Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) and her Sovereign God

Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) and her Sovereign God

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Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) and her Sovereign God

            Whatever moved the Wheatleys to buy the little slave that had just arrived from Africa, it was not her physical strength. Frightened and skinny, with two missing teeth, she looked sickly and frail. Susanna Wheatley’s decision of picking this instead of stronger girls might have been caused by the fact that this little one was seven years old, almost the same age as the last of the Wheatleys’ children, Sarah, at the time of her death. They called this new slave Phillis, the name of the ship that had taken her and the other slaves to America.

An Impressive Mind

            Susanna Wheatley wanted to raise Phillis to become her helper in her old age. After a few days, she became impressed by the girl’s quick mind. It was a common notion that people from the area around Gambia and Senegal, where Phillis was probably born, were physically small but mentally sharp.

            John Wheatley was a prosperous merchant in Boston. He owned a large home and other slaves that cared for the family and the property. Besides Sarah, the Wheatley had lost two other children. Their oldest twins, Nathaniel and Mary, were eighteen at that time and lived at home.

            Mary was probably the main person responsible for giving Phillis an excellent education. According to John Wheatley, within sixteen months, Phillis learned to understand English well enough to read even the toughest portions of the Bible. She later studied literature, history, geography, and Latin. Her favorite poets were John Milton and Alexander Pope

As members of the New South Congregational Church, the Wheatleys instructed Phillis in the Christian faith. Both of these academic and religious efforts were unique among slaveholders.

            We don’t know how early Phillis began writing. Her first known letter was written in 1765, just four years after her arrival in America. It was addressed to Samuel Occom, a friend of the Wheatleys, who was involved in missionary work to his fellow Native Americans. Her first published poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” appeared in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. But the poem that made her famous was one she wrote on the sudden death of the famous preacher George Whitefield. She addressed it to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntington (who was a correspondent of Susanna Wheatley).

            In this poem, 14-year old Phillis affirmed that the gospel was for all human beings, Africans included.

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.[1]

Phillis on Trial

            By 1772, Phillis had written enough poems to be able to collect them in a book. But finding a publisher was not an easy task. When those in Boston refused to take on the project, Susanna Wheatley contacted one in London. He agreed to do it, providing that some reputable men of Boston could vouch that Phillis was the author of the poems.

            John Wheatley arranged for a meeting of some of the brightest minds in the city, including Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Massachusetts, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, the Rev. Samuel Cotton, the Rev. Mather Byles, and the Rev. Samuel Cooper. Many of these men were Harvard graduates, and many were poets. Phillis was brought before them to be examined.

            The reason why such a trial was necessary was that many white people found it difficult to believe that Africans could write poetry – or make any relevant contribution to the fine arts or human knowledge. For example, in 1776, the philosopher David Hume wrote, “I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species … to be naturally inferior to the whites.”[2] His colleague Immanuel Kant added, “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”[3] They based these convictions on the fact that they had never heard of any African who could achieve “anything great in art of science or any other praiseworthy quality.”[4] If Phillis was, in fact, the author of these poems, she would have shattered this notion.

            And she did. At the end of her examination, the judges wrote a declaration, attesting that the poems were, in fact, her work. “She has been examined by some of the best judges,” they said, “and is thought qualified to write them.”

            In one of her poems, Phillis put into words what she had already shown by example:

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train.[5]

Success and Criticism

            The same year, the collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in England by Archibald Bell, with a dedication to the Countess of Huntingdon – the first book ever published by an African-American woman.

            Phillis became an instant celebrity. She was invited to London, where she met in person the Countess and other influential people of her time. She was apparently scheduled to see King George III, when she had to return to America due to Susanna’s poor health.

But some critics held their views – including Thomas Jefferson, who considered the poem “below the dignity of criticism.”[6] In his view, Phillis had simply managed to imitate other poets. He admitted that some of her lines were moving, but moving doesn’t mean artful. “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry,” he wrote. “Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but not poetry. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Whatley [sic], but it could not produce a poet.”[7]

Jefferson’s views were met with eagerness by promoters of the slave trade. Conversely, they sparked a reaction within the black population, and many worked hard to prove him wrong. In some ways, we can say that Phillis was a primary catalyst for this flow of creativity.

Why, then, is her name rarely mentioned in today’s celebrations of Black History Month? Why is her story not told in schools, along with those of Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr.? The answer, according to historian and literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., lies in the first portion of the poem we last cited, which she opens with the lines:

 ‘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.[8]

            If Phillis was still known and respected in the 1950’s, this view of her experience of slavery as an act of God’s mercy toward her clashed directly with the perceptions of black history that became prevalent in the 1960’s, so much that Gates ventures to call these rhymes “the most reviled poem in African-American literature.”[9]

            Never mind that she strongly affirmed the value of her fellow Africans, encouraged their literary and artistic work, and praised those who promoted it. Never mind that, in her continued correspondence with Samson Occom, she praised his stand for black people “in vindication of their natural rights,”[10] comparing their cries for freedom to the plight of the Israelites in Egypt. Never mind that, in a poem to William Legge, Earl of Darmouth, she portrayed her capture in deeply affecting terms and spoke of slavery as an act of tyranny.

            Legge had just been appointed secretary of state for the colonies. In expressing her hopes that he would be less tyrannical than his predecessor, Phillis explained how her hatred for tyranny sprung from personal experience.

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,

Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,

Whence flow 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?[11]

            But modern critics considered her cry too feeble, somehow diluted by her placement of the word “seeming” before “cruel.” And her cry against tyranny didn’t specifically refer to slavery. They thought she was too passive in wishing that God would “grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time.”[12] Her voice was too white, they said.

Only recently, critics have stopped judging Phillis’s works in light of what they could or should have been, and have taken them for what they are and what they represented during her time.

Phillis’s Faith

            What Phillis’s modern critics often fail to see is that the gospel was an integral part of her thoughts. She was, first of all, a Christian – a status which she considered a high privilege to hold – and saw her talents as gifts of God to be improved “to his glory and the good of mankind” – a vocation she didn’t take lightly. “The world is a severe Schoolmaster, for its frowns are less dangerous than its smiles and flatteries, and it is a difficult task to keep in the path of wisdom.”[13]

As for slavery, she manifested a deep understanding of 1 Corinthians 7:20-24, where – without precluding the possibility of bettering one’s condition – the Apostle Paul exhorts Christians to accept the situation where God has placed them, remembering that Christian slaves are free in Christ and Christian free men and women are servants of Christ.

Phillis paraphrases this thought when she writes, “My old master’s generous behavior in granting me my freedom … If this had not been the case, yet I hope I should willingly submit to Servitude to be free in Christ. But since it is thus, let me be a Servant of Christ and that is the most perfect freedom.”[14]

This attitude is difficult to understand unless it’s viewed in the light of perfect trust in “the God unseen, which round the sun revolves this vast machine” and “whirls surrounding spheres”[15] by his infinite power, wisdom, goodness, and love.

A Painful Loss

            News of Susanna’s ill health brought Phillis back to Boston sooner than she had planned. Officially freed, she spent most of her days with Susanna, who had become for Phillis both a mother and a friend. It was a trying experience.

            “I sat the whole time by her bedside,” Phillis wrote, “and saw with Grief and Wonder the Effects of Sin on the human race. …But this is a matter of endless praise, to the King eternal immortal, invisible, that it is finished.”[16]

            Susanna was also Phillis’s editor, advisor, and agent. Without her, Phillis said, “I feel like one forsaken by her parent in a desolate wilderness, for such the world appears to me, wandring thus without my friendly guide. I fear lest every step should lead me into error and confusion. She gave me many precepts and instructions, which I hope I shall never forget.”[17]

Once again, she found comfort in God. “What a Blessed Source of consolation that our greatest friend is an immortal God whose friendship is invariable!”[18]

This comfort didn’t come without a struggle, which she expressed in a letter to her friend Obour Tanner, also a slave. “I hope ever to follow your good advices and be resigned to the afflicting hand of a seemingly frowning Providence,” she wrote. “Assist me, dear Obour! to praise our great benefactor for the innumerable benefits continually pour’d upon me, that while he strikes one Comfort dead he raises up another. But O, that I could dwell on, and delight in him alone above every other Object! While the world hangs loose about us we shall not be in painful anxiety in giving up to God that which he first gave to us.”

Trying Times

            The trials Phillis mentioned to Obour might have included the occupation of Boston by the British. Soon after Susanna’s death, John Wheatley, being pro-British, moved his family to Rhode Island, where more people shared his sentiments. Phillis went along, although her sympathies lay with the American cause. She even wrote a poem in honor of George Washington, who responded warmly, inviting her to visit him in his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

            Phillis was also invited to join a missionary team to Africa, but refused for several reasons. For one thing, she felt she could not contribute to the mission as much as the missionaries were expecting, because she didn’t speak the language of the area where they were going. “How like a Barbarian should I look to the natives!”[19] she said. Besides, the trip seemed too dangerous, and she didn’t personally know the missionaries.

            John Wheatley died in March 1778. A few months later, Phillis married John Peters, a free black man who dealt in different trades but ultimately proved unable to provide enough financial support for his family. Together, they had three children, all of whom died in infancy.

Phillis died in poverty on December 5, 1784, followed a few hours later by her third child, who was buried with her in an unmarked grave. John Peters was not with her at the time of her death, and some have speculated that he might have left her, or was placed in jail because of debt.

It was an inglorious ending of an influential life. But Phillis, who had written countless elegies to comfort those whose loved ones had died, knew that her true glory was to glory in the Lord, and that her true happiness lay ahead. Her last published poem, an Elegy on Leaving, concludes with these lines:

But come, sweet Hope, from thy divine retreat,

Come to my breast, and chase my cares away,

Bring calm Content to gild my gloomy seat,

And cheer my bosom with her heav’nly ray.[20]




[1] Phillis Wheatley, Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley: A Native African and a Slave, ed. by Margaretta Matilda Odell, Boston: Geo W. Light, 1834, p. 47.

[2] David Hume, “Of National Characters,” in Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985, note 10, p. 208.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, transl. by John T. Goldthwait, Berkley: University of California Press, 1960, p. 110.

[4] Ibid., p. 111.

[5] Wheatley, Memoir and Poems, p. 42.

[6] Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. by Paul Leicester Ford, New York and London: G.P.Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 53.

[8] Wheatley, Memoir and Poems, p. 42.

[9] Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2003, p. 71.

[10] Phillis Wheatley to Samuel Occom, March 11, 1774, first published in The Connecticut Gazette. Quoted in American Literature Anthology Project, Humanities Commons, https://amlit1.hcommons.org/wheatleytooccom/

[11] Wheatley, Memoir and Poems, p. 75.

[12] Phillis Wheatley to Samuel Occom.

[13] Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings, ed. by Vincent Carretta, New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2001, p. 159

[14] Ibid. 159, emphasis included in the original.

[15] Wheatley, Memoir and Poems, p. 58.

[16] Wheatley, Complete Writings, p. 155, emphasis included in the original.

[19] Ibid., p. 159

[20] Ibid., p. 103.

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