Kidnapped. Shackled. Forced onto one of the infamous “death ships.” Stripped of dignity. Stripped of identity. Enslaved.
Named after the vessel that brought her to the New World, Phyllis (or Phillis) Wheatley arrived in Boston in 1761. She wrote little about her native Africa, so it is impossible to know exactly from where she came. (Some historians point to either Senegal or Gambia as the most likely locations). Phyllis crossed the Atlantic via the Middle Passage, part of the triangular “trade” network connecting Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. She was a commodity, a piece of property, in the eyes of her captors. It is little wonder, then, that the 25 percent death-rate among the slaves on the Phillis invited little comment.
Phyllis was around the age of seven when she was purchased by prominent Boston merchant and tailor John Wheatley and his wife Susanna. From the beginning, they treated her as a member of the family. Instead of long hours spent cooking or cleaning, her time was spent learning to read, write and grapple with the classics. Her education would have been impressive for a white man of high social standing, let alone a white woman. A well-educated slave was nearly unheard of.
Susanna also took pains to share Christianity with Phyllis. The young woman was baptized in 1771. Her faith caused her to take a view of slavery that has troubled and even infuriated many down the centuries. She believed that God used the terrible experience to introduce Himself to her. She saw evidence of His grace and mercy in the injustice of her kidnapping and servitude. This is reflected in her best-known poem, 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.
Taken without context, it seems almost as if Phyllis, while not going so far as to endorse slavery, was in some sense “fine” with it. This is not the case. In a letter dated 1774, she wrote:
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 I will assert that the same principle lives in us…This I desire not for their hurt, but to convince them of the strange absurdity of their conduct whose words and actions are so diametrically opposite.
It is evident that Phyllis longed to be free. We may rightly assume that her embrace of Christianity, while enabling her to see the light in the darkness, also confirmed for her the equality of all mankind. Thus she walked the delicate tightrope of faith, believing that the Lord could use evil for good while simultaneously hoping for release from that evil.
In 1773, Phyllis was called before a tribunal of Boston leaders to defend the poems then circulating under her name. No transcript of the inquiry exists, but Phyllis walked out of the room with an endorsement from all 18 men, proving herself was than capable of answering their questions. Despite this, no publisher was willing to take on her growing collection. Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, only saw the light of day after landing in an obscure London publishing house.
The volume was an international success. Magazines and newspapers printed highly favorable reviews. At least two of these included remarks regarding the hypocrisy of the Wheatleys, who went to such lengths to educate and support Phyllis but had yet to free her. At last, after 12 years, she was emancipated.
Sadly, Phyllis faded into obscurity. In 1779 she married Boston grocer John Peters. Two children died in infancy. Peters was imprisoned for debt. Phyllis continued to write and produced second volume of poetry. Once again it was impossible to find a publisher in the new United States. Possibly after giving birth to a third child, she died, alone and poverty stricken, at age 31.
Phyllis Wheatley praised God in the midst of suffering. She trusted Him. She believed He had a good plan and that He would be faithful to keep His promises. Her poems reflect this assurance. Some would say that her short life was nothing more than tragic, but such a view fails to take one significant thing into account: hope.
May we all dare to hope as Phyllis Wheatley did.
For all entries in the 31 Days for the Ladies series, go here.
Michelle DeRusha, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2014), 105-111.