Phoebe Palmer – Revivalist and Social Activist

Verse: Galatians 3:28

Quote: “Male and female were now one in Jesus Christ. The Spirit now descended alike on all. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak as the Spirit gave utterance. . . .”

Remembered as the mother of the Holiness Movement, Phoebe Palmer (1807 – 1874) was a teacher, evangelist, and writer who strongly promoted Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection. She was also a leading social activist and an early feminist who maintained that women could minister equally alongside men. Born in New York City to devoted Methodists, she was immersed in the faith from infancy. Her father, a prosperous engineer, often recalled how he had sneaked away as a child from his Anglican home in Yorkshire, England, to hear the aged John Wesley preach. “Ye must be born again” was the message that marked his conversion.

At nineteen, Phoebe married Walter Palmer, a homeopathic physician who shared her commitment to Methodism. In the following years she mourned the deaths of her little ones, convinced that God was taking them to teach her a lesson. “God takes our treasure to heaven, that our hearts may be there also,” she penned in her diary. “The Lord has declared himself a jealous God. . . . After my loved ones were snatched away, I saw that I had concentrated my time and attentions far too exclusively, to the neglect of the religious activities demanded.”

Religious activities became Phoebe’s priority in the following decades, activities marked by her experience of entire sanctification. Such perfectionism was still an important theme in Methodism, though many ministers, finding it impossible to live out, had abandoned the doctrine. But several years into their marriage both Phoebe and Walter claimed the experience of “perfect love.” At the same time, Phoebe’s sister, Sarah Lankford, was hosting Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness. In attendance were both women and men, including prominent Methodist leaders. Phoebe joined Sarah, and so popular was her teaching that she received invitations to speak at camp meetings and other venues. She left her surviving children behind with Walter and a maid, though he later joined her part time. “Never have we witnessed such triumphs of the cross as during the past summer and fall,” she reported in 1857. “Not less than two thousand have been gathered into the fold. . . . Hundreds of believers have been sanctified wholly, and hundreds have received baptism of the Holy Ghost, beyond any former experienced.”

Her ministry corresponded with the Prayer Revival of 1857 – 58 that began inauspiciously when Jeremiah C. Lamphier, a lay minister serving at a declining Dutch Reformed church, posted fliers for a weekly noonday prayer meeting near New York City’s financial district. With six in attendance at the first meeting, it spread across the city and across the county, spurred in part by the events of October 14, 1857, when Wall Street was suddenly in the throes of a crushing financial panic.

In addition to her revival ministry, Palmer established the Five Points Mission in New York that offered housing, health care, and education to needy families. Often the brunt of criticism for pushing the boundaries of women’s roles, she responded with Promise of the Father (1859), defending women in ministry. Earlier she had written:

Last night I wrote, as the caption of an article I intend to write . . . “has the spirit of prophecy fallen on woman? . . . The promise of the Father has either been fulfilled, or has not . . . ‘And it shall come to pass, after those days, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.’ ” And did one of that waiting company wait in vain? . . . Male and female were now one in Jesus Christ. The Spirit now descended alike on all. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak as the Spirit gave utterance. . . .

Palmer left behind no organized movement but her teachings paved the way for the later Holiness and Pentecostal movements. Her daughter, Phoebe Knapp, wrote many hymn tunes, including the familiar tune for Fanny Crosby’s popular hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”

Bible Gateway

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