Posts Tagged ‘compilation of poems’

Salvation For All

It is often a very difficult thing for people far removed from a certain century to accurately understand the feelings and culture of that time. So it is, to those in the 21st century, a difficult task to place themselves in the atmosphere of the 18th century. However, ancestors often provide their posterity with windows into their lives through writings, letters, and official documents. Phillis Wheatley is just one of many individuals who found ways to pass on their beliefs and societal times through the composing of poems. One poem that particularly deals with the mindset of the middle 1700’s is “On Being Brought From Africa To America.”

Phillis Wheatley was brought to America on July 11, 1761 when she was only seven or eight years old. She was bought by Susanna Wheatley, the wife of a Boston merchant. Being frail, Phillis was more of a companion to Susanna than a household servant. She learned English, Latin and the Bible from the Wheatley daughter. She became a Christian and was baptized. Although Africans were not considered able to write poetry, she finally published her first compilation of poems in 1773, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This was published in London, and upon her return to America she was set free. Phillis married John Peters in 1778 but was eventually deserted by him and died in 1784 in a Boston boarding house (Milne 222).

Among Phillis’ first published poems was “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” The poem can be divide into two distinct sections, 4 lines each. The first section talks about her journey from Africa to America and her personal salvation. The second half of the poem speaks about the salvation of her race as a whole.

In the very first line of the poem, “’Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land” (Wheatley 1), Wheatley wants to make it clear that it was mercy, not just a slave ship that brought her to America and exposed her to Christianity. Her “benighted” soul was brought into understanding, in contrast to the intellectual ignorance, or darkness, that had dominated the first years of her life. Although it was under lamentable circumstances that she came to America, as a result of her life with the Wheatleys Phillis became a Christian. In a letter to Arbour Tanner, a fellow slave, she express these sentiments: “’…let us rejoice in and adore the wonders of God’s infinite Love in bringing us from a land semblant of darkness itself, and where the divine light of revelation (being obscur’d) is as darkness. Here the knowledge of the true God and eternal life are made manifest; but there, profound ignorance overshadows the land’” (O’Neale 146). While Phillis was by no means rejoicing in her position as a slave, she was fully aware of the fact that it was slavery that saved her soul. The first half of the poem is her testimony and she is thankful that the Savior has redeemed her from her sins.

After remarking on her own personal salvation, Phillis uses the last 4 lines of the poem to address a rather controversial issue at that time. Were Africans worthy of salvation? To many Christians today, that is an absolutely absurd question. However, it was the general belief in those times – albeit a deplorable one – that people of black color were associated with Satan. This is what Phillis alludes to when she says “Some view our sable race with scornful eye. ‘Their color is a diabolic dye’” (Wheatley 5-6). It is believed that this view was drawn from the Old Testament where Cain’s descendants were ostracized and marked by God with a stain. This was coupled with the curse that was placed on Ham, that his children would be under perpetual servitude, and thus was born the misconception that Africans where the offspring of Cain and Ham and therefore exempt from God’s grace and subject to enslavement. This explains why so many people supported slavery. They judged salvation by the state of one’s skin, not by the state of their soul. In taking the Old Testament to its most literal sense, however, they missed the whole message of the New Testament: that salvation was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. A passage in the Bible that proves the fallacy of the New World Christians’ belief is in Acts 8. This is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who was the first Gentile convert and who took the gospel to Africa. The eunuch is the first example of the fact that whatever may have been the fate of Cain and Ham’s offspring, under the new law salvation is for all people. Phillis no doubt knew of this story and in the last two lines of the poem she reminds her readers that no matter what their physical appearance may be, all “May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train” (Wheatley 8).

Under the doctrine of original sin all people fall short of the glory of God, and it is not the pigmentation of skin that ranks individuals among the elect, but God’s supreme goodness. This was the liberating truth that Phillis Wheatley learned when she was brought to America, and it was this truth that she intended to share with her readers. But not only did she share it with 18th century contemporaries, she also succeeded in passing down her testimony to many future generations.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »