PHOEBE PALMER – MOTHER OF THE HOLINESS MOVEMENT

Hello All! Today I want to share with you a little about a woman you may know nothing about; I think I may have mentioned her a time or two in a blog post. Today’s post is taken from a paper I wrote a few years ago about this truly fascinating woman of faith. Enjoy!

Until next time!

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Very seldom will one have an opportunity to get to know an individual who mirrors the life of Jesus and the Apostle Paul in any manner most would consider significant. Such a human example is basically non-existent in the church today. Devotion to Christ is a dream aspiration for many; a dream so lofty many feel it unobtainable. Have no fear; history presents us with one example of devotion to Christ and all things holy. The race she ran was completely focused and dependent on God. Her life was so full of Christian service that it is hard to condense her story to just a few pages. The following is a brief explanation of the life of one Phoebe Palmer, the mother of the holiness movement.

Henry Worrall, the thirteen year old son of devout members of the Church of England, had a desire to be born again. Believing the Methodists held the key to what he needed, he found times to slip away and hear the teachings of John Wesley. He first heard Wesley speak one early English morning of 1785, and he continued to attend Wesley’s meetings for years afterward. He eventually joined the society and sailed for America a few years later where he met and married Dorothea Wade.

The Worrall’s had sixteen children whom they raised to be “God-fearing Methodists.” There was a set time of family worship every morning and evening. No one was allowed to be late or miss this time of prayer, scripture, and song. They brought their children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and as a result they were favored with children who professed faith in Christ at an early age. The fourth Worrall child would become the most significant American Methodist woman of her day.

Phoebe Worrall was born December 18, 1807 in New York City New York. She had ten brothers and five sisters, one of whom, Sarah, she would later work closely with in ministry. As a child Phoebe possessed a spiritual awareness that might be deemed atypical for someone so young. The meticulous lengths she took to assure right actions often brought about teasing from her siblings. For example, early on she took means to avoid telling a lie, by never giving a definite yes in reply to a question; she would say “I think so”. She was obedient to her parents, and “regarded the expressed wishes of her parents as binding upon her conduct as a direct command.” This is evident even in how she dealt with young men. She refused to encourage the attentions of any young man whom her parents did not overtly like. Phoebe Worrall gave her life to Christ as a child and seemed to have always possessed a desire to be like Christ. 

There is not much known about her education; however, there is evidence that she had a talent for writing as a child. Inside a New Testament she was given at the age of eleven she penned the following poem, which not only speaks to her education but also sheds light on the heart she had for God at a young age:

This Revelation-holy, just, and true-

Though oft I read, it seems forever new;

While light from heaven upon its pages rest,

I feel its power, and with it I am blest.

Within its leaves it grace divine displays,

Makes known the Almighty’s will, in various ways;

Justice, it speaks, to those who heaven defy,

And with ungracious lips its truths deny.

‘Tis here the wearied one, in sin’s rough road,

May find the path mark’d out that leads to God,

And when oppressed by earth, all here may find

Sweet promises of peace to cheer the mind

To this blest treasure, O my soul, attend,

Here find a firm and everlasting friend-

A friend in all life’s varied changes sure,

Which shall to all eternity endure.

Henceforth, I take thee as my future guide,

Let naught from thee my youthful heart divide

And then, if late or early death be mine,

All will be well, since I, O Lord, am thine!

Marriage and Family

When she was eighteen years old Phoebe met a young Physician named Walter C. Palmer. Having made a vow not to encourage attentions of young men whose affections she could not return, Phoebe writes that Walter Palmer is “in every respect, worthy of my love.” On November 24, 1827 Walter C. Palmer and Phoebe Worrall were married in her father’s home. Walter and Phoebe Palmer had six children, but only three lived. Her first 2 sons died after only a short time on the earth. Phoebe Palmer felt they were both taken away because her love for them had taken the place of her love for God. Although many would strongly disagree, Phoebe Palmer believed her babies had become idols and God took them away. The Palmer’s had a third baby, a girl, who was a healthy baby. However, her fourth baby, a daughter, died from severe burns caused by the bad judgment of a nursemaid. While Walter and Phoebe were blessed with three healthy surviving children, it was after the death of her daughter that her life began to take a noticeable shift.

As she writes in her diary about occasions both joyous and heart wrenching, she takes time to express her anguish over her “lack of religious experience.” Early on in her life Phoebe Palmer felt her spiritual life left something to be desired. She trusted God as a child but, when comparing herself to others, she was left unsure of her salvation. She desired the emotional experiences that others often talked about. Not too long after her marriage to Walter Palmer, God began to open her eyes, and use circumstances in her life to lead her to the spiritual assurance she had sought for so long.

Finding the Pearl of Great Price

In April of 1832, the Palmers attended a revival at their home church, The Allen Street Methodist Episcopal Church. The Revival started out as a four day meeting that happily turned into a forty day revival. While at the meeting, Phoebe Palmer was “quickened in the divine life and trust that I have since been living nearer to the Lord.” Although she did realize some benefit to her spirit man, Phoebe Palmer was still disheartened at her lack. Her husband, who experienced a greater – life altering – blessing at the meeting, began devoting so much energy to the Lord’s work that Phoebe feared it would drive him to his grave. Throughout her diary entries during this period Phoebe continues to stress her lack of faith and courage. Most assuredly her husband’s experience of sanctification worked to further increase the desire for this experience in her own life, as would the experience of her sister just a short while after.

Phoebe and her family shared a home with her older sister, Sarah Lankford, and her husband. Sarah consecrated her life entirely to God on May 21, 1835 and received the baptism of the Holy Ghost seven days later. The change in her life was evident in her devotion to greater service for the Lord. It was after this experience that the Tuesday Meeting was born. The first Tuesday meeting, a prayer meeting for women held in the Palmer/Lankford home, was held in February of 1836.

Phoebe Palmer, who had long desired a more profound spiritual experience, had not experienced sanctification yet so her response to the Tuesday meetings did not match that of her sister. Sarah was not put off by this; she just decided to fast and pray on Phoebe’s behalf. Soon after, in answer to Sarah’s prayers, Phoebe started on a journey to change her thinking. Being led of God to examine herself according to His Word, Phoebe renewed her vow to the Lord and determined to believe God’s Word no matter what her emotions said. Long being one to measure herself by the experiences of others, she was made to realize that God’s way for her was different. He didn’t manifest Himself to her via overpowering emotion, but through the Spirit’s quiet voice, speaking through the unadulterated Word of God.

As weeks passed she began to take further steps in her walk with the Lord. In 1837 she made her decision to become a Bible Christian. At the time she believed sanctification was almost too lofty a goal for her to reach, so she determined to fully conform to God’s will and stop looking at the experience of others. The Bible would be her measuring stick, the standard for both her natural and spiritual life. She was determined to set her will aside for the will of the Father. Her goal to have a heart that was totally pure was made public at a Tuesday meeting. With Bible in hand and a prayer in her heart she continued to walk with God, asking Him to reveal anything hindering her goal of heart purity. As the Lord revealed the issues of her heart she gave them up one by one. She held nothing back from God; she even dedicated her husband completely to Him. When the same doubts of whether or not God accepted her sacrifice arose she determined to believe God’s written Word as much as she would believe it if He’d spoken it to her face to face. After she determined to believe God she determined to praise God, although she did not feel overpowering emotion to do so. As she praised God she experienced the emotional joy of sanctification and she determined to make a public confession of what God had done for her in her home on July 26, 1837; her “day of days.” The effects of entire sanctification in Phoebe Palmers life would be evident until the day she died.

She became revivalist, humanitarian, and even made advancements on behalf of women. For years she longed for the emotional experiences of others, but God had another path for her to walk. The journey she traveled made it possible for her to lead others to complete sanctification by the “shorter way.” She was able to take what she had learned through years of struggle and anguish and help others make it to Christ without becoming stuck in the same potholes God had pulled her out of. It is through her struggles that she learned the way to God was not hard and need not be a long arduous task. Her experiences, tears, and sufferings of heart and soul formed her into the powerhouse for the Lord that she was. It is out of these experiences she became the mother of the holiness movement. 

Experiences with the Lord on her journey to sanctification shaped her theological views, revival methods, humanitarian efforts, and her ideas concerning the place of women. She used the knowledge she gained through her fight to give herself totally to God to help bring many to a place of their own personal joy in the Lord both in America and abroad.

Theological Views

              Phoebe Palmer did not consider herself a theologian. She felt she had been a victim of “theological hairsplitting and technicalities” that kept her from experiencing the Biblical assurance she sought for so long. Since her goal was to bring others into the light of truth, Phoebe preferred to leave the tedious path of theology and focus her teaching on the simplicity of Scripture. Time was a precious commodity and she did not waste it on perplexing deliberations, opting instead to give witness to the Truth.

Phoebe Palmer’s main concern was the life of a Christian. For her, the subjects of significance were entire sanctification, the Christian church, spirituality, and the doctrine concerning the soul after death and judgment. For Phoebe Palmer the Bible was the road map of her spiritual walk with God. She taught that the Word of God was the only perfect standard by which all opinions must be tested.

Greatly influenced by men and women such as John Wesley, John Fletcher, Hester Rogers, and Adam Clark, Phoebe Palmer taught entire sanctification as the second work of grace. Taking the ideas of these men and women of God, Phoebe Palmer made important modifications to the doctrine of holiness. Phoebe believed, as John Wesley did, that God completely washes the heart of believers from sin and overflows it with His love. If one does not have this purity, holiness, of heart they will not enter heaven. She believed that God required holiness and provides, in response to an individual’s faith, the ability to achieve it. Phoebe took the beliefs of her strongest religious influences, Wesley and Fletcher, and modified the teaching of holiness by pairing entire sanctification with the baptism of the Holy Ghost. She continued on to further develop the ideas of Adam Clark by connecting holiness with power. She differed with Wesley by accepting the fact that the elements of sanctification need not wait. She believed, as Adam Clarke did, sanctification was instantaneous and did not require prolonged waiting to achieve. She also taught that entire sanctification was the beginning of the Christian’s life, and the only evidence one needed to be sure they were entirely sanctified was the Holy Scriptures.

For those seeking total sanctification to the Lord, Phoebe Palmer presented the Shorter way; entire consecration to the Lord, faith in God and His Word, and testimony. Believers must turn everything over to Christ (put their all on the altar of sacrifice) and leave no sin unrepentant sin. They need to have faith, believing God honored their sacrifice, and then testify publicly about God’s work of sanctification in their lives. This last step was so important that Mrs. Palmer taught that refusing to testify prevents entire sanctification. She also warned believers that they would not hold on to their blessing of sanctification if they did not confess it publicly.

Her belief in the importance and duty of all believers to speak for the Lord was a major part of her beliefs on the role of women in the church. Phoebe Palmer did not push for the pulpit of men; however, she did believe that every believer had a responsibility to spread the Word of God. Women were not to be silenced in the church for they had an important voice, one given to them by God that they might praise him, spread the gospel, and encourage those of the household of faith. Her book, “The Promise of the Father”, helped many see the purpose of God for women in the church. 

Phoebe Palmer took God at His Word and cleared the path of sanctification, making it accessible to all who desired to travel upon it. She became a revivalist, traveling to and fro preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, the duty of every believer to be entirely sanctified, and how to achieve that sanctification.

Revivalist

          As the Palmer children grew older their parents devoted more time to ministry. Walter and Phoebe Palmer worked together in getting the gospel out to all God allowed them to reach. They taught Bible classes, held prayer meetings, and attended camp meetings and fellowship suppers in their area. Phoebe Palmer embarked on her mission of revivalist when she attended the Tuesday meeting started by her sister. Phoebe Palmer soon took over the leadership of this women’s prayer meeting and renamed it “The Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness.” This meeting was open to all women seeking holiness, no matter their denomination; after a while the meeting was opened to men. For forty years she hosted thousands of believers and seekers in the parlor of her home. Those who came experienced changed lives and went on to establish similar meetings in their homes. By the year 1887 there were over two hundred “Tuesday Meetings” held in various place across the globe.

          Phoebe traveled with her husband, preaching at over three hundred revivals in North America and Europe. Believing people played in important role in whether or not revival was experienced. If souls were not saved she believed there was sin in the camp. There were occasions when she forced pastors to remove liquor from the church or those who sold it from the congregation so that the work of the Lord would not be hindered. The result of her actions was great revival in the community in which she and her husband preached.

          Phoebe Palmer believed sanctification was the catalyst for revival; therefore she preached holiness. Since many people held no regard for holiness because of the unholy lives of those who professed to be Christians, Phoebe would preach holiness to the church first. Once the church dedicated themselves to entire sanctification they were able to kindle the fires of revival and be effective witnesses to the sin sick masses.

          Phoebe Palmer encouraged evangelism in her revivals. Leading by example, Phoebe was dedicated to winning souls and she encouraged others to do the same. Phoebe would go to areas no one wanted to go and mingle with people others would like to forget. If she saw a need that hindered a person from attending service she would meet the need; she once paid a woman the wages lost while she attended Sunday school. She ran her revivals so that the work would continue after she left by leaving laypeople to work in Christian Vigilance Bands. These bands consisted of small groups of believers dedicated to prayer and service to winning souls to Christ. They also performed follow up with those newly converted in the revival meetings.

          According to Charles White, in his book “The Beauty of Holiness”, Phoebe Palmer contributions as a revivalist were both positive and negative:

…by preaching holiness she helped to balance the relative emphases on justification and on sanctification in the American church. Her second contribution is negative…the way in which she preached entire sanctification tended to devalue the doctrine. Her third contribution…was beneficial…she systematized and organized lay-people to work in urban revival campaigns…

          There were some who took issue with her because of her methods, deeming the way she preached entire sanctification to be a negative contribution. They believed her methods caused many to confess entire sanctification when they had not obtained it, which in turn brought about confusion and tarnished entire sanctification for those who claimed it and those who witnessed their unholy lifestyle. While it is possible this could have been a factor, it is not an accusation laid justly at Phoebe Palmer’s feet. Phoebe Palmer did not encourage false testimony among converts. She did instruct her listeners of the seriousness of making a complete sacrifice of their lives to God. Anyone attending her meetings who claimed sanctification and did not live up to it fit right in with people of their ilk today. There will always be false professors, put in place to be a stumbling block to sincere followers of Christ.

The Author

The story of Phoebe Palmer’s life after being blessed with entire sanctification puts one in mind of the Apostle Paul. She took serious Christ’s command to go and make disciples, and she followed Paul’s example in Philippians 3:14 by seriously pressing towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ. Phoebe Palmer devoted the bulk of her adult life to service for the Lord. Like Paul, she let her words travel where her body was unable to go.

Phoebe Palmer wrote a number of books promoting holiness including “The Way of Holiness” and “Entire Devotion to God.” Phoebe also wrote “Four Years in the Old Country” which explained the revival trip to Europe she took with Walter that turned into a four year stay. She also wrote articles for the Guide to Holiness, a magazine devoted to the promotion of holiness; she and her husband later purchased the publication and she was its editor for eleven years.

Phoebe Palmer was committed to promoting holiness and sanctification in the lives of all who desired it. This is evident in the correspondence she engaged in with seasoned believers, new converts, and seekers. If anyone had a question regarding holiness she would communicate with them until they received the understanding they needed. It is amazing the time she took with so many individuals, many of who she never met or spoke with in person.

The Bible tells us to mark the perfect man and behold the upright. There are some who come to Christ and devote their all to His service. They become jewels of heaven and an inspiration to all who meet them or learn their story. Phoebe Palmer is one such jewel; a significant personality of church history long forgotten by most. Considered the mother of the Holiness Movement, hers is a story of a life that should ever be lifted up as a wonderful example of how to live out ones Christianity. For all who will live a life wholly devoted to Christ, Phoebe Palmer is that perfect [wo]man to mark. After her conversion she devoted every effort to deny herself and follow Christ. Everything in her life, from her children to the clothes on her back, belonged to the Lord. Jesus came to save the lost, and Phoebe Palmer made it her business to make sure every life she touched had the opportunity to hear about and accept His precious gift. A true disciple of Christ, she wholeheartedly believed that hers was to do the work of Him who sent her; a job she took very seriously. She is an example of just how God can use anyone who will surrender their all to Him in love, trust, and obedience. In a world where Holy examples are few and far between, it is a blessing to find this beacon of holiness from time past to light the way.

Phoebe Palmer lived a full Christian life in service to God. She has been credited with leading thousands, both in American and Abroad, to faith and holiness. Looking at all she did in service to Christ would make many tired and discouraged, wondering how she was able to accomplish so much. An explanation for ability to persevere rests solely on the Holy Spirit. Holiness is power, according to Phoebe Palmer and the Word of God. She believed the Lord empowered her to do His will because of her total consecration to Him and devotion to living a holy life. She is a strong example of one who practiced what she preached even unto death. Even in illness she held fast to her faith in God, not once voicing the complaints that would have been expected due to the pain of her illness. On November 2, 1874 Phoebe Palmer, resting in her husband’s arms, was quietly called home to be with her Lord.

Bibliography

Maxey, Duane. How They Entered Canaan.: Holiness Data Ministry, 1994. http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyctr/books/1301-1400/HDM1374.PDF (accessed February 08, 2010).

Palmer, Phoebe. Entire Devotion to God. New York: 1855.

Palmer, Phoebe. Faith and It’s Effects. New York: Palmer & Hughes, 1867.

Palmer, Phoebe. Four Years in the Old World. 14th ed. New York: Foster & Palmer, Jr., 1867.

Palmer, Phoebe. Incidental Illustrations of Salvation: It’s Doctrines and Duties. Boston: Henry V. Degen, 1859.

Palmer, Phoebe. The Way of Holiness: With Notes by the Way. New York: Lane & Scott, 1849.

Palmer, Phoebe. The Promise of the Father. Boston: Henry V. Degen, 1859.

Wheatley, Richard. The Life and Letters of Mrs. Phoebe Palmer. New York: W.C. Palmer, Jr, 1876.

White, Charles. The Beauty of Holiness. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1986.

White, Charles. “Holiness Fire-Starter.” Christian History and Biography, April 1, 2004.

Zondervan, Zondervan. Kjv/Amp Parallel Bible L/P Blk Bnd. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Let’s hear some chatter out there!

Had you ever heard of Phoebe Palmer before reading this blog post?

I can relate to Phoebe Palmer in a number of ways — in regards to her thoughts, feelings, and desires. Can you relate to Phoebe Palmer’s story in any way?

Do you have a believer from days gone by through whose story you find inspiration and encouragement?

4 thoughts on “PHOEBE PALMER – MOTHER OF THE HOLINESS MOVEMENT

  1. Rhonda

    Though I knew of Mrs. Palmer, I still found the retelling of her life story refreshing.

    I needed to hear of a woman of uncompromising faith; mainly because I feel that we followers of Christ will require the same uncompromising faith in the testing to come soon; it actually has begun for many of us around the world.
    I am praying for you. Please remember me.

    R.J.

    1. Hello Rhonda, Thanks for taking time to read and comment on the post. I agree with you! It is important to take a moment to look at the good examples set by those who came before us. Phoebe Palmer is one that, in my opinion, everyone should know about :). You are in my prayers. God bless you!

  2. I’ve never heard of her before this. What an amazing woman! This is such an interesting post about her. I really enjoyed reading this.

    1. She is truly an inspiration and example for all believers, especially women. I am glad you enjoyed the post! Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.
      God bless you!

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