While Palmer was associated with conservative theological and political circles that had strong Unionist sympathies, he became a vigorous supporter of secession and the southern cause after the election of Abraham Lincoln.
Presbyterian clergyman, educator. Palmer was born in Charleston on January 25, 1818, the son of Edward Palmer, a teacher, and Sarah Bunce. Both parents had New England ancestry. In 1821 Edward Palmer entered Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry. His family remained in Charleston until 1823, when they joined him for the last two years of his theological training. The family returned in 1824 to the South Carolina lowcountry, where Edward Palmer served churches until 1874.
Benjamin Palmer entered Amherst College at fourteen and became friends with New Englanders including Henry Ward Beecher. He was said to be at the top of his class when, during his second year, he was expelled for refusing to divulge the secrets of a literary society. Palmer graduated with first honors from the University of Georgia in 1838 and entered Columbia Theological Seminary. Following his graduation in 1841, he accepted a call to the First Presbyterian Church of Savannah. That same year, on October 7, he married Augusta McConnell, the stepdaughter of Professor George Howe of Columbia Theological Seminary. Through her mother, Augusta was related to one of Georgia’s largest slaveholding families.
In 1843 Palmer accepted a call to the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, which he served for the next eleven years. In Columbia he was part of a circle of Presbyterian intellectuals that included James Henley Thornwell, Joseph LeConte, and Louisa Cheves McCord. With George Howe and Thornwell, he in 1847 established the Southern Presbyterian Review, perhaps the most influential and certainly the most scholarly religious journal published in the South at the time. In 1854 he accepted a call to Columbia Theological Seminary as professor of ecclesiastical history and polity. Two years later he became pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, New Orleans.
While Palmer was associated with conservative theological and political circles that had strong Unionist sympathies, he became a vigorous supporter of secession and the southern cause after the election of Abraham Lincoln. His Thanksgiving Day sermon in 1860 propelled him to national prominence with his defense of the rights of secession and slavery. “We defend the cause of God and religion,” he told his New Orleans congregation, while he insisted that the “abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic.” Admirers had the sermon reprinted frequently and widely circulated. In 1861 he became the first moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. During the war he traveled throughout the South preaching and speaking and providing important ideological support to the Confederate cause. When New Orleans fell to Union forces, Palmer returned to Columbia and filled his old pulpit and briefly, after Thornwell’s death, a professorship at the seminary. The fire following Sherman’s entrance into Columbia destroyed much of Palmer’s library and many of his personal papers.
After the war, Palmer returned to New Orleans, where he was a highly regarded pastor who ministered with great compassion to the victims of yellow fever epidemics. He was a founder of the weekly Southwestern Presbyterian and was influential in establishing Southwestern Presbyterian University, now Rhodes College, in Memphis. Palmer died on May 28, 1902, following a street accident in New Orleans and was buried in that city’s Metarie Cemetery.
Johnson, Thomas Cary. The Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer. Richmond, Va.: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1906.
Thompson, Ernest Trice. Presbyterians in the South. 3 vols. Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1963–1973.