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


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. Small, frightened and skinny, she looked too frail to do much work. The Wheatleys’ choice might have been due to the fact that, with her missing front teeth, she looks like she was seven years old, almost the same age as the last of their children, Sarah, at the time of her death. They called the African girl Phillis, the name of the ship that had taken her to America.

An Impressive Mind

            John Wheatley was a prosperous merchant in Boston. Besides Sarah, he and his wife, Susanna, had lost two other children. Their oldest twins, Nathaniel and Mary, were eighteen at that time and lived at home.

            It didn’t take long for the Wheatleys to be impressed Phillis’s quick mind. Susanna was particularly interested in her education, although the task of instructing her was given to Mary. 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, and geography, and even learned some Latin. Her favorite poets were John Milton and Alexander Pope

            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. Being a poet, he probably encouraged Phillis in her first attempts.

            Phillis’s first published poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” appeared in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. It was inspired by an adventurous story Phillis heard from these two men, Hussey and Coffin. She gave God the credit for saving their lives during a storm at sea.

            But the poem that gave her Transatlantic fame 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.

First Published African-American Author

            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. A publisher told her she had to find 300 people who would be willing to pre-order her book (by paying in advance). She also needed to have some recommendation by some reputable Bostonians.

            The reason why such a recommendation was necessary was that many 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.”  His colleague Immanuel Kant added, “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”  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.”  If Phillis was, in fact, the author of these poems, she would have shattered this notion.

            And she did. The letter of recommendation, entitled “Attestation,” was written by 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. All of them were convinced, by meeting Phillis and seeing her write in their presence, or by talking with people who did, that she was truly the author of her poems.

            In one of her poems, Phillis put into words what she had shown by her 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.

            Even with the attestation, Phillis had a hard time finding 300 subscribers. Many were leery of these proposals, having paid for books that were never published. Through Susan’s connections in England, one English publisher, Archibald Bell, agreed to take on the project. He was also a friend of the Countess of Huntingdon, who undoubtedly had a great influence on the decision. She recommended that Phillis sit for an engraving to place on the frontispiece of the book – a great honor for any author, which was rarely granted to women, especially in their first publishing venture.

            Taking advantage of a Transatlantic trip Nathaniel Wheatley had planned on taking for both business and personal reasons, Phillis accompanied him to London, where she was given the royal treatment by many members of the high society. She was, after all, a curiosity – a poetess born in the unfamiliar regions of Africa and educated while in slavery. Her hosts took her on a large tour of the city, showing her impressive sights, and showered her with gifts (mostly books) at her departure.

            She returned to Boston in September. Three months later, the collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, came off the press.

Success and Freedom

            John Thornton, a friend of the Wheatleys who hosted Nathaniel and Phillis during their stay in London, expressed some concerns that the sudden fame might go to the young girl’s head. But Phillis was prepared. She had foreseen this temptation and prayed against it. In her reply to Thornton, she explained that knowing that her gifts were given by God, who wanted her to use them for “His glory and the good of mankind,”  was sufficient to keep her humble and to impress her with a deep sense of responsibility. 

            Phillis kept Thornton abreast of the sad news in the Wheatleys’ household. Phillis had returned to find Susanna in a poor state of health. In spite of a few glimmers of hope, Susanna died on March 1, 1774. Her last days on earth left a strong impression on Phillis.

            “I saw with grief and wonder the effects of sin on the human race,” she wrote to John Thornton. “Had not Christ taken away the evenom’d sting, where had been our hopes? What might have not we fear’d, what might have not we expect’d from the dreadful King of Terrors? But this is matter of endless praise, to the King eternal, immortal, invincible, that it is finished.”  Phillis was comforted to see Susanna leaving this life in peace, knowing that Christ had defeated death for her.

            Phillis told her friend Obour Tanner, an enslaved African girl in Newport, Rhode Island, that losing Susanna was like losing “a Parent, Sister, or Brother.”  Susanna had been the closest person to her, on an emotional level, ever since she arrived in America.

            Now more than ever, Phillis also missed Susanna’s advice. Partially on insistence from their friends in England, the Wheatleys had freed Phillis three months before Susanna’s death. She was still allowed to live with them, but had to take care of her own expenses. They probably expected her to make some money from the sales of her book.

            But this was not as easy as it sounded. Phillis learned that she had to budget her income, plan for the future, and find new marketing ideas. In one of her letters, she told a friend to watch against pirated copies of her book. As she had done in the past, she continued to raise some money by writing poems on commission.

            Thornton warned Phillis about a possible loss of supporters whose patronage depended on their connection with Susanna. Her response seems to indicate that had already experienced this reaction. But she had learned to fear the last more than the first. “The world is a severe schoolmaster,” she said, “for its frowns are less dangerous than its smiles and flatteries, and it is a difficult task to keep in the path of wisdom.” 

Liberty and Justice for All

            A major obstacle in what seemed a promising future was the start of the American Revolution. Rebellion against British rule had been brewing in Boston for some time, but by 1775 the hostilities escalated to a point that Phillis followed Nathaniel and Mary, with their respective spouses, to Providence, Rhode Island. She stayed there at least until the following year, when General Washington and his army expelled the British out of Boston.

            As many Americans, Phillis had mixed feelings about the war. “Even I a mere spectator am in anxious suspense concerning the fortune of this unnatural civil contest,” she wrote to Obour. “Possibly the ambition & thirst of Dominion in some is design'd as the punishment of the national views of others, tho' it bears the appearance of greater Barbarity than that of the uncivilz'd part of mankind.”

            Her faith, however, prevented her from despairing. “But Let us leave the Event to him whose wisdom alone can bring good out of Evil & he is infinitely superior to all the Craftiness of the enemies of this seemingly devoted Country,”  she continued.

            It was her strong belief in God’s wisdom and power and his ability to “bring good out of evil” that allowed Phillis to accept with thankfulness what God had done and continued to do in her life. In one of her first poems, written when she was still in her teens, she recognized God’s hand in bringing her to America where she had come to know Christ.

'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 colour is a diabolic die."

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

            During the last century, some have used this poem to blame Phillis of approving of slavery as a means to bring Africans to Christ. This was far from the poem’s meaning, as her critics would have discovered if they had read the entirety of her writings.

            In fact, her poem merely reflected the attitude expressed by other Africans, including the abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano, who wrote: “In some manner, I may say with Joseph, as he did with respect to the evil intention of his brethren, when they sold him into Egypt, that whatever evil intentions and bad motives those insidious robbers had in carrying me away from my native country and friends, I trust, was what the Lord intended for my good.”

            In a letter to Thornton, she demonstrated a keen understanding of Paul’s exhortation in 1 Cor. 7:21: “Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.”

            Phillis understood that accepting the calling that God has for each of us doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to improve our condition. The key, for a Christian, is to remember the big picture. “For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant” (1 Cor. 7:22).

            This is what Phillis wrote to Thornton. After announcing that she had just gained her freedom, she added, “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.”

In another letter, this time to William Legge, Earl of Darmouth, who had just been appointed secretary of state for the colonies, Phillis explained how her experience as a slave, forcibly taken from her parents and her land, informed her love for freedom of every kind.

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?

            She was even more explicit in a letter to Samuel Occum, a Mohegan missionary who had been a long-time friend of the Wheatleys: “God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward tile Calamities of their fellow Creatures. This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically, opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree, I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.”

Later Years

            Phillis was still well-known and influential during the American Revolution. She even wrote a letter to George Washington to congratulate him on his appointment as general of the Confederate forces, and he invited her to visit him in his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But fame doesn’t always translate to financial security, especially during and after a major war.

            Soon after John Wheatley’s death in March 1778, Phillis announced her upcoming marriage to John Peters, a free black man who dealt in different trades. They married on November 26 of the same year.

            John Peter kept a fruitful business for a while, until he ran into debts he could not pay due to his own insolvent debtors. In the meantime, Phillis’s plans to publish a second volume of poems failed, mostly for the same reasons why she couldn’t publish her first volume in America. This time, she didn’t have the option to go to England because, due to the war, British publishers were not printing books by American authors.

            Little is known about Phillis’s last years. A popular account, that depicts her husband as a scoundrel and her late life as a heartbreaking tragedy has recently been disproved, due to several inaccuracies and a seeming motive to demonstrate that Phillis was happier when enslaved.

            We only know that Phillis died on December 5, 1784, most likely of an asthmatic condition that had plagued her for most of her life. Her husband was probably still in prison. As a black person, she was buried in an unmarked grave. But her fame lived on, and her writings continued to be an inspiration to others. To blacks and abolitionists, they stood as an obvious evidence that no race is more intelligent than another. To Christians, they are a reminder that submission to God and a concern for justice are not mutually exclusive.


Simonetta Carr