Phoebe Palmer often considered the mother of the American holiness movement. The wife of a physician in New York City, Phoebe Palmer and her sister Sarah Lankford held “Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness” (Hogan, 2000, p. 216), a series of small group gatherings for women designed to make a case for holiness. “The influence of these meetings with her writings undoubtedly made her the greatest promoter of entire sanctification in the century” (Howard, 1971, p. 34).
“Before women could argue for changes in their social, political, or religious status, they first had to secure the right to mount the platform or pulpit” (Hogan, 2000, p. 211). During a time in which the resistance to women public speaking was intense, Phoebe Palmer’s “Tuesday Meetings began for women in 1835, and by 1839 their popularity had grown, and attendance was opened to men (Black & Drury, 2012, p. 21). “Her influence was further extended by others inaugurating her “Tuesday Meetings.” They were started in half a dozen foreign countries and every major city in the United States. By 1886, 238 such meetingswere being held” (Howard, 1971, p. 34).
Mrs. Palmer was one of the earliest proponents seeking to “overthrow the monopoly of the pulpit” (Hogan, 2000, p. 212). Phoebe Palmer, though not ordained, strived to remove barriers of tradition and scripture in her effort to increase the sphere of women on the platforms and in the pulpits of the church. She became a voice in the in the efforts of the time for women’s rights. “In 1859, Palmer published The Promise of the Father in an effort to encourage church leaders to allow and support the public speaking and witness of faithful women. In her text, Mrs. Palmer based her argument that women should be allowed to engage in public speaking on behalf of the gospel almost exclusively upon the spiritual equality of between women and men” (Hogan, 2000, p. 213).
While often not included in secular conversations on the topic of women’s rhetorical efforts, Palmer was not only an advocate for women’s rights in the publicly speaking arena she spoke before enormous crowds in the United States, Canada, and Britain (Hogan, 2000, p. 218).
Over the course of the nineteenth century, a generalized cultural portrait of womanhood was established. Quiet and demure, the passive woman was presumed too frail and timid for the public arena and the marketplace, both of which were reserved for man. The woman was suited for the private domestic life of home and family (Hogan, 2000, p. 213). Women were to remain silent because public speaking was a masculine activity; thus religious leaders of the time formed argumentative boundaries all women, including Phoebe Palmer, were constrained to negotiate. Male religious leaders often quoted the Apostle Paul, ““woman should be silent in churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but be subordinate, as the law also says,” (1 Cor.14:34-35b)” (Hogan, 2000, p. 214).
Believing it was following the apostle Paul’s lead, the church, throughout its first eighteen-hundred years, generally observed the public silencing of women, excluding them from public speaking and ordained ministry. However, during the life of John Wesley, he would encourage the actions of women within the Methodist class movement (Hogan, 2000, p. 216). With his death, his successor would once again silence women, “therefore when Phoebe Palmer began to speak publicly about biblical teachings and matters of faith, her presence, while grounded in a strong Methodist tradition, was, nevertheless, considered a novelty” (Hogan, 2000, p. 216).
Phoebe Palmer made six modifications (Miskov, 2011, p. 12) to John Wesley’s doctrine of holiness. This view, which came to be called “the Shorter Way” in contrast to Wesley’s more conservative counsel to wait for the inner witness of the Holy Spirit before claiming sanctification” (Black & Drury, 2012, p. 21). Because Wesley was ambiguous in his statements on how one knew when the possessed sanctification (Howard, 1971, p. 31) Palmer’s formula seemed to make holiness more accessible. This accessibility seemingly increased the popularity of the message of holiness and Methodism among everyday people, in spite of the reservations of Traditional Methodist theologians (Black & Drury, 2012, p. 22).
In Palmer’s “shorter way” she offers the urgent call to evangelism and witnessing. Quoting Palmer, Hogan writes, “The Holy Spirit’s quickening flame may fall, energizing your whole being, and the cloven tongue of fire may be given, so that you may feel intense longings to spread the sacred flame, and speak as the Spirit give utterance” (Hogan, 2000, p. 217). Additionally, “Palmer redefined preaching broadly enough to enable women to realize that they had been preaching or prophesying all along. Any time a man, or woman, spoke in public about issues of faith, that man, or woman, was preaching” (Hogan, 2000, p. 219).
Black, R., & Drury, K. (2012). The Story: The Wesleyan Church. Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House.
Hogan, L. L. (2000). Negotiating personhood, womanhood, and spiritual equality: Pheobe Palmer’s defense of the preaching of women. Atq, 14(3), 211-226.
Howard, I. (1971). Wesley versus Phoebe Palmer: an extend controversy. Wesleyan Theological Journal, 6(1), 31-40.
Lowery, K. T. (2001). A fork in the Wesleyan road: Phoebe Palmer and the appropriation of Christian perfection. Wesleyan Theological Journal, 36(2), 187-222.
Miskov, J. A. (2011). Missing links: Phoebe Palmer, Carrie Judd Montgomery, and holiness roots within Pentecostalism. Pentecostudies, 10(1), 8-28.
White, C. E. (1988). Phoebe Palmer and the development of Pentecostal pneumatolgy. Wesleyan Theological Journal, 23(1-2), 198-212.
AUTHORS NOTE: This is an edited version of original work submitted for CHST-536-00A Wesleyan Church History/Polity, Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, March 23, 2017.