Our Wesleyan Heritage Part 1: Phoebe Palmer “The Fire Within”

Pastor Galen Zook

Sunday June 9th 2019: Pentecost Sunday

Romans 8:14-17; Acts 2:1-21

Waiting for the Holy Spirit

Once again Jesus’s disciples were gathered together in the upper room. The same place where, 50 deays earlier, they had celebrated Passover with Jesus, the same place where he’d washed their feet, the same place where he told them that one of them would betray him, the same place where, after his death and Resurrection, he had appeared to them show them and showed them the scars in his hands and feet.

Jesus had appeared to the disciples multiple times since his death and Resurrection. 10 days earlier he had ascended up to heaven after promising that he would send them an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would be with them and who would guide them into all truth.

How exactly this was going to happen, and what it would be like when the Holy Spirit came, they had no idea. Prior to this, the Holy Spirit had rested upon people for a specific time and a specific purpose. Throughout the Hebrew Bible it seems that the Holy Spirit came upon one person at a time. People like Gideon (Judges 6:34), or Samson (Judges 14:6) were filled with the Holy Spirit to perform a particular task. But the Holy Spirit had never come upon a group of people all at once before.

But, Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. And so the disciples sat there, not knowing what to do, not knowing what to look for, not knowing how long it would take.


It was Pentecost, the Jewish harvest festival when they celebrated the anniversary of the day when God gave the law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Jewish people from all over the known world at that time gathered together in Jerusalem for the celebration of Pentecost. Since Pentecost was only 7 weeks after Passover, many Jewish people who lived far away would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover and stay all the way through Pentecost.

And so Jesus’s disciples, numbering 120 at that point, were gathered together, waiting for the promised Holy Spirit to come. Men and women, young and old, families with young children running all around, teenagers sitting together on the side of the room passing notes back and forth on scrap pieces of parchment, and those who were more senior (some of who might have needed some assistance making it up the stairs to that upper room).

Waiting, longing, hoping for the promised Holy Spirit.

Tongues of Fire, and the Sound of a Rushing Wind

And then, suddenly the Holy Spirit came. Rushing upon them with the sound of a violent wind, tongues of fire resting over each and every person in the room. Young and old, men and women, rich and poor, all of whom have been transformed by Jesus, now filled with the Holy Spirit.

Miraculously, everyone in the room began to speak in other languages — languages that they had never learned, languages they couldn’t understand but that all the people gathered outside heard and understood. The crowds of people outside who were gathered from all around the world heard them speaking in their own native languages.

Those outside wondered what in the world was going on? And so Peter went out to explain. Peter — the disciple who had been in hiding only weeks prior, the disciple who had denied Jesus, who said he didn’t even know Jesus. Peter, now filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaimed God’s Word to the people.

Peter explained that this is what had been predicted by the prophet Joel, who said that in the last days God would pour out the Spirit on all flesh, that sons and daughters would prophesy, and young and old alike would dream dreams and see visions. He proclaimed that salvation is available to all people, rich and poor, young and old, men and women. And that day 3000 people were saved.

I personally love this story. I love imagining what it would have been like to be in the Upper Room, to see the tongues of fire rest on each person and to hear the sound of the rushing wind.

But for me personally, I’ve never experienced the Holy Spirit in this way. I’ve never experienced a literal tongue of fire descend upon me (at least not that I know), I’ve never experienced the Holy Spirit rush into the room with the sound of a violent wind.

And if you’re anything like me, then you probably haven’t experienced anything exactly like this either. And so we might wonder, is the Holy Spirit still active today? And how do we know if we even have the Holy Spirit living inside of us?

Well for all of us who have ever wondered this, I want to tell the story of Phoebe Palmer.

Phoebe Palmer

Phoebe Palmer was a young woman who was passionate about God and she desperately wanted physical, tangible assurance that God was at work in her life. But as a teenager she never had the outwardly transformative, profoundly emotional experience that so many people around her claimed to have, and so she continually wrestled with doubts.

Phoebe Palmer was born in 1807 in New York City during a time when there were tremendous revivals happening all around the United States – often called the “Second Great Awakening.” Phoebe was born into a Methodist household — in fact her father had heard been converted after hearing John Wesley preach in England.

Many of the revivals happening throughout the United States were happening in Methodist churches and camp meetings, and people were sharing all sorts of radical emotional encounters that they were having with the Holy Spirit.

Phoebe longed to have an emotional experience like this. As a teenager and young adult, Phoebe kept a journal (which she later turned into a book called The Way of Holiness) where she recounted her longing for what she referred to as an experience of “sanctification” – utter devotion to God.

But alas it never happened, at least not in the way she hoped or imagined.

You see, Phoebe was someone who was more naturally inclined towards reason and logic. She had more of an analytical mind, and she tended to arrive at conclusions through careful thought and study. She was more of a thinker than a feeler, and she defied the cultural stereotypes that women are more inclined towards feeling and emotion.

At the age of 19 Phoebe got married to a doctor, and she and her husband began attending the Allen Street Methodist Church. Phoebe and her older sister began leading a weekly Tuesday prayer meeting for women.

And it was during this time period when Phoebe came to the realization that she didn’t necessarily need to have an emotional encounter with the Holy Spirit in order to be sanctified. All she had to do was to claim the promises of God which were already laid out in Scripture.

This was an utterly life-changing, transformative experience for Phoebe. And how did she arrive at this conclusion? Through reason and logic, and careful study of the Scriptures!

Phoebe began to share about her experience at her Tuesday women’s prayer meeting, and it seemed to strike a chord with many of the other women there. She was asked to share at nearby campmeetings, and eventually she began traveling all around the area sharing about her experiences and helping others to claim the promises of Scripture. When her book was published she received and accepted invitations to speak as far away as Canada, and years later she and her husband spent 4 years holding revival services in England, Scotland and Wales.

Phoebe spoke in front of crowds of hundreds and thousands of people, both men and women — all this at a time when women were not licensed to preach in the Methodist church. Phoebe didn’t consider herself a preacher, she was simply testifying to what the Holy Spirit had done in her life. But many other women were inspired by her example to get behind the pulpit and preach, including Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, and Amanda Berry Smith, a former slave who became an evangelist Europe, India, and Africa through the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Phoebe Palmer wrote an article defending the rights of women to speak and preach in public, called “Tongues of Fire on the Daughters of the Lord” in which she points back to this story in Acts and that first Pentecost, pointing out that the Holy Spirit filled both men and women, old and young, and that if the Holy Spirit has called and anointed someone to preach the Gospel, who are we to stop them?

In addition to her public ministry of speaking and writing, Palmer was a proponent of cross-cultural mission work, prison ministry, and service to the urban poor. She was the founding director of the Five Points Mission in New York City and was actively involved in abolitionism and the temperance movement. In 1846 she and her husband raised the funds to send the first Methodist missionaries to China.

One of the reasons that Phoebe Palmer was so passionate about spreading her message was that she believed there were many people like her who were sitting around, waiting for years to have some sort of emotional encounter with the Holy Spirit before they began serving the Lord, when they could be getting busy working for the Lord if they simply placed their trust in God and took God at God’s Word. And so she was passionate about letting people know that God’s promises are available to anyone and everyone if we simply trust God and claim God’s promises.

More of the Holy Spirit

Friends, Jesus promised his followers that he would send us the Holy Spirit, to guide us into all truth. Jesus said that God would give the Holy Spirit to anyone who asks (Luke 11:13). And so if you’ve placed your hope and trust in Jesus, if you’ve given your heart and life to Christ, then you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you. It’s OK if you’ve never experienced tongues of fire descending upon your head, it’s OK if you’ve never heard the sound of a mighty rushing wind or had an outwardly emotional encounter with the Holy Spirit.

Romans 8:11 says that “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you.” And so all you need to do this morning is to lay hold of that promise, and to take God at God’s Word.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with asking for more of the Holy Spirit in your life, and this morning during our time of prayer if you’d like to ask for more of the Holy Spirit I’d invite you to come forward and we’d be happy to pray over you and anoint you with oil, as a symbol of God’s anointing on your life.

Maybe you’re feeling called to preach the Gospel or to start a new ministry, to serve the poor or needy, but you’ve been second-guessing that call. This morning, along with Phoebe Palmer, I want to proclaim that if God has called and anointed you and you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you, then you don’t need to sit there waiting for years and years for some sort of emotional experience to confirm that calling. Let’s claim the promises of God, let’s tap into the power of the Holy Spirit that is available to all people, men and women, young and old, and let’s get busy serving the Lord!

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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