Christianity as an Oppressive and Inspirational Force in the Works of Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley

            Historically, Christianity and colonialism have been inextricably linked, with Christianity so often being one of the tools that Europeans use to “civilize” Indigenous populations throughout the world. However, Christianity has also become invaluable to many of these colonized peoples, and it is reductive to strip them of their individuality and agency by looking at their chosen religion as an unfortunate circumstance of colonialism and nothing more. As evidenced by writers like Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley, Christianity can both inflict harmful, supremacist notions of race virtue on Indigenous peoples, and also provide spiritual nourishment and a muse for art, writing, and other aspects of culture. In Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, Christianity provides the moral framework on which his argument against slavery is based. Phillis Wheatley, a widely successful poet, used Christian values and imagery in her work, and she was also often cited by abolitionists with her precociousness and intellectual ability, though the standard that rhetoric sets can be problematic. Both Wheatley and Equiano have a complex relationship with Christianity, and it functions both as an oppressive construct and a moral framework in each author’s work.

            The oppressive nature of Christianity permeates Equiano’s Narrative in several ways. When Equiano is first introduced to Christianity and God, he writes: “… from what I could understand by him of this God, and in seeing these white people did not sell one another, as we did, I was much pleased; and in this I thought they were much happier than we Africans” (51). He associates the knowledge of God with not selling one’s own people, as if Christianity is the only source of a moral code that condemns slavery or the maltreatment of slaves. Several pages later, he also writes, “I no longer looked upon them [white people] as spirits, but as men superior to us” (Equiano 63). He believes these white people – Christians, not magicians or spirits as he’d previously thought – are racially and morally superior. Perpetuating a belief that Africans are inferior to whites devalues Africans peoples and their cultures, which factors into Equiano’s permissiveness of colonialism. In an excerpt from a letter asking permission to become a missionary, he writes, “Your memorialist’s [Equiano’s] only motive for soliciting the office of missionary is, that he may be a means, under God, of reforming his countrymen and persuading them to embrace the Christian religion” (Equiano 215). The use of the word “reform” implies that African people are naturally unruly and require fixing or saving, perpetuating the idea that they’re inferior. Eileen Elrod, in “Moses and the Egyptian: Religious Authority in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative,” points out the implications of the hierarchy Equiano creates: “Africa remains in need of the colonizing and missionizing efforts of Western Christians with whom he identifies himself” (413). Though he genuinely believes he is doing something positive for his countrymen, he fails to refute the colonial implications of Christian missionary work, and in fact, is permissive of them.

            Phillis Wheatley’s poetry is also not free from the ways Christianity perpetuates white supremacy. Her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” begins with the line “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land” (line 1).  The way she cites mercy as the thing that removes her from Africa suggests that Africa is a bad or inferior place that she needed to be saved from. In the next line, she continues, “Taught my benighted soul to understand” (2). The word “benighted” carries several meanings and can be interpreted to refer to literal darkness or to a state of unintelligence or a lack of enlightenment. Even the first case perpetuates a hierarchy by falling back on the connotation that darkness (such as darkness of the skin) equates to evil or negativity. The second case also reinforces that to be unenlightened is to be in an inferior state, and the only way to remedy this is by converting to the religion belonging to the people that colonized much of Wheatley’s home continent. The emphasis on Wheatley being taught by these people also creates a teacher/student hierarchy that places the white Christian teacher over the black student. Wheatley closes the poem with the two lines, “Remember, Christians, Negros, Black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (lines 7-8). At the time, the “mark of Cain” was interpreted by some as black skin. David M. Goldenberg notes in The Curse of Ham that “Ham is not the only biblical figure who was supposedly marked by a change of skin color. … Several authors in antebellum America referto a then-current idea that Cain was smitten with dark skin as punishment for killing his brother, Abel” (Goldenberg, 178). Comparing all Black people to a biblical figure whose allegedly dark skin was viewed contemporarily as a curse from God can (and did, to many people) imply that Black people are inherently immoral and sinful. Additionally, the phrase “May be refin’d” in the last line implies, with a somewhat incredulous tone, that even Black people might be able to be saved. This line also sets a specific standard that Black people must meet in order to be accepted by whites, or at least white Christians. Instead of insisting that Black people must be treated equally simply because they are human and inherently deserving of that right, there is a bar of Christian morality that must be met first. This also subjugates the many existing African religious and spiritual practices, as if they are inferior and illegitimate compared to Christianity.

Christianity, however, also forms the crux of Equiano’s moral argument against slavery. When Equiano introduces his narrative, he writes to readers, “May the God of heaven inspire your hearts with peculiar benevolence on that important day when the question of Abolition is to be discussed, when thousands, in consequence of your Determination, are to look for Happiness or Misery!” (4) Here he appeals to readers, making them feel important and powerful by reminding them that an important decision that will affect thousands of people is in their hands. He prays that God will inspire them to make the correct, moral, benevolent choice when the time comes to do so, implying that the correct choice is to vote to abolish slavery. Then, he moves on to challenge readers. When introducing the culture of his people, the Igbo, in the first chapter, he consistently compares them to Jewish people. Eileen Elrod illustrates the affect of this strategy in Moses and the Egyptian:

“In Equiano’s figuring of things, Africans, specifically the Ebo, must be viewed not as various racist versions of Christianity would have viewed them – the fallen sons of Ham, descendants of Cain, the lost tribe is Israel – but, rather, as a parallel to the Christians’ interpretations of Old Testament Israel, biblical people chosen and favored by God. By drawing specifically and occasionally elaborate parallels between Ebo ways and the early Jewish culture referred to in the Bible, he challenges readers to resituate race and culture.”

Moses and the Egyptian by Eileen Elrod, pp. 413.

Equiano draws parallels between the Igbo and God’s chosen people, he disrupts a white Christian reader’s perception of Igbo people and asks them to consider that they may even be more favored by God than a white Christian. Other Christian values also have an important role in Equiano’s argument. On page 44 of the Narrative, Equiano writes, “O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?” This “Golden Rule” is very important to his argument and highlights the glaring hypocrisy of Christian slaveholders. He uses this phrasing to deride them, arguing that no true Christian would break the second commandment so blatantly.

            Christianity also has a clear influence and personal significance on Phillis Wheatley and her work. Her poem “On Virtue” reveals her dedication and admiration of Christian values like gentleness, chastity, and responsibility. She refers to Virtue in the poem as a “bright jewel” in line 1, highlighting the immense value of virtue. She also personifies Virtue, calling her gentle (line 7), describing her embrace (line 8), and likening her to an “auspicious queen” (line 11), suggesting virtue should rule one’s life, but gently and benevolently. She continues to describe Virtue’s sacredness (line 13) and glory (line 14) , words with religious connotations that elevate its value. She also applies traditionally feminine traits to Virtue and then praises her chastity (line 12), a valued (though oppressive) trait in women. She stresses the importance of responsibility by asking virtue, “O leave me not to the false joys of time” (line 16), suggesting that she does not want to waste her youth by doing shallow things that don’t matter, but instead wants to devote herself to the virtues she holds dear. In each stanza, Wheatley also strengthens the appeal of virtuousness to the reader by emphasizing that it will lead to “endless life” (line 17) and allow them to achieve “her promised bliss” (line 10), alluding that leading a life of virtuousness will assure one gets into heaven after death. The poem shows clear dedication to living a life of virtuousness, and the value that Christian virtues have to Wheatley.

            Both Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley unintentionally perpetuate a degree of hierarchy that places white Christians above black people. They each have failed to acknowledge the colonial aspect of Christianity and missionary work, and in Equiano’s case, even encourage it. However, Christian values also have a significant and vital affect on their work – in Wheatley’s case, they serve as her muse, and they are also essential to the arguments Equiano makes against slavery. The issues of Christianity and colonized and previously enslaved peoples is more complex than just being a tool of oppression, because it strips those individuals of their agency in choosing their faith, and implying that Christians from colonized nations have simply been brainwashed is unempathetic and forces on these people an oversimplified persona, implying they simply don’t know better than to cast off their faith. In the same vein, it is reductive to ignore that Christianity has a clear and relevant link to both colonialism and slavery that must be addressed.

Works Cited

Elrod, Eileen Razzari. “Moses and the Egyptian: Religious Authority in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative.” African American Review, vol. 35, no. 3, 2001, pp. 409–425. JSTOR, Accessed 21 Sept. 2020.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself, e-book, Project Gutenberg, 17 March 2005.

David M. Goldenberg. The Curse of Ham : Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton University Press, 2003. EBSCOhost,

Wheatley, Phillis. “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Poetry Foundation. 1773. Web. 26 September 2020.

Wheatley, Phillis. “On Virtue.” Poetry Foundation. 1773. Web. 26 September 2020.

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