First US Woman Evangelist Phoebe Palmer

by Tamera Lynn Kraft

Phoebe Warroll Palmer was one of the first prominent woman evangelist in the church in the United States before women were recognized or licensed as preachers. She was born in New York City on December 18, 1807. Her parents were devout Methodists that held family worship services twice a week.

Phoebe married Dr. Walter Palmer, a homeopathic physician and devout Methodist, when she was nineteen years old. They had four children, but three died in early childhood. Phoebe was distraught and thought God was punishing her. She sought God’s guidance, and with the help of her sister, Sarah Lankford, came to a new understanding of sanctification and holiness.

Phoebe’s sister encouraged her to take a more active role in the church. In 1835, Phoebe and her sister began having church meetings for women in her home. Attendance grew to several hundred, and soon Dr. Palmer built extra space in the crowded home.

In 1839, Phoebe opened the meetings up to men as well as women. Her popularity grew, and soon, pastors, bishops, and people from other denominations attended. Phoebe and her husband began having protracted meetings (revivals) made popular by Charles Finney, and preached at camp meetings and Holiness revivals. In 1850, they toured across the United States and Canada preaching.

In 1850, Phoebe established a mission to help people in New York City because she felt sanctification required works of service for others. She spoke out against slavery and alcohol and promoted more freedom for women in the church and in society.

Phoebe also wrote many books and became the editor to Guide To Holiness in 1862 when her husband bought the publication.

She developed the concept of “altar theology,” which explained the idea of the “second blessing,” or immediate sanctification. As a basis for this concept, she drew on the Apostle Paul, who had advanced the idea of placing ourselves as “living sacrifices” on the altar of God to represent complete consecration. This “altar theology” simplified sanctification into a three-step process that included consecration, faith, and testimony. This concept, as well as her central theme of holiness of heart and life, gained popularity although some criticized it as simplistic.

After the Civil War, Phoebe served as a leader of the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness. In 1867, she and her husband established the National Association for the Promotion of Holiness, which encompassed much of her evangelical work. She also continued holding her Tuesday meetings right up until she died in New York City on November 2, 1874.

Phoebe Palmer showed what a life devoted to God can do even when the culture and some leaders in the church came against her because of her stand on sanctification and because she was a woman.

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