Christian History Home > 2004 > Holy America, Phoebe!
Holy America, Phoebe!
It swept across church lines, transforming America's urban landscape with its rescue missions and storefront churches. Yet today, the "holiness movement" and its charismatic woman leader are all but forgotten.
America's modernized, industrialized, consumerized, urbanized, television-ized culture doesn't make it easy for its Christian believers to live consistently holy lives. Today we will meet a group of people who took up this challenge and changed America forever. We will also meet the extraordinary woman who led their movement: a middle-class matron named Phoebe Palmer.
Behind the News
Even in the whirl of a swiftly secularizing society, Americans have always found ways to pursue holiness. Some—like the Old Order Amish and Benedictine monastics—have entered enclaves and taken countercultural vows of abstinence and obedience. They would tell you that America is simply too easy to love, and that the only way to lead a God-honoring life surrounded by the secularized masses is to "come out from among them" (2 Corinthians 6:17).
Others, though equally wary of the many traps American culture sets for the feet of the disciple, have dedicated themselves to seeking holiness in the thick of things. Executives, laborers, soldiers, teachers, stay-at-home parents … these intrepid souls have tried to live holy lives right out in the marketplace—pursuing John the Disciple's fine art of "being in but not of the world" (John 17:14-16).
Of course, the problem of living holy in an unholy world is not uniquely American—or uniquely modern. Yet, at certain times and places, the Christian battle for personal and public holiness has become more intense.
One such time and place was the mid-1700s on the teeming, industrializing landscape of England. There, amidst a close circle of Oxford friends derisively labeled "the Holy Club" by less spiritually earnest undergraduates, John Wesley caught his namesake John the Disciple's vision of an engaged holiness. He began to gather non-Christians and nominal Christians—anyone who could honestly say that they were "fleeing the wrath to come"—into small groups and catch them up in the quest to "become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe" (Philippians 2:15).
Soon Wesley's first, small constellation of "Methodist" believers grew into a galaxy of thousands—launching the transatlantic evangelical revival of the eighteenth century.
During Wesley's day, thousands of Americans were also experiencing Christian salvation and beginning to learn what it means to live for heaven in an often-unsympathetic world. These were the converts of the Great Awakening, swept into the faith by such preaching stars as the Connecticut pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards and the Englishman George Whitefield (a member of Wesley's Oxford "Holy Club").
Soon after the heyday of the 1740s, the glow of revival receded for a time. Then, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, it re-kindled on the American frontier, drawing new strength through the camp meetings and circuit riders of that brawling, sprawling age. More often than not, the Methodists led the way.
Nothing seems to douse revival like prosperity, however. By the mid-1800s the Victorian era was in full swing, and churches founded in the white heat of frontier enthusiasm were building lavish faux-gothic facades and enjoying the refined preaching of educated, citified ministers.
In reaction, many Victorian American Methodists yearned to experience again the fiery devotion of their parents and grandparents. It was no lukewarm, respectable "churchianity," they insisted, that had propelled John Wesley's movement for salvation and holy living across the Atlantic and into the groves and cabins of the American frontier—breaking down human hearts and building them up again.
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