Phillis Wheatley was an African American poet born in the 18th century. Brought to the American colonies in 1761 from Gambia, Africa, she was only seven years old when the Wheatley family bought her as a personal slave for the aging Mrs. Wheatley. They named her Phillis, after the name of the ship that brought her from Africa. Although she was enslaved, the members of the Wheatley family thought it best for her to receive an education. In addition to writing and reading, members of the Wheatly family taught her biblical studies, Greek, Latin, British literature, geography, and astronomy.
Phillis began writing poetry in her pre and early teens. As a writer, she was influenced by some of the figures studied in the Wheatley household, such as Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray. Her work drew much inspiration from African culture and her newly found faith in Christ, the latter of which significantly sparked the interest of many American and English protestants.
Her first published work, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” was written at the age of fourteen. She penned one of her most renowned pieces however, at the age of fifteen. This poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to America”, condemns the evils of racism from a Christian perspective:
As the poem progresses, she engages in a personal reflection, claiming that:
‘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…” (lines 1-3).
Wheatley did not desire to condone the evils of slavery (as some critique), but only to place her experience in perspective. It was with thankfulness she acknowledged that despite being forcefully ripped from her home, she had discovered her true Home – one found in Christ.
At the age of eighteen, Phillis’s repertoire included over twenty-eight poems she hoped to publish. Despite facing obstacles as the result of societal prejudice, Phillis with some help from the Wheatley family eventually obtained an endorsement from some of the most renowned civilians and political figures in Boston. They confirmed her genuine skill as both a writer and poet. This letter allowed her first collection of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, to soon be published in London. She was the first African American and the second female to publish a book – a significant literary achievement, especially in the context of extreme racial injustice and slavery within the European colonies.
In a letter from October 18, 1773, she wrote of her freedom from the Wheatley family. With this newfound freedom and her popularity throughout America and England expanding, Phillis began more forcefully to speak against slavery. She supported the cause of the American Revolution and “was hopeful that freedom for the colonies would lead to freedom for the enslaved.” At the end of her life, she hoped to publish a second book of poetry, but never received the chance. On December 5, 1784, she died at the young age of thirty-one.
Phillis Wheatley was a remarkable woman. Even in the face of enslavement for most her life, she chose to work hard and rely on the strength of Christ for redemption. Her writings inspire the reader today to remember eternity. In her poem “Hymn to the Evening,” Wheatley reflects on a sunset as the day draws to a close. She understands that even the coming of night is overseen by the sovereignty of God:
“Through all the heav’ns what beauteous dies are spread!/But the west glories in the deepest red:/So may our breasts with ev’ry virtue glow,/The living temples of our God below!” (lines 7-10).
Where one might associate the night with hopelessness, Phillis meditates on how the night only brings her one day closer with Christ:
“…Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,/At morn to wake more heav’nly, more refin’d;/So shall the labours of the day begin/More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin” (lines 13-16).
Despite her less than ideal circumstances, God blessed Phillis Wheatley with the ability to share Truth. She was able to recognize his goodness, devote herself, and remind those who read her poetry of the Biblical command to “…[Forget] what is behind and [strain] toward what is ahead…” (Philippians 3:13). May we view our trials as Phillis Wheatley: a force to draw us deeper into the process of sanctification.
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