Religion and the Abolitionist Movement

Upon reading the collection of poems by Phillis Wheatley, it’s clear she was educated to the extent any white person would have been during this time. She writes quite eloquently and often references Greek mythology, like the “zephyr’s wing” in A Hymn to the Evening. Being an enslaved person with many unusual freedoms and comforts obviously made her point of view very unique. She was able to use her voice and position of privilege to tell her story, which is one many enslaved peoples could relate to. This story being when they were stolen from their families and forced down a dark, painful path with no escape in sight. I imagine her works were very influential for the abolitionist movement. She was made a slave at 7 years old, and from then on raised in a white, American household. This gave her an entirely different perspective, and likely a greater understanding of how to appeal to white people through her writing.

The first thing I noticed in “A Hymn to the Evening” were the references to Christianity. The speaker mentions how people are “filled with the praise” of God, who “draws the sable curtains of the night”. She then goes on to say they wake in the morning “more heav’nly, more refin’d”. This leads me to believe she’s referencing the common practice of saying prayers before bed. Christians often pray for the health/safety of their loved ones to calm their nerves. I read this as a very comforting poem, it almost reminds me of a lullaby with the rhyme scheme. I don’t know for sure, but I assume this poem appealed to a white audience during this time period.

In addition to appealing to a white audience, Wheatley’s writing also drew attention to her experience as an enslaved person. In “On Being Brought From Africa to America” the second to last line reads, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain”. Cain is Adam’s son in the bible, meaning she was likely trying to express that black people are to be accepted as God’s children, just like everyone else. If black people are also God’s children, there’s no reason to treat them as we would animals. I’m not sure if she was going in that specific direction with that line, but it would make sense. I also know Cain killed his brother Abel and was condemned to wander the earth aimlessly for eternity. This could also relate to how an enslaved person might’ve felt at the time. Unlike Cain, who is a fictional character, black and indigenous people did nothing to deserve such cruel punishment. She mentions how black people “may be refin’d” and “join the angelic train”. This implies that all black people, like herself, can be intelligent and articulate enough to read the Bible and worship God just as white Christians do. I think she did an amazing job building a subtle, more important narrative into her beautiful style of poetry.  

Questions:

How did redefining Christian values contribute to the abolitionist movement?

Could Wheatley have been such a prominent figure during this time without the inclusion of religious themes in her poetry?

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