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Phoebe Palmer


A Woman Who Proclaimed A "Shorter Way" To Holiness 1807-1874
By John G. McEllhenney

John Wesley, Methodism's founder, mapped a road to the experience of holiness, that led to another summit of love to be scaled beyond each summit reached. In his view, there was always more love of God and neighbor to be experienced than had already been experienced. But the daughter of one of his converts charted a short cut to the peak of sanctification.

Phoebe Palmer, daughter of Henry Worrall who had become a Wesleyan in England before emigrating to America, chafed under the slowness of Wesley's approach to the holy life. Wesley taught that at the moment of one's spiritual new birth, one begins the climb toward being made perfect in love. There might be moments when God's grace would impel one far ahead toward holiness. But usually the ascent is gradual, with always more holiness to be savored than has already been tasted.

All of which, Phoebe Palmer thought, was too slow for Americans, who are, as one historian has said, "restless optimists, boosters and boasters always on the go." Wesley's insistence that there is always more holiness to be achieved than has already been acquired, smacked of Europe, where people often devoted centuries to building a stone cathedral. Throw up a wooden church quickly: that's the American way. So if holiness was worth having, Americans wanted a supplier with a sense of hurry. Phoebe Palmer stepped forward.

Born in New York City, personally committed to Christ in her youth, and an active Methodist, Phoebe Worrall married Walter Palmer, a physician, when she was twenty. She gave birth to, and lost, several children, and passed through a critical illness, all of which left her hungering for a sense of being fully encompassed by God's love. This holiness she experienced after she had made, as she phrased it, a "holy and acceptable" sacrifice of herself to God. She laid her "all" on God's altar, where, because it was God's altar, it was sanctified; and Phoebe was made holy.

Phoebe's experience convinced her that she had found a shorter way to the holy life, a formula with clear steps, calling for specific human actions, which appealed to up-and-at ?em Americans. The Bible, Mrs. Palmer taught, assures us that God has promised us holiness, that our love of God and neighbor will become perfect. Therefore, she instructed: Claim the Bible's promise. Say, "I surrender all, all to thee, my blessed Savior." And God, hallowing your sacrifice, will fulfil the scriptural promise and sanctify you, make you holy.

Using that formula, Phoebe took over the leadership of the Tuesday meetings for the promotion of holiness, which had been started by her sister, Sarah Lankford (1806-1896). Soon she had made New York City the center of a lay-led, but clergy-affirmed, movement that challenged people to lay their "all" on the altar of God and, having done so, to be certain that they had become perfect in love; that they were holy.

Believing that this holiness, this perfect love issued in human service, Mrs. Palmer became involved in the Five Points Mission, which reached out to the economically, morally, and spiritually lost in one of New York City's most notorious slums. She took her stand against slavery, worked for the liberation of women in church and society, insisted that just wages must be paid to domestic help, and opposed alcoholic beverages.

After the Civil War, she served as a leader of the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness. Soon her mission became international, as she and her husband conducted holiness meetings in Canada, Great Britain, and Europe. What she preached, she published in a number of books, the most important being The Way of Holiness (1850).

Opponents, who knew Wesley's theology and believed it to be sounder than hers, challenged Mrs. Palmer. Methodist theologian Nathan Bangs (1778-1862) argued that she made the sanctification process mechanical, predictable, and too simple; that she turned the Holy Spirit into a domestic servant, obliging it to come when humans called. Wesley had been wiser: he knew that humans show their readiness by calling, but the Spirit comes when the Spirit wills to come.

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