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Phoebe Palmer: Fountainhead of Evangelical Egalitarianism in Canada

by Shelley Siemens Janzen | July 31, 2021

About noon, on the Lord’s day, she was called upon, without previous notice . . . to speak to a congregation of several thousands. Curiosity soon gave way to a higher and nobler feeling. Breathless attention was given. . . . Those in the rear of the congregation, placed their hands behind their ears, that not a word might be lost.1

Such was the description of Reverend W. Young of the Methodist Church following Phoebe Palmer’s first visit to Canada West in 1853.2 Despite Palmer’s American Methodist heritage, she precipitated the Third Great Awakening3 during her visit to Canada and became one of the founders of the Canadian Holiness Movement. Palmer also contributed to first wave feminism due to her influence on Canadian and global leaders of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Although powerful movements and individuals worked to oppose the public activity of women in Canada’s history, Palmer emerged as a mainstream evangelical leader who successfully resisted these forces. While other evangelical egalitarian voices existed, Palmer was prominent due to her clear public presentation of egalitarian theology and her profound influence on the future of evangelical women as leaders in Canada. This brief article will not attempt a detailed discussion of Palmer’s Canadian activity.4 Instead, a review of her ministry in Ontario (focusing on her impact in Hamilton, Ontario), in Quebec, and in the Maritime provinces of Nova    long series of regular missions to Canada. As early as 1853, Palmer visited an evangelistic camp meeting at a farm in Nepanee, Ontario. This meeting was notable: The “Mayor of Kingston was powerfully blest, over five hundred professed conversion, and nearly as many obtained the full assurance of faith. . . . The Wesleyan Methodist Conference reported an addition of six thousand that year, – mostly from the region where the camp-meeting had been held.”8 This work anticipated Palmer’s subsequent visits, which included other destinations in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime provinces. As she travelled through these areas, her reputation as a compelling and effective speaker spread. During the summer of 1857, Palmer “wrote of conversions by the hundreds and crowds of 5,000 – 6,000 at obscure camp meetings in Ontario and Quebec.”9

Ultimately, however, it was the spontaneous events that occurred in Hamilton, Ontario, in October of 1857 that led Palmer to label this year as her Annus Mirabilis or “year of wonders.”10 Following a large event in Oakville, Ontario, which she attended with her husband, unexpected issues with the Palmers’ baggage at a Hamilton train station obliged them to stay overnight. The news of the Palmers’ presence prompted local Methodist ministers to convene a joint prayer meeting. The surprising intensity of this meeting resulted in Palmer speaking with powerful results again the following evening. As news spread about a potential revival, meetings were scheduled from seven in the morning until ten at night, with the unusual characteristic of being led largely by a wide variety of laity and in the form of testimonies of salvation or declarations of complete commitment.11 Palmer stayed in Hamilton for a full eighteen days participating in these events, and the meetings continued for additional weeks after her departure. The result was approximately 600 professions of faith.12 Shortly after this revival, the New York Christian Advocate and Journal published the news as a prominent headline. Historians J. Edwin Orr and Richard Roberts emphasize that,

There, upon the front page, hundreds of wistful Methodist ministers read that in a “Revival Extraordinary” in Hamilton: “Men of low degree and men of high estate for wealth and position; old men and maidens, and even little children, can be seen humbly kneeling together, pleading for grace. The mayor of the city, with other persons of like position, are not ashamed to be seen bowed at an altar of prayer beside the humble servant.”13

The leadership of a wide range of men, women, and even children professing faith and sharing their experiences during this revival was distinctively egalitarian. Palmer connected the spreading revival with the apostolic church in the book of Acts depicting men and women of the laity empowered to evangelize and grow the church. “Billed as a ‘Laity for the Times’ Palmer’s methods were congruent with the move towards lay ascendancy, when laity and ministers began more to resemble one another.”14 As the momentum of this lay revival grew and spread outside of Canada to the United States and Britain, some began to refer to these events as a new awakening. Intriguingly, for “the beginnings of the religious Revival which was soon to sweep the United States it is necessary to look beyond the borders of the Union. The first unusual stream of blessing arose, not in New York as commonly supposed, but in the city of Hamilton, in the province of Ontario.”15

Evangelical Fountainhead

Palmer’s propensity for theological teaching revealed a thorough and integrated evangelical substance. Since newly settled regions of Canada lacked the apparatus that established religious, social, and political institutions provided, they were therefore widely receptive to Palmer’s evangelical theology, including its high expectations for personal and social ethics.16 Although the term “evangelical” can be ambiguous, the historical approach found in David Bebbington’s quadrilateral and in Palmer’s lived experience allows for a broad, yet more nuanced description of the evangelical movement in Canada.17 For example, Palmer’s theology can be readily identified in Bebbington’s four classic evangelical ideals.

Bebbington’s first ideal of conversionism recognizes individual sin and is reflected in Palmer’s emphasis on the need for personal redemption. In a historical context of Catholic and mainline Protestant hierarchy and intermediaries, Palmer’s conversionism highlighted individual responsibility and therefore offered an inherent empowerment to the laity. Evangelical conversionism represented a significant departure from the inherited state/church model. Her “emphasis on the relationship between God and the believer implied a potentially radical, egalitarian challenge to the corporate church and its sacraments” and defied foundational political and social assumptions regarding God-ordained hierarchy and order.18 Palmer’s non-emotional and rational conversionism effectively connected with large numbers of Canadian individuals who attended her revival services.

A second ideal from Bebbington that emerged in Palmer’s evangelicalism was her biblicism. Palmer exhibited an intense regard for Scripture and believed that all spiritual truth was located in the Bible. Scripture was the ultimate authority, and evangelicals like Palmer turned to the Bible when resolving challenges such as human injustice, ecclesiology, or whether women may preach and teach. Palmer’s preaching integrated biblical themes, and her constant reference to Scripture lent timely authority to her words.

Thirdly, Palmer’s scriptural emphasis was substantiated with her teaching on Christ’s sacrifice and provision on the cross. Here Palmer clearly aligned herself with John Wesley’s classic view of salvation from sin by faith alone through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This crucicentrism contrasted with Catholic promotion of papal authority, sacraments, or other intermediary sources. Moreover, she corroborated Wesley’s Arminian soteriology of individual free will while affirming the necessity of prevenient grace. For both Wesley and Palmer, seeking sanctification in this life represented a vital second work of God’s grace. Palmer highlighted the power of the crucified Christ to sanctify a fully consecrated life through faith and the testimony of the believer. Palmer’s simple techniques, by which any Christian could gain holiness, were direct contributions to evangelical theology in general, and a theology of the cross in particular.19

Fourthly, the evangelical ideal of activism was visible to early Canadians in Palmer’s public preaching and humanitarian work. Palmer’s teaching at large camp meetings across the country consistently held in tension an evangelistic emphasis with a sanctified life of concern for one’s neighbor. Her emphasis on holy living lent support to the Canadian culture of volunteerism—namely, a free association of equal individuals working together toward the common good. Palmer’s evangelical ideal of activism integrated spiritual encounters in both personal and social contexts. She maintained that the very purposes of redemption are unrealized unless we are zealous for good works.20 Palmer’s activism supported local and cross-cultural outreach including organizing a mission to reach New York’s population of 40,000 Jews in 1855 and also missionary agencies in Palestine and China.21 Palmer’s intentional activism is readily evident in the most cursory review of her lifetime of evangelistic and humanitarian efforts.

Egalitarian Fountainhead

It should be evident already that Phoebe Palmer’s evangelical ideals were inseparable from her egalitarian theology and social activism. Mimi Haddad defines egalitarians as “Christians who affirm that scripture teaches the fundamental equality of men and women, both in being and service, so that gender is not a criterion by which to exclude women from public service or leadership.”22 As Palmer traveled Canada on various revival tours, her pragmatic evangelical theology was empowering to women who had felt their voices limited. The inherent levelling quality of Palmer’s evangelicalism weakened constraints on women “by elevating them in their own esteem and giving them the personal discipline to use their lives as best they could in Christian service.”23 Palmer’s visible and theological egalitarianism was the outcome of her considerable efforts to understand and apply biblical theology to contemporary concerns.

Immediately after her successful “year of wonders” in Canada, Palmer published The Promise of the Father in response to escalating criticism she was receiving as a female preacher.24 This manifesto was one of the earliest and most comprehensive works defending women’s mandate to public ministry and became foundational for women preachers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Palmer based this work of practical theology on the account of Pentecost in Acts 2, which celebrated the inauguration of God’s promise of egalitarian Christianity found in Joel 2:28. Rather than basing her feminism in a framework of women’s rights, “it was rooted . . . in a prophetic tradition of religious leadership where it was God’s call, not human customs or church traditions, that authorizes preaching.”25 The power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and in the last days was Palmer’s rationale for encouraging women’s authoritative speaking. Since the gift of prophecy was recognized in individual women throughout the NT and into the third century, and given that preaching and prophecy were essentially synonymous in the early church, the church was in violation of God’s chosen form of communication by quenching or neglecting these activities.26 Moreover, addressing the presumed restriction of women’s gifting presented by 1 Cor 14:35 and 1 Tim 2:12, The Promise of the Father provided a thorough interpretation of these verses often isolated from the light of historical context and larger biblical themes. Palmer contended that the edification and growth of the church would suffer profoundly if God’s ministry through women was limited.

However, Palmer’s articulation of Wesleyan-Arminian holiness doctrine was arguably more influential for endorsing egalitarianism than her teaching on prophetic ministry. While she avoided Pelagianism by stressing that both initial conversion and subsequent sanctification were ultimately granted through God’s grace, Palmer exhorted traditionally passive or merely receptive Christians to become active participants and co-workers with God in their sanctification. The egalitarian implication was that Palmer empowered women to have a measure of involvement in, and even control over, their spiritual life. At this point, Palmer moved somewhat away from Wesley’s longer route to sanctification to advocating a more accessible and pragmatic “shorter way” to holiness.27 Palmer’s theological route included consecration of all aspects of one’s life on the altar of Christ, then faith that Christ sanctifies their gift, and lastly public testimony of being made new. For women, giving God foremost priority in life undermined the belief that they should devote themselves exclusively to their families. While family was recognized as a primary place of contribution, women were not ultimately limited to this domain, but rather were obligated to speak and work for Christ in the wider church and society. Women were also empowered to recognize their own voices in response to Palmer’s requirement for public testimony. One’s old self was dead to sin, and the new self was empowered by the Holy Spirit to engage in private and public ministry. Palmer’s theology provided a basis for what was later identified as the evangelical feminism that authorized women to take initiative and exert influence in religious and spiritual spheres.28

It is intriguing that Palmer gave little attention to the topic of public recognition or ordination for women. While she supported women functioning in either state or ecclesiastical leadership as advantageous,29 Palmer refrained from endorsing ordination and instead argued that acquiring this title was inconsequential and diverged significantly from the NT model. Rather than looking to the Methodist Church for certification, she had “the conviction that she was divinely commissioned and ordained by the great Head of the church for the special work which she felt impelled to do.”30

Conclusion

Altogether, Phoebe Palmer became a source of evangelical egalitarianism in Canada through both her theology and exemplary ministry. Palmer has left a significant legacy of people influenced by her efforts, including Annie McClung, Frances Willard, Letitia Youmans, and Catherine Booth.31 As an eventual leader of the global Holiness Movement, Palmer’s public ministry was foundational for the development of North American feminism.32 Although evangelical and Canadian histories have tended to under-examine the contributions of women, an emphasis on the example of Phoebe Palmer readily offers a visible standard of Canadian evangelical emancipation.

Notes

1. Richard Wheatley, The Life and Letters of Mrs. Phoebe Palmer (W. C. Palmer Jr., 1876) 635.

2. Hereafter the pre-Confederation Province of Canada will be referred to as Ontario, Quebec, or Canada.

3. Cf. J. Edwin Orr, The Second Evangelical Awakening, abridged ed. (Enduring Word Media, 2018) 8–17. Discrepancy exists regarding the designation of this revival as the Third or the Second Great Awakening. Orr argues that, of the many North American revivals, only the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century and the Evangelical Awakening of the nineteenth century beginning in 1858 became world-wide in scope, and therefore places the beginnings of the Second Evangelical Awakening in Hamilton, Ontario.

4. In addition to resources cited elsewhere in these notes, see Sally Bruyneel, “Phoebe Palmer: Mother of the Holiness Movement,” Priscilla Papers 12/2 (Spring 1998) 1–3.

5. Donald M. Lewis, The Blackwell Dictionary of Evangelical Biography: 1730–1860, Blackwell Reference (Blackwell, 1995) 852.

6. Charles Edward White, The Beauty of Holiness: Phoebe Palmer as Theologian, Revivalist, Feminist and Humanitarian (Wipf & Stock, 2008) 92–93.

7. Nancy Christie, ed., Households of Faith: Family, Gender, and Community in Canada, 1760–1969 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001) 238.

8. Wheatley, Life and Letters, 300.

9. Timothy Lawrence Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War, 1st Harper Torchbook ed. (Harper & Row, 1965) 67.

10. Wheatley, Life and Letters, 315.

11. J. Edwin Orr and Richard Owen Roberts, The Event of the Century: The 1857–1858 Awakening (International Awakening, 1989) 26–27.

12. Sandra L. King, The 1857 Hamilton Ontario Revival: An Exploration of the Origins of the Layman’s Revival and the Second Great Awakening, McMaster General Series (Pickwick, 2015) 73.

13. Orr and Roberts, The Event of the Century, 27.

14. George A. Rawlyk, Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical Experience, McGill-Queen’s Studies in the History of Religion (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997) 83.

15. J. Edwin Orr, The Second Evangelical Awakening in Britain (Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1949) 14.

16. Michael Gauvreau, “Protestantism Transformed: Personal Piety and the Evangelical Social Vision, 1815–1867,” in The Canadian Protestant Experience, 1760 to 1990, ed. George A. Rawlyk (Welch, 1990) 50.

17. Mark A. Noll, David Bebbington, and George A. Rawlyk, Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond, 1700–1990, Religion in America Series (Oxford University Press, 1994) 180ff.

18. Gauvreau, The Canadian Protestant Experience, 57.

19. George M. Marsden, review of “Phoebe Palmer: Her Life and Thought,” by Harold B. Raser, The American Historical Review 93/5 (Dec 1, 1988) 1401.

20. Titus 2:14: “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (NIV).

21. Wheatley, Life and Letters, 227–29.

22. Mimi Haddad, “Egalitarians: A New Path to Liberalism? Or Integral to Evangelical DNA?,” Priscilla Papers 29/1 (Winter 2015) 14. 

23. Gauvreau, The Canadian Protestant Experience, 49.

24. See Martha Berg’s review of Palmer’s The Promise of the Father in Priscilla Papers 14/4 (Autumn 2000) 22.

25. Susan Hill Lindley, You Have Stept out of Your Place: A History of Women and Religion in America, 1st ed. (Westminster John Knox, 1996) 122.

26. Phoebe Palmer, The Promise of the Father: Or, A Neglected Speciality of the Last Days; Addressed to the Clergy and Laity of All Christian Communities (W. C. Palmer, 1859) 14–26.

27. Phoebe Palmer, The Way of Holiness: With Notes by the Way: Being a Narrative of Religious Experience Resulting from a Determination to Be a Bible Christian (1852) 1.

28. Elizabeth Gillan Muir and Marilyn Färdig Whiteley, Changing Roles of Women within the Christian Church in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1995) 186.

29. Palmer, Promise of the Father, 1–5.

30. Palmer as cited by White, The Beauty of Holiness, 194.

31. See further: Mimi Haddad, review of Woman in the Pulpit, by Frances Willard, Priscilla Papers 15/1 (Winter 2001) 21–22; Haddad, “Egalitarian Pioneers: Betty Friedan or Catherine Booth?,” Priscilla Papers 20/4 (Autumn 2006) 53–59; Roger J. Green, “Catherine Booth, the Salvation Army, and the Purity Crusade of 1885,” Priscilla Papers 22/3 (Summer 2008) 9–18; Mary Agnes Maddox, “The Aggressive Christianity of Catherine Mumford Booth,” Priscilla Papers 22/3 (Summer 2008) 5–8.

32. Justo L. Gonzalez, Story of Christianity: Volume 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, 2nd rev. ed. (HarperOne, 2010) 339.