Mystical and Missional: Elaine Heath on Phoebe Palmer

Heath Naked Faith the Mystical Theology of Phoebe PalmerI’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Elaine Heath’s Naked Faith: the Mystical Theology of Phoebe Palmer (Eugene OR: Pickwick, 2009).  Palmer had a massive influence in Wesleyan circles and beyond in the nineteenth century, but, as Heath notes, she has been largely forgotten or marginalized – even within her own tradition.   She certainly hasn’t been taken seriously as a theologian, though Thomas Oden sounded an enthusiastic call for the retrieval of her voice in his introduction to the collection of her writings he edited for publication (Phoebe Palmer: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist, 1988)).  John Farina, general editor of the series “Sources of American Spirituality,” of which the Oden volume was a part, briefly located Palmer in “that great mystical stream that runs like a golden river down through the ages” in his general introduction to the book, noting especially the interest in Catherine of Genoa in Palmer’s circles.  Heath has taken up this idea and written a book that attempts to both offer an interpretation of Palmer’s thought as an expression of mystical theology, and to hold out “Saint Phoebe” as a guide for the renewal of contemporary Methodism.

Palmer, for her part, would have resisted the “mystical” label, but Heath shows, through a discussion of the mystical tradition, that Palmer’s resistance was really to the antinomian perversions of the mystical tradition which she encountered (35ff).  Heath identifies mysticism as “the radically transformative experience of the Divine that is described by the great Christian mystics and saints throughout the ages” (41).  She also notes that genuine Christian mysticism will be Trinitarian, ecclesial, and transformational (42).

While a great deal could be said about the reception of mysticism in Protestant circles, and the degree to which John Wesley himself embraced some aspects of mystical theology at various points in his life (Heath deals with these issues), I was particularly taken by the way in which she connected mysticism with Christian mission.

Phoebe PalmerFor Palmer, the primary way this was expressed was in her own calling to a ministry of preaching and teaching, which followed immediately upon her “day of days” experience of sanctification.  Her profound mystical experience, then, became the source of an unprecedented (for a woman) ministry which had massive influence on the history of the Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions.  Even those experiences of “union” with God that make some Protestants nervous, Heath contends, impel the mystic to service, rather than retreat from the world (as many suppose):

“The fruit of unitive experiences is a powerful desire in the mystic to help all people experience salvation and sanctification.  This desire partly originates in visions of the mysic being made one with the Trinity, whose goal in the church is to seek and to save the lost. Thus the life of the mystic increasingly becomes one of humble service in the world” (59).

Heath also carefully distinguishes problematic mystical “Quietism” from a healthy sense of “quiet,” an active passivity that bears fruit in missional activity:

“The result of true mystical passivity is an increase of strength and spiritual energy, an increase of love for God and neighbour so that the individual is increasingly alive to God in the community and world as the process of passivity progresses” (75).

Interestingly, in some other reading I recently found Henri Nouwen making a similar claim: “Mysticism is the opposite of withdrawal from the world. Intimate union with God leads to the most creative involvement in the contemporary world” (The Genesee Diary155).

Heath’s work seems to break new ground on several fronts: a sustained interpretation of Palmer as a mystical theologian, a retrieval of her theology by distinguishing it from the ways in which it was distorted by her later followers, and a contribution to research into the mystical aspect of Wesleyan spirituality – and I could go on.

Phoebe Palmer via cyberhymnalI think it is particularly important as a contribution to contemporary discussions of the “missional” character of the church.  I’ve sometimes worried in the past that some strands of missional thinking are anti-ecclesial, and create a false dichotomy between the church’s inner life (thinking here in terms of spirituality) and its mission.  In other words, the church is not only sent into the world, but also gathered together, and it is in the gathering that we are centred on the particular identity of the God of the gospel, who then sends us out.   Heath’s work on mysticism and mission helps to bridge this perceived gap between “inner” life its fruit in “outward” activity.  There is a strong connection between the arguments in this book and the account of the new monasticism in Longing for Spring, which Heath co-wrote with Scott Kisker (see my review here).  I still need to do some further reading of my own on mystical spirituality, as it is not an area with which I’m familiar, but my initial reaction to Heath’s work on Palmer is to give it a hearty endorsement.   Next on my list is her 2008 book, The Mystic Way of Evangelism.

6 thoughts on “Mystical and Missional: Elaine Heath on Phoebe Palmer

  1. James, I don’t know if you are aware of this but Phoebe Palmer along with Holy Ann were members for a time of the Thornhill Methodist Church, now Thornhill United, where I was once the minister. Some choruses we used to sing in the Army date to that period e.g. “All there is of me, Lord”, and “My all is on the altar”. Her view of Holiness caused a lot of us to question the doctrine of sanctification as it was then taught by the Army. I myself left the work over it and the lack of the sacraments.

    From there I went to a Nazarene University where “eradication” was taught, which was even worse. The Army emerged out of that position with the teaching of Frederick Coutts, to a much healthier and realistic concept of Holiness.

    I fear now however that it has disappeared completely, just at the time when mystic Christianity is having a renewal, e.g. Harvey Cox’s the Future of Faith, and Karl Rahner’s quote, which “literally” escapes me, but to the effect that “if there are any Christians left in the future they will be “mystic” Christians”, more concerned with a living experience of Christ than they will be with doctrine.

    BTW Your grandfather would have been my Side Officer in the Training College. He was a gracious, saintly man, and your grandmother a beautiful looking woman. You and I are also friends of Lorna Rogers Simard. John Sullivan still serving a rural church at 80!

    • Thanks John – I didn’t realize that realize that Palmer had been a member of Thornhill Methodist, though I knew she did campaigns up here and made a significant impact on Canadian Methodism. Thorhnill United is very close to where I am sitting right now in my office at Tyndale.

      Part of the reason for the marginalization of Palmer is due to the issues with her teaching you raised. Heath contends that these issues were mainly due to her thoughts on sanctification being taken out of their mystical context and “reified” into a simple three step process of instant transformation. So later Wesleyans in Salvation Army and Nazarene contexts, for example, took her ideas in directions she wouldn’t have endorsed. I haven’t done enough reading on that subject to evaluate Heath’s thesis, but it sounds quite plausible.

      There’s a great challenge for Wesleyans to recover some of these distinctive emphases by reaching back behind the poor articulations of the early 20th century, to people like Palmer, Wesley, and their sources – but I think you are right, it needs to happen in today’s context, where lived experience is becoming such an important aspect of Christian witness.

      Thanks for making the personal connection to my grandparents – I really appreciate that. Glad to know you are still serving!


  2. Hello James,

    I have been doing research on Phoebe Palmer’s life and stumbled across your review of Elaine Heath’s book Naked Faith. I too examined Heath’s book but found her argument that Phoebe was a mystic, in her own right, to be rather weak. I found this particularly so since Phoebe herself spoke out against mysticism, which Heath records in the book (38). Also, in Richard Wheatley’s biography of her life, a person by the name of M. Simpson introduces the book by stating the following: “This constant habit [upholding the Word of God] preserved her [Phoebe], on the one hand, from the wildness of fanaticism, and on the other, from the depths of mysticism” (vi).

    I believe that the ones that we do label as Christian mystics were those who entered into a close and private communion with God, when the majority of the Church did not. Mysticism was often something enshrouded in mystery, in ethereal light, and visions. It was characteristic of those who spent considerable time alone with their thoughts and who often fell into trances and experienced visions of sometimes strange and bizarre sights, that they believed transported them into the presence of God. Phoebe, to me, did not live in this type of existence.

    Moreover, I feel that the Holiness and Pentecostal/Charismatic movements made such experiences as having visions, etc. so widespread and almost common-place that the concept of a mystic has all but disappeared. Couldn’t too all of us call ourselves mystics, based upon Heath’s definition?


    p.s. I know you wrote this post a while ago, but I just wanted to comment because I do find Heath’s book fascinating but just can’t agree.

    • Hi Becky – thanks for the comment. I’m glad to know you’re doing work on Phoebe Palmer.

      I agree with you that this is the point on which Heath’s book is most vulnerable, since Palmer spoke out against mysticism. But it all depends on how you define mysticism. Heath’s definition of mysticism is very broad, and I think she would include a lot of people in the “mystic” category who others wouldn’t consider mystics. I was thinking of commenting on this in my review, but I haven’t really done much reading on mysticism, so I didn’t feel like I could make an informed comment.

      Heath has studied mysticism fairly extensively, so the definition she is using is very deliberate and considered. If I remember, she acknowledges that Palmer spoke out against mysticism, but that if we understand mysticism more broadly (as Heath does), Palmer can be thought of as a mystic. Her argument really hinges on her definition of mysticism, so if you don’t buy the definition, the rest of it will not follow.

      Her definition is definitely a challenge to the way that most Protestants have characterized mysticism, but that in itself doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong. I suppose a good critique would involve diving into the literature on mysticism and then seeing if Heath’s definition stands up to scrutiny, and if there are reasons for defining it more narrowly than she does.

      Thanks again for your comment – I hope the research is fruitful.


      • I am still skeptical of Heath’s thesis, yet definitely would recommend her work, and would consider buying her book. Yes, I do hope my research is fruitful as well. I am seeking to write a 30 page paper on how Phoebe added a further dimension to Wesley’s quadrilateral and thus contributed to theological method. I’m only just delving into her writings so my initial thesis may change if that doesn’t even seem to be a plausible argument. Whatever my findings, I definitely wish to reveal Phoebe as the theologian.

        Another aside, I am a recent graduate of Tyndale, and I have seen you a number of times in the Tyndale halls. Congratulations on your post as assistant professor of Wesleyan studies; we definitely needed to hire another theologian! Many blessings.


      • Sounds great! Good to know your Tyndale connection. Feel free to stop by my office any time you are on campus. I’ll be interested to read your paper when it is done.

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