Selected Poems of
Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa (possibly present-day Senegal or Gambia) and taken to Boston in 1761 as a slave in the family of John and Susannah Wheatley. The Wheatley's were sympathetic to young Phillis’s plight as a slave and took the unusual measure of teaching her to read and write, even providing some instruction in Latin. She soon showed signs of poetic genius, and in 1770 gained considerable recognition for her poem on the death of the British evangelist George Whitefield, friend of Jonathan Edwards and, like him, a leading figure in the Great Awakening. The title page bore the following description: “By Phillis, a Servant Girl of 17 Years of Age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley of Boston:—She has been but 9 Years in this Country from Africa.” Phillis Wheatley’s reputation as a poet rest primarily on Poems on Various Subjects, Moral and Religious, which was published in London in 1773. Within a few weeks Mary Steele and Mary Scott were circulating a copy between themselves and others in the Steele Circle in the West Country (for this letter, click here) and by the next spring Mary Scott had included a reference to Wheatley in the dedicatory epistle to her landmark poem, The Female Advocate (1774). The Wheatleys’ son, Nathaniel, accompanied Phillis to England in June 1773, where she would publish her poems and be introduced to numerous dignitaries, including Benjamin Franklin and other literary and political figures, all offering tributes to her genius, piety, faith, and remarkable example of overcoming the oppressive circumstances of slavery. She returned to Boston after a few months, and in 1778, after the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley, married John Peters, a freedman. Unfortunately, poverty ensued, as well as the deaths of two children. A third child died shortly after Wheatley’s own death in 1784. She supported the American Revolution, advocated the abolition of slavery and an end to the slave trade, and fervently exercised her evangelical Christianity.