Introduction

Phyllis Wheatley (1753–1784) was captured in Africa as a young child, and brought to Boston, Massachusetts. There, she was sold as a slave to John Wheatley who was immediately impressed by her intellect and encouraged Phyllis to learn to read English, so that she might study the Bible. “As to her WRITING, her own Curiousity led her to it,” he later recalled.

Wheatley’s pen soon became an instrument whereby she could work through the theological tangle of Christianity and slavery for herself and her readers. Although she did not expressly challenge the institution of slavery, her poems frequently allude to the equality of all men in the eyes of God, and thus, can be viewed as an attempt to undermine the racial construction of eighteenth century American society. Nevertheless, her published volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral carried endorsements secured from not only her own master, but several of “the most respectable characters in Boston.” These men attested to the quality of Wheatley’s writing and mind, while marveling that anyone “under the disadvantage of serving as a slave in a family in this town” could express herself with such eloquence.

In her religious sensibilities, Wheatley combined a largely individualistic Christian theology of salvation with a millennial conviction that America was to play a pivotal role in bringing not only spiritual but temporal liberty to the world. Her elegy for George Whitefield and her ode to George Washington, written early in the Revolution, are both truly works of praise to God as the author of liberty, and of thanksgiving for His work through these human agents.


Source: Phyllis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773), 18, 22–24; The Pennsylvania Magazine: or, American Monthly Museum, 2 (April 1776), 193. We have modernized spelling and capitalization.


On being brought from Africa to America

  ’TWAS mercy brought me from my pagan land,
  Taught my benighted soul to understand
  That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:
  Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
  Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
  “Their color is a diabolic die.”
  Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,[1]
  May be refined, and join the angelic train.


On the Death of the Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD[2] (c. 1770)

  HAIL, happy saint, on your immortal throne,
  Possessed of glory, life, and bliss unknown;
  We hear no more the music of your tongue,
  Your wonted auditories cease to throng.
  Your sermons in unequalled accents flowed,
  And every bosom with devotion glowed;
  You did in strains of eloquence refined
  Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.
  Unhappy we the setting sun deplore,
  So glorious once, but ah! it shines no more.

    Behold the prophet in his towering flight!
  He leaves the earth for heaven’s unmeasured height,
  And worlds unknown receive him from our sight.
  There Whitefield wings with rapid course his way,
  And sails to Zion through vast seas of day.
  Your prayers, great saint, and your incessant cries
  Have pierced the bosom of your native skies.
  Your moon has seen, and all the stars of light,
  How he has wrestled with his God by night.
  He prayed that grace in every heart might dwell,
  He longed to see America excel;
  He charged its youth that every grace divine
  Should with full luster in their conduct shine;
  That Savior, which his soul did first receive,
  The greatest gift that even a God can give,
  He freely offered to the numerous throng,
  That on his lips with listening pleasure hung.

    “Take him, you wretched, for your only good,
 Take him you starving sinners, for your food;
  You thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,
  You preachers, take him for your joyful theme;
  Take him my dear Americans,” he said,
  “Be your complaints on his kind bosom laid:
  Take him, you 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.”

    Great countess,* we Americans revere
  Your name, and mingle in your grief sincere;
  New England deeply feels, the orphans mourn,
  Their more than father will no more return.

    But, though arrested by the hand of death,
  Whitefield no more exerts his laboring breath,
  Yet let us view him in the eternal skies,
  Let every heart to this bright vision rise;
  While the tomb safe retains its sacred trust,
  Till life divine re-animates his dust.

*The Countess of Huntingdon, to whom Mr. Whitefield was Chaplain. [in original]


To His Excellency General Washington (26 October 1775)

Celestial choir! enthroned in realms of light,

Columbia’s[3] scenes of glorious toils I write.

While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,

She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.

See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,

And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!

See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light

Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

   The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,

Olive and laurel binds her golden hair:

Wherever shines this native of the skies,

Unnumbered charms and recent graces rise.

   Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates

How pour her armies through a thousand gates:

As when Eolus[4] heaven’s fair face deforms,

Enwrapped in tempest and a night of storms;

Astonished ocean feels the wild uproar,

The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;

Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,

Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.

In bright array they seek the work of war,

Where high unfurled the ensign waves in air.

Shall I to Washington their praise recite?

Enough you know them in the fields of fight.

You, first in place and honors,—we demand

The grace and glory of your martial band.

Famed for thy valor, for your virtues more,

Hear every tongue your guardian aid implore!

   One century scarce performed its destined round,

When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;

And so may you, whoever dares disgrace

The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!

Fixed are the eyes of nations on the scales,

For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.

Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,

While round increase the rising hills of dead.

Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!

Lament your thirst of boundless power too late.

   Proceed, great chief, with virtue on your side,

Your every action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,

With gold unfading, Washington! be yours.

Study Questions

  1.   How would you characterize Wheatley’s understanding of America’s role in God’s plan for the world?
  2.   How does Wheatley’s response to George Whitefield’s death add to the account of the Great Awakening we see in someone like Esther Edwards Burr (Document 6)?

Footnotes

  1. Some Europeans in the medieval and early modern period argued that the black skin of Africans was a result of their descent from Cain, the elder son of Adam and Eve who murdered his brother Abel (see Genesis 4). Although God punished Cain by sending him away from his family, he also placed an unspecified “mark” upon him, so that no harm would come to him in his exile: this mark was sometimes interpreted to be the darkening of his skin.
  2. George Whitefield (1714–1770) was a famously theatrical evangelical minister who came over from England on several speaking tours of the colonies. Although Whitefield did not take a strong anti-slavery stance, he did frequently preach to mixed-race audiences.
  3. Columbia is the name given to the female embodiment of America.
  4. god of winds