Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784), a poet and the first African-American woman published in pre-Revolutionary America, was also a notable apologist, abolitionist, and missionary.
Her journey to these shores was cruel and traumatic. In 1721, slave trader Playten Onely requested that the Royal African Company capture “500 small slaves, male and female, from 6 to 10 years old, to be delivered annually” aboard the slave ship Kent. These children were stuffed into the smallest and most suffocating areas of the slave ship’s hold and then sold in the New World.
Phillis was kidnapped from Senegambia, West Africa, at the age of 7. She was purchased at auction by the Wheatley household in Boston and taught the English alphabet by the Wheatleys’ daughter. She was trained as a domestic and received religious and theological education from both the Wheatley family and also New England clergy.
Legislation against educating slaves had not yet reached Boston, but such education was certainly discouraged and seen as impossible due to the perceived intellectual inferiority of Africans. Wheatley’s abilities challenged this ontological racism; just 16 months after her purchase at age 9, she was reading English with fluency and ease from the Bible’s most difficult portions.
By age 10, Wheatley was reading Greek and Latin and translating classics into English. By 14, she was catechized and published.
Converted to Christ at 16, she became a member of the Old South Congregational Church in Boston—and yet this “genius in bondage” worshiped in the segregated balcony reserved for slaves.
Wheatley appealed to the emotions of her readers to demonstrate the humanity of persons of African and European descent. Her work coupled this emotional appeal with arguments for the moral superiority of enslaved Africans over hypocritical “Christians.”
Wheatley often claimed a biblical identity by referring to herself as an Ethiope rather than Black or African, referencing Moses’s marriage to an Ethiopian (Num. 12:1) and the prediction that Ethiopia “shall soon stretch out her hands to God” (Ps. 68:31). Wheatley used this identity to dismantle racial self-hatred and disarm her opponents. She also drew parallels between her life and the lives of Greek and Roman literary figures.
Theology and Missions
Wheatley was a student of orthodox Congregationalist theology. She wrote about natural and special revelation, the attributes of God, biblical authority, redemption, the image of God, the depravity of man, and the need for a righteous Savior. She also wrote against American Christians who preached that the Bible justified slavery, exposing the inconsistency of defending slavery using Christ’s teachings.
Wheatley eventually negotiated her freedom from the Wheatley family, and began the difficult struggle of being an independent African woman in a society that had little regard or opportunities for either. Post-emancipation, she became even more bold in her abolition advocacy. She challenged revivalist George Whitefield on his pro-slavery inconsistencies. Though she wrote him a soaring elegy, it should be read alongside her personal letters in which she actively resisted his pro-slavery stance.
He wasn’t the only leader Wheatley challenged on the condition of Africans in America; she also corresponded with the Earl of Dartmouth, President George Washington, and many other prominent leaders.
In 1774, Wheatley began mission work with Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan nation and a Presbyterian cleric, and Phillip Quaque, the first ordained Anglican priest of African descent. They funded mission efforts to Ghana and Sierra Leone through their publishing work, and were among the earliest recorded mission efforts from the New World. They wanted to establish an African Christian presence in resettlement projects in Freetown, Sierra Leone, which was created as a safe haven for emancipated slaves who were often recaptured and sold back into slavery.
Imagine the risk she bore as both an African and a woman, as one who according to her society should’ve remained voiceless.
Troll Clap Back
Let’s end our discussion of Wheatley with some Black-girl fire. In the 18th century, writers like Wheatley were considered the bloggers of their day, and they were not without trolls. One cowardly troll attacked her writing with a low, ad hominem accusation against her character. Newly self-emancipated, Wheatley clapped back with this response:
I challenge this white face, white-livered enemy of modern Poetesses. It will be a Black affair for him if he ever comes under my lee; for I will have no Mercy on a Man who stands up against me on that Score. I am a match for the stiffest pedant in the Republic of Letters. He holds up his crest no doubt, with confidence, as he has hitherto met with no Rub for his impudence in turning up the frail part of us female poets; but I would have him draw back in time, and not plunge too deep into a subject whose bottom his short line of understanding can never fathom.
More than 200 years later, no one remembers the name of the troll, but history remembers Phillis Wheatley.
For further study:
- Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage by Vincent Carretta
- Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley
Editors’ note: Come hear K. A. Ellis address “Principles of Perseverance: Learning from the African-American Church Experience” at our 2018 Women’s Conference, June 14 to 16 in Indianapolis. Browse the complete list of 56 speakers, 51 talks, and 14 “listening in” discussions. Register soon!