PHOEBE PALMER TIMELINE
1807 (December 18): Phoebe Worrall was born in New York City to Dorothea Wade Worrall and Henry Worrall.
1827 (September 28): Phoebe Worrall married Walter Palmer.
1836 (February 9): The first Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness met at the Palmer home.
1837 (July 26): Phoebe Palmer experienced holiness.
1838: Phoebe Palmer began speaking at camp meetings.
1839: Phoebe Palmer became the first woman to lead a Methodist class composed of both men and women in New York City.
1840: Phoebe Palmer assumed the leadership of the Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness.
1840: Phoebe Palmer began traveling to surrounding states to preach at revivals and camp meetings.
1843: Phoebe Palmer published The Way of Holiness with Notes by the Way: Being a Narrative of Religious Experiences Resulting from a Determination to Be a Bible Christian.
1845: Phoebe Palmer published Entire Devotion to God.
1848: Phoebe Palmer published Faith and Its Effects.
1850: Phoebe Palmer played a prominent role in establishing the Five Points Mission in New York City.
1853: Phoebe Palmer traveled to Canada to preach at her first camp meeting there.
1857: Phoebe Palmer conducted a revival in Hamilton, Ontario.
1859: Phoebe Palmer published The Promise of the Father; or, A Neglected Specialty of the Last Days.
1859–1863: Walter Palmer traveled with Phoebe Palmer to conduct revival services throughout the British Isles.
1864: The Palmers bought Guide to Holiness magazine and Phoebe Palmer became editor.
1866: Phoebe Palmer published Four Years in the Old World: Comprising the Travels, Incidents, and Evangelistic Labors of Dr. and Mrs. Walter Palmer in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
1866–1870: Phoebe Palmer extended her ministry by holding services throughout the United States and Canada.
1874 (November 2): Phoebe Palmer died.
Phoebe Worrall [Image at right] was born into a devout Methodist household on December 18, 1807. Her family lived in New York City, which became her lifetime home. Due to regular church attendance and family devotions, Phoebe was religious from an early age and was never able to pinpoint the exact moment of her conversion. She married Walter Palmer on September 28, 1827. They had six children, three of whom lived to adulthood. The Palmers were active laypeople in the Methodist Episcopal Church and participated in numerous charitable activities. Both taught Sunday school classes. In 1839, Phoebe Palmer became the first woman to lead a class of both women and men in New York City.
Between 1827 and 1837, Phoebe sought the experience of holiness, which is the second work of grace following conversion, which is the first work of grace. John Wesley (1703–1791), the founder of Methodism, promoted holiness as an experience where Christians became “dead unto sin” and pure within. Those who had experienced holiness manifested God’s love in their hearts. Palmer attributed her protracted ten-year quest for holiness to the fact that she was never able to affirm the witness of the Holy Spirit, which Wesley had maintained was the basis for claiming holiness. Partly based on her own experience, Palmer developed a “shorter way” to holiness, which involved consecration and faith followed by testimony. She also incorporated a redefinition of the witness of the Holy Spirit. Following her “shorter way,” Palmer dated her experience of holiness to July 26, 1837.
In the midst of Phoebe Palmer’s search for holiness her sister, Sarah Worrall Lankford, had been instrumental in establishing the Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness in 1836, which evolved from Methodist women’s prayer meetings. The Tuesday Meeting was held in the home that the Palmers and the Lankfords shared. When the Lankfords moved in 1840, Palmer replaced Sarah as leader of the Tuesday Meeting. She continued in this role for the rest of her life whenever she was in New York City. The Palmers moved twice to larger homes to accommodate the crowds, which often exceeded 300 people. Initially restricted to Methodist women, the meeting grew into a multi-denominational gathering that included men.
Palmer initiated her public ministry in 1839. By the next year, she was traveling to surrounding states preaching at revivals in
churches and at camp meetings [Image at right], which generally were held outdoors in more rural areas. The content of her sermons was the same regardless of the location. Palmer did not ignore the goal of bringing sinners to Christ through sermons, which was historically the focus of revivals, but her emphasis was on holiness. By 1853 her schedule included Canada. Her labors there in 1857 resulted in more than 2,000 conversions and hundreds of Christians who claimed the baptism of the Holy Ghost or holiness (Palmer 1859:259). Her ministry there contributed to the general Prayer Revival of 1857–1858, which resulted in more than 2,000,000 converts in the United States and the British Isles. Between 1859 and 1863, Palmer preached at fifty-nine locations throughout the British Isles (White 1986:241–42). At one meeting in Sunderland, 3,000 attended her services held over a period of twenty-nine days, with some people turned away. She reported 2,000 seekers there, including approximately 200 who experienced holiness under her preaching (Wheatley 1881:355, 356). Between 1866 and 1870 she held services throughout the United States and eastern Canada (Raser 1987:69–70). At a camp meeting in Goderich, Canada in 1868, about 6,000 gathered to hear her preach (Wheatley 1881:445, 415). Palmer continued to accept preaching engagements until shortly before her death. Overall, she preached before hundreds of thousands of people at more than 300 camp meetings and revivals.
Palmer’s husband was supportive of Phoebe Palmer’s ministry from the outset and he was not troubled by her greater reputation. Walter Palmer gave up his medical practice in 1859 to travel with her full-time. He often assisted in services by reading Scripture and commenting on the text.
Palmer authored numerous articles and several books that concentrated on her theology of holiness. She wrote from her own experience and included examples from the experiences of others. Her books included Entire Devotion to God (1845) and Faith and Its Effects (1848). The Palmers purchased Guide to Holiness magazine in 1848 and Phoebe edited it from then until her death in 1874. It reached a considerable circulation of approximately 40,000 (Raser 1987:3).
As a Methodist layperson, Phoebe Palmer affirmed the theology of her denomination. She did not offer an elaboration of Methodist doctrines other than holiness, which was the focus of her writing and preaching ministry. Palmer utilized numerous synonyms for holiness, such as sanctification, full salvation, promise of the Father, entire consecration, and perfect love. Her first book, The Way of Holiness with Notes by the Way (1843), [Image at right] was her spiritual autobiography that provided a roadmap for achieving holiness. Based on her own pursuit of holiness she explained a “shorter way,” which consisted of three steps: consecration, followed by faith, and then testimony.
Entire consecration required that the seeker after holiness symbolically sacrifice everything to God, including possessions and relationships, on the altar, which she identified as Christ. She drew on Matthew 23:19 (“the altar sanctified the gift,” KJV) and Exodus 29:37 (“Whatsoever toucheth the altar shall be holy,” KJV) to validate this conviction. “Altar” phraseology became associated with Phoebe Palmer and is her “best-known contribution” (White 1986:22).
The second step on the way of holiness was faith. According to Palmer, since the Bible promised that God would receive the sacrifice that had been laid symbolically on the altar, the seeker’s responsibility was to accept holiness by faith. Palmer emphasized that this act was “taking God at His word” (Palmer 1843, 28), which resulted immediately in holiness. Recounting her own experience in the third person, Phoebe Palmer reported that as soon as she expressed faith in God’s ability to make her holy, “The Lord…led her astonished soul directly into the ‘way of holiness’” (Palmer 1843:22). Further, relying on her experience, Palmer declared that an emotional confirmation of the witness of the Holy Spirit did not have to accompany the act of faith. Lack of emotion had been a barrier that had prevented her from claiming holiness during her extended pursuit. While most advocates of holiness, following John Wesley, spoke of the witness of the Holy Spirit that verified the act of holiness, Palmer claimed that this was unnecessary. Palmer taught that seekers should rely instead on God’s promise as recorded in the Bible: “He that believeth, hath the witness in himself” (quoting from I John 5:10, Palmer 1848:152). According to Palmer, God imparts holiness instantaneously following the act of faith.
The third step on the way of holiness was testimony. Palmer maintained that sanctified individuals must publicly declare that they had experienced holiness or risk losing it. This requirement thrust many women into speaking at mixed gatherings of women and men, which was highly unusual at the time.
The “shorter way” reflects the Arminian theology of Wesleyanism. Illustrating the Arminian affirmation of free will, Palmer encouraged individuals to pursue holiness actively by laying their all on the altar. Consecration was a human action. Palmer referred to herself and others as co-workers with God. God consecrated the offering and acknowledged the seeker’s faith by imparting holiness. Neither God nor humans acted alone.
While focusing on the “shorter way” as the means of achieving holiness, Palmer also affirmed Wesley’s understanding of the consequences of obtaining holiness. Holiness removed inbred sin, which is the sinful nature that persists despite conversion. Being dead unto sin resulted in a clean heart or inward purity. Palmer and most other holiness adherents also advocated outward purity. Palmer shunned worldly behavior, which included anything that would hinder entire consecration to God. Attending plays or reading novels qualified as worldly activities that should be avoided. Drinking alcoholic beverages constituted worldliness as well. Palmer also opposed wearing jewelry or fashionable clothing.
The emphasis on love as an expression of holiness also had a dual dimension. While love of God was utmost, Palmer and other holiness believers engaged in activities that exhibited God’s love to those around them. This expression of social Christianity motivated by God’s love has become known as social holiness. It reflected Palmer’s emphasis on the responsibility of holiness adherents to be useful. Her ministry in the slums of New York City modeled social holiness. A notable example was her prominent role in founding the Five Points Mission in 1850 in lower Manhattan where the worst slums in New York City converged. Committed to addressing both the spiritual and physical needs of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, the Mission became one of the first settlement houses in the United States with a chapel, schoolrooms, and housing for twenty families (Raser 1987, 217).
Palmer also associated power with the experience of holiness, stating succinctly that “holiness is power” (Palmer 1859:206). She acquired her understanding of empowerment from the account of Pentecost in Acts 1–2 of the Bible. Palmer’s emphasis on power contributed to her affirmation of women preachers since at Pentecost the power of the Holy Spirit fell on both men and women and they began preaching in the streets of Jerusalem. Palmer justified her own ministry and affirmed the calling of other women preachers in her book, The Promise of the Father; or, a Neglected Specialty of the Last Days (1859). Her comprehensive argument extended to 421 pages. She derived her title from Jesus’ admonition to his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father (Acts 1:4–5, 8). The fulfillment of the promise was the baptism of the Holy Spirit and its accompanying power. Palmer maintained that the power displayed at Pentecost was not restricted to the first Christians, but was available to subsequent generations of Christians through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, another term she used to indicate the experience of holiness. Palmer referenced this supernatural power by incorporating other synonyms, such as the gift of power, baptism of fire, and Pentecostal flame, throughout Promise of the Father.
Palmer reminded her readers frequently that the preaching at Pentecost was a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in the Hebrew Bible. Joel had declared God’s promise: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28, KJV). Utilizing other Bible verses, she established that “prophesying” was a synonym for “preaching.” She addressed the two passages in the Bible (1 Cor. 14:34 and 1 Tim. 2:11–12) that opponents used to try to prohibit women from preaching and quickly dismissed them, illustrating their irrelevance to the argument against women preachers. She countered with numerous verses that condoned women’s preaching and listed women mentioned in the Bible who engaged in public ministry. She concluded there was no biblical basis for excluding women from ministry. She sprinkled quotations throughout Promise of the Father from prominent Christian scholars and clergy who agreed with her. She devoted a significant portion of the book to providing examples of women throughout history who were preachers. This included contemporaries of John Wesley. He had gradually come to the conclusion that he should affirm and encourage women to preach. His decision was based primarily on pragmatic grounds, because listeners responded to the preaching of women. Palmer never extended her argument to include women’s ordination. The Methodist Episcopal Church, along with most other denominations, refused to ordain women at the time. She relied on prophetic authority bestowed by the Holy Spirit rather than priestly authority conferred by ecclesiastical credentials at ordination. She invoked Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than man,” to cement her case (Palmer 1859:160, 359). Prophetic authority superseded human jurisdiction.
The Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness was Palmer’s signature religious activity. It was informal in nature, but there were several expectations. Even though clergy and bishops were often in attendance, they were not permitted to lead or monopolize the meetings. An unusual characteristic of these meetings was that women spoke even when men began to attend. In that time period, women generally were expected to remain silent both in religious gatherings or any other public places where both men and women were present. The format of the Tuesday Meeting consisted of introductory comments, singing, prayer, and a short comment on a Bible passage. Participants shared their testimonies of holiness for the majority of the time. Near the conclusion of the meeting, others who came in search of holiness were often given the opportunity to pray, following Palmer’s shorter way in their efforts to experience holiness.
Scholars agree that Palmer played a primary role in popularizing the doctrine of holiness during the nineteenth century. Thousands responded to her plea to seek salvation or holiness. Her writings spread the theology of holiness far beyond her physical presence. The Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness was so popular that more than 300 similar gatherings had been established around the world by the end of the nineteenth century.
Palmer has been called the mother of the Wesleyan/Holiness movement whose defining doctrine is holiness. Her distinctive means of achieving holiness became the standard for Wesleyan/Holiness groups and denominations such as the Free Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene, and the Church of God (Anderson, IN). While some individuals left the Methodist Episcopal Church, believing it had abandoned the doctrine of holiness, Palmer never advocated separating from it. One prominent Wesleyan/Holiness organization was the National Campmeeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness founded in 1867. While Palmer was not a leader of the group, it was her theology of holiness that defined it.
Palmer’s example inspired women to follow in her footsteps and become preachers. One of the most prominent examples was Catherine Mumford Booth, who co-founded The Salvation Army. Opposition that Palmer faced while preaching in England motivated Booth to publish Female Ministry in 1859 and to begin her own ministry. Most Wesleyan/Holiness churches carried Palmer’s argument for women’s public lay ministry to the next step and ordained hundreds of women during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Palmer’s own denomination, then known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, did not grant full ordination to women until 1956.
Palmer faced opposition to her preaching because she was a woman, but she did not dwell on personal challenges to her ministry based on her sex. She never discussed her decision not to seek ordination, but, more than likely, she realized her request would be denied and her opportunities for lay ministry would have been curtailed as a result of her application.
Several critics, up to the present, have attempted to make the case that Palmer opposed even the preaching of laywomen. They quote her comment, “preach we do not,” without considering the following phrase, “that is, not in a technical sense,” which she defined as “dividing and subdividing with metaphysical hair-splittings in theology” (Wheatley 1881:614). It was a specific style of preaching that she rejected for women. Instead, Palmer engaged in narrative preaching in which she shared her religious experience and the experiences of others. Promise of the Father, as well as her evangelistic work, further undermine the false perception that Palmer sought to prohibit women from preaching.
Contemporaries also debate the extent of Palmer’s feminism. Those arguing against her feminism do not take into account all of her statements. Palmer did admit that she did not write Promise of the Father to promote women’s rights. But, while she claimed to condone the nineteenth-century constrictions of “woman’s sphere,” her affirmation of women preachers stretched its boundaries. She also expanded her argument to allow for exceptions in that she maintained that women could sometimes hold leadership positions in government (Palmer 1859:1–2).
The primary challenge that Palmer faced was criticism of her doctrine of holiness, which began during her lifetime and persists to this day. Opponents focused on her explanation of the means of holiness (the ”shorter way”) rather than on her understanding of holiness itself. Her detractors claimed that some of her views deviated from John Wesley’s theology, maintaining that she incorporated unique elements into her theology of holiness. Palmer claimed that her beliefs were biblical and that they corresponded with Wesley’s theology. She would have been more accurate had she expanded her list of those who influenced her to include Hester Ann Rogers (1756–1794) and John Fletcher (1729–1785), Wesley’s colleagues who also contributed to her theology. By taking this broader perspective, everything that Palmer advocated had already been expressed by Methodist predecessors.
Palmer’s opponents challenged several components of her theology, including her emphasis on altar terminology, her use of Pentecostal language, and her understanding of the witness of the Spirit. Wesley did not incorporate the altar into his theology of holiness. While many contend that Palmer’s use of the altar to symbolize consecration is her unique contribution to holiness doctrine, Palmer discovered this concept in Rogers’ writings and popularized Rogers’ altar theology. Palmer’s incorporation of Pentecost as a model for holiness and adoption of Pentecostal language such as “baptism of the Holy Spirit” can be traced to both Rogers and Fletcher. Likewise, these two individuals deviated from Wesley’s theology of the witness of the Spirit. According to Wesley, one needed to wait for the internal confirmation by the Holy Spirit with its accompanying emotion before claiming the experience of holiness. Contrary to Wesley, however, Rogers and Fletcher claimed emotion was not always present when holiness occurred, but took place when the seeker demonstrated faith in the biblical promise of holiness. There was no need to wait, hence the name “shorter way.” While Phoebe Palmer’s detractors have been correct in pointing out her departures from Wesley, they erred in assuming these innovations were original to her.
Image #1: Photograph of Phoebe Palmer, evangelist and author, who often is referred to as the mother of the Wesleyan/Holiness movement.
Image #2: Drawing of a typical Methodist camp meeting. Image taken from Wikimedia at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page.
Image #3: Photograph of the cover of The Way of Holiness with Notes by the Way. Image taken from the Open Library at https://openlibrary.org/.
Image #4: Sketch of the Five Points Mission House.
Palmer, Phoebe. 1865. Four Years in the Old World: Comprising the Travels, Incidents, and Evangelistic Labors of Dr. and Mrs. Walter Palmer in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. New York: Foster and Palmer, Jr.
Palmer, Phoebe. 1859. The Promise of the Father; or, A Neglected Specialty of the Last Days. Facsimile edition. Salem, OH: Schmul, n.d.
Palmer, Phoebe. 1848. Faith and Its Effects: or Fragments from My Portfolio. Facsimile edition. Salem, OH: Schmul, 1999.
Palmer, Phoebe. 1845. Entire Devotion to God. Originally published as Present to My Christian Friend on Entire Devotion to God. Facsimile edition. Salem, OH: Schmul, 1979.
Palmer, Phoebe. 1843. The Way of Holiness with Notes by the Way: Being a Narrative of Religious Experience Resulting from a Determination to Be a Bible Christian. Facsimile edition. Salem, OH: Schmul, 1988.
Raser, Harold E. 1987. Phoebe Palmer: Her Life and Thought. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.
Stanley, Susie C. 2002. Holy Boldness: Women Preachers’ Autobiographies and the Sanctified Self. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Wheatley, Richard. 1881. The Life and Letters of Mrs. Phoebe Palmer. Facsimile edition. New York: Garland, 1984.
White, Charles Edward. 1986. The Beauty of Holiness: Phoebe Palmer as Theologian, Revivalist, Feminist, and Humanitarian. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press of Zondervan Publishing House.
6 April 2016