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Published Date: October 31, 2000

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Alayna Owens
Alayna Owens

Book Info

A Hero from Yesterday: Phoebe Palmer’s The Promise of the Father

I wish I had encountered Phoebe Palmer (1807-74) about 25 years ago when wrestling with the issue of the role of women in the church loomed heavily on my heart and mind, and had surfaced in our church as well. Palmer’s underlying thesis is that the promise of the Father to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, male and female, and that sons and daughters would prophesy, relates to the role of women in the church today. She goes through many of the New Testament passages related to women’s roles, and she exegetes and interprets them, often citing other scholars who affirm a less-restrictive understanding than was common in her day. She expresses the problem when she says:

[T]here is a wrong, a serious wrong, affectingly cruel in its influences, which has long been depressing the hearts of the most devotedly pious women. And this wrong is inflicted by pious men, many of whom, we presume, imagine that they are doing God a service in putting a seal upon lips which God has commanded to speak (p. 13)

Her words were reminiscent of something I had written as a foreword in a research paper some women in our church wrote in 1974-75:

For too long, the issues of women’s liberation, women’s roles and participation in traditionally male activities have been treated with snickers, tongue-in-cheek remarks, or bare tolerance. Conflict, hurt, and identity crises have been created in the minds of many Christian women who are seeking to integrate Scripture and the realities of twentieth-century culture to find a secure and biblically sound position from which to grow and develop . . .

Things haven’t changed much from Phoebe Palmer’s day in some sectors.

I was surprised at her tone at various points, seemingly really “sticking it to” those from whom she had experienced opposition. While she says, “It is not our intention to chide those who have thus kept the Christian female in bondage . . . ,”she seems to do far more than “chide” in her less-than-subtle pronouncements on those who differ. She tells of a woman’s testimony being rejected, and then writes that “in rejecting her testimony for Jesus, did not Jesus, the friend of the church, take it as done unto himself?”

She then follows this with a devastating poem:

And when Truth speaks, whoe’er may touch

To turn aside the word,

God will reprove the act as much

As though from Sinai heard.

Who toucheth truth, or blunts its force,

May heedlessly pass by,

Unmarked in time; but deep remorse

Awaits him endlessly.

And at the end of another chapter:

But what is truth: ‘Twas Pilate’s decision, put

To Truth itself, that deigned him no reply.

And wherefore: will not God impart his light

To them who ask it: Freely; ’tis his joy,

His glory, and his nature, to impart.

But to the proud, uncandid, insincere,

Or negligent inquirer, not a spark.

High among the values of Jesus the night before his crucifixion was the oneness of the believers who would come after him (John 17), and it behooves those who name his name to live out that oneness. Yet the reflection evoked in me after reading Phoebe Palmer’s work is how we in the church should respond to those with whom we differ over these sorts of things. In most of the doctrinal debates over the centuries, nearly all persons genuinely viewed their perspective as being on the side of “Truth.”

It also seems that expressing things in a loving, irenic manner evokes no response or charge, and so people feel compelled to speak out or act more strongly. I was reminded of something George Washington is quoted as having said in 1786 (copied in a museum):

I never mean to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.

But it never happened by slow and imperceptible degrees. Does it ever? Is there no other way than revolt? How do I deal with my denomination, which disapproves of women elders, of which I am one, much less the notion of ordination? I have appreciated and benefitted from this book as an excellent way to get in touch with sisters and brothers from the past who have struggled in much the same way as we continue to struggle today.