— Phoebe Palmer
Phoebe Palmer is often called the “mother of the holiness movement.” Her influence on the holiness movement was profound — and continued long after her original writings were forgotten. Her emphasis was on (1.) entire consecration to God, (2.) naked faith in God’s promise (“the altar sanctifies the gift”), and (3.) public witness. This was Palmer’s “Shorter Way” to Christian holiness — a teaching that made the idea of entire sanctification accessible to the masses — for years and years, long after her death.
She was a spiritual mentor to many — including Congregationalist scholar and mental philosopher Thomas C. Upham — whose spiritual writings are featured elsewhere on this web site.
Phoebe Palmer remains a controversial figure to this day. Some claim that her teaching produced a shift in the Wesleyan movement: the crisis moment of consecration and faith came to be emphasized in a way that overshadowed the actual lived-out results of sanctifying faith — or, to say it another way: holiness became more of a crisis and less of a quest. Over time, the camp-meeting altar rail came to replace the class meeting, with its structures of support and accountability. Palmer also insisted on separation from the forms, fashions, and entertainments of the times — seeing these as the essence of worldliness — something that could damn the soul to Hell.
However, in spite of all this, there has also been a strong desire among many to re-discover and re-appropriate her teaching and example for our day. See: The Beauty of Holiness: Phoebe Palmer As Theologian, Revivalist, Feminist, and Humanitarian (1986) by Charles Edward White; and, Naked Faith: The Mystical Theology of Phoebe Palmer (2009) by Elaine A. Heath.
Phoebe Palmer was one of the most outspoken nineteenth century advocates of the woman's right to preach. In this respect, she has been a model for many others in the years that followed.
For those interested in a little more biographical information on Phoebe Palmer, Margaret Mowczko has posted a nice write-up at her blog: Phoebe Palmer: The Mother of the Holiness Movement.
This small collection of her writings will allow you to interact with her teachings first hand. Bear in mind that Phoebe Palmer was not a preacher or a theologian — she thought of herself, at best, as an exhorter. But, she writes from her heart, and with a sincere desire to glorify God with all her life.
- The Way of Holiness, with Notes on the Way (1843, 1849). Palmer writes about her own spiritual quest to truly be a “Bible Christian.” She discusses what she means by the “Shorter Way” to Christian holiness. Bishop L. L. Hamline wrote of this book: “We earnestly commend this little volume to all who hunger and thirst after righteousness.”
- Entire Devotion to God (14th edition, 1857). Written as a gift to a friend, Palmer outlines what she means by holiness and entire sanctification. Chapter 15 contains a sample Altar Covenant prayer.
- Faith and It’s Effects (1850). This book is a collection of Phoebe Palmer’s letters — including letters of spiritual advice and of personal experience — written to various people identified only by their initials. There are 55 letters in all.
- The Promise of the Father (1859). This is a spirited defense of women in ministry. While Palmer does not deal specifically with the issue of ordination, as such, she strongly defends the woman’s right (and responsibility) to preach. Charles Edward White says: "Ranging from Justin Martyr to Queen Victoria, [she] defended her thesis by appealing to Hebrew and Greek etymology, the Old and New Testaments, the church fathers, the example of female leaders in early Methodism, and the evident blessing of God upon women’s ministries in her own day." She argues that since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, both women and men have been given the privilege — and duty — of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. Students of Methodist history will discover many fascinating accounts of women who were leaders in the early Methodist movement. Chapter 12 is very long — and includes an account of the Tuesday afternoon meetings for the promotion of Christian holiness. The book is filled with stories and letters. All in all, this is the most interesting of all Phoebe Palmer's writings.
For those unfamiliar with the huge impact Phoebe Palmer’s teaching and ministry had on Methodism and the holiness movement, this essay from Methodist History magazine in 1997 should serve as a good introduction:
- Posthumous Pilgrimage of Phoebe Palmer by Charles Edwin Jones. “The historians and feminists, who during the last four decades in ever-increasing numbers have been drawn to this modest woman, have uncovered factors behind many facets of her remarkable life and ministry. The purpose of the present inquiry is to uncover dynamics behind the even more striking impact of her ideas and methods on the Methodist-Holiness movement in the three-quarter of a century following her death. Her anonymity as the originator of popular beliefs and practices, it will be shown, exempted her from criticism as their author.”
In the following video, Dr. Jo Anne Lyon sits down with Mark Benjamin to discuss the stories of three women from the Wesleyan tradition that had deep impact on our movement. Mentioned in the video are Phoebe Palmer, Catherine Booth, and Amanda Smith.