Phoebe Palmer: Mother of the Holiness Revival

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She could have graced a throne, or filled the office of a bishop, or organized and governed a new sect. . . . Whoever promotes holiness in all this country, must build upon the deep-laid foundations of this holy woman,” wrote a leading minister upon the death in 1874 of Phoebe Palmer of New York City. A century later, M. E. Dieter argued in his history of The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century that “the quiet discourse and boundless activity” of Mrs. Palmer “became the major impetus in setting off a world wide [holiness] movement.”

 

Phoebe Palmer was born in New York City on December 18, 1807, into a family steeped in Methodist spirituality. Her father, an Englishman from Yorkshire, had been converted in his native country in the latter phases of the Wesleyan Revival, and rich family piety shaped Phoebe’s early social environment. Religiously inclined since childhood, she knelt with husband Walter C. Palmer, a physician, during the Allen Street Methodist Church revival of 1832, pledging her life to the promotion of holiness. In 1835 Sarah Lankford, Phoebe Palmer’s sister, united the women’s prayer meetings of Allen Street and Mulberry Street Methodist churches. Two years later, Phoebe testified to the sanctifying grace and afterward emerged as the leader of the prayer meeting, now known as the Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness and held in the parlor of the Palmers’ home. In 1839, men were admitted to the Tuesday Meetings, and Mrs. Palmer’s circle widened to include Methodist bishops, theologians, and ministers, as well as lay men and women. Soon the cradle of renewal gently rocked all of American Methodism.

 

The path from prayer meeting to pulpit was gradual but sure. In the 1840s, Phoebe and Walter Palmer began an itinerant ministry that took them from churches to camp meetings and conferences throughout the Northeast. Conventional and inordinately modest, Phoebe Palmer insisted that her talks were not “sermons”; she styled them, rather, as “exhortations.” Simply put, she preached. Drawn into his wife’s expanding network of activity, Walter Palmer periodically put aside his medical practice to travel and assist her ministry. In time, he also gained repute as a lay preacher, though his fame never exceeded that of his wife’s.

 

Phoebe Palmer played a major role in the holiness movement’s expansion to national and international scope. Her impact was increased by her writing and editing. Her articles appeared in Methodist organs such as the Christian Advocate and Journal, and books from her hand appeared after 1843. Among the leading ones: The Way of Holiness (1843), Faith and Its Effects (1848), and Promise of the Father (1859). Publications extended her influence into Southern as well as Northern states and into Canada, where the Palmers ministered personally in 1857. In 1859, the couple assumed a transatlantic role as the British Isles became the scene of their labors for the next four years. Upon their return to the United States, they purchased the Guide to Holiness, the leading American journal of the higher Christian life, and Phoebe was its editor from 1864 until her death a decade later. The immense popularity of the Guide to Holiness during her tenure as editor greatly stimulated the rise of the broader Wesleyan-Holiness press.

 

Her broad influence was exerted in still other ways: through the New York Female Assistance Society for the Relief and Religious Instruction of the Sick Poor, of which she was the corresponding secretary from 1847–57; through the Methodist Ladies’ Home Missionary Society, in which she was active; and on a host of influential people including Frances Willard, leader in late-19th century temperance reform; Englishwoman Catherine Booth, cofounder (with husband William) of the Salvation Army; and on the circle of Methodist ministers, including Rev. John S. Inskip, who founded the National (now Christian) Holiness Association in 1867. To her, more than any other personality of her century, the holiness movement owes its existence.

 

Three of Phoebe Palmer’s children died in infancy; she raised the other three to adulthood. But all who have received Christian nurture in Wesleyan-Holiness churches are her heirs and grandchildren in the faith.

 

Ingersol, S., Nazarene Roots; Phoebe Palmer: mother of the holiness revival. Herald of Holiness, 11.

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