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Phillis Wheatley: Precursor of American Abolitionism

By Jay Rogers
Published April 4, 2008

Born in 1753 in Africa, Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped and sold at a slave auction at age seven to a prosperous Boston family who educated her and treated her as a family member. Rescued from an otherwise hopeless situation by the sympathies of the Wheatley family, Phillis learned English with remarkable speed, and, although she never attended a formal school, she also learned Greek and Latin.

Phillis Wheatley

It is clear that the Christian compassion of the Wheatley family was the nurturing womb in which Phillis’ rare gifts were cultivated. She came to know the Bible well; and three English poets – Milton, Pope and Gray – touched her deeply and exerted a strong influence on her verse.

She became a sensation in Boston in the 1760s when her poem on the death of the Reverend George Whitefield made her famous. Whitefield, the great evangelical preacher who frequently toured New England, happened to be a close friend of Countess Selina of Huntington, and the latter invited Phillis to London to assist her in the publication of her poems.

Her literary gifts, intelligence, and piety were a striking example to her English and American audience of the triumph of human capacities over the circumstances of birth. The only hint of injustice found in any of her poems is in the line “Some view our sable race with scornful eye” – it would be almost a hundred years before another black writer would drop the mask of convention and write openly about the African-American experience.

Another theme, which runs like a scarlet thread throughout her poetry, is the salvation message of Christianity – that all men and women, regardless of race or class, are in need of salvation. To the students at the University of Cambridge in New England (Harvard), she writes:

While an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
The muses promise to assist my pen;
‘Twas not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom.
Father of mercy, ‘twas Thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.

Students, to you ‘tis given to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the ethereal space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
Still more, ye sons of science ye receive
The blissful news by messengers from heav’n,
How Jesus blood for your redemption flows.
See Him with hands outstretched upon the cross;
Immense compassion in His bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn:
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
When the whole human race by sin had fall’n,
He deigned to die that they might rise again,
And share with in the sublimest skies,
Life without death, and glory without end.

Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears
Or good or bad report of you to heav’n.
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shunned, nor once remit your guard;
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you ‘tis your greatest foe;
Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
And immense perdition sinks the soul.

Phillis Wheatley received her freedom and married a free black man in 1778 but, despite skills that today would likely have earned her the equivalent of executive MBA, she was never able to support her family. Although she died in complete poverty, subsequent generations would pick up where she left off. Wheatley was the first black writer of consequence in America; and her life was an inspiring example to future generations of African-Americans. In the 1830s, abolitionists reprinted her poetry and the powerful ideas contained in her deeply moving verse stood against the institution of slavery.

Read the Complete Poems of Phillis Wheatley

See also: The Boston Awakening


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Your comments are welcome!

this website is awsome it has all the inffo i need

Posted by Zach Simpsoin on 10/29/2008 08:10 PM #

I liked this information it was very useful as well as interesting.

Posted by Gloris on 11/17/2008 03:06 PM #

well i like this website because it helped me with all og my reports and gave me all A’S

Posted by TakiyahTurner on 11/18/2008 11:31 PM #

Great info!! I portray Phyllis Wheatley and i am always looking for Info. I would like to chat more about her life.

Posted by Emily Nelson on 11/30/2008 05:35 PM #

great stuff

Posted by hannah on 01/13/2009 05:11 PM #

pretty good…
how many poems did she publish in her lifetime?
P.S. im a 5th grade student

Posted by Ingrid P. on 01/13/2009 11:11 PM #

this is really good.

Posted by Kyane Michiko on 02/14/2009 05:00 PM #

i have to do a report on Phillis Wheatly, this has helped in some of my internet reearch

Posted by Lani Mikiulani on 02/16/2009 03:29 PM #

Wow this info is great! Thanks so much for the help!

Posted by D.F. on 03/04/2009 08:52 AM #

this helped me out alot im geting an A on my report

Posted by student on 03/04/2009 02:16 PM #

this is agreat website its got lots of info..

Posted by KIKI Palmer on 03/06/2009 02:39 PM #

thankyou helpful website on Phillis wheatley

Posted by red bone on 03/10/2009 08:09 PM #

cool phillis wheatley neat stuff you are a awsome babe.

Posted by 5th grade student on 05/08/2009 05:47 PM #

thanx sooo much! Im portraying ms. wheatley in a school project & this helped big time :)!

Posted by ms megann-patrice on 10/09/2009 11:12 AM #

Just wanted to let you know how important and helpful this information is to everyone….

Posted by sheryl footman on 10/11/2009 09:04 PM #

this website is perfect! its just what i need to get an A

Posted by 7th grade student on 11/09/2009 05:58 PM #

It would be helpful to add more pictures on here please

Posted by Renee Brown on 02/08/2010 02:23 PM #

It would be more helpful if there were more pictures and if it said exactly the year when she died.

Posted by annabel on 02/17/2010 09:11 AM #

Perhaps you should discuss more about her life, and her involvement with great people like George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

Posted by HT on 04/12/2010 05:48 PM #

I loved the way you said she was treated as a memember of the Wheatley family. Yes she recieved an education not afforded to slaves and even illegal at the time, but lets not gloss over the facts; she was a slave. Had she really recieved the recognition she deserved, I doubt she and her children would have died in such poverty.

Before she was able to publish, a panel was set up to decide whether or not the poems had accutally been written by her. Here’s an extract of the findings:

“WE whose Names are underwritten, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them”.

In my opinion Wheatley was only popular because white people at the time found it difficult to believe that a “nigger” could possess such ability so they put her on a pedestal until they got bored of her.

Freedom in those days for former African-American slaves didnt actually mean “freedom”- she was still subjected to injustice and inequality and the fact that she ended up working as scullery maid is testement to that.

For those of you doing assignments on Wheatley, I suggest you do more research, don’t rely on any one source.

Posted by Don't believe everything you hear/read! on 04/18/2010 02:36 PM #

My book Caroline Princess Of Wales & Other Forgotten People available through Amazon, contains an unknown story about the Wheatleys, Nathaniel, Phillis and MARY, Nathaniel's wife, not his sister or daughter.

Posted by Keith R. Dawson on 09/26/2010 04:54 AM #

Her first name was determined by the ship that brought her to America, “the Phillis.”…….

Posted by smart 5th grader on 01/16/2011 03:19 PM #

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