She grew up as Phoebe Worrall in New York City, in the early years of the nineteenth century, and was active in the American Methodist Episcopal Church. She married Walter C. Palmer in 1827, and soon began to be involved in the leadership of a weekly prayer and Bible study group, devoted the pursuing Christian perfection. (Following its founder, John Wesley, the Methodist church believed that God would sometimes allow believers to conquer their own sin completely; this was called Christian perfection.)
Phoebe began to be invited to speak outside of New York, and began to write. In 1843 she published a book called The Way of Holiness that was extremely popular throughout her life; nearly twenty other books followed, and she preached across America and the United Kingdom.
She stressed the idea that God could and would give the blessing of holiness in an instant to a believer, and taught that holiness would be gained by faith. This teaching gave rise to the Holiness Movement, which by 1900 had changed the beliefs and practices of almost every evangelical church in America and Britain. Her ideas influenced the early Pentecostal movement, and the modern charismatic movement.
She preached regularly at evangelistic meetings, and something like 25 000 people were converted by her ministry. She did not often encounter criticism for presuming to preach as a woman, but eventually she wrote a defence of the ministry of women, The Promise of the Father (1859). She argued that it was a clear mark that the gift of the Holy Spirit had come that women as well as men could ‘prophesy’, which to her meant preach powerfully and evangelistically to spread the gospel.
Alongside her other works, she was deeply involved in compassionate ministry. She visited prisons regularly, ran a society helping poor people in need of medical attention, and was involved in an ambitious project to challenge the new problem of urban poverty through the provision of low-cost housing, free schooling, and employment. She had a particular concern for orphans throughout her life.
Phoebe Palmer’s influence and writings were so compelling that most of the new denominations that arose out of the holiness movement accepted the ministry of women as Biblical and appropriate without question. By any standards, she was one of the most powerful preachers, and most influential leaders, of nineteenth-century American evangelicalism.
Background details on Phoebe Palmer can be found here.