Phoebe Palmer: A Pioneer for Women Preachers

Phoebe Palmer 1807-1874

A woman of passion, faith and a cunning rhetorical ability Phoebe Palmer is one of Methodism’s most skilled nineteenth century rhetoricians, and perhaps one of the most overlooked.  Palmer is best remembered for her Tuesday Bible studies “Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness” and her widely read religious periodical Guide to Holiness.  Her writings and preaching influenced France Willard, the long serving and influential president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army and Benjamin Titus Roberts, founder of the Free Methodist Church.

Palmer was a genius at negotiating nineteenth century gender norms to main respectability but at the same pushing for women’s right to preach publicly. She began her public speaking career in her home with the Tuesday night meetings. Thus, entering her rhetorical career through most culturally accepted manner possible.  In 1835, when her Tuesday meetings began, the cult of domesticity was at its peak. Women were viewed as weak creatures that were not capable of enduring the rigors of public speaking nor should they pursue it, as it would interfere with their domestic duties. If women were to speak up at all it was in the home. Thus, the ingenious concept of holding the meetings in Palmer’s parlor.

Palmer’s marriage also opened doors to her ministry that other women during this time period would not normally had. In 1827 she had married Walter Palmer, a wealthy physician, who supported his wife’s ministry. In the 1840s they traveled throughout the United States and Canada holding revivals, and between 1859 and 1863 they went to the United Kingdom for a revival tour (Hogan, 2000).

Because Palmer and her husband were lay leaders in the Methodist Episcopal Church they were not restricted to preach at a single church. They could go where they were invited and their extensive traveling made Palmer one of the best-known evangelists in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet, until recently rhetorical historians and feminists have overlooked her rhetorical contributions.  I believe this in part because Palmer does not fit within the traditional nineteenth century feminist rhetorician mold.

While she spoke passionately about spiritual equality and women being allowed to preach just as men were allowed to preach, she never pursued ordination. She never pushed for women’s right to vote. Her rhetoric was restricted to the pursuit of spiritual equality.

Nineteenth century feminist rhetoric cannot solely be defined by women who argued that both male and female were biologically equal or socially equal; the spiritual nature of Biblical gender equality was also very present in nineteenth century feminist rhetoric, especially in the rhetoric and writing of women such as Palmer. Faith was central to who they were and why they wanted to have the right to speak. It was what drove their rhetoric and their ministry. In Palmer’s sermon Tongues of Fire on the Daughters of the Lord” this rhetorical drive is clearly evident:

God has given the word; and in this wonderful season of the outpouring of the Spirit, great might be the company who would publish it. This, in a most emphatic sense, is the day of which the prophet spake – when God would pour out his Spirit on his sons and daughters. Though many men have in these last days received the baptism of fire, still greater, as in all revivals, has been the number of females. These constitute a great company, who would fain, as witness for Christ, publish the glad tidings of their own heart-experiences of his saving power, at least in the social assembly.

Palmer’s fiery message recognized the gifts and calling of both men and women and inspired some of the nineteenth century’s greatest social organizations. As noted in her address above, by using phrases such as “their own heart-experiences,” Palmer was intentionally demonstrating that faith and roles within faith communities are not gender specific. It was revolutionary for the time period. Typically speakers would use the masculine pronoun “his” instead of “their.” Even in her choice of phrasing Palmer was pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable rhetorical phrasing.

Her influence on later nineteenth century women activists such as Willard and on Free Methodist founder Roberts were significant, and in the next few posts I’ll be drawing connections between Roberts’ and Palmer’s beliefs on sanctification and in spiritual equality. Palmer influenced both Roberts and his wife Ellen. Ellen regularly attended Walter Palmer’s Thursday night prayer meetings that Palmer also taught at (Snyder, 2006).  It cannot be denied that Palmer’s views on Methodist theology were influential in early Free Methodism.  While no Free Methodist scholar would disagree with me; it’s an area of study that still needs substantial exploration.


Additional Sources:

Patricia Bizzell. “Frances Willard, Phoebe Palmer, and the Ethos of the Methodist Woman Preacher,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 36(2006).

Lucy Lind Hogan. “Negotiating Personhood, Womanhood, and Spiritual Equality: Phoebe Palmer’s Defense of Women Preaching.”  The American Transcendental Quarterly, 2000.

Phoebe Palmer. “Tongue of Fire on the Daughters of the Lord,” in The Rhetorical Tradition:

Readings from Classical Times to Present eds. Patricia Bizzell & Bruce Herzberg (Boston:

Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 1107-1108.

Howard Snyder. Populist Saints: B.T. and Ellen Roberts and the First Free Methodists. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2006)

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