Phillis Wheatley was on trial. Her crime? Writing a collection of poetry. Before this 18 year-old black slave sat a gathering of white dignitaries—statesmen, scholars, pastors, poets. Their objective? To determine if this girl, this West African transplant, this slave, was the author of carefully crafted, thoughtful poetry. The trial was a risky gambit devised by Phillis’s master, John Wheatley, to prove the girl’s authorship. And once proved, Phillis’s works as a slave, a Christian, and a Patriot would shake the American concept of race and salvation for years to come.
Ten years earlier in 1761, Susannah Wheatley, the wife of a successful and respected Boston tailor, John Wheatley, found herself in need of some household help. So she purchased the presumably eight year-old child (she was missing her two front teeth) off the merchant ship, The Phillis, for a “mere trifle.” The sickly, wasted girl, dressed in rags, was given the ship’s name—Phillis—and taken to the home of the Wheatley family. But it soon became apparent that this little girl had a quick, intelligent mind. So Mary Wheatley, the teenaged daughter of John and Susannah, took it upon herself to educate Phillis. And a most remarkable transformation took place. This previously illiterate, non-English speaking child became, by age thirteen, well versed in English, Latin, astronomy, English literature—particularly Pope and Milton—, the Classics, and most importantly the Bible. Less than a year and a half after Phillis had been with the Wheatleys, she was, according to John Wheatley, reading “the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings”.1Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), xiii. Phillis’s education was truly superior for a young woman at that time and unheard of for a slave. Not only was her education remarkable, but also so was her inclusion in the Wheatley family. Phillis was considered more a child of the family than a slave, so much so that she was kept from the company of the other household slaves.
It would be difficult to ascribe to any one source the spiritual influences in Phillis’ life. The Wheatleys themselves were active members of the New South Congregational Church and Phillis accompanied them to services. Susannah Wheatley was an ardent supporter of the evangelical missions of George Whitefield. The famed preacher often made excursions into New England, and some historians have suggested that the Wheatleys may have entertained Whitefield while he was there.2Wheatley, xiv. Phillis was likely present for at least one of the sermons he delivered at the New South Church just weeks before he died. But there is no doubt that the Scriptures played the most important role in shaping the young Phillis. In a reply to a letter from the English philanthropist John Thornton, Wheatley writes,
“I thank you for recommending the Bible to be my cheif (sic) Study, I find and Acknowledge it to be the best of Books, it contains an endless treasure of wisdom and knowledge. O that my eyes were more open’d to see the real worth, and the true excellence of the word of truth”.3Wheatley, 140.
Phillis’s health, however, was frail and her asthmatic condition made the weekly trip to the New South Congregational Church difficult. So with Susannah Wheatley’s blessing, Phillis began attending the Old South Congregational Church, a closer walk to her home. There Phillis came under the preaching of Dr. Joseph Sewall, called by his colleagues, “a genuine disciple of the famous John Calvin” and no friend to those who questioned the teachings of the “first Reformers.”4Hamilton Andrews Hill, History of the Old South Church (Third Church) Boston, 1669-1884, 2006 http://books.google.com/books?id=Eu SVOPlwcosC&dq=Phillis+Wheatley (29 Feb. 2008), 101-2. Sadly, this church fell to Unitarianism in the early 19th century. In 2005, they ordained their first female pastor. At his death, the then 15 year old Phillis composed the epitaph for his tomb. Three years later, on August 18, 1771, Phillis was baptized and received into membership at the Old South Church.
It was a few short months later that Phillis sat on trial before the august assembly. There are no records of what Phillis was asked. Perhaps she was catechized on her method of inspiration; perhaps she was questioned about her knowledge of the Classics—to which her poetry makes frequent reference. What we’re left with today is the outcome of the inquiry:
We whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.5Henry Louis Gates, Jr, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003), 29-30.
Among those under-written names were John Hancock, of Declaration of Independence fame, Reverend Samuel Mather, son of the great Puritan writer, Cotton Mather, and Reverend Samuel Cooper, the minister who had recently baptized Phillis. The poems in question were contained in Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The book was a combination of previously published and new unpublished works. Susannah Wheatley, desirous of displaying Phillis’s uncommon talent, had a few of Phillis’s works published in the local Boston papers, where they were met with great applause. However, the work that rocketed Phillis to fame was her elegy to George Whitefield, published in 1770. In it she paraphrases the Gospel call that Whitefield preached:
“Take Him [Jesus], ye wretched, for your only good,
Take Him ye starving sinners, for your food;
Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,
Ye preachers, take Him for your joyful theme;
Take Him my dear Americans” he said,
“Be your complaints on His kind bosom laid:
Take Him, ye Africans, He longs for you,
Impartial Savior is His title due:
Washed in the fountain of redeeming blood,
You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God.”6Wheatley, 15-16.
With the approbation of Phillis’s works by such dignitaries and her local fame, the Wheatleys thought that the Boston publication of Phillis’s poetry was surely imminent. Such was not the case. Although Phillis enjoyed the small success of having a few short works published in the Boston newspapers, there were no American publishers adventurous enough to undertake publishing a book by a female Negro slave. The Wheatleys were left with no other option than to send Phillis’s book to London—a social climate more accepting of blacks—for publication. It was met with wild success and within a short time Phillis and Nathaniel Wheatley (the Wheatley’s son) were on their way to London to oversee the first printing of the book.
Phillis was the belle of London. She received an invitation to visit King George III. She was called upon by Benjamin Franklin, to whom she would later dedicate a volume of poetry. And she was escorted about the town by Granville Sharp, the famed abolitionist.7Gates, Jr., 34. And such company as Sharp may have caused no small stir. For it was just a year earlier that Sharp’s campaign to end slavery in England culminated in the Somerset decision—a ruling which in effect declared slavery illegal on the shores of England. (Slavery was still lawful in other regions of the British Empire). Somerset made England a haven of sorts for runaway slaves. It would be natural to assume that Phillis was aware of the effects of Somerset; perhaps Sharp encouraged her to stay in London as a free black woman. But Phillis would not have had much time to deliberate on such a change, for news soon arrived that Susanna Wheatley was deathly ill and Phillis was recalled home. Some months later in March of 1774, Susanna Wheatley died. The grieving Phillis wrote in a letter to a friend:
I have lately met with a great trial in the death of my mistress; let us imagine the loss of a Parent, Sister or Brother the tenderness of all these were united in her. –I was a poor little outcast & a stranger when she took me in; not only into her house but I presently became a sharer in her most tender affections. I was treated by her more like her child than her Servant…8Wheatley, 153.
Phillis, however, wrote these words as a freewoman. In October 1773, Phillis Wheatley was granted manumission. Whether John Wheatley was pressured by Phillis’ literary successes or touched by his sentiment that Phllis was “disadvantaged” in her state as a slave, we do not know. But the move from a priviledged slave to a free black made Phillis’ future an uncertain one. It was now Phillis’ responsibility to provide for herself. She continued to write and seek out a publisher for her new poems, but the rumble of war drums had the Boston presses busy with military concerns. Phillis’ second volume of poetry was never published. The next year saw her former master flee Boston because of his loyalist leanings. Phillis then moved to Rhode Island and lived with Mary Wheatley, now Mary Lathrop—whose husband John Lathrop was the famous “Revolutionary Preacher” of the Old North Church of Boston. 9Gates, Jr., 19. Within a few years, both John and Mary Wheatley were dead, leaving Phillis penniless and destitute. Phillis struggled to make ends meet by selling her poetry, but without success. Suddenly, though, Phillis’s future looked bright; in April 1778, she married John Peters, a free black. Though the Wheatley family frowned upon Phillis’s choice of a husband, Peters’ good financial prospects were likely of some comfort to Phillis. But such comfort did not last. Acquaintances of Phillis recall that Peters was a self-absorbed drifter, bright, but incapable of keeping a job. 10 Gates, Jr., 68.The young couple scraped a living by selling a few of Phillis’ short poems to newspapers, but those funds were not enough to support them. Phillis eventually took a job as a charwoman, but even then their living was meager. Phillis bore two children, both of whom died in infancy. Peters deserted Phillis before she gave birth to a third, a daughter, and took her unpublished manuscripts with him. Phillis soon died, likely of childbirth complications and a generally weakened constitution. Her daughter died a few days later; the two share the same unmarked grave. Phillis was only 31 years old.
Phillis Wheatley has long been the subject of study regarding African-American literature. She is unique in that she was the first African woman to have her works published in the English language. Add to that Wheatley’s slave status, and we have a near literary revolution taking place in one woman. Slavery and salvation were common themes in Wheatley’s poetry. One of Wheatley’s early poems, On Being Brought From Africa to America explores these themes with rich language and imagery:
‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their color is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.11Wheatley, 13.
Though popular opinion agreed that blacks could be saved, many had doubts that blacks were intellectually capable of producing works of fine art, including poetry.12Charles Johnson and Patricia Smith, Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery (San Diego: Hartcourt Brace & Co., 1998) 152. Thomas Jefferson states, “Religion indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” Phillis Wheatley’s success countered that notion and she used her new found platform to address the issue of slavery and the idea that black inferiority necessitated, or at least excused, slavery. A strong supporter of the Revolutionary cause, Wheatley yoked the idea of America’s subservience to Britain with that of her own slave status in a poem addressed to the Crown’s Secretary of State in North America:
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flows these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?13Wheatley, 40.
Phillis, like other Christians at the time, saw slavery as incompatible with the Christian religion. However, Wheatley was not the angry revolutionary voice that some in recent history would like her to be. Humbly, artfully, she pleads with her contemporaries to consider their religious and political inconsistencies. Slavery, though a common theme for Phillis, is not her only one. While it is obvious in Wheatley’s poetry that she believes God used the cruel instrument of slavery to bring her to a saving knowledge of God, 14See On Being Brought from Africa to America. Phillis’ greatest desire and hope for her people was for an end to the spiritual slavery of sin. Phillis’s own words regarding the African mission field sum it up best:
My heart expands with sympathetic Joy to see at distant time the thick cloud of ignorance dispersing from the face of my benighted Country; Europe and America have long been fed with the heavenly provision, and I fear they loathe it, while Africa is perishing with a Spiritual Famine. O that they could partake of the crumbs, the precious crumbs, Which fall from the table, of these distinguished children of the Kingdome…I hope that which the divine royal Psalmist Says by inspiration is now on the point of being Accomplish’d, namely, Ethiopia Shall Soon Stretch forth her hands Unto God.15Wheatley, 152.
|↑1||Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), xiii.|
|↑4||Hamilton Andrews Hill, History of the Old South Church (Third Church) Boston, 1669-1884, 2006 http://books.google.com/books?id=Eu SVOPlwcosC&dq=Phillis+Wheatley (29 Feb. 2008), 101-2. Sadly, this church fell to Unitarianism in the early 19th century. In 2005, they ordained their first female pastor.|
|↑5||Henry Louis Gates, Jr, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003), 29-30.|
|↑7||Gates, Jr., 34.|
|↑9||Gates, Jr., 19.|
|↑10||Gates, Jr., 68.|
|↑12||Charles Johnson and Patricia Smith, Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery (San Diego: Hartcourt Brace & Co., 1998) 152. Thomas Jefferson states, “Religion indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”|
|↑14||See On Being Brought from Africa to America.|