  But during the Civil War that location was filled with several townhouses, two of which were later owned by John Hay and Henry Adams (thus the name).  Adams was a descendant of the line of presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams.  Hay came from more humble beginnings, but he was an up-and-coming lawyer in Springfield, Illinois when he met an up-and-coming politician named Lincoln.  Later, Hay and his friend John Nicolay (whom Lincoln referred to as his “boys” — they were both in their twenties) became Lincoln’s presidential secretaries — the entire White House staff!  Nicolay and Hay’s ten-volume biography of Lincoln is a key element of our memory of that president.  Hay later became Secretary of State under McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt.

Here are pictures of St. John’s church, the presidential pew, Lincoln’s pew,  John Hay as an older man, and a description within the Hay-Adams hotel of its history.

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Author: geneofva

Author of "Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era," and of the upcoming "Lincoln, Antietam, and a Northern Lost Cause."

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