Phoebe Palmer, Phoebe Knapp: Like Mother, Like Daughter

There have been quite a few wife/husband teams that have written hymns, such as the Gaithers, the Brubecks, Civilla and Walter Martin and such, but there’s a mother/daughter team worth knowing.   I wrote about Phoebe Knapp in my book, Sisters in Song, and you can read about her glamorous life there.  But perhaps her mother, Phoebe Palmer was even more notable for her imprint on history.

Phoebe Worrall was born in 1807 to zealous Methodists who held family worship twice a day.  She married Methodist physician Walter Palmer at age 20.  She never felt carried away by emotion by her faith, and from her background, felt she may not really be a Christian.  It wasn’t until after her first three babies had died in separate events that her sister, Sarah Lankford, resolved her spiritual crisis.  She realized she didn’t need “joyous emotion” to believe. God would make her holy if she “laid her all upon the altar.” The belief itself assured her. She and Walter knelt in prayer at a revival at New York’s Allen Street Methodist Church and pledged their lives to promoting holiness. John Wesley’s perfectionism that they adopted consisted in consecrating oneself to God, believing God will sanctify what is consecrated, and telling others about it. She realized there was no need for signs and wonders.  The still small voice of the Spirit can speak through the Word.   Thereafter, she led a women’s prayer group in her home.  She was a compelling leader and speaker.   Soon, men came to hear her, including ministers and bishops.  She and Walter traveled in the area preaching.  Though Walter did most of the preaching, Phoebe was the more famous.  Because she had reservations about women preaching, she insisted she wasn’t preaching, but was instead giving exhortations. I don’t quite understand the difference.   Her articles and books also gave her some fame, and she was considered the “Mother of the Holiness Movement” in America and creator of the Higher Life movement in the United Kingdom.  She instigated missions, including a temperance oriented Five Points Mission on The Bowery, America’s first inner city mission; and started camp meetings.   She wrote several books, including The Way of Holiness, which was important in the foundation of the Holiness movement. Her book, The Promise of the Father, defended the concept of women in Christian ministry.   She and Walter edited the magazine The Guide to Holiness from 1864 until her death in 1874. It had a circulation of about 37,000, one of the highest of a religious publication at the time.  Her example of female assertiveness inspired women such as the Salvation Army’s Catherine Booth, and the WCTU’s Frances Willard.  Her theology linking Wesleyan revivalism and Pentecostalism helped the beginning of the Church of the Nazarene, The Salvation Army, The Church of God, and the Pentecostal-Holiness Church.

She wrote constantly.  In addition to her books and magazine articles, she wrote poetry.  “The Cleansing Wave” was put to music by her daughter, Phoebe Knapp.  The daughter was most well-known for composing “Blessed Assurance” along with other hymns with Fanny Crosby.  But obviously Mom had a significant influence not only on her daughter, but on American society in the 19th century.


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