Phoebe Worrall Palmer (1807-1874) was an evangelist and religious writer involved with the "Holiness" movement. Raised as a Methodist, Palmer became one of the most influential female religious leaders in the latter part of the nineteenth century. At a time when most evangelists were men, Palmer converted thousands of people in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Europe, and she did much to advance the role of women in religion.
Phoebe Worrall Palmer was born in New York City on December 18, 1807, one of two daughters of Henry Worrall and Dorothea Blanche Wade. Her father was born in Yorkshire, England, and came to America in his early 20s. Her mother was born in America.
Palmer and her sister Sarah were raised in a strict religious household. Their parents were active members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. They instilled in their children strict Methodist values and they conducted twice-daily in-house family worship services. Palmer received catechism lessons from Nathan Bangs, a well-known Methodist leader. Palmer was a pious child, and by the time she was 11 she was writing religious material that expressed her strong commitment to Jesus, including a poem she wrote inside her copy of the New Testament that read: "This revelation—holy, just, and true/Though oft I read, it seems forever new/While light from heaven upon its pages rest/I feel its power, and with it I am blessed."
Palmer was 19 when she married Dr. Walter Palmer, a respected homeopathic physician. They would have four children, but only one survived past infancy. That child, Phoebe Knapp, became a well-known religious composer.
As husband and wife, the Palmers shared deep religious convictions, they were both involved in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and they were both raised in strict Methodist homes. Like his wife's parents, Dr. Palmer's parents, Miles and Deborah Clarke Palmer, were committed Methodists. For years, they held "class meetings" in their home, a Methodist practice that was started by John Wesley in 1742 and later taken up by Walter and Phoebe Palmer as their religious commitment deepened.
At the outset of the marriage, it appeared that Palmer's life would be centered around the church and raising a family. However, great personal tragedy profoundly influenced the direction her life would take. Indeed, her strong religiosity and subsequent evangelism appear to be, in great part, a reaction to intense grief and overwhelming guilt. In the first ten years of their marriage, the Palmers lost three of their four children. Rather than embittering her and turning her away from religion, the deaths caused Palmer to lean more heavily on her Methodist faith. The tragedies caused her to question her motives and the strength of her religious convictions. She wondered if her love for her children diminished her faith and devotion to God.
Her first two children died soon after they were born. The first, a son named Alexander, was born the day after the Palmers celebrated their first wedding anniversary in September 1828 and died nine months later. Palmer had delayed the child's baptism so she could finish sewing his special baptismal outfit. After her child died, she feared that God had judged her negatively because she had spent so much time on the clothing rather than proceeding with the ritual. Her second child, another son, was born in 1830. Palmer first looked upon the birth as a blessing, believing that God was replacing her first child. But the child lived only seven weeks. Again, she believed the loss resulted from her lack of devotion. Essentially, this was God's way of punishing her, she felt. Her response was to increase her religious pursuits. Thus, she and her husband became more actively involved in their home church. This was part of Palmer's efforts to achieve a more spiritually satisfying life— a search that, at first, left her unfulfilled.
The Palmers had two more children. The first of these survived, but the fourth was killed in 1835 when gauze curtains near the cradle accidentally caught fire. That child's death caused Palmer to resign herself totally to God.
While the deaths of her three children and Palmer's emotional and spiritual response certainly contributed to her eventual evangelism, there were other motivating factors. Starting well before her marriage, Palmer endured a protracted spiritual struggle as she wrestled with the Methodist belief that an individual's spiritual conversion should be a highly emotional and powerful experience. Such a conversion would lead to an individual's "Christian Perfection," a Methodist tenet that referred to purity of heart resulting from a cleansing by the blood of Christ. Yet Palmer felt her own conversion had been more low-key and gradual. In fact, she could point to no single defining moment of conversion, and this caused her to question her standing in the eyes of God and the promise of her salvation. In other words, she feared she was unworthy of heaven.
The significant step toward the resolution of her spiritual struggle—as well as toward her emergence as an important female religious figure—occurred when Palmer's sister, Sarah Lankford, came to live with her in 1831. Lankford, who had experienced the required emotional Methodist conversion, helped Palmer understand that belief in God was enough to assure her salvation. This understanding formed the basis of the "Holiness" doctrine that Palmer would later preach. By 1837, Palmer was able to claim that her devotion to God and her freedom from sin was complete.
Lankford also inspired her sister to assume more of a leadership role in Methodist prayer meetings for women. Beginning in 1835, Palmer conducted regular women's prayer meetings at her home. These meetings would become a major part of the "Holiness movement toward Christian perfection." At first, Lankford led these Tuesday "meetings for the promotion of holiness." Palmer took them over only after her sister moved away. From that point, Palmer became a pivotal figure in the movement, basing her teachings on her own experiences on the path to "Christian perfection." Her basic message was that people should place every part of themselves on the altar of God to ensure that they would become perfect in love and, thus, holy. Attendance at the meetings grew from a small group to hundreds, forcing Palmer and her husband to build extra rooms.
By 1839, the meetings became open to evangelicals of both sexes. Soon, the meetings attracted people from other religious demoninations. Attendees included bishops and pastors as well as professors and laypeople.
As her influence grew, Palmer expanded her activities to include "protracted meetings," another established Methodist practice that had been introduced by revivalist Charles Finney. By this time, Palmer had become a skillful and articulate speaker, and the protracted meetings provided her with a forum where she began her preaching. With her husband, she soon began preaching at Methodist camp meetings and Holiness revivals in other parts of the country. By 1850, the couple traveled throughout the eastern United States and Canada, preaching at camp meetings and other venues.
Palmer became a regular contributor to the Guide to Holiness, the leading publication of the perfectionist movement. She also wrote several books including The Way of Holiness (1843), her best-known book and the one that established her as a leader of the perfectionist movement. She also wrote Entire Devotion to God (1845) and Faith and its Effects (1848).
In 1847, she refined and further developed the concept of "altar theology," which explained the idea of the "second blessing," or immediate sanctification. As a basis for this concept, she drew on the Apostle Paul, who had advanced the idea of placing oneself as a "living sacrifice" on the altar of God to represent complete consecration. This "altar theology" simplified sanctification into a three-step process that included consecration, faith, and testimony. This concept, as well as her central theme of holiness of heart and life, gained popularity with Methodists, but it was not widely accepted in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Opponents challenged her, finding her theology less sound than that of church founder John Wesley. Even Bangs, who taught Palmer her catechism when she was a child, disagreed with her. He complained that she was turning sanctification into a simplistic and mechanical process.
In 1850 she headed the Methodist Ladies' Home Missionary Society and established a mission in the squalid Five Points neighborhood in New York City. The mission grew out of her belief that holiness was best demonstrated by human service. It also stemmed from her conviction that people needed food, clothing, and shelter to be able to best respond to God. Palmer administered care for the sick and needy within the dangerous slum. She also worked as a corresponding secretary for the New York Female Assistance Society for the Relief and Religious Instruction of the Sick Poor. As far as social issues were concerned, Palmer was a moderate in her stance, but she spoke out against slavery and alcohol, and she advocated more freedom for women in church and society.
By the end of the 1850s, Palmer had reached the high point of her preaching career, as both men and women viewed her as a leader. She not only brought the sexes together in worship, she also advanced the role of female preachers. She had become a prominent religious figure at a time when very few women rose to positions of power in America. Other women involved in leadership roles performed their services in their homes. Palmer was one of the few who took her message on the road and in the process became the recognized spokesperson for the Holiness movement.
Part of her success was attributable to her power as a speaker. She converted thousands of people in the United States, and by the end of the decade she and her husband were preaching in England as well. But she also happened to be in the right place at the right time. Many of her converts had been seeking an alternative to the message of the traditional church. Also, at this point in American history, the revivalist or evangelical approach to religion perfectly suited the temper of the times and the "Manifest Destiny" vision of the United States.
By 1862, Palmer's husband bought the Guide to Holiness, the leading publication of the Holiness movement, and Palmer became the publication's editor, a position she held for the rest of her life. In 1865, she wrote Four Years in the Old World, a book that chronicled her experiences in England.
After the Civil War, she served as a leader of the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness. Also, the international reach of her mission extended beyond Canada and Great Britain and into other areas in Europe. In 1867, she and her husband established the National Association for the Promotion of Holiness, which encompassed much of her evangelical work. She also continued holding her Tuesday meetings right up until she died in New York City on November 2, 1874. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. After her death, the new editors of the Guide to Holiness continued printing previously unpublished articles she had written as well as some of her letters and diary entries.
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