Mention Phoebe Palmer to a group of Christians and usually several people will say, “Phoebe who?” Ms. Palmer converted literally thousands of people in America and Europe and is considered by some the most influential woman in the Methodist church in America in the 1800s (White 2), but she is frequently forgotten.
Born to Christian parents, Henry and Dorothea Worrall, on December 18, 1807 in New York City, she was raised to be a God-fearing Methodist and was taught her catechism by the well- known Methodist leader Nathan Bangs (White 3). She married Dr. Walter Palmer in 1827, and her life seemed destined for raising children and attending church.
Their first two children died in infancy and Ms. Palmer was struck down with intense grief. How could this have happened to her? How could her babies have died? Where was God in all of this? “Phoebe came to believe that her affection for her children had displaced her love for God, and that the time she had spent needlessly fussing over them should have been devoted to the Lord’s service” (White 6). She and her husband, Dr. Palmer, became involved in a revival in their home church, and Phoebe searched for a satisfying spiritual life but found no answer. A third and fourth child were born healthy, but the fourth child died following a tragic accident. The loss of that fourth child brought Phoebe to her knees spiritually. She vowed “to trust God’s goodness and love” from that moment on (White 8).
Ms. Palmer’s commitment to evangelism, her veritable passion for souls was born with that vow to trust.
A passion for souls! The passion for service to the Lord which was born out of deep grief was the mark which distinguished Phoebe Palmer’s life from the lives of so many other Christians. Visiting in horrible areas of New York, she went from house to house, or hovel to hovel, seeking the lost and lonely. In one area of New York, the famous Charles Dickens visited to observe, but only while accompanied by two strong policemen. It was just too dangerous to go with only one policeman. But Phoebe Palmer went into that same area totally alone! She had souls to seek out, and acts of mercy to do (White 63).
Seeing the terrible conditions in New York City, she realized that for a person to respond to God, they needed food, clothing, and a warm place to sleep. An entire ministry called the Five Points Mission was founded with the help of Ms. Palmer, and it was one of the forerunners of the settlement houses which were to spring up in large cities.
Every person was important to Ms. Palmer. Lack of money or position meant nothing to her as she sought souls for the kingdom. In fact she was even known to pay a person to attend church! She met a woman who wanted to come to services but was unable to because of money. She did piecework, and the money she lost while at church would have taken food away from her children. Ms. Palmer paid her the amount she would have lost, and the woman attended services.
The Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness for which Ms. Palmer was famous in her day, was actually started by her sister Sarah. Sarah led her to seek entire sanctification and influenced her to attend the beginning sessions of the Tuesday Meeting. As Ms. Palmer attended and began to speak to those present, the power of her exhortations was evident, and the group grew from a few people to hundreds. Twice she and her husband added room onto their home to provide for the numbers who wanted to attend. Bishops, pastors, laypeople, and professors attended these meetings, and no one left without a blessing. Ministers of many denominations attended because they were seeking the “second blessing” of which Ms. Palmer spoke, but they did not feel they could attend another church. With the meetings held in a home, they were safe to attend without criticism.
Holiness of heart and life was the central theme of her ministry, and her teachings caused quite a stir within the Methodist Episcopal Church. Her experience of sanctification included putting everything in a person’s life on the altar and consecrating it to God. When this had been done, the person accepted on faith in the Word of God that she was indeed sanctified—entirely sanctified. The consecrating of everything in a person’s life was the important step. She had even written out a covenant which appeared in her book Entire Devotion so that other would have a guide to use. The covenant helped persons to review all of their life and not omit any aspect when committing everything to God.
As a revivalist, Ms. Palmer stands almost without equal. She was a prodigious speaker and converted thousand in America and England. For thirty-five years she traveled and preached every summer at camp meetings in America and England and was a major figure in the camp meeting movement. The revivals of Finney and others had flooded the churches with new Christians, and Ms. Palmer brought a unique contribution to the movement—her emphasis on holiness.
Many of the new converts responded to Ms. Palmer’s teaching because the church was not offering any alternative. They had been converted but left “still-born Christians.” Ms. Palmer brought them a next step which would help them to grow in their Christian life. She emphasized the work of the laity in soul-saving, and wherever she went, she organized the laity to minister to each other in much the same manner as Wesley’s classes. Much fruit was born in the groups she left in her wake.
In a day when most women remained at home and served God by serving a family, Phoebe Palmer had a unique message. She wrote a book entitled Promise of the Father in which she lifted up the responsibility of women for ministry which had come with Pentecost. Believing firmly that women were called exhort and preach, she encouraged women to keep God’s will the top priority in their lives. She loved her family and cared for them, but she was highly efficient and did not waste time on needless extra fussing on their behalf. She instructed other women to hire help if possible, and at the very least to keep housework to a minimum in order to allow for serving God in every moment possible. Both of the Palmer’s surviving children grew up to be deeply committed Christians which attests to the quality of time which was given them. In this day, when women struggle over their priorities in a busy world, Ms. Palmer has a message for us. Serving Christ is to be our top priority, be it as a minister of the Word, Sunday school teacher, or trustee.
Flory, B. (Fall, 1989). A passion for souls! Holiness Digest.