In Context | Primary Sources | In Phillis’s Words | Artist Insights | Further Reading
250th Anniversary of Phillis Wheatley’s Baptism
Hear reflections from four different Black women leaders on the enduring legacy of her writing, her faith, and her voice.
Wheatley was a devout Christian and was admitted to Old South’s congregation when she was about 18 years old. Jeffers imagines her thoughts at a moment of baptism, which might have included a mix of joy at a deepened connection with Christ and frustration at the church’s treatment of African Americans. Here, the character of young Phillis speaks to the experiences of Black Christians who somehow carved a pathway to the divine while living in a spiritual community with enslavers who viewed them as lesser people. This short film was shot in the Old South Meeting House, where Phillis Wheatley was a member beginning in 1771.
Phillis Wheatley was deeply influenced and inspired by the Christian religion, corresponding with and consuming sermons from religious leaders like Reverend Samson Occum and Reverend George Whitefield. Her publishing patroness, the Countess of Huntingdon, was also a devout and trailblazing Methodist.
The Wheatleys were active members of the New South Congregational Church; despite this, Phillis Wheatley joined the congregation of the Old South Meeting House on August 18, 1771 upon her “legal” coming of age. The frontispiece of her 1773 collected works, the only known likeness of the poet, features a display of her religious engagement: a small Bible on the desk in front of her. Much of Wheatley’s poetry is steeped in spiritual contemplation, biblical allegory, and religiously infused lamentations of death.
Links to documents and artifacts relating to the moment and events referenced in the poem.
This day marks Phillis Wheatley’s entry to the Old South Church congregation. To navigate to the record, explore the “Admissions 1669-1855” collection. Phillis Wheatley’s record is found on page 450.
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The most famous portrait of Phillis Wheatley is the one that appears on the frontispiece to her collection of poems, the first published by an African-American poet.
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In Phillis’s Words
Excerpts of Phillis Wheatley Peters’s writings that resonate thematically with Jeffers’s poems.
“‘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.”
Links to additional resources.
- Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage By Vincent Caretta
- New Essays on Phillis Wheatley Edited by John C. Shields and Eric D. Lamore
- Phillis Wheatley is Baptized at Old South ChurchJeffers imagines Wheatley Peters’ thoughts at the moment of her baptism, which might have included a mix of joy at a deepened connection with Christ and frustration at the church’s treatment of African Americans.Read more →
- Lost Letters: Phillis Wheatley and Obour TannerIn this pairing of poems, Jeffers imagines a first accidental meeting of Obour Tanner and Phillis Wheatley. The two women shared the traumatic experience of enslavement and the perilous Middle Passage, and the challenge of holding on to their identities as African women even as their masters demanded that they build new lives in New ...Read more →
- How Phillis Wheatley Might Have Obtained the Approval of Eighteen Prominent White Men…As Phillis Wheatley sought to publish her first book, there were many who doubted that an enslaved Black woman was capable of such an accomplishment. Jeffers here imagines the courage it likely took 20-year-old Wheatley to face down their judgment and manage the balancing act of intellect and subservience that was likely required to secure ...Read more →
- The Replevin of Elizabeth Freeman (Also Known as Mum Bett)Elizabeth Freeman helped to end slavery in Massachusetts through a lawsuit she filed in 1781. In this poem, Jeffers imagines her speaking to the profound injustice of being forced to seek her freedom in a system where only white men could argue her case and living in a world in which a Black person’s word ...Read more →
- “Lost Letters”: Phillis Wheatley and John PetersAfter she had achieved international fame, Phillis Wheatley met and married John Peters, a free Black man. In this deeply romantic pair of poems, Jeffers imagines their relationship.Read more →
- Blues: Harpsichord, or Boston MassacreWe think of the Boston Massacre as the start of the American Revolution. In Jeffers’s hands, it becomes a moment to call out the hypocrisy of white colonists in comfortable circumstances who protested their “enslavement” by the British even as they held Blacks in bondage.Read more →