By Gladys McElmore
With God’s help, Phillis overcame some adverse conditions of slavery and became a world-renowned poet. Some sources say she was born in Senegal, Africa around 1753. When she was 7 or 8 years old, she was kidnapped, brought to America and sold to John and Susannah Wheatley. The captain of the ship did not think this sickly child would live long and sold her at a low price on the Boston dock. Because of God’s grace and mercy she survived.
We can also thank God that the Wheatleys were impressed with Phillis’ ability to learn quickly and taught her English, Latin, and Greek. She mastered English in 6 months and was able to read the Bible and to comprehend its teachings. The Wheatley family, reportedly Christians, introduced her to Christ. Yet, although they claimed to have been Christians, they did not free her or renounce slavery until 1773. Phillis’ obvious intelligence and talent proved that Blacks could benefit from education.
Thank God again for grace and mercy. She became quite a celebrity with the Wheatleys’ visitors and was often the guest of persons of wealth and distinction. When George Washington was given a poem she had written about him, she was invited to visit at his Cambridge headquarters. He commended her on her work.
Phillis was devoutly religious and she probably felt that writing about her faith was more important than writing about personal concerns. In 1774 Phillis wrote a letter to Reverend Sampson Occom, a Christian missionary and an evangelist, which showed that injustice was never far from her thoughts. 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. I will assert that the same principle lives in us.” The letter went on to wish for God’s help in bringing about the downfall of those who enslaved the Africans. Phillis’ letter against slavery was printed in many New England newspapers.
International attention surrounded Phillis when she wrote, “The Death of Rev. George Whitfield, 1770.” He was a famous evangelical preacher. This writing caught the attention of an English noblewoman and known philanthropist Salina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon. She assisted Phillis financially. The theme of salvation ran throughout many of her works. She said that every person, regardless of race, was in need of salvation. She connected Christian freedom and beliefs to racial freedom for Blacks. She wrote about the irony of Christians owning slaves and supporting the degrading institution of slavery. Phillis included biblical characters in many of her poems.
Having sustained insurmountable problems, she died in 1784 in complete poverty. However her work lived on and abolitionists used her poetry and ideas to campaign against slavery. She served as an example of how humans can overcome tragic life situations. Read her complete story as soon as possible for cultural and historical information. May her life’s story inspire all of us to hold on to God’s support for the blessings of our future!
Mrs. Gladys McElmore, a resident of Norfolk’s Middle Town Arch Community, is a New Journal and Guide Freelance Contributor on religion. She is a native of Essex County, Va.