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Ancestors on Mission: Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753 – 1784), widely known for her poetry, and as thee first African American woman published in pre-Revolutionary America, was also a notable apologist, abolitionist, and missionary.

Her journey to these shores was cruel and traumatic. In 1721, slave trader Playten Onely requested the Royal African Company capture “500 Small Slaves, Male and Female, from 6 to 10 years old, to be delivered annually” aboard the slave ship Kent. This legislation, allowing for the capture and sale of African children in the New World will introduce scores of children into these pestilent and unjust conditions. They would be stuffed like afterthoughts into the smallest and most suffocating areas of the slave ship’s ‘hold’, in whichever way they fit.

After being kidnapped from Senegambia, West Africa at the age of 7, she was purchased at auction by the Wheatley household. She was given the name of the slaving vessel from which she came, and taught the English alphabet by the Wheatleys’ daughter. She was trained as a domestic, and received obligatory religious and theological education from the Wheatley family, and from the clergy of New England.

Legislation against educating slaves had not yet reached Boston, but it was certainly discouraged and seen as impossible due to ontological racism – a perceived intellectual inferiority that Phillis’ abilities would soon challenge. Sixteen months after her purchase, she was reading English with fluency and ease from the most difficult portions of the Bible. By age 10, she was reading Greek and Latin, translating classics into English. By 14, she was catechized and published.

She converted to Christianity at the age of 16 and became a ‘member’ of the Old South Congregational Church in Boston under the ministry of Rev. George Sewall. Yet this “genius in bondage” worshipped in the segregated balcony reserved for slaves.

Artistic Method

Wheatley appealed to the emotions of her readers to demonstrate the humanity shared by people of African and European descent. Her work coupled this emotional appeal with arguments for the moral superiority of enslaved Africans over hypocritical ‘Christians.’

Wheatley transformed what her surrounding culture would consider a defect into a virtue. She often claimed authority over her readers as an Ethiope rather than Black or African, to assume biblical authority over her readers. This method was based on Moses’ marriage to an Ethiopian (Numbers 12:1), and the prediction that Ethiopia “shall soon stretch out her hands to God” (Psalm 68:31). Wheatley used these biblical counter-arguments to dismantle racial self-hatred and disarm her opponents. She often contextualized Greek and Roman literary figures to draw parallels between their lives and hers.

Theology and Themes

Wheatley was a student of orthodox Congregationalist theology. Some of the common Theistic themes in her writing are natural vs special revelation; a transcendent Creator Who is sovereign over creation and benevolent, omnipotent and just; biblical authority; and a rejection of Atheism and Deism. She also writes of redemption, the image of God, original sin, the depravity of man, suffering for righteousness, the coming Kingdom, and the necessity for a righteous Saviour.

She would have known through the abolitionist social circles of Boston that New World ‘Christians’ preached that the Bible justified slavery. With access to her English Bibles and facility with the original languages, she wrote of their inconsistencies not only with the teachings of Christ, but through the gospels.

Wheatley eventually negotiated her freedom from the Wheatley family, and began the difficult struggle as an independent African woman in a society that had little regard or opportunities. Post-emancipation, she became even more bold in her abolition advocacy. Though she shared an affection with the revivalist George Whitefield, she challenged him on his unethical, pro-slavery inconsistencies. Her soaring elegy to Whitefield on his death should always be read alongside her personal letters in which she and other literate Africans and Europeans actively resisted his pro-slavery stance. He was not the only leader she challenged on the condition of Africans in America, she also corresponded with the Earl of Dartmouth, President George Washington, and many other prominent leaders.

Imagine the risk this bore for this woman, this African, who by all accounts should have remained voiceless in nascent America.

Mission Work

In 1774, Wheatley begins mission work with Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan nation and a Presbyterian cleric, and Phillip Quaque, the first ordained Anglican priest of African descent. The three are publishing their work, and funding mission to Ghana and Sierra Leone. Their work makes some of the earliest recorded mission efforts from the New World, though America does not technically exist as yet. Their efforts were thrust toward establishing an African Christian presence specifically in resettlement projects in Freetown Sierra Leone, created as a safe-haven for emancipated slaves who were often recaptured and sold back into slavery. The three were soon joined by other self-emancipators: Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, and the European attorney Granville Sharp.

This early African American mission activity was truncated by the Revolutionary War, as New Englanders fled with their funds and their slaves to escape British occupation. By 1775, relations are so poor between England and the Colonies that all mission activity is suspended. What is of note is that this group began mission from North America in 1774, 8 years earlier than George Lisle.

Troll Clap Back

Let’s end our discussion of Wheatley with some Black-girl fire. In the 18th century, writers like Wheatley were considered the ‘bloggers’ of their day, and they were not without trolls. One cowardly, anonymous troll challenged her writing with a low, ad hominem accusation against her character. Newly self-emancipated, Wheatley clapped back with this response:

“I challenge this white face, white-livered enemy of modern Poetesses. It will be a Black affair for him if he ever comes under my lee; for I will have no Mercy on a Man who stands up against me on that Score. I am a match for the stiffest pedant in the Republic of Letters. He holds up his crest no doubt, with confidence, as he has hitherto met with no Rub for his impudence in turning up the frail part of us female poets; but I would have him draw back in time, and not plunge too deep into a subject whose bottom his short line of understanding can never fathom.”

More than two hundred years later, no one remembers the name of the troll, but history remembers Phillis Wheatley.

For further study:

Caretta, V., 2011. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. Athens (Georgia): University of Georgia Press.

Wheatley, Phillis, 1773, Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral. London: Printed for A. Bell, Bookseller, Aldgate; and sold by Messrs. Cox and Berry, King-Street, Boston. M DCC LXXIII.

 

Karen Ellis explores the zones where identity, human rights and theology intersect. She has performed, spoken and lectured internationally; in her twenty year career, she has been seen in classrooms, conferences, on radio, television, film and onstage. Karen holds a Master of Arts in Religion (Theological) from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama. Karen travels and teaches alongside her husband, theological anthropologist Dr. Carl F. Ellis, Jr.

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