II.F.1 Phoebe Palmer’s “Altar Theology”

Part II  –  Application to Reformed & Evangelical Theology

Subpart F  –  The Holiness Movement

Article 1 – PHOEBE PALMER’S “ALTAR THEOLOGY”

a.  Methodist-Vacillation in Respect to Wesleyan-Doctrine

b.  Phoebe Palmer & Altar Theology

c.  “Altar Theology” as New Prism Interpreting Religious-Experience

d.   Historical Criticism of Palmer’s Teaching

 Article 1 – PHOEBE PALMER’S “ALTAR THEOLOGY”

a.  Methodist-Vacillation in Respect to Wesleyan-Teaching 

In the decades following Wesley, Methodism experienced an ebb and flow in respect to the doctrine of an instantaneous event of sanctification.  The historical pattern typically involved a generalized neglect of Wesleyan-teaching by Methodist-leadership resulting in a gradual declension from first-principles.  Methodism would neglect its Wesleyan roots and draw away toward a view of salvation which treated holiness as an exclusively progressive-experience.  Occasionally, stalwarts of Holiness-teaching would rise-up and forcefully remind Methodism of its Wesleyan-roots resulting in a new zeal for Wesleyan-teaching and periods of spiritual-renewal.  Since the days of Wesley there remained a persistent tension between the Progressive and the Holiness factions within Methodism – the latter holding firm to the Methodist-distinctive (some say its “crowning” doctrine) of sanctification as a “second-definite work of grace”.

b.  Phoebe Palmer & Altar Theology

Devotion to the Wesleyan teaching of an instantaneous-experience of sanctification was renewed in the 1830’s through the teachings of Phoebe Palmer.   Palmer went on to become extremely influential in the nineteenth-century Holiness Movement and is considered one of its primary founders.

Phoebe and her husband, a homeopathic physician – were devout Methodists.  Mrs. Palmer began teaching in her sister’s New York City home in meetings that would become famous, known as the Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness.   She began leading these meetings in 1837 and as the result of the interest which her meetings generated they were opened to men in 1839.  Her meetings had the sanction of Methodist officials and were even attended by some of the bishops of the Methodist church.

It may be relevant to any discussion of her theology that prior to this time the Palmers had suffered the loss of three children, the last being a truly horrific accident in which her infant daughter burned alive in her crib.     She cites to these experiences as factoring heavily into her spiritual life, stating that her children had been “idols” to her.  Palmer identifies the loss of her last child – through burning – as the time she turned to God, rather than away from Him.[1]  Both Mrs. Palmer and her husband claimed to having experienced an event of entire sanctification just-prior to her commencing upon teaching the experience to others.

Mrs. Palmer’s teachings renewed attention to the Wesleyan doctrine that had been falling into neglect over the previous few decades, ie. sanctification as a “second definite work”.   What was distinctive about Palmer’s theology however was that she declared a “shorter way” to that experience.  Palmer’s “shorter way” asserted that by making an immediate and volitional full consecration to Christ, one would come into a self initiated crisis experience of sanctification.   The doctrine presented Christ as being the “sanctifying altar” upon which we lay down our gift, which should then be immediately sanctified, cleansing the believer from all inbred sin and rendering him/her perfect in love.  Palmer wrote her treatise in the third person:

“I have thought”, said he, “whether there is not a shorter way of getting into this way of holiness than some of our brethren apprehend?”  “Yes”, said the sister addressed, . . . “Yes, brother, there is a shorter way!  O!  I am sure this long waiting and struggling with the powers of darkness is not necessary.  There is a shorter way.”[2]

Upon making this consecration upon the altar the experience was to have been complete and the individual could therefore make a claim of sanctification.  He/she was officially and forever  cleansed from all inbred sin and thereby made perfect in love.  Upon receiving the experience, the believer was told they must “testify” or risk losing their newly consecrated state.   She writes:

The Spirit then suggested, If it is a gift from God, God is not exclusive in the impartation of his gifts and you will be required to declare it; to declare it as his gift, through our Lord Jesus Christ, ready for the acceptance of all, as his free gift; and this, if you would retain the blessing, will not be left to your own choice.  You will be called to profess this blessing before thousands!  Can you do it?[3]

Mrs. Palmer maintained that the “witness of the Spirit”, foretold by John Wesley, would come thereafter, which necessarily contemplated the baptism in the Holy Spirit.   She taught that the “second blessing” should be claimed by faith regardless of whether one actually perceived or felt anything at all.

The doctrine that Phoebe Palmer advanced became known as “altar theology”, and achieved  wide attention through its publishing in Thomas Merritt’s periodical; The Guide to Holiness.    Palmer then had a book published called; The Way of Holiness which became foundational doctrine for the holiness movement.  Her teachings had a profound influence on Methodism, as well as on such notable leaders of Holiness ranks as A.B. Simpson, Charles Cullis, and A.J. Gordon.

c.  “Altar Theology” as a New Prism Interpreting Religious-Experience

Palmer’s teaching began to filter into the established Wesleyan belief system and so became something of a prism through which many Methodists perceived their experiences with God.  An example of the incorporation of altar theology into experience can be found in the published testimony of one, Luke Woodard, related in 1887 at the age of 55.  After giving an account of his dramatic conviction of sin and conversion at age 25, followed by a time preaching Christ, he relates as follows: [4]

Some years after I began to preach, while realizing that I had not lost my hold on Christ or backslidden, I became conscious of internal conflicts like that described in the 7th of Romans. I understood the full meaning of the words, “If I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”   By a combination of providential occurrencesI was brought to understand, in a measure, the doctrine of entire sanctification as a result of the baptism with the Holy Ghost, received upon condition of definite consecration to God and the prayer of faith.Here Satan took advantage, and presented the fearful responsibility involved in such a consecration as I saw it to be, to give myself wholly and forever to God.  I saw it meant more than to consecrate myself to His service in any particular work. It was like signing a blank sheet, leaving it for God to fill out as He chose. The devil paraded before me the possibility that I might be called to go to Africa, and this I feared I would not do, and he made me believe it was “better not to vow than to vow and not pay.”  Now my agony of soul became great. It was like Bunyan’s pilgrim’s fight with Apollyon. I many times groaned, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”

He then describes his baptism as follows:

At length, while engaged with some brethren in Michigan in holding some meetings in the autumn of 1871, I heard yet more definite instruction on this most important feature of Christian experience. Early in the morning of October 31 of this year, in the city of Adrian, as I was communing with my own heart upon my bed alone, I made this resolve: “I will go to the meeting this morning, and there, it may be, I will receive the longed-for baptism,” when something seemed to whisper, “Why not now?” And at once, I responded, “And why not now?”  I hardly knew how, but O, such a flood of glory as covered me. My whole being seemed permeated with divine power and joy unspeakable. I wept tears of joy.   That morning I made a formal consecration at the family altar, and went to the meeting and testified to what God had done for my soul. The first test I had was the suggestion that when I returned home I should say nothing about it, or speak of it only in general terms and let people judge from my life. But I soon saw that my covenant of consecration meant to speak for God as His witness, and He gave me the victory. I have not been free from various tests and severe temptations, but the gracious Lord has been with me, and while there have been times of momentary wavering yet at no time have I lapsed entirely from this experience, and the Lord has taught me many precious lessons of His truth, and blessed to my greater establishment in holiness some very severe trials; and through the exceeding riches of His grace I can now say the blood cleanseth and the Comforter abideth within my heart. Glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

Clearly, this man had profound spiritual experiences.   But consider this is not a testimony we would expect to hear outside of his generation.  For instance, when we hear someone’s testimony about receiving the Holy Spirit, we might expect to hear an account involving speaking in tongues.  We might not expect to hear the topic of consecration raised in connection with the baptism in the Holy Ghost.  Also clear, is that he interpreted his experiences through the prevalent Methodist doctrine of his day, ie. Palmer’s altar theology.  While Mr. Woodard describes nothing from an objective standpoint that we would count unusual in the way of religious experience, ie. he describes only such things as joy (among other emotions), it is his interpretation of experience that renders his testimony distinctive.  And Woodward’s account is representative of many of his generation whose interpretation of religious experience was saturated by Palmer’s teaching.

d.  Historical Criticism of Palmer’s Teaching

Altar theology was not without controversy in its day.  One notable critic of her theology was the venerable Methodist leader, Nathan Bangs, who called it “easy believism” and warned that the blessing of sanctification should not be claimed until such time as the Holy Spirit testified that the work in the soul had been complete.[5]  Bangs’ criticisms were joined by many within Methodism who rejected her teachings as presumption.

There were also many for whom personal experience with this teaching turned them away from Wesleyan doctrine and any hope of an instantaneous-work of sanctification.  One particularly consequential example is the case of the Rev. James Mudge, the man perhaps most singularly responsible for driving the Holiness Movement out of the Methodist church in the latter part of the nineteenth-century.  In his youth, Mudge struggled with the expectation of an instantaneous sanctification.  Under the influences of Ms. Palmer’s teachings he was advised to receive his experience with God “by faith” without expecting any real feelings.  Years later, he looked back on this experience with much skepticism.[6]  He determined later in life that the work of sanctification had not been completed in his life, and commenced upon an offensive against Wesleyan teaching in the Methodist Church entirely.  He would eventually be successful in turning the tide against Wesleyan holiness doctrine that brought its official and drastic repudiation by the Methodist Episcopal Church, and resulting in the mass exodus from Methodism that occurred in the 1890’s.

We will examine the doctrine of Phoebe Palmer further in a later article.


[1] Healing & Revival, biography of Phoebe Worall Palmer, healingandrevival.com  7/25/2011

[2] The Way of Holiness, by Phoebe Palmer, Division 1, §1

[3] The Way of Holiness, by Phoebe Palmer, Division 1, §7

[4] How They Entered Canaan, A Collection of Holiness Experience Accounts, Compiled by Duane V. Maxey, Vol. I — Named Accounts LUKE WOODARD  (Society of Friends) Source: “Forty Witnesses” by S. Olin Garrison, taken from http://www.wesley.nnu.edu

[5] Wesleyan-Holiness Aspects of Pentecostal Origins; As Mediated through the 19th Century Holiness Revival, by Melvin E. Dieter as contributing to Aspects of Pentecostal and Charismatic Origins, Edited by Vinson Synan © 1975  Logos International at pg. 65.

[6] The Meaning of Pentecost in Early Methodism by Laurence W. Wood © 2002, The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Lanham, Maryland, & Oxford at page 318.

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About Lamp-Stand

I was converted to the faith of Jesus Christ in 1982 at which time I received water baptism and Spirit baptism. In the Spring of 2008 I was led of the Spirit through a process of repentance upon which I had an encounter with Christ that worked a profound change upon my inner being. I became aware that I had been forgiven a great debt of sin. I soon felt the Lord's direction that I close my office that my energies not be divided from the study of doctrine.
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One Response to II.F.1 Phoebe Palmer’s “Altar Theology”

  1. Pingback: Dear Salvation Army, What’s The Reason For The Holiness Table? – Pastor's Ponderings

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