Phillis Wheatley was on trial. Her crime? Writing a collection of poetry.
Before this 18-year-old black slave sat a gathering of white dignitaries – statesmen, scholars, pastors, poets. Their objective? To determine if this girl, this West African transplant, this slave, was the author of carefully crafted, thoughtful poetry.
The trial was a risky gambit devised by Phillis’ master, John Wheatley, to prove the girl’s authorship. And once proved, Phillis’ works as a slave, a Christian, and a patriot would shake the American concept of race and salvation for years to come.
Ten years earlier in 1761, Susannah Wheatley, the wife of a successful and respected Boston tailor, John Wheatley, found herself in need of some household help. So she purchased the presumably 8-year-old child (she was missing her two front teeth) off the merchant ship, The Phillis, for a “mere trifle.”
The sickly, wasted girl, dressed in rags, was given the ship’s name – Phillis – and taken to the home of the Wheatley family. But it soon became apparent that this little girl had a quick, intelligent mind. So Mary Wheatley, the teenaged daughter of John and Susannah, took it upon herself to educate Phillis.
This previously illiterate, non-English-speaking child became, by age 13, well versed in English, Latin, astronomy, English literature – particularly Pope and Milton – the classics and, most importantly, the Bible. Less than a year and a half after Phillis had been with the Wheatleys, she was, according to John Wheatley, reading “the most difficult parts of the sacred writings.”
Phillis’s education was truly superior for a young woman at that time and unheard of for a slave. Not only was her education remarkable, but so was her inclusion in the Wheatley family. Phillis was considered more a child of the family than a slave, so much so that she was kept from the company of the other household slaves.
It would be difficult to ascribe to any one source the spiritual influences in Phillis’ life. The Wheatleys themselves were active members of the New South Congregational Church, and Phillis accompanied them to services. Susannah Wheatley was an ardent supporter of the evangelical missions of George Whitefield. The famed preacher often made excursions into New England, and some historians have suggested that the Wheatleys may have entertained Whitefield while he was there.
Phillis’s health, however, was frail, and her asthmatic condition made the weekly trip to the New South Congregational Church difficult. So with Susannah Wheatley’s blessing, Phillis began attending the Old South Congregational Church, a closer walk to her home. On Aug. 18, 1771, Phillis was baptized and received into membership at the Old South Church.
It was a few short months later that Phillis sat on trial before the august assembly. There are no records of what Phillis was asked. Perhaps she was catechized on her method of inspiration; perhaps she was questioned about her knowledge of the classics –to which her poetry makes frequent reference. What we’re left with today is the outcome of the inquiry:
We whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.
Among those under-written names were John Hancock, of Declaration of Independence fame, Reverend Samuel Mather, son of the great Puritan writer, Cotton Mather, and Reverend Samuel Cooper, the minister who had recently baptized Phillis.
The poems in question were contained in Wheatley’s “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” The book was a combination of previously published and new unpublished works.
Susannah Wheatley, desirous of displaying Phillis’s uncommon talent, had a few of Phillis’s works published in the local Boston papers, where they were met with great applause. However, the work that rocketed Phillis to fame was her elegy to George Whitefield, published in 1770.
In it she paraphrases the Gospel call that Whitefield preached:
“Take Him [Jesus], ye wretched, for your only good,
Take Him ye starving sinners, for your food;
Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,
Ye preachers, take Him for your joyful theme;
Take Him my dear Americans” he said,
“Be your complaints on His kind bosom laid:
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.”
Although Phillis enjoyed the small success of having a few short works published in the Boston newspapers, there were no American publishers adventurous enough to undertake publishing a book by a female Negro slave. The Wheatleys were left with no other option than to send Phillis’s book to London – a social climate more accepting of blacks – for publication. It was met with wild success, and within a short time, Phillis and Nathaniel Wheatley (the Wheatley’s son) were on their way to London to oversee the first printing of the book.
Phillis’s London debut was interrupted by news that Susanna Wheatley was deathly ill, and Phillis was recalled home. Some months later in March of 1774, Susanna Wheatley died.
The grieving Phillis wrote in a letter to a friend:
I have lately met with a great trial in the death of my mistress; let us imagine the loss of a Parent, Sister or Brother the tenderness of all these were united in her … I was treated by her more like her child than her Servant.
Phillis, however, wrote these words as a freewoman. In October 1773, Phillis Wheatley was granted manumission. The move from a privileged slave to a free black made Phillis’ future an uncertain one. The rumble of war drums had the Boston presses busy with military concerns, and Phillis’ second volume of poetry was never published.
The next year saw her former master flee Boston because of his loyalist leanings. Phillis then moved to Rhode Island and lived with Mary Wheatley, now Mary Lathrop –whose husband John Lathrop was the famous “Revolutionary Preacher” of the Old North Church of Boston.
Within a few years, both John and Mary Wheatley were dead, leaving Phillis penniless and destitute. Phillis struggled to make ends meet by selling her poetry, but without success.
Suddenly, though, Phillis’s future looked bright. In April 1778, she married John Peters, a free black. Acquaintances of Phillis recall that Peters was a self-absorbed drifter, bright, but incapable of keeping a job. The young couple scraped a living by selling a few of Phillis’ short poems to newspapers, but those funds were not enough to support them. Phillis eventually took a job as a charwoman, but even then their living was meager. Phillis bore two children, both of whom died in infancy.
Peters deserted Phillis before she gave birth to a third, a daughter, and took her unpublished manuscripts with him. Phillis soon died, likely of childbirth complications and a generally weakened constitution. Her daughter died a few days later; the two share the same unmarked grave. Phillis was 31 years old.
Slavery and salvation were common themes in Wheatley’s poetry. One of Wheatley’s early poems, “On Being Brought From Africa to America” explores these themes with rich language and imagery:
‘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 color is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Though popular opinion agreed that blacks could be saved, many doubted their intellectual capacity to produce works of fine art, including poetry. Phillis Wheatley’s success countered that notion, and she used her new-found platform to address the ills of slavery.
A strong supporter of the Revolutionary cause, Wheatley yoked the idea of America’s subservience to Britain with that of her own slave status. In a poem addressed to the Crown’s Secretary of State in North America, Phillis lends her unique voice to a chorus of American patriots:
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flows 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?