Phoebe Palmer Knapp was born in New York City, on March 9, 1839. She was obviously named after – but not to be confused with – Phoebe Palmer, preacher of entire sanctification around the mid-19th century. Phoebe’s parents, Dr Walter C Palmer and Phoebe Worrall Palmer, were Methodist evangelists and founding members of the Holiness Movement, thus their choice of an evangelist’s name for their daughter.
Phoebe married 23 year old Joseph Fairfield Knapp when she was only 15, and he founded the Metropolitan Life Assurance Company and was its second president. They were members of the Methodist Church.
Wealthy and influential, the Knapps hosted four United States Presidents, many Civil War generals and other dignitaries at Knapp Mansion in Brooklyn, from 1860 -1894.
Phoebe had a love for music and considerable talent. While she was on holiday in Europe in 1882 her husband had a special music room built for her at the mansion as a surprise.
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When her husband died in 1891, Mrs Knapp inherited $50,000 – most of which was distributed to “religious and charitable causes”. Her son, Joseph, headed up Collier’s Publishing Company.
The important thing is that she wrote hymn tunes.
In 1873 she composed a melody and played it to fellow Church member, and hymn writer extraordinaire, Fanny Crosby. After listening to the tune played “two or three times”, the blind hymnist wrote the words …
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine …
It is still sung to Phoebe Knapp’s tune, called Assurance.
In 1894 Phoebe moved out of Knapp Mansion and ended up taking the entire top floor of the new Savoy Hotel, even moving her organ there. She continued with her extensive entertaining program. She also encouraged musical talent, although she was a firm believer in disciplined practice.
Emma Thursby (1845-1931) was a lifelong friend and “discovery” of Phoebe Palmer Knapp, becoming one of the world’s leading Opera Singers.
Phoebe also was the New York City head of the International Sunshine Society, which did international good deeds. Her charitable spirit may have prompted her son, Joseph, to start his own Knapp Foundation. Phoebe continued to travel to Europe with her friends and family but lived in the Savoy up until the spring of 1908.
By the time of her death in Poland Springs, Maine (10 July, 1908) about 500 tunes had been composed by Mrs Knapp, including Open the Gates of the Temple, which was also written with Fanny Crosby.
It has been said of Phoebe Knapp that she was not an amateur with her music, but a talented and dedicated professional musician who produced melodies of excellence.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com