“By PHILLIS, A Servant Girl”

By Elise Zyvoloski

In her poem “On the Death of… the Reverend and Learned Mr. George Whitefield,” Phillis Wheatley uses her conceptions of Christianity to shame Evangelical Christians’ unwillingness to treat enslaved peoples as equals. On the surface of this poem, Phillis appears deferential and praising of Evangelical Christians. However, some lines reveal subversive thoughts about a hypocritical Evangelical population that is willing to praise the conversion of Africans and enslaved African Americans to Christianity, yet would not want to eat at the same table as one of their slaves. By speaking through the theme of religion, Phillis Wheatley is able to express her controversial thoughts under an acceptable façade.

Wheatley wrote this poem when she was seventeen years old, and it is this poem that would make her famous. Born in Africa and brought to the United States around age seven, she became the first African-American published poet.[1] She was owned by the Wheatleys, of Boston, whose daughter educated her extensively for a young girl in the late 1700s.[2] It stands to reason that because she was still legally owned by the Wheatleys, and relied on them for her livelihood and the leisure to write, that she did not feel that she could openly criticize their peers or the practice of slavery that they took part in.

Phillis wrote about Whitefield because he was a leader in the Evangelical Christian movement. George Whitefield and other Evangelical religious figures were known to reach out to populations that were usually overlooked. There was an emphasis on converting slaves, the poor, and missionary work to foreign countries.[3] It is not known whether or not Phillis Wheatley ever met the Reverend in person or attended one of his talks, but he was a well-known figure at the time so it is likely that she would have been familiar with his work. [4] In addition to the fact that her owners were Evangelical, Phillis likely found the movement compelling because of its emphasis on converting African-Americans and the poor.

Towards the end of the poem, Phillis takes on the late Reverend’s voice which declares, “Take Him, ye Africans, he longs for you; Impartial Saviour, in his Title due;”[5] “Him” is Jesus Christ, and the reason that she gives that Africans (and others) should take him is that he is “impartial.” By choosing to describe Christ as impartial in the line where she is specifically addressing Africans, the meaning of “impartial” becomes not racist. Furthermore, she says that he is “in his title due.” This invokes the idea that there are many who are called impartial and do not actually deserve the title. It is possible that she is referring to those who follow the Reverend Whitefield’s version of Christianity, attend his sermons, and support preaching to Africans and slaves, all without actually accepting blacks as their Christian brothers and sisters.

Additionally, it is clear from the poem that Wheatley’s conception of heaven is a place where race does not matter. She promises that those Africans who do accept Christ will, “be Sons, and Kings, and Priests to God.”[6] All three of these positions imply equality with whites in the afterlife, particularly “Sons,” which invokes the idea of a blood relation between God and African Americans. Because race is genetically passed down, by suggesting such a relationship, she links blacks, whites, and God on equal terms.

The line, “Let every Mind with this lov’d object Rise,”[7] also shows that she wants his followers to take his message to heart after his death. The “lov’d object” referred to is the mental image of the Reverend in the clouds. She is imploring the readers to raise their minds above racism, to remember him and to incorporate his message into their daily lives. The next line strengthens this interpretation, as she says, “No more can he exert his lab’ring Breath.”[8] Here, she is saying that because he is no longer here on Earth to give his sermons, that they must remember his words themselves. The word “lab’ring” or “laboring” is interesting because it invokes the sense that he has difficulty getting his words out, or at least difficulty in others being able to hear him. This ties back to the idea that the Evangelicals that Phillis is calling out in the poem were not hearing him, were not really living according to his ideas of equality under God.

It is clear from reading her poetry that Phillis Wheatley took great comfort and strength from her religion. Christianity, to her, had the potential to be a great equalizer both in the afterlife and life on Earth. The late Reverend represented this incarnation of religion, and therefore she honored his memory by upholding this vision. Thus, racism in other Evangelical Christians was hypocritical and offensive to her vision of Christianity. The greatest irony was that those who made her poem, “On the Death…of the Reverend and Learned Mr. George Whitefield” famous, likely did not understand that she may have been reprimanding them.

[1] John Shields, Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation: Backgrounds and Contexts (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2008), 1.

[2] Vicent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2011), 37.

[3] Carretta, Phillis Wheatle, 29.

[4] Carretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2011),33.

[5] Pemberton, Ebenezer and Phillis Wheatley. Heaven the Residence of Saints: A Sermon occaisioned by the sudden, and much lamented death of the Reverend George Whitefield, A.M. Chaplain to the Right-Honorable the Countess of Huntingdon, delivered at the Thursday lecture in Boston, in America, October 11, 1770. (Boston; reprinted London: 1770.) Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.30.

[6] Pemberton and Wheatley, Heaven the Residence of Saint, 30.

[7]Pemberton and Wheatley, Heaven the Residence of Saints, 31

[8] Pemberton and Wheatley, Heaven the Residence of Saints,.31