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A Subject of Divine Grace

Derek Caldwell

The eighteenth century was a time of darkness and light, regress and progress, tragedy and triumph, violence and benevolence. There were revolutions of every kind in this era: political, intellectual, religious, social. Much of the world felt yet untamed, but this was changing in a number of ways as humankind sought to control God’s creation, His creatures, and their own destinies more and more. Tragically, whole nations sought to commodify and control whole peoples and nations. But in the midst of these and similar movements, an uncontrollable and “surprising work of God”[1] would burst through the seams of perceived control and cultural hierarchy.

The First Great Awakening was, to many evangelical Protestants, a powerfully experiential movement of the Holy Spirit. It spanned across parts of Britain and the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s, with lingering revival effects beyond. Its impact on national life was nothing short of its own revolution that is still felt today. Douglas Sweeney notes that the evangelical movement was largely (though not exclusively) a movement of Protestants “with an 18th century twist,” meaning that many of their core convictions were grounded in the Protestant Reformation and their practices “shaped by the revivals of the so-called Great Awakening.”[2]

Catherine Brekus intriguingly notes that part of the impulse of the Great Awakening was inspired by the Enlightenment. “The Enlightenment” is something of a misnomer, however; there were several enlightenments across Europe and the American colonies. All were concerned with toleration and the liberation of thought and had varying levels of friendliness to religion. Some were even largely religiously motivated and led. Of particular note in this category was John Locke’s notion that all knowledge of the external world is gathered through sensory experience. This stream of Enlightenment thought that focused on experience and empirical proof was creatively—and selectively—appropriated by evangelicals. In a sense, it reignited some ancient and not-so-ancient concepts within the historic faith that reminded them of the power of the Holy Spirit and the importance of being “born again.” By this intersecting of uniquely Christian strands of thought, evangelicals “gave ordinary people—including women, slaves, and Native Americans—a powerful language to justify their religious authority.”[3] Although there were concerns of excesses in evangelical awakenings, marginalized individuals’ subjective experiences revealed evidence of God’s work in their lives.

In other words, a funny thing happened on the way to church. While it was not perfect and there would still be much work to do, we begin to see the voices of God’s marginalized being heard since real spiritual power was visibly bestowed upon them by God. The world was suddenly confronted by God with His silenced, unseen, and marginalized mosaic children. This essay is a brief look at one of those courageous people breaking through the barrier.

Phillis Wheatley Arrives

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow 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?[4]

A little girl was kidnapped from her parents somewhere in the Senegambia region of West Africa and brought to Boston in July of 1761. Boston was the colony’s major economic hub, which at the time means that it was the major area dealing in the trade of human beings. This little girl, the auctioneer told everyone, was probably about seven years old, given her slight size and missing front teeth. A Boston merchant named John Wheatley purchased her as a gift for his wife, Susanna. The family would name her Phillis after the name of the very ship that stole her to this strange new land. She was one of six million Africans brought to the Americas between 1700 and 1808. Large numbers of people perished en route before stepping on the New World’s soil. Due to the typical disease, abuse, and depression that was rampant on slave ships, 25% of those aboard The Phillis did notsurvive that particular voyage.[5]

John and Susanna Wheatley had just recently endured the nineth anniversary of the passing of their daughter, Sarah, when Phillis was purchased. This may have been why Susanna and Phillis became close, by the standards of master-slave relationships.[6] Another reason, though, could be the difference between being a slave in the north, a “society with slaves,” rather than the south, a “slave society.”[7] Slavery in the north for the most part did not take place on large plantations, but on a much smaller, more personal scale. And perhaps because of the north’s Puritan heritage, the enslaved had certain rights, such as the rights to good sleeping quarters, good food, to be baptized, to be married, and to read.[8] The Wheatleys were Congregationalists, the direct descendants of the Puritans in the colonies—Protestants called to be “people of the book.” Their intent to equip everyone to read so that they may know God’s word secured for Phillis the assurance of an education in their household. Young Phillis proved to be a prodigious student who devoured the classics of Western literature.

Panting for Deliverance

Phillis was brought to the colonies after the height of the First Great Awakening when revivals had declined but the impulse was still alive. She, like many other Africans, felt a particular affinity for the words and stylings of George Whitefield. No doubt his charismatic way of speaking emotively and passionately reminded them of their spiritual leaders in Africa. However, the gospel message itself that he delivered with such urgency was affecting the hearts of the Africans whom, despite opposition from slave owners, he demanded to preach to directly. History has not told us exactly when Phillis heard Whitefield preach, but his impact on her was indelible. In response to God’s awakening, she was eventually baptized in Boston’s Old South Church on August 18, 1771.

Whitefield’s messages did not challenge slavery—and Whitefield’s own track record with slavery is a tragic one[9]—but they described a gospel which, to Phillis and others, could not be tamed in non-confrontational sermons. This gospel described to them the divine impulse within humanity for freedom from tyranny. As she would later write in 1774 to the Native American convert and reverend, Samson Occom, “In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our Modern Egyptians I will assert that the same Principle lives in us.”[10] It was this inherent impulse that kept many slave owners from teaching the full message of the gospel to their slaves; Africans often saw themselves as Israelites in Egypt, with many Moses figures attempting to rise up. Indeed, it is powerful to consider that many enslaved Africans, who were refused access to a whole Bible or to theological education, nonetheless challenged the exegesis given them by slave owners and, according to Esau McCaulley, “over against their masters’ wishes, viewed events like God’s redemption of Israel from slavery as paradigmatic for their understanding of God’s character. They claimed God is fundamentally a liberator.”[11]

Phillis began writing her subversive poetry in 1764-65, a time not unlike our own. A virus was ravaging the country, and an already high mortality rate was on the rise. Phillis began writing elegies in honor of those lost in order to give eternal hope to the families. It is one such elegy, on the occasion of Whitefield’s death on September 30, 1770, that brought overnight celebrity to Phillis in the American colonies and England.

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.
Thy sermons in unequall’d accents flow’d,
And ev’ry bosom with devotion glow’d;
Thou didst in strains of eloquence refin’d,
Inflame the soul, and captivate the mind
Unhappy we the setting sun deplore,
So glorious once, but ah! it shines no more.[12]

The idea that an African woman had the mind and heart to write beautiful poetry at the time was quite foreign, and it is why the eventual book published in 1773 out of England, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, had to be accompanied with the statements of prominent white men like John Hancock and Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson to verify that Phillis was indeed an African slave, that she did indeed write her own poetry, and that she had the mind and heart to do so, as evinced by their time spent in discussion with her. Her genius was seen unquestionable to many, and it was allowed to be heard for one simple reason: Phillis was clearly, in the mindset of evangelicals, “a subject of divine grace—remarkable for her piety, of an extraordinary genius.”[13]

Phillis Wheatley’s voice arose at a time when slave women had no voice. Many praised her genius; abolitionists highlighted her as an example of the African mind freed from the shackles of slavery (though Phillis herself would not be freed from slavery by the Wheatleys until 1773, three years after her elegy of Whitefield). She had important admirers and correspondents such as Benjamin Rush, Thomas Clarkson, Samuel Hopkins, Hannah More, John Paul Jones, and George Washington. Nonetheless, as soon her voice arose there were attempts made to dismiss it. There were always some restraints to fully embracing her; even her image that graces the cover of her book of poetry shows her with a black ribbon around her neck, which would remind all that Phillis belonged to someone.[14]

Hearing Phillis Again

The silencing of her voice came in the form of criticism of her poetry, though the issue of her race was not a veiled cause of the criticism. Some critics said that she was an anomaly, no doubt an early form of the racist argument that considered such individuals “exceptional,” as in exceptions to the rule. Others said that she was merely mimicking others of true genius. This was not uncommon to hear among those “enlightened” intellectuals who may have viewed all people as worthy of equal rights, but still viewed those of white European heritage as superior in intellect and culture. Scottish Enlightenment darling David Hume wrote of the Jamaican-born Francis Williams, a poet who had gained some notoriety, that he was merely “admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”[15] This is very close to the American Enlightenment-enthusiast Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that Phillis was not a true poet. “The compositions composed under her name,” he stated confidently and coldly, “are below the dignity of criticism.”[16] Henry Louis Gates, Jr. helpfully explains that Jefferson considered Wheatley to be a product “of mindless repetition and imitation, without being the product of intellect, of reflection.”[17]

Wheatley is an early American version of what Comedian Dave Chappelle calls “the streets talking for themselves.”[18] She was a fierce opponent of slavery in the ways that she could be. One wonders what she would have done had she not died so young in 1784 at approximately the age of 30 or 31. By the time of her death, this freedwoman had been forgotten by many since, strangely enough, one could receive more of an audience if they were a subjugated slave rather than a freed person threatening the status quo.[19] Sadly, she died in obscurity and abject poverty.

Wheatley has also been criticized in the recent past for what is considered concessions made concerning the cause of slavery and whether it is a matter of God’s providence.[20] It is true that her religious convictions would have led her to some form of submission to and gratefulness for God’s sovereign ways, but this never became an excuse for sin in general or slavery in particular for people like Wheatley who opposed the slave trade and slavery. Scholar Sondra O’Neale has been incredibly helpful in restoring Wheatley’s reputation in this regard. Authors of African descent like Wheatley had to communicate in subversive ways according to O’Neale. “The writings of these enslaved authors,” she explains, “resemble the Southern plantation hymns of the nineteenth century, which the slaves sung on one level with intense religious commitment and on another level as a code language to protest slavery and to plan for escape.”[21] Furthermore, Wheatley opposed slavery and Revolutionary advocates’ use of biblical language by redeploying said language in showing that the African was the Israelite, while white slaveowners and nations advocating slavery were Egypt. This was already witnessed in her letter to Samson Occom quoted above, which was published in the Connecticut Gazette in March of 1774. She placed sin’s location in the heart and not in the skin. She referred to herself and fellow Africans as Ethiopians, which allowed her to slide in her protest by aligning Africans with that “noble biblical identity.”[22] These strands of protest are seen quite clearly in her 1778 poem honoring General David Wooster, who died in the Revolutionary War in 1777.

But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with th’ Almighty mind—
While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace
And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race?
Let Virtue reign—And thou accord our prayers
Be victory our’s, and generous freedom theirs.[23]

Phillis’s Legacy

In the end, Wheatley used her voice to courageously educate others around her and oppose the great injustice of her time, the anti-Christ and anti-gospel tragedy that was chattel slavery. In reflecting on Wheatley’s ultimate legacy, O’Neale writes that “Wheatley’s effectiveness as an eighteenth-century poet and as a writer in the Black American protest tradition has been largely misunderstood. … She used her talents and her success to wage a subtle war against slavery.”[24] Gates points out that Phillis’s book “became the first book of poetry published by a person of African descent in the English language, marking the beginning of an African-American literary tradition.”[25]

Phillis Wheatley, a subject of divine grace, rose up and expressed uncomfortable truths. Those in her time who sought to silence her voice, in essence, sought to silence the Holy Spirit who gave it to her. God was saying to His people, “Look, everyone, at my beautiful daughter; and rejoice, for there are many more like her.” Sadly, there would be much grieving of the Spirit in the case of Phillis and many other unheard, ignored, marginalized, and ridiculed voices throughout history. Selfishness, avarice, pride, and prejudice sought to gag God through the gagging of voices of liberty and peace. Let us hope and pray that we hear the voices, see the beauty, and drink in the wisdom from those upon whom God places His grace.

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[1] The partial title of theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards’s 1737 essay about the awakenings that had taken place a few years earlier in Northampton, Massachusetts.

[2] Douglas Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 23-25.

[3] Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 9-10.

[4] Phillis Wheatley, “To the Right Honourable WILLIAM, Earl of DARTMOUTH, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North-America, &c.” in Complete Writings (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 40.

[5] Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2011), 2-5.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid., 15.

[8] Ibid.

[9] See Thomas S. Kidd, “George Whitefield’s troubled relationship to race and slavery,” Christian Century, January 6, 2015, https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2015-01/george-whitefield-s-troubled-relationship-race-and-slavery.

[10] Wheatley, letter to the Rev. Samson Occom, 153.

[11] Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation As an Exercise in Hope (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 17.

[12] Wheatley, opening lines to “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD. 1770.,” 15.

[13] Quoted in Carretta, 92. Letter from Richard Cary to the Countess of Huntingdon.

[14] Ibid., 100-101. It was a popular practice of slave owners to put something like a collar around the neck of their favorite slaves, as favored slaves were often associated with beloved pets.

[15] Quoted in Craig Keener, “A Reassessment of Hume’s Case against Miracles in Light of Testimony from the Majority World Today,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 35, no. 1 (2011):294.

[16] Quoted in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2010), 41.

[17] Gates, 44.

[18] Netflix Is a Joke, “8:46 – Dave Chappelle,” June 11, 2020, video, 27:20, https://youtu.be/3tR6mKcBbT4.

[19] Carretta points out a few instances of this hypocrisy in his book. First, he quotes the formerly enslaved abolitionist and literary critic Ignatius Sancho. Sancho was perhaps the first person to question the benevolence of those who praised Wheatley’s genius but refused to lend a hand in her manumission. Sancho writes, “These good great folks—all know—and perhaps admired—nay, praised Genius in bondage—and then, like the Priests and the Levites in sacred writ, passed by—not one good Samaritan amongst them.” Carretta, 171. Likewise, in the case of Phillis’s husband, John Peters, who found a dearth of economic opportunities after freedom, Joanne Pope Melish explains that “while slavery existed in New England, an exceptional man of color could prosper; after emancipation, the barriers became almost insurmountable.” Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 40. Quoted in Carretta, 191.

[20] In more recent history, the African American reception of Wheatley has been cautious. Her poetical genius largely agreed upon, the issue now is her content. Gates describes the sad irony of this turn of events. “Too black to be taken seriously by white critics in the eighteenth century,” Gates laments, “Wheatley was now considered too white to interest black critics in the twentieth.” He further sharpens his point by noting that though she was once considered a great example of African American achievement, she has now been “given a new role: a race traitor” (Gates, 81). The issue at hand is her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” in which Wheatley describes a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the “fortunate fall.” This is the idea that, though one fell into slavery, it is in some sense fortunate because it was the occasion for encountering Christ. Vincent Carretta believes that those who take this poem as a sign of Phillis’s endorsement of slavery “confuse accommodations with appropriation” (Carretta, 61). James Levernier refers to this as something of a persistent and pernicious myth. See James A. Levernier, “Phillis Wheatley and the New England Clergy,” Early American Literature 26 (1991): 22.

[21] Sondra O’Neale, “A Slave’s Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley’s Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol,” Early American Literature 21 (1986): 145. Wheatley’s poetry has also been criticized by other African Americans in our own times as well, and I highly recommend reading this essay from O’Neale along with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s essay above in order to understand this debate and hear what I believe is a helpful historical corrective.

[22] Ibid., 153.

[23] Wheatley, “On the Death of General Wooster,” 93.

[24] O’Neale, 157.

[25] Gates, 31.