Theological differences become apparent swiftly when the teachings of Phoebe Palmer on entire sanctification are contrasted with John Wesley’s own. In stark contrast to Wesley’s vision of a lengthy, often difficult effort concluding with sanctification, Palmer expressed sanctification as a state of being that all believers could achieve in an instant. This was a viewpoint that Wesley had specifically warned against, as can be seen in the Minutes of the Methodist Conference (1771). Charles White has identified six primary areas in which Palmer departs from Wesleyan views of entire sanctification.

The first of these is that she equates entire sanctification with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Second, Palmer equated holiness with power. Palmer saw entire sanctification as a means by which the sanctified Christian was given power for a life of service in behalf of God and others.

Third, she focused on the instantaneousness of entire sanctification, having little or nothing to say about any progressive growth in grace either before or after sanctification. Palmer’s reasoning was that “whatever my former deficiencies may have been, God requires that I should now be holy … God requires present holiness.” Palmer’s logic was that this “shorter way” was not just possible but a reality, because God would not withhold something that he had required of the individual Christian. In her outlook, Palmer seems to have followed Charles G. Finney, whom Ivan Howard notes “held that entire sanctification could be received at any time, whenever one appropriated Christ by faith.”

The fourth way in which Palmer deviated from Wesley was that she taught sanctification as the beginning of the Christian life, not the goal of it as Wesley had done. Mark Mann notes that Palmer “came to view full holiness as the duty of all Christians, thereby substantially deflating the importance of justification and the new birth (against which Wesley himself had warned). Related to this, Palmer came to emphasize Christian perfection as a grace normally available early in one’s spiritual growth, even as early as a couple hours after one’s conversion.” Such a view of holiness inevitably would lead one to the conclusion that to doubt in entire sanctification would be amiss to sin, and Palmer certainly articulated such to her followers.

“What you need, in order to bring you into this state, is an offering up of yourself through this purifying medium. Now do you still ask, How soon may I expect to arrive at this state of perfection? Just so soon as you come believingly, and make the required sacrifice, it will be done unto you according to your faith….When the Savior said, “It is finished!” then this full salvation was wrought out for you. All that remains is for you to come complying with the conditions, and claim it…it is already yours. If you do not now receive it, the delay will not be on the part of God, but wholly with yourself. … And now my dear K, if you will resolve to let faith depend on the word of God, and not upon your uncertain feelings, your difficulties will all be at an end.”

The fifth difference which White identifies is Palmer’s promulgation of what became labeled as “altar theology,” a concept she drew from Exodus 29:37.

“The acceptance of the gift [of entire sanctification] does not depend on the worthiness of the offerer or the greatness of the gift, but upon the sanctity of the altar: Matt. 23:19, “For whether is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?” It is by virtue of the altar upon which the offering is laid that the gift is sanctified: Exod. 29:37, “And it shall be an altar most holy: whatsoever touches the altar shall be holy.” Christ is the Christian’s altar.”

This altar theology compacted entire sanctification into a process of three steps: an act of entire consecration in which one placed one’s all on the altar, faith in God’s promise of sanctification, and giving public testimony to sanctification. This last step Palmer viewed as a necessity due to the order of God not being fully met until confession was made with the mouth.

The sixth divergence from Wesley’s teachings that is noted by White is that Palmer posited that there was no further evidence needed for the assurance of entire sanctification than Scripture itself. She wrote, “God did not require … anything but what was thoroughly substantiated by the requirements of his written word.” Palmer eschewed any evidence of sanctification in the form of the witness of the Spirit (which Wesley had insisted was vital as an assurance of entire sanctification), writing, “What is the evidence of entire sanctification? … How might an offerer at the Jewish altar arrive at an evidence that his offering was sanctified? In the first place, God had explicitly made known just the sacrifice required, and the manner in which it should be presented. If the offerer had complied with these requirements, he, of course, knew he had done so.”

Although these differences in theology might seem trivial to some, Randy Maddox has demonstrated that John Wesley had spoken quite strongly against each one of the modifications that Phoebe Palmer would make to the doctrine of entire sanctification.  Hardly trivial, Palmer’s alterations in fact caused a theological dissonance in holiness teaching, one that has lasted to the present day and continues to cause serious problems for the Holiness movement. The crux of the problem is that the Holiness movement has since its inception been playing an internal tug-of-war over the matter of its own identity. Is it a Wesleyan identity, or a Palmerian identity? This tension of identity is likely to be one of the reasons for the loss of a laity truly educated in holiness; a problem that Keith Drury has argued has contributed to the death of the Holiness movement as a movement.

In Part Three, I will address the consequences of the identity crisis in the Holiness movement.
Advertisements