Women Every Christian Should Know: Phillis Wheatley
Standing on an auction block in 1761, a seven-year-old African girl waited, gawked at by passersby and prospective buyers. Having just arrived in Boston Harbor after surviving the treacherous Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean, this young girl, whose name was left behind on the shores of her home, was purchased by John Wheatley for his wife, Susanna. They gave her the name “Phillis,” after the vessel that had torn her away from her own world.
A Household Slave
Bought to be a household slave, young Wheatley worked around the home, performing various chores. Having at some point shown an aptitude for learning, Wheatley was granted the opportunity of learning to read and write, most likely taught by her owner’s daughter, Mary. Her education went well beyond the normal level for most free women of her day. As a young teenager, Wheatley was composing poetry that reveals an unusual knowledge of classic literature, geography, history, and politics.[i]
Wheatley was also taught about the Christian faith, most likely attending church with her master’s family and being exposed to the teaching of men like George Whitefield. Just six years after her arrival in America, she was writing poems like “An Address to the Deist,” in which she defends the doctrine of the Trinity. It was her elegy on Whitefield upon his death in 1770 that began to bring her notoriety in Boston and across the Atlantic in England. Two years later, Wheatley had written enough poems to have a book of her work published, and her owners put an ad soliciting subscriptions in the Boston Censor. Wheatley scholar Vincent Carretta writes,
The Boston Censor’s readers were accustomed to seeing people of African descent mentioned in print, usually unnamed, in advertisements for selling them, in advertisements for runaway slaves, or in accounts of domestic and foreign resistance to slavery. But they must have been startled by the elaborate appeal published on Wheatley’s behalf.
This volume of poetry, titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, opens with a portrait of Wheatley, who was “the first woman of sub-Saharan African descent to sit for an individualized portrait.”[ii] The words surrounding her portrait read, “Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston.“ The image shows her dressed “plainly,“ a request of her mistress, Susannah. The black ribbon tied around her neck reminds the reader of chains, indicating her slave status. The following page includes an attestation that the poems were, indeed, written by Wheatley. It is accompanied by the signatures of eighteen men who met with Wheatley and, after testing her through unknown means, found sufficient proof that she did in fact write them. The list of names reads like a Who‘s Who of Boston society, including the governor, Thomas Hutchinson, and other notable men like John Hancock and Samuel Mather.
Gentle Strength and Fervent Passion
In May of 1773, Wheatley and her owner’s adult son, Nathaniel, sailed from Boston for London for something of a publicity tour. For Wheatley, though, it was more than that. Her tour guide around parts of London was a man named Granville Sharp, an early advocate for abolition of the English slave trade. On behalf of a slave named James Somerset, Sharp had won a case that effectively freed slaves who were brought into England. Not surprisingly, Wheatley was freed by her master shortly after her return to Boston, possibly after he was pressured by those she had met in England.
In 1778, Wheatley married John Peters, a free African American. The remainder of her short life was marked by heartache, as two of her children died, her husband was in and out of prison, and she ended up living in a boarding house. In 1784, she and her baby died and were buried together in an unmarked grave.[iii] Although she had plans for another book of poems, it never came to fruition, most likely due to the war economy experienced in the colonies.
While she only lived a short thirty years, Phillis Wheatley’s life has much to teach modern Christians engaging in the public square. Not one to shy away from politics and religion in her poetry, she found a way to express her convictions in gentle strength and with fervent passion. Here are three key things she can teach us:
She Used Her Story to Open Up Eyes
The Wheatleys were undoubtedly happy to learn that their slave was such a quick learner and natural talent. They certainly capitalized on her talent, as it was their family who stood to benefit from the sales of her work. We don’t know how much oversight they employed when it came to the content of Phillis’s poetry, but we can see that she held in tension sadness over her enslavement and gratitude for the opportunities she received in Boston—both educational and religious. Yet she didn’t shy away from her story and the plight of so many others who, like her, had been torn from their homes and forced into slavery. Instead, she used her story to open the eyes of her readers to their blind hypocrisy in calling for freedom from tyranny for the colonies while neglecting to seek freedom for all men and women. Additionally, the very act of using her voice and her talents undermined the message of many who called into question the humanity of those men and women brought over from Africa.
Her Faith Compelled Her
The fact that eighteen powerful men had to sign off on her work before she could publish it gives us some indication of the pressure facing Wheatley in her writing. Her work was not universally appreciated (Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The compositions composed under her name are below the dignity of criticism”).[iv] We can assume she might have attained far greater notoriety had she put her own interests ahead of those of other slaves. She was, no doubt, exposed to religious teaching that taught slavery as a biblically supported institution. Yet, even as a teenager, her poetry reveals a greater understanding of human dignity and God’s justice.Even as a teenager, her poetry reveals a greater understanding of human dignity and God’s justice. Click To Tweet
In a letter to Native American pastor Samson Occom, Wheatley wrote that “in every human Breast God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.” It was her faith in this God that compelled her to leverage her opportunity for the good of others, rather than exploiting others for her own comfort.
She Was Winsome and Wise
In one of the poems that would have been published in her second volume, Wheatley writes through the voice of Major General Wooster, who had died from wounds sustained in a Connecticut battle. Writing to elegize him for his valiant efforts in the fight for freedom, she also uses the opportunity to point out the aforementioned hypocrisy of those fighting:
[…] But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with th’ Almighty mind–
While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace
And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race?
Let virtue reign—And thou accord our prayers
Be victory our’s, and generous freedom theirs.
By co-opting this man’s voice, she skillfully draws attention to the narrow “freedom” fought for by the colonists and calls their virtue into question, not as a former slave girl, but instead speaking as a famous war hero.
While we don’t know her real name or any details about her early life, we do know that Phillis Wheatley was a young woman of great faith and courage. She wrote to a friend what should be every Christian’s hope and prayer: “But O that I could dwell on and delight in [Jesus] 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.”[v]
[i] Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Genius in Bondage (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011) 40.
[ii] Ibid., 100.
[iii] Massachusetts Historical Society, masshist.org.
[iv] Carretta, 200.
[v] Letter to Obour Tanner, 6 May 1774.