Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) and Holiness Theology

Born Phoebe Worrall on Dec. 11, 1807 in NYC to devout Methodist parents. In 1827 she married Walter Clarke Palmer, a twenty-four year old physician who was also a devout Methodist. Despite her lifelong piety, Palmer had not experienced the powerful emotional conversion typical of evangelicals in general and Methodists in particular. At least, she did not believe that she had. As she wrote in The Way of Holiness (1849) about herself in the third person:

Though for many happy years she was enabled to testify, with perfect assurance, that she had passed from death unto life, yet the precise time when that change took place she could never state. Not to have an experience like most others born into the kingdom of Christ, who are so fully able, from the overwhelming circumstances of the occasion, to state the precise moment, was a fruitful source of temptation, resulting in years of painful solicitude.

. . . Not infrequently she felt like weeping because she could not weep, imagining if she could plunge herself into those overwhelming sorrows, and despairing views of relationship to God, spoken of by some, she could then come and throw herself upon his mercy with greater probability of success. (pp. 73-4)

It was not that Palmer lacked for profound spiritual experiences. It was that she did not have the conversion experience described by so many. Her recourse was to the Bible. She would pray that God “but direct me by thy word, and permit me to open to some passage suited to my case. . . .”

And at several sever-to-be-forgotten periods did the Lord condescend to give the most direct answers of peace in this manner. For a time she would rejoice in the consolation received, and glory in the assurances of the blessed word as in verity the voice of God to her soul; but as soon as the freshness of these visitations passed over, she would again give way to dissatisfaction with her experience.

It was in the midst of these unsatisfied longings for the experience of salvation, as she imagined it must be, that she met and fell in love with Walter Palmer. She was nineteen when they married. About six weeks before the marriage, she wrote in her diary:

August 12, 1827: . . . And now, having been wary in the bestowal of my affections, I find them permanently and strongly fixed on one, who I believe is, in the order of Infinite Love, designed to be a helpmeet. In religious, moral, and intellectual endowments, he stands approved. The best of all is, that he is a servant of the Lord. On his thirteenth birthday he was powerfully converted, and now, in his twenty-fourth year, he is still holding on his way.

Their first child, Alexander, was born in September 1828 and died nine months later. Phoebe saw his death as a judgment. In “Our First Born,” written close to the time but published posthumously in A Mother’s Gift: or, A Wreath for my Darlings (New York, 1875), she wrote of the loss:

He was indeed a lovely flower,
Although of pallid hue,
Whilst love maternal, “magic power,”
Beheld new beauties every hour,
Unfolding to its view.

. . . . .

But soon still small voice from Heaven,
Whispered in accents mild, —
The blessing of mercy given,
But ah! it draws the heart from Heaven,
Thou must resign thy child.

. . . . . .

Oh! then the sad, the rending stroke,
As in the “midnight” came,
Affection’s tender ties were broke,
Which might have loosed when mercy spoke
And not have given such pain.

The flower transplanted in the skies,
From sorrow’s blast is riven,
The parents’ chastened, earthly love,
Their better hopes, transferred above,
Are centered now in Heaven.

Oh! there our Alexander lives,
Where beauty’s bud ne’er dies!
Though snatched from love’s maternal arms,
He’s safe from all impending harms,
And calls us to the skies.

What sets this apart from the enormous number of contemporary poems about the death of a beloved infant child is what Palmer calls the “blessing of mercy.” She and her husband weretoo devoted to their child. Love for him took away from their spiritual commitment to the Lord. Hence, “Thou must resign thy child.”

A second son, born in 1830, only survived seven weeks. She wrote in her diary on September 28, 1831, her wedding anniversary:

. . . another little son was entrusted. The treasure was lent but seven short weeks and then recalled; giving us two angel children in heaven, and leaving us childless on earth. 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. — Wheatley, Rev. Richard,The Life and Letters of Mrs. Phoebe Palmer (New York: Palmer & Hughes, 1876), p. 26

In 1833 she had a daughter, Sarah (named after her sister) who lived. In 1835 she had another daughter, Eliza, who died when the curtains around her crib caught fire. She wrote in her diary for July 29, 1836:

Never have I passed through a trial so severe . . . .

Just before the great trial came upon me, I attended a camp-meeting, where the Lord was most graciously present, and my own soul shared in the general refreshing from on high. Soon after my return home, I observed that my lovely little daughter Eliza, about eleven months old, though not really ill, appeared to be dropping in health. I don’t know why it was but a feeling came over me that she might not be with me long. My motherly fondness might have drawn the picture too strongly, but I thought her an angel-like child, both in disposition and beauty of form. She was robed in virgin white, and her every look seemed so angelic, that I clasped her to my breast, and with inexpressible love, exclaimed, ” O you little angel!” I sat clasping her in my arms, till she fell into a soft beautiful slumber. A gentleman called, asking to see me. I laid the lovely sleeper in her cradle bed in the nursery, telling the nurse, that after the caller had left, I should retire to my room, and she must bring the infant to me. In less than an hour, an appalling shriek from the direction of the nursery startled me. I flew to the spot, and what a scene met my gaze! The gauze curtain that surrounded the cradle of the sleeping infant, through the carelessness of the nurse, had caught fire. I grasped my darling from the flames. She darted one inexpressible look of amazement and pity, on her agonized mother, and then closed her eyes forever on the scenes of earth. After a few hours the sweet spirit of my darling passed away, leaving me, from the suddenness of the shock, in an inexpressible bewilderment of grief. Turning away from human comforters, I coveted to be alone with God.

After the angel spirit winged its way to Paradise, I retired alone, not willing that any 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. — Wheatley, Rev. Richard, The Life and Letters of Mrs. Phoebe Palmer (New York: Palmer & Hughes, 1876), p. 31-32

Palmer was not yet twenty-nine when she lost this third child. Infant mortality rates were high in the early nineteenth century, so the Palmers were not unique in losing so many children. Yet her understanding of the meaning of these deaths set her apart from other bereaved parents. Palmer situated these tragedies in what she had created as the master narrative of her life, her quest for an ultimate spiritual experience, one that would completely transform her. In a sense, she concluded that they died so that she could live. She hid from the monomania this evinced by dwelling upon her babes’ angelic qualities and their happiness with the Lord. But she thought of her children’s deaths as stepping stones in her own spiritual development. On June 17, 1837, she wrote in her diary:

. . . I have placed the standard of Christian excellence high, and have asked strength of Omnipotence to be enabled to reach the summit of my desires. “My heart is fixed! O, God, my heart is fixed!” and, though the opposition of a perverse will, the infirmities of nature, or crosses indescribably great may oppose, my progress, I trust, will, through grace, be onward and upward. I long to be made a monument of what the grace of God can effect on a once rebellious child of Adam. O! this, I am sure, is a holy ambition, and authorized by Scripture. (reprinted in Phoebe Palmer: Selected Writings, edited by Thomas C. Oden (Paulist Press, NY, 1988), pp. 112-113)

There is something monstrous in such holiness.

Finally, she realized her ambition. On July 27, 1837 she wrote in her diary, “Last evening, between the hours of eight and nine, my heart was emptied of self, and cleansed of all idols, from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, and I realized that I dwelt in God, and felt that he had become the portion of my soul, my ALL IN ALL.” July 26, 1837 was, in her words, the “day of days.”

In coming to the decision, I will be holy NOW, I took a step beyond any I had ever before taken. God is light. As I drew nearer to Him than ever before, He drew nearer to me. I had often entered into covenant with God before. Now, by the light of the Holy Spirit, I saw that the High and Holy One would have me enter into covenant with Him, the duration of which would be lasting an eternity, absolute, and unconditional. (Phoebe Palmer, p. 118)

Her Redeemer was about to “betroth thee unto Me forever.” But, she was already betrothed to Walter Palmer. She had to be willing to give up “one with which every fibre of my being seemed interwoven.” Could the Lord really require such a sacrifice? “Here the tender, loving Spirit interposed. ‘Did Abraham know why he was called to give up Isaac at the time he gave him up? But he knows now.'” Her path was clear. She would give herself entirely to God’s will. She would be holy. And God would receive her and give her the faith necessary to continue in a sinless life.

Palmer pursued Holiness as an ecstactic state. Had she been a Catholic or a Buddhist, she would have withdrawn to a life of contemplation, and actually give up spouse and family. As a Methodist, she had to remain in the world. Nonetheless her obsession with achieving a mystical union with the Lord resonated with many Methodists in the middle third of the nineteenth century and drew directly upon the teachings of John Wesley. Methodists defined religion in terms of experience. Religion was simply a matter of creed or liturgy. It was something youfelt.

Palmer came to exercise such influence because she offered a “shorter way” to the most profound spiritual experiences. She discovered the power of indirection and offered her own advances in Holiness as a template for others in “Notes on the Way” that complemented and completed The Way of Holiness. As the “Notes” emphasize again and again, Palmer had constantly gotten in her own way by gauging her progress against an imagined standard of what she was supposed to feel. If religion is experience, she had reasoned, then the test must be the subjective content of that experience. And the standared she employed was based upon the testimonies of others and not upon her own experiences. Finally she learned to trust to faith, which she defined in terms of her understanding of biblical promises. Once she stopped cross-examining her feelings and accepted the possibility that Holiness would come as the Lord dictated and not as she hypothesized, the dam burst.

This nicely parallels the classic conversion narrative. The sinner has to abandon efforts to attain salvation and accept his or her own inability. Then, in the moment of surrender, comes the overpowering experience. The parallels made Palmer’s “Notes on the Way” live for her thousands of readers. Fellow seekers recognized the dynamics of her struggle.

The “shorter way” was to Holiness what the camp meeting/revival was to conversion. Conversion, prior to the First Great Awakening, had routinely gone on for months or even years. In the camp meeting or revival it took days, or even hours. Similarly, Holiness, the mystic sense of union with the Divine, was traditionally a life-long quest in which the seeker left the world behind. Palmer, for all the self-imposed delays she described, was a young wife not yet thirty on her “day of days.” She had one child and would have two more in the years immediately following. This, however, did not diminish the intensity of her ecstactic union with the Lord. Neither did her writing, her activity in church politics, or her lecturing.

Palmer’s activism began about a year before her “day of days” when she and her sister organized weekly Tuesday evening meetings in the house their two families shared. At first her sister took the leading role. Phoebe resisted taking too active a part even after her “day of days.” She noted in her diary a reluctance to speak at a camp meeting in August 1837. At a “love feast” shortly thereafter, she did speak but not “definitely of enjoying the blessing of holiness.” “I rose to testify, but felt no liberty. I said but little, and sat down.” In fact, it took almost a year before “grace triumphed gloriously over nature” and she spoke freely about her own experiences. She recorded in her diary for July 2, 1838:

In the early part of the meeting, I felt an unusual shrinking, when the duty of speaking was presented. I felt desirous to avail myself of the opportunity, if assured of its being duty; but the enemy [Satan], by repeated suggestions, endeavored to darken my mind. I asked for the light of the Spirit, relative to the requirement, and then abandoned myself, soul and body, into the hands of the Lord. . . . I felt conscious assistance from on high, while speaking of the riches of grace manifested toward me in the experience of the past week. I sat down feeling that Jesus was the strength of my soul. As the meeting progressed, rather an unusual backwardness was exhibited. I was impressed to tell them of the way in which I had been led into this wealthy place. Aware of the impropriety of always following impressions, without examining prayerfully the principles leading to action, I looked confidently to my Heavenly Father for guidance, and determined, if another pause ensued, to improve it. I did so, and found it peculiarly blessed, to be obedient to the motions of the Spirit. A plain path seems marked out before me—the path of obedience. (reprinted in Phoebe Palmer, p. 135)

However clearly marked, her path was unprecedented within mainstream Christian denominations. Religious leadership was a male preserve. Women might raise money, perform works of charity, even sign petitions against the slave trade in the District of Columbia. They did not preach the gospel. And Palmer would always refuse to describe any of her activities as preaching. But, starting in 1839 prominent men began to attend her Tuesday night meetings. The first was Professor Thomas C. Upham of Bowdoin College, a well-known Congregationalist theologian. Upham, urged on by his wife, accepted the doctrine of holiness and personally experienced the “blessing.” Soon other men, especially Methodist clergy, began attending, and Palmer began participating in national and local conferences of the Methodist church in which policy questions were debated. Two of her followers, Leonidas Hamline and Edmund Storer James, were elected Methodist bishops in 1844. Both strongly endorsed her “way.”

Palmer also began to travel to spread the word, despite the birth of two more children, a daughter Phoebe (1839) and a son, Walter Camp, Jr. (1842). She and her sister also helped found a religious magazine, The Guide to Holiness (1839) and Palmer became a regular contributor. In 1843 she collected her articles and published them as The Way of Holiness with Notes By The WayThe Way of Holiness went through multiple printings and sold more than 20,000 copies in its first six years.

Such widespread appeal suggests that, despite Palmer’s own reliance upon sharing her own experience to reach others, we cannot explain her theology of holiness in purely biographical terms. What she had to say resonated with hundreds of thousands of religious seekers. One way to explore her appeal and that of holiness is to compare her with Charles Grandison Finney.

Finney’s primary focus was on the conversion of sinners. He came to the doctrine of Perfection as an antidote to “backsliding.” A revival was a season of religious dedication. Shops closed. People spent their days as well as their evenings in prayer and contemplation. Then the converted went back to their workaday lives. Business and family concerns regained their primacy. So did politics. Old habits reasserted themselves. The result, lamented Finney, was a “spasmotical” religion. Every revival, he complained, presupposed a backsliding. If, however, the individual could achieve perfection, that is, complete obedience to the will of God, backsliding would cease.

Palmer, in contrast, focused upon the experience of Holiness. Unlike Finney, she rarely discussed sin even though she spoke frequently about temptation. The temptations she faced, however, were that she would be too devoted to her children, that she would doubt the sufficiency of her own faith, or that she would judge her religious experiences by a false standard.

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