Phoebe Palmer Knapp: Rich, Beautiful, Charitable

Diane Severance, Ph.D. and Dan Graves, MSL

Phoebe Palmer Knapp: Rich, Beautiful, Charitable

In this day, March 9, 1839, a New York doctor and his wife, Walter and Phoebe Palmer, became the proud parents of a little girl whom they named Phoebe, after her mother. Phoebe grew up to become a prominent social leader and the publisher of over 500 gospel songs.

At the age of sixteen Phoebe became the wife of Joseph Fairchild Knapp, founder of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and a prominent Sunday School worker. They attended the John Street Methodist Church in New York City, where the blind poet Fanny Crosby also worshipped.

Phoebe was tall and slim with dark, curling hair and intense eyes. She dressed lavishly in elaborate gowns and diamond tiaras. The Knapp mansion was on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Ross Street in Brooklyn was virtually a palace. There Phoebe held a European-style salon, entertaining the most prominent people of her day. It seemed that every Republican President, Union general, and Methodist bishop was eventually invited to the Knapp home.

Phoebe was a wealthy Christian who believed that Christianity should aid the poor and foster reform. Consequently, she became involved in many reform and political activities of the day. She gave large sums of money for the poor and worked diligently to enlist social and political leaders in her causes. As a social activist, she said she cared "more for the active movements of the world of society than for spiritual abstraction."

In addition to social reform, Phoebe was intensely interested in music. The Knapps often held evening musicales, and in their music room they had one of the finest collections of musical instruments in the country. After her husband's death, Phoebe lived at the Savoy hotel in New York City and had a pipe organ in her room. Phoebe often gave vocal recitals, though biographers say she thought herself a better musician than she actually was.

One of the best things that came out of her musical interest was a memorable hymn tune. Phoebe was a close, personal friend of Fanny Crosby, the blind, Christian hymn writer. One day Phoebe played for Fanny a tune she had composed and asked, "What does this tune say?"

Fanny replied, "Why, that says, 'Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine,'" and Fanny immediately wrote the words to one of our favorite hymns.

Phoebe also composed the music to her mother's song, "The Cleansing Wave:"

The cleansing stream I see! I see!
I plunge, and oh, it cleanseth me!
Oh, praise the Lord! It cleanseth me!

Bibliography:

  1. Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story by Diane Severance, Ph.D.
  2. Barrows, Cliff and Hustad, Donald. Crusader Hymns and Hymn Stories. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. 1967.
  3. "Knapp, Phoebe Palmer." http://www.cyberhymnal.org

Last updated June, 2007

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