Palmer, Phoebe Worrall (1807–1874)

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Palmer, Phoebe Worrall (1807–1874)

American evangelist and author. Born on December 18, 1807, in New York City; died on November 2, 1874, in New York City; daughter of Henry Worrall (an owner of a machine shop and iron foundry) and Dorothea Wade; married Walter Clark Palmer (a physician), on September 28, 1827; children: Alexander and Samuel (both died in infancy).

Began conducting popular Methodist revival meetings in New York City (c. 1835); published the first of eight books promoting the perfectionist movement (1845); edited the movement's principal journal, Guide to Holiness (1862–74).

Selected writings:

The Way of Holiness (1845); Entire Devotion (1845); Faith and Its Effects (1846); Incidental Illustrations of the Economy of Salvation (1852); Promises of the Father (1859); Four Years in the Old World (1867); Pioneer Experiences (1868).

Born in New York City into a strict Methodist family with nine other children, at age 19 Phoebe Worrall Palmer married Walter Palmer, a young homeopathic physician. She planned to raise her own family in the Methodist tradition, but tragedy struck early when both of her sons died shortly after birth. Palmer and her husband reached back to their religious roots, and interpreted the deaths as a sign from God that they were meant to dedicate their lives to religious service. In 1832, at a revival meeting at New York City's Allen Street Methodist Episcopal Church, the Palmers publicly committed themselves to a lifetime of support of the growing revivalist movement in American Methodism.

Palmer had honed her literary skills early, writing poems by age ten and participating daily in family worship. She soon realized her ability to reach others when preaching the gospel, and assumed leadership of a weekly afternoon prayer group for women shortly after it was founded in 1835 by her sister Sarah Lankford . The Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness routinely included scripture reading, singing, prayers, and personal testimony. Palmer and the group embraced the search for complete sanctification in conformance with the doctrine of Christian perfection. While it had been a tenet of Methodism since the religion's founding by John Wesley in the mid-16th century, perfection had been more or less ignored by American Methodists in the first years of the 1800s. By the 1830s, the notion (that God could free a believer of both inward and outward sin, and thus grant the believer some share of holiness, or perfection) was gaining broad popularity, and what would come to be known as the Holiness movement was underway. Palmer's residence, the site of prayer meetings for 37 years, became the inspirational center of the perfectionist movement's growth, directly influencing prominent Methodist leaders. This influence continued blossoming as attendance steadily increased, and by 1856 had become evangelical, attracting followers from other denominations. During this period, Palmer began writing a series of books championing the perfectionist movement. The first, 1845's The Way of Holiness, apparently sold 24,000 copies over six years. In 1862, after her husband purchased the movement's principal journal, Guide to Holiness, to which Palmer had been a frequent contributor, she became its editor. She would hold the post for the rest of her life, during which time the journal's circulation rose to 30,000.

Active in tending to the poor and imprisoned, Palmer served as secretary of the New York Female Assistance Society for the Relief and Religious Instruction of the Sick Poor from 1847 to 1858. In 1850, through the Methodist Ladies' Home Missionary Society, she founded the Five Points Mission to care for the indigent in a seedy inner-city section of New York. Also around 1850, the Palmers began traveling to promote the perfectionist doctrine, first leading holiness revivals in the eastern United States and Canada, and then throughout the rest of the country. In 1859, they traveled to England, where they influenced thousands during a four-year stay. Her 1867 book Four Years in the Old World relates their experiences. After returning to New York City, Palmer and her husband continued their revivalist work, primarily under the auspices of the National Association for the Promotion of Holiness, until her death in 1874.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Richard C. C. , freelance writer, Eugene, Oregon

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