Phillis Wheatley

'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.

Introduction to Life of Phillis Wheatley
In 1761 Phillis Wheatley was purchased as a personal slave in Boston by Susannah Wheatley, wife of tailor John Wheatley. She was evidently around 7 years old at the time. Her only written memory of her birthplace was of her mother performing a ritual of pouring water before the sun as it rose; biographers think she came from Senegal/Gambia and may have been a Fula, a Muslim people who read Arabic script. Very likely she was kidnapped into slavery and brought on a slaving vessel on the Middle Passage.

She learned to speak and write English quickly, taught by Mary Wheatley, the 18 year old daughter of her owner; within 16 months she could read difficult passages in the Bible. At 12 she began studying Latin and English literature, especially the poetry of Alexander Pope, soon translating Ovid into heroic couplets. These would have been remarkable accomplishments for an educated white male boy, and was virtually unheard of for white females. The Wheatley’s appreciated her talents, and showed her off to their friends; many came to visit with this "lively and brilliant conversationalist." She was thoroughly indoctrinated into Puritanism.

Purpose for Work
I will explore the first line of Wheatley's famous work. I have always wanted to deal with this poem by Wheatley amd allow it to impress itself upon me. For some reason, it has always struck me as a bit strange; Wheatley seems to write with a certain solitude, almost a calmness. Perhaps it’s her "refined" communication, insight, artistry, or perhaps a combination of influences, some of which are not readily apparent, that formed her pen.

Wheatley portrays a certain abrupt and honest intersection between doctrine and life that is so evident among the writing of slaves. When Wheatley welds doctrine and life together, sparks start flying. I can't help but take notice. Perspectives on doctrine are unearthed, sufferings are remembered for their contributive value to the theological enterprise and I get my questions answered. Regardless the numerous critiques that have been presented dealing with this work, my fundamental desire is not to judge Wheatley, but rather to know and understand her. For I do sense that after all is said and done, if a heavy and weighty judgment were to be provided, I among many, would have wasted my time.

I seek not to deal primarily with Wheatley’s literary hits and misses, but rather I want to take her as she is and then assess underlying questions which seem pertinent today. I present those questions at the conclusion of this work. Understandably, I must at the end of things decide whether I agree or disagree with her perspective on the topics addressed. (But what a humble and modest opinion I shall have for obvious reasons.) However, I do not want my real and timely encounter with her work to turn into a decision process of agreement or disagreement. I want, among all things, a conversation with Wheatley. But I don’t want to sit at her feet (for then my honest dialogue would seem misplaced), nor do I seek her comfort or advice as a Black male at this moment (for then our honest dialogue would be weakened and centered on some lacking of mine); I seek rather a dialogue with Wheatley. I do not seek for Wheatley to convince me of the validity of her contribution and I am not in a position to pass judgment upon her work. It is however necessary to dialogue with her in order to gain insight into my questions not only of her work, but for my own life. It is this value which one seeks through attempts to resurrect Wheatley.

Many Blacks have read this poem and respond in shock, disbelief or agreement. I try not to assume why they respond as such because each person’s feelings come from various perspectives; in other words, people are shocked or agreeable for different reasons and the shock or agreement that is experienced may be more or less intense than that of another reader. And then there are always the various reasons why one does or does not experience particular sensations at all. Therefore, I try not to initially think it normal or abnormal for one to experience shock or agreement. To act in haste and hold such a position would result in the neglect of Wheatley and the undermining of her work.

Line 1 of the Poem
Line 1 opens with a claim-Twas mercy brought me (Wheatley) from my Pagan land (Africa).

Of what type of “mercy” does she speak? What is the nature of this “mercy”? Or better yet, "who" is mercy? What can be made of Wheatley’s notion of Africa as a “Pagan land”?

Perhaps a correlation to such underlying sensations is found in Genesis 19:15-20 (ESV): “As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city (Pagan land).” But he lingered. So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city (Pagan land). And as they brought them out, one said, “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away. And Lot said to them “Oh, no, my lords. Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness (magnified your mercy) in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtakes me and I die. Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there-is it not a little one?-and my life will be saved (city where salvation can be found)!”

I bring in Genesis 19:15-20 for several reasons: 1) Duality of mercy. In the situation of Lot, we are able to see the duality of mercy and then attribute this thinking to general religious thought in Wheatley's day. “Mercy” in the mind of Lot and Wheatley is a transitional tool which takes one from paganism to salvation or from impending punishment/judgment to God’s peace or from sin to holiness. 2) Pagan. Wheatley uses the term “pagan” and not heathen. “Heathen” is an offense against knowledge and understanding; “pagan” is an offense against God and in Wheatley’s mind, religion as well. Therefore “pagan” brings with it noted religious connotations, connotations obviously relevant to this text. 3) The Land. Wheatley thinks not only that the people of Africa are pagan but she associates unbelief with the very land and ground, the dirt and soil, where she once lived. Similarly in the account with Lot in Genesis, the judgment is not merely upon the people but upon the place and land (see particularly 19:23-29). Allow me to briefly deal with number 1, the duality of mercy or transitional mercy.

Duality of Mercy or Transitional Mercy
Wheatley’s conception of “mercy” is two-sided and transitional; it is mercy that took her from Africa and it is mercy that brought her to America. This duality of “mercy” provides insight into the thought and tone of her work. Wheatley is not merely saying “mercy” took her out of Africa, but also that “mercy” brought her to America. There is a significant difference between her noticeable duality in the usage of mercy and a more one-sided approach which would reason, “regardless of where I’m at now, thank God I’m not in Africa.” The duality of mercy compounds and adds more strength to her notion that Africa is pagan and it also doubles the sense that America is not pagan. The conception of duality or transition draws greater separation between the nature of America (in Wheatley’s mind) as godly or "like God" and the nature of her native land, Africa, as ungodly or unlike God.

Admittedly and in non-pejorative terms, Wheatley’s “mercy” is a devastating and uncompromising mercy, a sort of brutal mercy that sets the notions of Africa and America at odds.

The first line of Wheatley’s work presents a dual or transitional mercy which is biblical. But this transitional mercy is so brutal and so powerful, that if the conception of it is wrongly imposed or offered to explain one’s real life circumstances, it can be incredibly damaging. If misconstrued and misunderstood, dual or transitional mercy can be devastating to one’s nature, person and psyche. Transitional mercy is so powerful that when understood rightly, the believer is able to obliterate and completely undermine the potential, power and desires of sin and unholiness in his life. However, when transitional mercy is attached to various circumstances or transitions in one's life, such as the Middle Passage, this attachment which is thought to be a right spiritualization of circumstances can actually lead to the obliteration of one's nature, meaningfulness and history.

Transitional mercy as a biblical concept must inherently create separation between what was and what now is. Transitional mercy must not only separate itself from sin, it must obliterate the principal, power and ultimately the presence of it. In other words, transitional mercy must create separation and must consider the ultimate destination of its travels as favorable. Phillis figured, if I'm going to in some way put up with this ride, I might as well get on the "transitional mercy" train. What if a slave, by acknowledging the presence of mercy in their situation, unites transitional mercy with their own existence and circumstances? If this mercy is not understood and sorted rightly, damage can be done.

Perhaps Wheatley's notion of mercy was so utterly godly that regardless the horrendous actions and abomindable mediations of such "mercy", she yet endorsed such a mercy for the sake of God. But "who" is mercy? She neither ascribes this mercy to God or man. Undoutedly in her good Puritan training, they are doctrinally interlinked as primary and secondary agents. From a doctrinal standpoint, Wheatley has passed the test. (The previous image seems right but madly ridicious-a slave passing a test on theory. Make sure you get your theory correct Phillis. Why do I even care? And why should Wheatley? She was a slave before becoming a Puritan and she was a slave after becoming a Puritan. Some may say that Puritanism was actually good for Wheatley because it providing her with a good view of God even though she was a slave. This is laughable. The slave is provided with a good view of God and actually able to live out the character and nature of God by being freed and being expected to live and be as God had designed them as humans. The ideology of theological structure must never be placed before the necessity to evidence and live out one's divine and creative potential.) But from a theological standpoint, their are many critical and complex problems which lack substantive resolution.

Wheatley’s notions of mercy and paganism are linked so tightly. They are linked so tightly in part because of her Puritan background. However, it is critical to realize that there is a basic difference between the mercy of Lot and the mercy of Wheatley. God brought Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction. Africa remains under the providential care of God and under the grace of God.

In What Color is Your God, Salley and Behm state, “As an African came to America he was easily ‘fitted’ for his work because he was divorced from his native culture and language. His number was inexhaustible, and his physical characteristics made identification unmistabkable. As rationale and justification for the system, he was reputed (falsely) to come from an uncivilized world, thus making slavery the means to the graces of white, Western…civilization.” Carl Ellis in Free At Last? expounds, “The whole basis of this dehumanizing practice [slavery] was an illegitimate view of humanity-a view in which skin color determined not only a person’s status but indeed the presence or lack of the image of God.”

As an aside, a small bit of history is in order: Black Africans from Cush/Ethiopia play an important role throughout Scripture. The first non-Jewish believer in the New Testament was a Black African (Acts 8:26-40), and a leader of the early Church in Antioch was likewise probably Black. The church at Antioch had several African members, among them two prophets or teachers: Simeon, called the Black man, and Lucius the Cyrenian (Acts 13:1). Great early scholars like Augustine, Tertullian and Origen were Black men from Africa. Augustine was a major influence on John Calvin. At one time there were over five hundred bishops in the African church. The argument that the Judeo-Christian tradition only came to Africa through American slavery is false. But I digress.

This beautiful and brutish mercy places one in the center of a divinely orchestrated existence and status of need to God. Therefore, Wheatley believed transitional mercy always delivered one to their divine destination; problem is, the slave did not have the right or power to decipher and determine the necessary biblical and divine response and reaction once they got to that destination. Perhaps transitional mercy took Wheatley from Africa, across the waters of the Atlantic to the eastern shores of New England and perhaps was expectantly awaiting her arrival. But once she arrived in that new world, how did transitional mercy equip or enable her to understand, respond and react to this new world? Perhaps this was not the job for transitional mercy, but rather was the duty of divine justice and divine power.

The first line of Wheatley’s work presents a dual or transitional mercy which is biblical. But this transitional mercy is so brutal and so powerful, that if the conception of it is inappropriately (and perhaps unknowingly) imposed on one’s real life circumstances, it can be incredibly damaging. If misconstrued and/or misunderstood, dual or transitional mercy can be devastating to one’s nature, person and psyche. Furthermore, where transitional mercy may be seen as providing transport to a place of "supposed" betterment or to the new world of Christ's salvation, it is the job of divine justice and divine power to enable one to respond critically and relevantly to the new world they have been brought.

Further Questions
Since Wheatley viewed Africa as “Pagan land”, how might Genesis 19 have shaped her own impressions of Africa and America and her life during slavery? If Wheatley viewed America as that which is not like a Pagan land and hence a Godly land, how might her thoughts and experiences of Africa and America facilitated an understanding of Genesis 19? In what ways are Black believers or Black Reformed believers rightly grasping transitional mercy? In what ways are Black believers or Black Reformed believers misapplying “transitional mercy” in their lives?

Co-Founder Michael Mewborn