Few people were as instrumental to the growth of the 19th century American Holiness movement as Phoebe Palmer. Phoebe was the wife of a physican and prominent Methodist layman. According to Charles Edwin Jones, author of Perfectionist Persuasion, her sister, Sarah Lankford,

“claimed the second blessing and started a prayer meeting in her home in the interest of encouraging seekers after perfect love.”

When Sarah left the city, Phoebe continued the meetings on her own.

“Mrs. Palmer’s Tuesday Meeting for the Promulgation of Holiness (so popular that it outlived her thirty years) influenced a dedicated core of the Methodist ecclesiastical elite, as well as prominent members of other communions.”

In addition to the Tuesday Meeting for the Promulgation for Holiness, Palmer was also the editor of the Guide to Holiness, a widely circulated religious monthly that had begun life as the Guide to Christian Perfection. The influence of the Tuesday meeting and the Guide contributed to making Phoebe Palmer one of the most significant American Protestant women of the nineteenth century. The Guide had originally been founded by Timothy Merritt (a Methodist Episcopal preacher who was an early and zealous promoter of holiness) in 1839.

The holiness doctrine that Palmer promulgated represented a modification of John Wesley’s teachings on Christian perfection. Randall J. Stephens explains in his book The Fire Spreads,

Phoebe Palmer altered Wesley’s views. The optimistic and utilitarian environment of the post-Puritan North greatly influenced her work. Consequently, her popular doctrine of perfection took a pragmatic turn. Palmer framed holiness as a state immediately attainable by all believers through an act of faith. Gone was the long, anxious struggle Wesley envisioned leading up to sanctification. Palmer’s practical “shorter way” to holiness, as it was called, involved a total devotion of self and possessions to God. Taking Jesus’ words from Matthew 23:19, “the altar that sanctifieth the gift,” Palmer imagined that anyone who offered a full consecration of self would be sanctified completely.”

Melvin Dieter observes that,

“Phoebe Palmer believed that her appeal to Christians to “only believe and receive” in order to be sanctified wholly was the exact parallel of the appeal to sinners to “only believe and receive” to be saved. Therefore, she said, the failure of many people to enter into the experience of Christian perfection is because they are still relying on works and not on faith. She urged Christians to believe in the finished work of Christ, whose blood cleanses the sinful nature as well as the sins that rise from it. Because entire sanctification is given by faith, there is no need to delay. Complete trust in the finished work of Christ calls believers to immediate action, immediate remedy, and the assurance of a clean heart.”

Palmer’s influence on the growth of American holiness is undeniable, but here’s my question: is this the teaching that the Church of the Nazarene holds to today?

Advertisements