In Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster examines six great traditions of the Christian Faith: Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical, and Incarnational. Within each tradition, he highlights a biblical, historical, and contemporary example as models we can follow as we seek to grow in these areas. For the Holiness tradition he chose Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) for the historical paradigm. Deeply moved by her story, I have added her to my list of heroes in the faith.
Foster writes thatPhoebe’s “third child Eliza, died under especially tragic circumstances: a maid accidentally dropped a lit oil lamp on the gauze curtain covering the baby’s crib, causing a terrible flash fire. Rushing upstairs, Phoebe ‘grasped my darling from the flames. She darted one inexpressible look of amazement and pity, on her agonized mother, and closed her eyes forever on the scenes of the earth.’” (from Phoebe Palmer: Selected Writings)
“The loss was a critical turning point. In what she called her ‘inexpressible bewilderment of grief,’ Phoebe turned to her Bible—and to her God—for consolation. Her own words best describe the agony of that time:
While pacing the room, crying to God, amid the tumult of grief, my mind was arrested by a gentle whisper, saying, “Your Heavenly Father loves you. He would not permit such a great trial, without intending that some great good proportionate in magnitude and weight should result.”...In the agony of my soul I had exclaimed, “O, what shall I do!” And the answer now came, —“Be still and know that I am God.” I took up the precious WORD, and cried, “O teach me the lesson of this trial,” and the first lines to catch my eye on opening the Bible were these, “O, the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out!”...The tumult of feeling was hushed...”What thou knowest not now, thou shalt know hereafter,” was assuringly whispered. Wholly subdued before the Lord, my chastened spirit nestled in quietness under the wing of the Holy Comforter...And now I have resolved, that...the time I would have devoted to her, shall be spent in work for Jesus. And if diligent and self-sacrificing in carrying out my resolve, the death of this child may result in the spiritual life of many.” (ibid)
“Long hours of prayerful searching and biblical study led her to what she would later call her “day of days.” It was almost exactly one year after the terrible death of Eliza that Phoebe had a decisive experience of total consecration and sanctifying grace—one that would energize the remainder of her life. Again her descriptive powers are so great that they cannot be improved upon:
Between the hours of eight and nine (in the evening)—while pleading at the throne of grace for a present fulfillment of the exceeding great and precious promises; pleading also the fullness and freeness of the atonement, its unbounded efficacy, and making an entire surrender of body, soul, and spirit; time, talents, and influence; and also of the dearest ties of nature, my beloved husband and child, in a word, my earthly all—I received the assurance that God the Father, through the atoning Lamb, accepted the sacrifice; my heart was emptied of self, and cleansed of all idols, from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, and I realized that I dwelt in God, and felt that he had become the portion of my soul, my
ALL IN ALL. (ibid)
This profound “
,” as she called it, led to the development of her “altar theology.” That teaching, in brief, says that Christ himself is the altar upon which we rest our all in sacrifice, and since everything that touches the altar is holy, we are holy when we place everything we are upon the altar. We, therefore, live in a state of holiness and sanctification as we continually give ourselves as a living sacrifice to Christ, our altar.” Valley of Decision
God, thank you for the example of Phoebe Palmer, who turned to you in her inexpressible bewilderment of grief. Thank you for the answer you gave her: that because of your deep love, you would not permit such a great trial without a great good proportionate in magnitude and weight. Thank you for your assurance to her: that what she knew not then, she would know later. Then her spirit could nestle in quietness under your wing of comfort. Thank you for her example in emptying herself of everything, that she could be fully yours. May we also live our lives at the altar of Christ, offering ourselves as living sacrifices, as we follow her example of holiness.