This week’s blog continues our series on American Church History. This week we are looking at the life and writings of Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874). She was a well-known Methodist leader who taught that personal, “inward holiness” was what one ought to strive for in his or her faith (Gaustad and Noll, 405). She was a leader of the holiness movement and was very well-known as a speaker. She wrote The Way of Holiness and delivered many public addresses. We will examine The Way of Holiness in today’s blog.
Palmer wrote the book in the third person, describing her own life (Gaustad and Noll, 415). Palmer describes, “And now, realizing that she was engaged in a transaction eternal in its consequences… said, ‘O, Lord, I call heaven and earth to witness that I now lay body, soul, and spirit, with all these redeemed powers, upon thine altar, to be forever Thine! ‘Tis done! Thou has promised to receive me! Thou canst not be unfaithful!'” (Gaustad and Noll, 415-16, emphasis present).
The teaching of internal sanctification comes through Palmer’s writing here. One can see that she views a sacrifice of her entire body, soul, and spirit upon God’s altar. She notes that God promises to receive such a gift and further states that “I am thine–wholly thine!” (416). I wonder when reading Palmer’s own words whether or not many Christians today see faith in a similar manner. I am not necessarily talking about the holiness tradition here. I mean that Palmer’s enthusiasm and trust in God demonstrate just how fervently she believed in her faith. When we go to church, or pray, or serve, or share the Gospel, are we engaging our body, soul, and spirit together? Are we “laying them down upon God’s altar?” Or are we simply doing these things because we think we have to? I know I have been guilty in the past of “going through the motions” in my own faith.
While I do like Palmer’s wording above, I want to focus the rest of the blog on an image she uses. Palmer writes, “She felt in experimental verity that it was not in vain she had believed; her very existence seemed lost and swallowed up in God; she plunged, as it were into an immeasurable ocean of love, light, and power, and realized that she was encompassed with the ‘favor of the Almighty as with a shield; and felt assured, while she continued thus, to rest her entire being on the faithfulness of God'” (416).
There are a few phrases that are key here. The first being that “her very existence seemed lost and swallowed up in God.” Such a statement links up with what many of us would state; that our lives after giving them over to God have been entirely transformed and redeemed. Put another way, we can’t really remember what life was like before we gave ourselves over to God (unless yours is a very recent conversion). I think that is the power of God’s message: that God’s work is so transformative that we begin a new type of God-life in which we exist and cannot remember our old life apart from God.
The second key phrase that I wanted to focus on is that God should be seen as an “ocean of love, light, and power.” I love such a picture. It arrives on the tail of the previous phrase that one is “swallowed up in God.” One can use the image of putting a drop of vinegar into the ocean; i.e that such a small amount does not change the make-up of the ocean itself. It is still salt water despite the addition of a new substance. Going further, the vastness of the ocean (one of the most daunting, intimidating, and fear-inspiring things on earth is the perfect image to use for God. The ocean’s depths and power and magnitude are how one can visualize God’s love, light, and power. God’s love runs so deep that it seems one cannot find the bottom to it. God’s light is as vast as the endless horizon on the surface of the ocean. God’s power is akin to the power of the ocean; which can bring life and also bring terrifying destruction.
Phoebe Palmer’s understanding of holiness and sanctification thus is two-fold. The first requires a submission of one’s body, soul, and spirit. The second is that one must allow him or herself to be swallowed up in God’s ocean of love, light, and power. The continual practice of such a faith can ultimately lead to us being found as true children of God. One can see why Palmer would be so popular and successful as a teacher in the 19th century. Her message of God’s love spoke to people in a turbulent time: on the eve of the Civil War and during many of the slavery debates in the United States. The turbulent nature of this country unfortunately has not yet yielded to peaceful, tranquil times. Palmer’s teaching could still address many issues in our country today. How many of our troubles could be solved if we simply dove in to the ocean of God? No one can know for sure, but it could be a great start.