"Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men."

ACTS 5:29
Phoebe Palmer, 1807 - 1874

Barbara A. Howie, Religious Studies 128
West Virginia University

Others looked to her for leadership. She instructed thousands at a time when women were not generally granted positions of leadership or authority in America. Lay activism, a sign of genuine conversion, helped provide justification for a few nineteenth-century women to assume roles as evangelists. Still, on ly a handful of women tested the boundaries to the point of challenging men for the right of becoming professional itinerants. The vast majority of nineteenth century female revivalists confined their revival efforts to their homes and immediate communities.This paper will demonstrate how Phoebe Palmer became the spokesperson for the Wesleyan/Holiness movement, bringing men and women together to worship while defining woman's right to preach. She also redefines sanctification away from a Calvary-based doctrine to one that is centered in Pentecostal themes. Her evangelism was grounded in Methodist tradition, her life experiences and needs of the times.

Palmer simplified John Wesley's doctrine of entire sanctification, modifying it in different ways. She identified entire sanctification with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. She linked holiness with power and taught that entire sanctification is the beginning rather than the ultimate goal of Christian life. To a greater extent than Wesley, Palmer believed that the "second blessing" could be instantaneously acquired. Through her "altar theology" she simplified the achievement of sanctification to a three-step process of entire consecration, faith, and testimony. She taught that one needed no evidence other than Biblical text to be assured of entire sanctification.

Phoebe Palmer was born Phoebe Worrall to Henry and Dorthea Wade Worrall in New York, December 18, 1807. Phoebe's mother was born in America. Her father was British born having emigrated to America in his early twenties. Both parents were active members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City and indoctrinated their children with strict Methodist values. The Worralls conducted twice-daily family worship because they considered "religious conversion and holy living" as priorities for their children.

Phoebe was a pious and precocious child. At age eleven, she wrote a poem on the fly leaf of her New Testament that testifies to her strong religious bent:

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 blessed.

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! 

In 1827, Worrall married Walter Clarke Palmer, a highly-respected physician. Phoebe and Walter were "kindred spirits" in their understanding of religious life and in their commitment to the Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. Dr. Palmer's parents, Miles and Deborah Clarke Palmer, did much to establish and promote the Methodist Church in the city. They hosted "class meetings" in their home for years. Class meetings, started by John Wesley in 1742, became a test of membership in the Methodist Episcopal (M.E.) Church in Great Britain. It originated as a device for paying existing debts. The societies were divided into classes, each class containing twelve or more persons. Each member would pay one penny or more per week as class-money. In the American version of the class meeting each member was assigned to a class and was placed under the direct supervision of a class leader. Weekly, when the class met, each member was called upon to stand up and give of his experience.

The first decade of marriage for Phoebe and Walter was difficult and even tragic. They lost three of their first four children. Prior to this and prior to their marriage, Phoebe was experiencing a prolonged religious struggle tracing back to her childhood. She could not identify a definite conversion experience in the usual Methodist fashion. The problem centered on two areas crucial to Methodist orthodoxy: assurance of one's salvation and "Christian Perfection", a term used by Methodists to denote a state of grace implying purity of heart, or a heart cleansed from sin by the blood of Christ. John Wesley described it as "loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies that no wrong temper, none contrary to love remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, works and actions are governed by pure love." Phoebe had difficulty with the emotional dimension of religious conversion so highly regarded by Methodism. Phoebe's religious pursuit was thwarted by the fact that she had not undergone a "powerful conversion" and consequently had no definite assurance of her standing with God, which was a necessary prerequisite to going on "to perfection," Phoebe never felt as deeply the motions of God in her soul as others did, and as Methodist friends and family members told her she should. 10 

Phoebe's religious pursuit increased, as did her guilt and remorse, with the death of her children. The first child, Alexander, was born one day before the Palmers' first anniversary in September 1828 and perished nine months later. Phoebe felt that, because she had delayed the baptism of this child in part in order to sew some special piece of clothing, God had judged her. Her second child, another son, was born in 1830. At first,she felt that God was making up for her loss of the first child, yet the child survived only seven weeks. In this case she felt it was "preoccupation" with the baby at fault for her "judgment." Phoebe saw these deaths as God's punishment for her lack of total devotion. This is evident when, following the second son's death, she wrote:

I will not attempt to describe the pressure of the last crushing trial. 

Surely I needed it, or it would not have been given.  God takes our 

treasure to heaven, that our hearts may be there also.  The Lord had 

declared himself a jealous God, he will have no other Gods before 

him.  After my loved ones were snatched away, I saw that I had 

concentrated my time and attentions far too exclusively, to the 

neglect of the religious activities demanded.  Though painfully 

learned, yet I trust the lesson has been fully apprehended.  From 

henceforth, Jesus must and shall have the uppermost seat in my 

heart. 11 

In 1831, Phoebe and her husband opened their home to Phoebe's sister, Sarah and Sarah's husband. This is when the resolution of Phoebe's personal religious struggle, under Sarah's guidance , began. She and her sister had similar experiences with religion and in seeking the " deeper work of grace." Sarah had , unlike Phoebe, undergone the required conversion experience in dramatic fashion and could point to a definite time as a child when at a camp meeting she had "burst into tears" and gone "to the altar as a penitent ." Sarah read some pages in The Life of Hester Ann Rogers where the English Meth odist "saint" had written about "reckoning" oneself dead unto sin and becomin g "akin to God." This was Sarah's answer to the Wesleyan belief in a palpable "inward impression on the soul" which she had not experienced. She surmised that the act of believing itself was grounds for assurance. She concluded that she would believe even if she did not experience the "joyous emotion." She declared herself dead to sin and perfected by God without the influence of strong emotion. 12  It is interesting to note that Sarah was the first to declare this doctrine.

Sarah was also the catalyst for Phoebe's involvement in a religious gathering which became a forum for her to develop talents as a religious leader. While the Lankfords (Sarah and her husband) and the Palmers were living together, Sarah was attending two different women's prayer meetings. In 1835 Sarah proposed to combine these into one meeting to be held at the house instead of the Allen Street or Methodist Episcopal Church. These meetings at 2:30 each Tuesday afternoon became known as the "Tuesday Meetings." Phoebe did not actually lead these meetings until after her sister moved to another town. Perhaps her leadership abilities were more learned than natural.

In 1833 a daughter, Sarah, was born and survived. In 1835 a second daughter was born, but Eliza was burned to death in a nursery fire when the gauze curtains surrounding her cradle accidentally caught fire. 13 Following this tragic death, Phoebe wrote:

After the angel spirit winged its way to Paradise, I retire alone, not 

willing that only one should behold my sorrow.  While pacing the 

room, crying to God, amid the tumult of grief, my mind was 

arrested by a gentle whisper, saying, "Your Heavenly Father loves 

you.  He would not permit such a great trial, without intending that 

some great good proportionate in magnitude and weight should 

result.  He means to teach you some great lesson that might not 

otherwise be learned. He doth not willingly grieve or afflict the 

children of men.  If not willingly, then he has some specific design

in this, the  greatest of all the trials you have been called to endure. 

...My darling is in heaven doing an angel service. And now I have

resolved, that the service, or in other words, the time I would have 

devoted to her, shall be spent in work for Jesus.  And if diligent and 

self-sacrificing in carrying out my resolve, the death of this child 

may result in the spiritual life of many

....And now my whole being says, with a strength of purpose 

beyond anything before attained, "MY heart is fixed, O, God, my 

heart is fixed!"14 

In 1837, Palmer declared herself "entirely devoted to God" and, like her sister Sarah, "dead to sin." She set aside the pursuit of religious emotions and "signs and wonders" and placed her confidence in the act of believing the "word of God" recorded in the Bible. 15 

In 1839, Thomas Cogswell Upham, professor of mental and moral Philosophy at Bowdoin College, Brunswick Maine, accompanied by his wife, attended a Tuesday Meeting. Prior to Upham's visit, the meetings had been confined to women only. This was the beginning of mixed-sex meetings. 16 

Though Phoebe Palmer played an significant role in the "blessing "of Thomas Upham and taught the traditional Wesleyan doctrine of two distinct "works of grace", justification and sanctification, Upham took this doctrine one step further. He claimed a third work of grace which annihilates the human will, and produces a holy "indifference". Palmer felt that Upham was too extreme in his treatment of the will. She thought his "death of the will" to be an over-statement and unrealistic in light of her scriptural teaching. Palmer argued that those who thought the life of nature to be extinct, would be more susceptible to the assaults of Satan. The decade of the 1840s was setting groundwork for more active period in the 1850s and 1860s. She wrote and published three major books, The Way of Holiness (1843), Entire Devotion to God (1845), and Faith and its Effects (1848) during this time period. 17 

1850 marks the beginning the most active years of Palmer's career. A major development for her during the '50's was the addition of points in Canada. The years 1857 and 1858 mark the zenith in Palmer's career, and in American evangelical religious life in general. .. The Tuesday Meeting, and Phoebe Palmer's own expanding activities which included "protracted meetings" all had as their goal precisely what the bishops were calling for. This meant that they stood for the right things in the right place at the right time. The protracted meeting was a well established practice in Methodism by Palmer' s time. These had been introduced by revivalist Charles G. Finney. The protracted meeting did everything the camp meeting was supposed to do except the atmosphere was more "urbanized." It was at these protracted meetings that Palmer came closest to "preaching", although she did not admit to it being "preaching, technically so called." She was a concise and articulate speaker. By 1866, Phoebe was a "well-polished " public speaker. To illustrate and simplicity idea of "Second blessing" or immediate sanctification, Palmer developed the "altar phraseology" around 1847. This she accomplished by using Paul's figure of placing oneself as a ' living sacrifice" on the altar of God to represent complete consecration. The altar, she reasoned, is Christ, the sanctifier himself. Moreover, the altar sanctifies the gift. 18 

Time was ripe for change. The Calvinist idea of foreordination was now trans ferred to a grander object--the manifest destiny of a Christianized America. The revivalist religion and the quest of Christian perfection lay at the fountainhead of our nation's heritage of hope.19  An example of change in emphasis from sanctification as the goal of the Christian life to sanctification as its beginning can be seen in the differences between the hymns John Wesley directed the Methodists to use and those Phoebe Palmer wrote. The following is part of a hymn written by Charles Wesley, John's brother:

O Jesus, at Thy feet we wait

Till Thou shalt bid us rise

Restored to our unsinning state,

To love's sweet paradise.

Saviour from sin we thee receive,

From all indwelling sin

Thy blood, we steadfastly believe,

Shall make us thoroughly clean.

Wesley uses the future tense. Sanctification is a goal that the singers are still seeking, not a present attainment. Compare Wesley's hymn to the most famous of Phoebe Palmer's songs:

O now I see the crimson wave,

The fountain deep and wide;

Jesus, my Lord, mighty to save,

Points to His wounded side.


The cleansing stream I see, I see!

I plunge, and O it cleanseth me;

O praise the Lord, it cleanseth me,

It cleanseth me, yes, cleanseth me.

I see the new creation rise

I hear the speaking blood;

It speaks! polluted nature dies!

Sinks 'neath the crimson flood.


I rise to walk in heav'n's own light,

Above the world and sin,

With heart made pure and garments white,

And Christ enthroned within.


Amazing grace! 'tis heav'n below,

To feel the blood applied,

And Jesus, only Jesus know,

My Jesus crucified.

There is no future tense in the song; everything is past or present. By the third verse sanctification is an accomplished fact. 20  She combined constant personal testimony with "exhortations" to believers to lay hold upon the promised blessing by simple faith

Women found roles within the context of revivalism because of its focus on individual religious experience rather than traditional ecclesiastical structures. Phoebe defined the woman's right to preach by siting the Biblical injunction of Acts 5:29 to obey God rather than man. This became the basis for Wesleyan/Holiness women to challenge the authority of those who attempted to prevent them from preaching. She also stated, "It is always right to obey the Holy Spirit's command, and if that is laid upon a woman to preach the Gospel, then it is right for her to do so; it is a duty she cannot neglect without falling into condemnation." 21 

1. Raser, Harold E., Phoebe Palmer, Her Life and Thought, - Studies in Women and Religion, Volume 22, The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston/Queenston 1947 ), p. 103

2. Reuther, Rosemary Radford and Keller, Rosemary Skinner, Women and Religion in America: The Nineteenth Century. San Franscisco, Harper and Row, 1981

3. White, Charles Edward, Phoebe Palmer and the Development of Pentecostal Pneumatology: http://wesley.nnc.edu/theojrnl/23-13.txt

4. Raser, pp. 21,22

5. Raser , pp. 28; Wheatley, Rev. Richard, The Life and Letters of Mrs. Phoebe Palmer (New York: Palmer & Hughes, 1876) p.18

6. Raser, p.30

7. "Palmer, Phoebe" in The Cyclopaedia of Methodism, edited by Matthew Simpson, .D. L.D. (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1880), p.229

8. Sweet, William Warren, Revivalism in America, It's Origin, Growth and Decline(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944) p. 134

9. "Palmer, Phoebe" in The Cyclopaedia of Methodism, edited by Matthew Simpson, .D. LL.D. (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1880), p.229

10. Raser, pp.34-38

11. Wheatley, p. 26

12. Raser pp. 40,41

13. Raser, p. 46 14. Wheatley, p. 32

13. Raser, p. 47 14. Raser, pp 53, 174 15. Timothy L. Smith, The Revivalism and Social Reform , American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, p.7 16. Smith, p 116

17. Raser, p.59

18. Smith, p.12

19. White, Charles Edward, Phoebe Palmer and the Development of Pentecostal Pneumatology: http://wesley.nnc.edu/theojrnl/23-13.txt

20. Stanley, Suzie: Emposered Foremothers: Wesleyan/Holiness Women Speak to Today's Christian feminists.