Was Phillis Wheatley an “Evangelical?”

Wheatley

(This is the third and final post in a series on the word “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century and today.  Read the first post here and the second post here).

So is it fair to call Phillis Wheatley an “evangelical?”  Despite what some people may believe, I really don’t have a stake in this debate apart from historical considerations.  As far as I know, Phillis Wheatley never called herself an “evangelical.” That is because virtually no one used the term as a noun in the 18th century.   Historian Ed Blum, who is back on Twitter and, according to his Twitter bio, claims he is no longer interested in “contemporary politics,” will be pleased that I admitted this:

But was Wheatley part of the network of 18th-century men and women who made up the evangelical movement I tried to define in the first post in this series?  I would answer yes.  So would Tommy Kidd.  So would John Turner.  But let’s not stop there. Here, for example, are some quotes from literary scholar Vincent Caretta’s definitive biography Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage:

p.34: “[George] Whitefield and [Selena Hastings, Countess of] Huntingdon linked Phillis Wheatley to the larger transatlantic network of evangelical Christians that had brought Margate to Georgia.  They consequently also connected her to the earliest authors of African descent.  Whitefield’s American preaching tours exposed several members of the first generation of black authors to Methodism.  They use of lay ministers by Methodists and other Dissenting sects gave black authors like Equiano, Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, James Albert Ukasaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, George Leile, David George, and Boston King the opportunity and authority to exercise agency and influence in person and print.”

p.73: “In light of the catechetical “A Conversion between a New York Gentleman & Phillis” and the contemporaneous evangelical value placed on bearing witness to one’s faith, Wheatley’s emphasis on religious themes in her early poems is not surprising.  Evangelical Protestantism gave people of African descent, whether free or enslaved, access to literacy to enable them to read the Bible.   Short are the steps from reading the Bible to interpreting it for oneself, and from there to sharing interpretations with others in the forms of religious poems and spiritual narratives.  Wheatley began writing very soon after the first works by authors of African descent appeared in 1760s, inspired, authorized, and validated by the Great Awakening.  The works of the first such authors concern the faith shared between author and reader, rather than the complexion and social conditions that separated the black speaker and his or her overwhelmingly white audience.”

p.84: “Phillis Wheatley’s first published work, the poem “On Messrs. Hussy and Coffin,” appeared in the 14-21 December 1767 issue of the Newport Mercury, no doubt through the support and contacts of Susanna Wheatley.  The most likely contact was Sarah Haggar Wheaton Osborn (1714-96), a member of the First Congregational Church in Newport who was instrumental in the evangelical Newport revival of 1766-67.  She and Susanna Wheatley were acquainted with each other and shared a mutual correspondent in Rev. Occom.  The preaching of Whitefield and the Presbyterian evangelical Gilbert Tennent (1704-64) inspired Osborn to help create a female prayer society that met in her home weekly from the 1740s until her death.”

Caretta is also the editor of the Penguin edition of Wheatley’s complete writings.

Other Wheatley scholars agree with Caretta.  Wheatley was part of an 18th-century transatlantic evangelical movement.

Here is Phillip M. Richards in an essay titled “Phillis Wheatley: The Consensual Blackness of Early African American Writing,” in New Essays on Phillis Wheatley (University of Tennessee Press, 2011)

p.256: “Wheatley deploys this sentimental and aesthetic language vividly in her letters, which embody and enact a form of Christian friendship with her correspondents, moving in much the same way as does Osborn’s writing.  She thus writes her evangelical mentor, the British missionary John Thornton, referring to the Puritan convention of awakening on a sickbed: ‘O that my eyes were more open’d to see the real worth, and true excellence of the word of truth, my flinty heart Soften’d with the grateful dews of divine grace and the stubborn will, and affections, bent on God alone their proper object, and the vitiated palate may be corrected to relish heav’nly things….’ Wheatley’s observations not only describe her spiritual state but signal her shared sensibility of broken will, ambivalence toward the self, internalized authority, and benevolent love of God–all of which establish her membership in the company of saints constituted by Thornton’s missionary group….From her earliest poetry, Wheatley fashioned a literary persona based upon the language of evangelical conversion…”

Here is historian Catherine Brekus in Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America

p.185: “Perhaps the most remarkable female author in the eighteenth century was Phillis Wheatley, a slave who had been kidnapped from Africa as a child.  In order to gain acceptance in the republic of letters, Wheatley emphasized the depth of her Christian faith, and in 1770 she published an elegy lamenting the death of George Whitefield.  Because she was young, female, and a slave when she published her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, in 1773, the volume included a testimonial signed by eighteen of Boston’s leading gentlemen, including the governor, swearing that an ‘uncultivated Barbarian from Africa’ had indeed written her own poems.  No other female author in early America faced the same degree of skepticism or hostility.  Yet as Wheatley made clear in her poems, her authority to write came from her rebirth in Christ–on other words, from God himself.”

I could quote other scholars as well, but I think you get the idea.  Wheatley was an important voice in the 18th-century movement defined by a shared commitment to the new birth.  We can call that community “evangelical,” “New Light,” Whitefieldarian,” or something else, but in the end it was a spiritual fellowship of believers, certainly ensconced within 18th-century views on race, gender and social class, that came together around the shared experience of the new birth.

During the Kidd-Merritt debate, Merritt sought out a few religious studies scholars to bolster his view that it was “weird” to call Wheatley an evangelical.  Under fire from scholars and some of his Twitter followers, he needed to find a usable past quickly.  And he found a few scholars to help him:

It seems like this debate offers an excellent opportunity for historians to teach their students the importance of historical thinking.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez gets it:

Both Bass and Ingersoll assume that Kidd and me are trying to take 21st century evangelical religion and impose it on the 18th century and Wheatley.   We are accused of anachronistic thinking and “pasting” modern evangelicalism onto the 18th-century.  I can’t speak for Tommy Kidd, but I don’t think I was doing what I have been accused of doing.  As I have tried to show in the the posts in this series, there was an 18th-century evangelical movement and Wheatley was part of it.  That’s it.  No agenda except trying my best to interpret Wheatley’s life in its historical context.

Modern scholars of religion may not like the way white men and women used Wheatley, or may not like the fact that her membership in this community of the new birth does not offer them a usable past in their present-day battles against evangelicalism in America, but to suggest she was not an evangelical in the 18th century requires mounting a case against the best Wheatley scholarship and the best scholarship in early American history.

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