To The Least of These: Phoebe Palmer


Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874). Evangelist and Social Reformer.

Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874). Evangelist and Social Reformer.

On the night of July 29, 1836, Phoebe Palmer had rocked her 11-month-old daughter to sleep, and placed her in her crib. A few minutes later, a carelessly handled oil lamp landed in the crib, pouring hot and burning oil on the child. Within a few hours, the child was dead, and Phoebe Palmer’s life was in bitter agony. This was her third child lost in infancy. Why had God allowed this to happen? This may sound harsh to us today, but Phoebe wondered if perhaps she had loved her child too much, making her daughter into an idol. A year later, Phoebe had a profound encounter with Jesus Christ. Her “heart was emptied of self and cleansed of all idols” and she had come to know the Lord as being her “ALL IN ALL”.

Phoebe Palmer was the firebrand of the 19th century American Holiness movement. Known for her strict and disciplined moral code, such as completely opposing the use of alcohol, Palmer became a passionate speaker and group organizer, laying the groundwork for the later revivals of evangelist Dwight L. Moody. You did not mess with Phoebe Palmer, even if some might think her a bit quirky. On a visit to England, she wrote letters to Queen Victoria pleading that her Majesty’s band not perform on Sundays, the “Lord’s Day.” On the ship crossing the Atlantic, she started several prayer meetings with strangers and chided the male clergy on board for not doing the same.

But there was more to Palmer.

Palmer’s experience with Christ led her to start numerous outreaches to the poor and destitute. She would organize groups of women to assist orphans and prostitutes in New York City’s most famous slum area of the time, Five Forks. She helped unemployed men find work. She worked to start new churches in poor neighborhoods. She took food and medicine to families in need.

In the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus speaks of those who fed him when he was hungry, befriended him when he was a stranger, and gave him clothes when he was without. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.”  Scholars debate over who are the “least of these”. Are they all poor people? Or are they just fellow Christians who are in need?

My sense is that Phoebe Palmer did not bother with such a debate. She simply saw the need and sought to meet it. She wanted to love people, particularly poor people into the Kingdom of Heaven that Matthew keeps talking about in his Gospel. If loving Jesus meant reaching out to people who were lost and hurting, she simply did it.

I wonder. What would it take for you and me to have such desire to share the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven with others like that?



  1. As our friend Jim Davis says, some questions are the wrong questions. Debating where the cut line is in the list of those we are to help would be one of those wrong questions. Great post.

  2. Reblogged this on Veracity and commented:
    It has been said that behind every successful man is a remarkably great woman who has made that man who he is. How true that is! I do not know how I qualify, but as a married guy myself, I am surely thankful for my bride and all that she does to support me!

    Women have often been sadly neglected in the history of church. But the truth is that the church never would have grown as it has apart from the contribution of women raised by God to serve His purposes. These women need to be remembered, honored, and celebrated.

    One of the greatest forgotten women in the church was the 19th century Phoebe Palmer. The following blog post in our Lenten series gives you an introduction to this extraordinary woman….

  3. Thank you for sharing her story. Not just because I am a woman too 🙂 I needed to hear this today.
    I liked the part about the “least of these “. I believe do look at this in a worldly sense or view at times ( as in its all about poverty lines ).
    God through his Holy Spirit can show us who “the least of these ” are and maybe they are ourselves at times.

  4. I also liked the ” what seems harsh today”, because it’s true we can make people and other things in life idols. And from society’s standpoint or from outward surfaces it doesn’t look all that bad or wrong. However it seems she looked at her life deeply and reverently and saw the separation from God. Her repentance and encounter with Jesus allowed so many great things come to fruition. Again- great story to share 🙂

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