Benjamin M. Palmer
Benjamin Morgan Palmer (January 25, 1818 – May 25, 1902), an orator and Presbyterian theologian, was the first moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. As pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, his Thanksgiving sermon in 1860 had a great influence in leading Louisiana to join the Confederate States of America. After 1865 he was minister in the Presbyterian Church in the United States.
Palmer was born in Charleston, South Carolina, to Edward Palmer and the former Sarah Bunce. He was educated at Amherst College from 1832 to 1834. He taught school for two years and then attended the University of Georgia from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1838. At UGA he was a member of the Phi Kappa Literary Society. From 1839 to 1841 he attended the Presbyterian-affiliated Columbia Theological Seminary, at that time in South Carolina. In 1841 he married the former Mary Augusta McConnell of Columbia. In 1852 he received the doctor of divinity degree from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. In 1870 he received the LL.D. degree from Westminster College in Fulton, MO.
He pastored the First Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, from 1841 to 1842. He was called to First Presbyterian in Columbia, the South Carolina capital, a post that he held from 1843 to 1855. He also taught in the Columbia Seminary, his alma mater from 1853 to 1856, while he was pastoring in Columbia. In 1856, he accepted the pastorate of First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, his terminal position which he held for forty-six years. He and his family lived at 1415 Prytania Street, New Orleans, in the lower Garden District neighborhood of New Orleans, and the mansion has been historically restored and turned into part of the Creole Gardens Guesthouse.
In his personal copy of Rev. Moses Stuart's Hebrews Commentary, seminary student Wallace H. Stratton identifies "B. M. Palmer DD. Didactic" as a faculty member of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Columbia, SC in the year 1863.
In the Thanksgiving sermon coming just days after the election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. president, Palmer defended slavery and endorsed secession. This was just days before South Carolina became the first of the eleven states to secede from the Union established under the United States Constitution. When federal troops invaded New Orleans and imposed military rule under General Benjamin Franklin Butler of Massachusetts, Palmer sent his wife and children to her father's plantation in South Carolina. He spent the remainder of the war preaching primarily to Confederate soldiers, the diaries of many having extolled Christian principles.
An eloquent, vigorous, indefatigable speaker, even in his later years, Palmer's opposition on moral grounds to the Louisiana Lottery, operated by former Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard helped to doom that institution as a means of raising state revenues.
He preached the opening sermon and was elected the first moderator of his denomination on December 4, 1861. When the Synod of Louisiana was formed in 1901, a year before his death, he was elected its first moderator.
Palmer's writings include a life of the eminent Presbyterian minister and Columbia Seminary theologian James Henley Thornwell (1812–1862). Palmer also wrote volumes of sermons and theological treatises, including Theology of Prayer, The Broken Home, or Lessons in Sorrow, and Formation of Character.
Mrs. Palmer died in her husband's arms on November 13, 1888 apparently from gastritis. Guests have seen an apparition, a woman dressed in white, with a white pearl necklace, descending the main staircase of the house (now the Creole Gardens Guesthouse), and it is speculated that it is her. Palmer said that he never recovered from her death. Palmer was struck by a street car in New Orleans on May 5, 1902 and died twenty days later from shock, rather than wounds from the accident. The Palmers are entombed in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans.
One of the Palmer daughters married John Caldwell, the curator of Tulane University in New Orleans. Palmer himself established the Southwest Presbyterian Seminary (now Rhodes College). "Palmer Hall" was named after him. Palmer's papers are in several locations, including Louisiana State University and Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. An orphanage named for Palmer was started in 1895 in Columbus Mississippi. Palmer Home for Children is a Christ centered home-Where Hope Still Grows. Additionally, Palmer Avenue in Uptown New Orleans is named for him.
In its obituary of Palmer, the Christian publication The Interior reflected as follows:
- Dr. Palmer served God and his generation as a symbol of the immutability of the great essentials of our religion. His faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the word of his preaching and the example of his ministry gave him such power in New Orleans as few of the Lord's ambassadors have ever wielded in any age of the church. By all consent he was acknowledged for years to be the most influential man in that city, and he was so brave and outspoken that he made for righteousness not only in the private lives of men but in the civic life of the community.
Benjamin Palmer included the following in his sermon:
The cords which, during four-fifths of a century, have bound together this growing Republic, are now strained to their utmost tension—they just need the touch of fire to part asunder forever. ...I deplored the divisions amongst us, as being, to a large extent, impertinent in the solemn crisis which was too evidently impending. ...At a juncture so solemn as the present, with the destiny of a great people waiting upon the decision of an hour, it is not lawful to be still. ...The question, too, which now places us upon the brink of revolution, was, in its origin a question of morals and religion. ...In determining our duty in this emergency it is necessary that we should first ascertain the nature of the trust providentially committed to us. ...A nation often has a character as well defined and intense as that of the individual. ...If, then, the South is such a people, what at this juncture is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.
- Benjamin Palmer's "Thanksgiving Sermon"
- Friends of the Cabildo, Samuel Wilson, New Orleans Architecture: The University Section Pelican Publishing, (2000) p.24
- Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Thanksgiving sermon, delivered at the First Presbyterian church, New Orleans, on Thursday, December 29, 1860, G. F. Nesbitt & Co. (1861)
- "Benjamin Morgan Palmer", A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Vol. 2 (1988), p. 627
- Ministerial Directory of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., 1861 - 1941, (Austin, Texas: Press of Von Boeckmann-Jones Co., 1942), p. 551
- Christopher M. Duncan, "Benjamin Morgan Palmer: Southern Presbyterian Divine," (Ph.D. dissertation, Auburn University, 2008).
- Information on Palmer from Creole Gardens, a Bed and Breakfast in Palmer's former house