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Posts Tagged ‘Countess of Huntingdon’

Thou, Lord, whom I behold with glory crown’d,

By what sweet name, and in what tuneful sound

Wilt thou be prais’d? Seraphic pow’rs are faint

Infinite love and majesty to paint.

To thee let all their grateful voices raise,

And saints and angels join their song of praise.

(From: On the death of a young Lady of Five Years of Age. Phillis Wheatley)

Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 in West Africa, probably between present-dayPhillis Wheatley - 1 Gambia and Ghana. She was kidnapped and brought to Boston. Of course Phillis Wheatley was not her birth name, but the name she was given when she arrived at the home of her new owners, John and Susanna Wheatley. The ship that brought her over to America in 1761 was the Phillis, a slave ship owned by Timothy Fitch. At the time, approximately 1000 of Boston’s more than 15,000 residents were slaves.

John Wheatley bought Phillis to be a servant to his wife. Phillis was a sickly child, but Susanna recognized her agile and intelligent mind and gave her an extraordinary education for any woman of that time, let alone a slave. The Wheatley’s were devout Christians and we are not sure when Phillis became a believer but it was very early in her life. She was baptized at the Congregationalist Old South Church on August 18, 1771.

Phillis learned English, the Bible, Christianity, Latin, ancient history, geography, and classical literature. She was a quick learner; within sixteen months Phillis was proficient enough in the English language to be able to read even “the most difficult parts of the Sacred Writings” according to her the Wheatley’s. Phillis especially loved poetry. Her poems and letters show that she was familiar with Alexander Pope, John Milton, William Shenstone, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer.  How many fourteen-year olds in our day can read the writings of these classical giants?

Though Phillis was treated very kindly by Susanna, she was still as slave. Her poetry would reflect thoughts on slavery, but also on the kindness of her mistress, whom she loved very much.

Phillis’ poetry would reflect the Christianity that she had learned from Susannah and from George Whitefield. Susannah Wheatley was a supporter of the famous evangelist and Phillis went with her to hear Whitefield and other Calvinist Methodist preachers.

Phillis’ first published poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin”, was a tale of two men who nearly drowned at sea and their steady faith in God. Published by the Newport Mercury in 1767, this poem reflected Phillis’ strong faith in God and would anticipate the Christian piety that would characterize most of the poetry that she would write.

For the next several years, Phillis continued to write and publish occasional poems. Her fame became international however after she wrote a funeral elegy for George Whitefield after his death in 1770. This poem was addressed to the Countess of Huntingdon, Lady Selina Hastings. (See my April 2012 posting for more information on Lady Selina.) The Countess of Huntingdon was a supporter of George Whitefield and Charles and John Wesley. Left a fabulous fortune when she was widowed, Lady Selina chose to advance the cause of the Gospel by using most of her money for evangelical causes. Whitefield was Lady Selina’s chaplain.

After this elegy was published, Phillis’ reputation as a gifted poet spread throughout the colonies and Great Britain. Here is an excerpt from “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770”:

Hail, happy saint, on thine immortal throne,

Possest of glory, life, and bliss unknown;

We hear no more the music of thy tongue,’

Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.

Phillis also wrote letters or poetry addressed to George Washington, King George, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and many others. She wrote on the theological topics of Atheism and Deism as well, showing her understanding of the Bible and practical wisdom.

Slavery and her own experience were the topics of several poems. Though she longed for an end to the cruel practice of slavery, she was able to put into perspective the difference between physical slavery and spiritual slavery. She understood that eternal life is forever and life on this earth is short. She was grateful to God for rescuing her soul:

“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 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.

phillis-wheatley- PoemsPhillis’ first volume of poetry was published in London in 1773. Later in her life she hoped to publish a second volume but was unable to accomplish that goal. Unfortunately for us, that volume is lost.

Of course the early 1770’s was a time when tensions were growing between the colonists and Great Britain. The War for American Independence interrupted Phillis’ career. People were buying books on other topics. Her master moved several times. Her beloved mistress, Susanna died on March 3, 1774. Phillis continued to live in the Wheatley house until John Wheatley died in 1778. Phillis was effectively, if not legally freed.

Phillis struggled to support herself by selling copies of her poetry. She met and married John Peters, a free black, on April 1, 1778. At first this marriage seemed to be a sound one, but it deteriorated. We are not sure what all happened, but apparently Peters changed jobs frequently and was often in debt. He seems to have been conceited as well. John and Phillis had three children all of whom died early. The third child died at the same time as Phillis on December 5, 1784. Her last known poem was addressed to George Washington. On December 8 they were buried together in an unmarked grave.

John sold Phillis’ manuscripts and books to cover his debts. The first American edition of her “Poems” was finally published in Philadelphia in1786.

Phillis Wheatley’s poetry continued to be used as evidence for the humanity, equality, and literary talents of African Americans. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, her place in the developing tradition of literature by people of African descent is secure as the mother of African-American literature. No one should ever doubt that talent and intellect are not a function of color but are gifts of God to any of His children no matter where they are from. We are thankful that God blessed us with Phillis Wheatley. May we learn from her life to have confidence in our callings no matter our circumstances.

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