We looked at Phoebe Palmer in History of Evangelicalism this week. I’ve come across her before but the lecture gave me reason to read a bit more on one of the most prominent Christian women of the nineteenth century. Authoring 18 books, editing a leading Christian magazine and preaching on two continents resulting in an estimated 20 000 conversions, she was indeed a woman of power!
Palmer’s an interesting woman for her take on femininity. She was basically pretty conservative in her approach to the role of women in society but she herself was involved in ministries normally reserved for men. She’s a fascinating mix:
- She was a middle-class woman with a wealthy husband who had three children, two of whom died in infancy and the third who was burnt to death in an accident with a lamp. She believed the death of her children was God telling her that she had made an idol of them and needed to be fully committed to him.
- She never engaged in social reform for women. While she qualified that wifely submission was not male dominance or female inequality, she did believe wives should submit to their husbands even if the latter were unwise or less intelligent. She also thought that raising children was a significant responsibility and that this was a holy trust given to women.
- She lamented that women used their role in marriage and family as an excuse to leave the gifts that God had given them dormant. As far as she was concerned, this was just laying up treasures on earth!
- She publicly criticized men who prohibited women from teaching and leadership roles but she never expected that these roles were normative for women. She saw them as special occasions, citing Deborah as her example.
- She maintained that the answer to the inequality of women was greater holiness and that the Spirit would convict men of where things needed to change.
- She didn’t call herself a ‘preacher’ but that wasn’t anything to do with her gender – it was because she thought that preachers were too often only on about their own egos or theological hair-splitting and she didn’t want to be associated with that!
- She’s prior to the early feminist movements so her reasons weren’t about women’s rights. They’re motivated more by revivalism and her understanding of Pentecost.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.