Palmer, Phoebe Worrall

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PALMER, Phoebe Worrall

Born 18 December 1807, New York, New York; died 2 November 1874, New York, New York

Daughter of Henry and Dorothea Wade Worrall; married Walter C. Palmer, 1827; children: six, three who died in infancy

Author and evangelist of the "Holiness" movement, Phoebe Palmer was the fourth of 10 children of an American Methodist mother and an English father. In 1827 Palmer married a doctor and fellow Methodist; both were lifelong New Yorkers. The Palmers had six children, only three of whom survived infancy.

In the 1840s Palmer distributed tracts in the slums and regularly visited the Tombs, the legendary New York prison. For 11 years she was corresponding secretary of the New York Female Assistance Society for the Relief and Religious Instruction of the Sick Poor. Palmer's most lasting contribution was the founding of the Five Points Mission in 1850 in the city's worst slum. Supported by the Methodist Ladies' Home Missionary Society, it was the forerunner of later settlement houses.

Palmer's sister Sarah Worrall Lankford (1806-1896, who became the second wife of Walter Palmer in 1876) experienced "entire sanctification" in 1835. Though the experience was one testified to by many early Methodists in response to John Wesley's teachings on Christian perfection, it had not been stressed by American Methodists. In August 1835, Sarah founded the Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness, which met in the home the Palmers and Lankfords shared. This weekly meeting for prayer, Scripture reading, and testimony, which continued for more than 60 years, was widely copied and became the catalyst for the "Holiness" or "Lay" revival of 1857-58, which eventually led to the formation of such holiness denominations as the Church of the Nazarene and such Pentecostal groups as the Assemblies of God.

Palmer testified to the same experience in 1837. Her writing and speaking, as well as her leadership in the Tuesday Meeting, soon made Palmer the more prominent sister. For six months each year "Dr. and Mrs. Phoebe Palmer" spoke in churches and camp meetings throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada. In 1859 they took the revival to the British Isles. Magazine reports on this trip were published as a book, Four Years in the Old World in 1865.

Palmer was also a frequent contributor to the Guide to Christian Perfection, founded in Boston in 1839. Rechristened the Guide to Holiness in 1843, it was merged with the Beauty of Holiness when the Palmers purchased both in 1864. Palmer became editor, a post she held until her death. Palmer's series of articles, "Fragments from My Portfolio," were collected as Faith and Its Effects in 1849.

Revivalist Charles G. Finney and his colleague at Oberlin College, President Asa Mahan, began in 1836 and 1837 to develop what came to be known as "Oberlin Perfectionism." Finney had transformed the old Puritan notion of religious conversion as an agonizing process contingent on divine election into a simple decision of human free will, an act, and an event. Palmer transformed Wesley's idea of perfection as a lifelong process into an act and an experience. In response to a Presbyterian elder's question as to whether "there is not a shorter way of getting into the way of holiness?" Palmer replied in the Christian Advocate and Journal, "THERE IS A SHORTER WAY!" Her articles became her most famous work, The Way of Holiness (1843). Palmer begins with the premise that "God requires present holiness." Using Finney's logic that God would not command something people cannot do, Palmer declares a person must consecrate all to God. (For 80 descriptions of this by ministers who have experienced it, see Palmer's Pioneer Experiences,1868.) Using rather dubious biblical exegesis, Palmer termed this "laying all upon the altar." She declared the altar was Christ and "whatever touched the altar became holy, virtually the Lord's property, sanctified to His use." Since God has declared this to be true, any person who consecrates everything to God can simply claim sanctification and testify to it publicly, whether or not he or she receives any inner confirmation from the Holy Spirit (as Wesley taught) or has any emotional experience. A person simply claims holiness on the basis of faith in God's promise.

Palmer's other significant work was Promise of the Father (1859), in which she argued from Scripture, church history, and biographical example for the right of women to preach. Although Palmer never considered herself a "woman's rights" advocate or sought ordination for her own ministry, she strongly supported the right and even Christian duty of women to publicly testify to their religious experience and to become full-time preachers if they felt it to be God's call.

Palmer's understanding of holiness, despite her very controversial "altar terminology," transformed the notion from one of process to one of experience. The movement Palmer helped give birth to left a lasting impact on American religious culture. Palmer's defense of women's ministry was the first of many in the holiness-Pentecostal tradition, which led such churches to ordain women more than 50 years before "mainline" Protestantism.

Other Works:

Present to My Christian Friend on Entire Devotion to God (1853). The Useful Disciple; or, A Narrative of Mrs. Mary Gardner (1853). Incidental Illustrations of the Economy of Salvation (1855). A Mother's Gift (1875).


Dayton, D. W., Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (1976). Hughes, G., The Beloved Physician, Walter C. Palmer, M.D. (1884). Hughes, G., Fragrant Memories of the Tuesday Meeting (1886). Peters, J. L., Christian Perfection and American Methodism (1956). Roche, J., The Life of Mrs. Sarah A. Lankford Palmer (1898). Smith, T., Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth Century America (1957). Wheatley, R., The Life and Letters of Mrs. Phoebe Palmer (1876).

Reference works:

NAW (1971).


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Palmer, Phoebe Worrall

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