Saturday, March 8, 2014

Forgotten Women in Chuch History: The Great Triumvirate - Phoebe Palmer, Catherine Booth and Hannah Whitall Smith

The theme of this year's Women's History Month is "Celebrating Women of Character, Courage and Commitment."  My "Forgotten Women in Church History" series is now up to the mid-1800s, which ushered in the first prominent, public and professional ministries of Protestant women.  Daughters of the Church calls three of these "the great triumvirate" - Phoebe Palmer, Catherine Booth and Hannah Whitall Smith, who all encapsulate this year's theme.

But while the successes of these women were well publicized in their day, Christian history often passes them by.  The book Church History in Plain Language, for instance, has this to say about the founding of the Salvation Army (Third Edition, p. 411):
The most outstanding example of a ministry to the dispossessed was the work of a pietistic evangelical William Booth (1829-1912).  He started the ministry with the Methodist New Connection but soon withdrew to work with London's poor.  His street preaching in London's East End in 1864 met with phenomenal success. . . His workers, organized like a military unit, were soon called the Salvation Army. Evangelist Booth became General Booth.
Catherine Booth has no mention in this book.  And yet the Salvation Army was actually in every way the joint creation of William Booth and his wife, as William Booth himself would have testified! However, Church History in Plain Language not only fails to name her, it also speaks of the Holiness Movement (p. 432) while failing to mention Phoebe Palmer or Hannah Whitall Smith, who were instrumental, if not indispensable, in that movement.

These three women were contemporaries, members of husband-wife teams in which "the women [were] more prominent or equally prominent in each case (Daughters of the Church, p. 261)." All were connected to sectarian movements that "recognized special calls to ministry over and above ordination (Daughters, p. 258)":
The nineteenth century, more than any century before, was one of "women preachers." Most of these women were not ordained, and did not have their own parish, but they nevertheless "preached," attaining wide recognition.  They moved across denominational barriers and sometimes even in circles of high social standing.  This was indeed a new phenomenon in religious life-- one that prompted strong criticism from more traditional elements in the established churches. . . As had been true in previous centuries, the "call" was a very important factor in justifying a woman's role in Christian ministry.
Booth, Palmer and Smith all testified to receiving such a call, and all found well-publicized success in part through the cooperation and support of their husbands, whose own calls to public ministry were of course unquestioned.  In addition, each of these women introduced her own new contribution to the particular doctrinal emphasis of the movement with which she was associated.

Phoebe Palmer

According to ChristianHistory.Net, Phoebe Palmer was
one of those cases of someone almost unknown today, who actually left a Rushmore-sized impression on America's religious landscape.  Phoebe Palmer was the most influential woman in the largest, fastest-growing religious group in mid-19th-century America—Methodism. By her initiative, missions were begun, camp-meetings instituted, and many thousands attested to the transforming power of divine grace. She mothered a nationwide movement that birthed such denominations as the Church of the Nazarene and the Salvation Army, bridged 18th-century Methodist revivalism to 20th-century Pentecostalism, and pioneered in social reform and female ministry. . . [T]his included ministering to Methodist bishops in her parlor, launching benevolent missions in the worst slums of New York, mobilizing an army of lay evangelists, writing impassioned biblical arguments for women in ministry, and preaching on two continents. And as she did these things, she helped launch a revival that changed a nation.
Palmer began holding informal prayer meetings called "Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness" in the 1830s.  This inspired other women to begin the same type of meetings, which "sprang up all over the country" and "had a significant influence also outside Methodist circles, particularly among Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Baptists and Quakers (Daughters, p. 261-262)."   Palmer's "crowning achievement" was the Five Points Mission, which housed and provided schooling, both secular and religious, to about twenty poor families in New York.

In the fall of 1857 Palmer and her husband Walter spoke in Ontario, Canada, attracting large crowds, and a religious renewal sprang up which quickly spread back to America and then to England.  "At the time of her death, she was credited with having brought some 25,000 people to Christ for salvation (Daughters, p. 263)."

But the main emphasis of Palmer's teachings was her view of the Wesleyan doctrine of "entire sanctification."  John Wesley had believed that a disciplined life could lead eventually to an attainment of "perfect love" in Christ during life on this earth.  Palmer, however, was "proposing a radically new concept" -- that this blessing was "available the moment a Christian consecrated everything to God" and that "all an individual needed to do was to become a 'living sacrifice on the altar of Jesus Christ.'" Though this teaching was controversial, its emphasis on a grace-filled encounter with Christ as a "second blessing" for Christians drew many into a closer relationship with God.

A detailed survey of the life and ministry of Phoebe Palmer can also be found on Marg Mowczko's New Life blog.

Catherine Booth

Catherine Booth's husband William Booth was a prominent Methodist preacher in England.  Criticism of Phoebe Palmer's right to preach led Catherine to write a pamphlet entitled Female Ministry: Or, a Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel in 1859.  ChristianHistory.Net summarizes the pamphlet as follows:
[It was] a short, powerful defense of American Phoebe Palmer's holiness ministry. It was not a plea based on natural rights or other feminist themes of the day. Instead, she founded her argument on the absolute equality of men and women before God. She acknowledged that the Fall had put women into subjection, as a consequence of sin, but to leave them there, she said, was to reject the good news of the gospel, which proclaimed that the grace of Christ had restored what sin had taken away. Now all men and women were one in Christ. 
In responding to her critics, she asked, "If the Word of God forbids female ministry, we would ask how it happens that so many of the most devoted handmaidens of the Lord have felt constrained by the Holy Ghost to exercise it? … The Word and the Spirit cannot contradict each other."
ChristianHistory.Net adds, "When she shared her emerging convictions with her new husband, he said, 'I would not stop a woman preaching on any account.' But he added that neither would he 'encourage one to begin.'"

Encouraged or not, it was about a year later that Catherine felt an inner prompting to rise after one of William's Sunday morning sermons and begin to speak.  Daughters of the Church says that "William was as surprised as anyone when she made her sudden announcement, but he quickly recovered, and when she had finished, he announced that she would preach that evening." (p. 264)

When, shortly afterwards, William became ill, Catherine found herself taking over his entire preaching circuit.  When he recovered, they left the Methodists to start their own revivalist ministry in London.  Catherine began preaching in the wealthy West End, while William began his very successful ministry to the poor in the East End.  But she soon joined him in city mission work, taking on a special ministry of rescuing women from prostitution.  Out of this joining of forces, the Salvation Army came into being-- and right from the start it encouraged the full involvement of women in ministry, and about half its ministers in the field were women.

The Booths then decided to spread the movement to America, sending a special team of women known as "The Splendid Seven" to preach the gospel and establish ministry to the poor.  The Army was widely scorned by "virtually every sector of society," and many Army workers, men and women alike, were often victims of assault (Daughters, p. 267). But the Booths persevered, and their children took up the banner of service after them-- most notably Evangeline Booth, who began preaching at the age of 15 and eventually became General of the worldwide movement.

Catherine Booth's special contribution to the doctrines of her movement was that whereas Phoebe Palmer had seen herself as an exception to women's usual domestic role, Booth insisted on the full equality and full contribution of women in ministry and in marriage.  Indeed, in her preaching ability she surpassed the men of her day, as Norman Murdoch wrote:
Many agree, no man of her era exceeded her in popularity or spiritual results, including her own husband. (from Church History magazine, September 1984; quoted in Daughters of the Church, p. 267.)

Hannah Whitall Smith

Hannah Whitall Smith was raised Quaker and is best known for her devotional book The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life.  She was married to Quaker minister Robert Pearsall Smith, and according to ChristianHistory.Net:
The two Smiths inspired the British Keswick movement, a non-Wesleyan holiness stream that would become highly influential back in America. Hannah was the more theologically astute as well as the more personally stable of the two, and her public appearances were noted for their quiet logic and their lack of the emotional appeals that Victorians associated with "feminine" rhetoric. It was Robert who experienced a "magnetic thrill of heavenly delight" in his 1867 "second blessing" experience, while Hannah's holiness teaching emphasized the subordinate role of feelings.
Hannah emphasized surrender and total abandonment to God:  "In order for a lump of clay to be made into a beautiful vessel, it must be entirely abandoned to the potter, and must lie passive in his hands."  In the 1870's she and her husband conducted a series of meetings in England in which she was hailed as "the angel of the churches (Daughters, p. 268)." Though their ministry eventually ended in a scandal caused by Robert's misconduct with a young woman, Hannah Whitall Smith continued to make public appearances from time to time, including a promotion of women preachers in London in 1895.

ChristianHistory.Net goes on to speak of the "Keswick" group that arose out of Hannah's "Deeper Life Movement":
The legacy of the Smiths lived on. . . in the English "Keswick" conferences, which began in the 1870s and continue today. Keswick participants—a denominationally mixed but predominantly Anglican group—preferred Boardman's term "the higher Christian life" to the more radical Wesleyan language of "entire sanctification" or "perfection." They denied that sinful tendencies could be eradicated (as many American Methodists believed). Instead, they taught that sin was counteracted by the experience of "baptism with the Spirit," allowing for a joyful and victorious Christian life.
Out of this movement came the ministry of Dwight L. Moody, and it also led eventually to the rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements.


All three of these women profoundly influenced Protestant Christianity as we know it today.  As ChristianHistory.Net puts it:
Throughout Christian history, from the martyrs and monastics to the Puritans and Pietists, movements have arisen in pursuit of a deeper devotion and more active Christlikeness.
Palmer, Booth and Smith took up just such a pursuit, and the movements that they helped engender are still bearing fruit today. In fact, the holiness movement was largely dependent on the contributions of these women and others like them, and it's impossible to fully account for this major movement and its descendant movements in Christian history, without the actions of women.

Even though we may not agree with everything they taught (nor did they always agree with each other), Palmer, Booth and Smith did agree on the beauty and holiness of Christ and our need to connect with Him as branches do to the vine (John 15:5).  As women of character, courage and commitment whose legacy lives beyond them, this "great triumvirate" of mid-19th-century women preachers should not be forgotten.

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