Posts Tagged ‘Phillis Wheatley’

Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though your were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:16-18)

—  For the last month we have looked at the lives of four very remarkable women. Three lived in the nineteenth century and one in the eighteenth century. Three were slave-born blacks; one was a free black. In spite of the fact that they had seemingly everything going against them as black women, at the bottom of the social scale, they rose above their circumstances and gave much to humanity while serving their Savior.

Why were they able to live in a realm above their circumstances? It is because they all received strength from God. They all answered the call in their lives to serve.

Phillis Wheatley came to Boston from West Africa in 1761. Her owners, John and Phillis Wheatley - 1Susanna Wheatley, were devout Christians. Susanna recognized Phillis’ gift for learning and educated her. Phillis was brilliant enough to read and understand even the most difficult parts of Scripture. She loved poetry and was familiar with Alexander Pope, John Milton, Horace, Virgil and many others that twenty-first century college students cannot read.

Phillis lived as a slave until the death of her owner in 1778. During that time she wrote poetry and much of it reflected her thoughts on the cruelty of slavery. But her poetry also reflected her strong Christian faith. She was able to put into perspective the difference between physical and spiritual slavery. One reason she was able to rise above her circumstances was that she knew that her life with Christ would be forever and life on this earth is short. She was grateful to God for saving 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 looked forward to the day when slavery would be ended but lived a righteous life that honored God in spite of her circumstances.


If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:1)

Sojourner-Truth - 1   —  Isabella Baumfree (Sojourner Truth) was born around 1797 to slave parents in New York. She ran away from a cruel owner around 1826. Kindly Quakers took her in and purchased her from her owner when he caught up with her. Isabella had a life changing experience where her faith became more real to her. There came to her “the true revelation of the character and attributes of God, and of the office of Jesus Christ as the Mediator and Savior; and the converted Sojourner became from that time henceforward one of the most faithful, consistent, and zealous of Christian disciples.” It was during this time that Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth.

Sojourner wanted to do something to help her people. Besides trying to get the United States government to give land to the colored people, she became a reformer. She was nearly six feet tall and had a strong, deep voice. When she spoke, people listened. She was active in the temperance movement and argued for better treatment of women.

In Sojourner we have another woman who lived above the pettiness of society. Many other black women of her day went on to live mediocre lives after their emancipation, but not Sojourner. “People ask me,” she once said, “how I came to live so long and keep my mind; and I tell them it is because I think of the great things of God; not the little things.” Sojourner kept her eyes on the things above.


I’ll meet you in de mornin’,
When you reach de promised land;
On de oder side of Jordan,
For I’m boun’ for de promised land.    

—  The little lady who rescued three to four hundred slaves in the mid-nineteenth HTubman-1century, earning the title, of a “Moses to her people” was born Araminta Ross around 1820 to Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene, both slaves. Harriet Tubman later took her mother’s name, Harriet. She took her husband’s name when she married John Tubman.

Harriet would not blame God for any of the hard circumstances of her early life, but acknowledge that her difficult upbringing prepared her for the tasks ahead of her when she followed her calling to rescue slaves.

In 1849, she and some other slaves were to be sold. She determined not to be sold and so one night she just walked away. Eventually she arrived in Philadelphia where a white woman befriended her and she got a job. She saved her money and two years after her own escape from slavery she went south to rescue her husband. She found him living with another woman and unwilling to take her back. This did not stop her from her plan of rescuing other family members. She just moved on trusting in the Lord.

Harriet didn’t acquiesce to her slave condition; she did something about it. Risking her health and even her life she lived in crude circumstances in order to rescue and move slaves to freedom. She had to live by her wits but she always gave the credit to God. When someone would express surprise at her boldness and daring she would reply, “Don’t I tell you, Missus, ’twasn’t me, ’twas de Lord!”

Harriet’s life is an example of what can be done, even in horrible circumstances, when a person does not give up or give in. It was her faith in God and her attitude that made all of the difference.


There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

MariaStewart_   —  Maria Miller was born a free black in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut. Other than their last name, we don’t really know anything about Maria’s parents. She was orphaned at the age of five and became a servant girl in the home of a minister. While there she learned to read and became very familiar with the Bible. She understood it so well in fact that one she would later incorporate it into her speeches in very intelligent and appropriate ways. When she was twenty-three, Maria Miller married James W. Stewart at the African Baptist Church in Boston. She took not only his last name but also his middle initial and became known as Maria W. Stewart after that.

Maria is well known for her speeches and article on abolition and women’s rights. She was cruelly robbed of her inheritance by white, unscrupulous businessmen when James died. She knew how unfair life was for blacks and especially for female blacks.

In spite of that, she was also a devout Christian who knew what God expected of His people – all of His people. Maria boldly lectured the blacks themselves for doing little to better their own plight. “It is useless for us any longer to sit with our hands folded, reproaching the whites; for that will never elevate us,” she said.

Here was another woman who understood that the most important thing in life is to be right with God. She fought for social justice, but always in the context of the Bible.

All of these women understood that the most important freedom is freedom in Christ. Yes, human slavery is wicked and cruel. We still have it with us today in the form of human trafficking. As long as wicked men have the power to abuse others they will. We will not be free of sin until Christ comes again. We can fight for social justice as all of these women did. It is in service to others for the Lord that we find a meaning in our lives that keeps us going. We are able to rise above our circumstances keeping our eyes focused on Jesus and on the tasks at hand.

We can learn from the examples of these four remarkable women who understood that:

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:29) and If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. (John 8:36)

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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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