Phillis Wheatley made history in 1773 when she published her book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. She became the first African-American woman to be published. In spite of this achievement, her life was rather sad.
She was born in 1753 in West Africa in what is modern-day Senegal. As just an eight-year-old, she was sold as a slave and ended up in Boston. She was sold to the Wheatley family, and so she was given their last name. This family named her Phillis, which was actually the name of the slave ship that brought her to America.
Her family taught her how to read and write, and they took her to church with them to Old South Church in Boston. When her master died, his will declared her emancipated. Shortly after she was freed, she married. Her husband, a grocer, struggled to find success; he tried very hard but ended up in debtor’s prison. While he was in prison, the Wheatleys had three children, but two of them died as infants. Soon, Phillis herself became very ill, and in 1784, she died. She was 31 years old.
During her lifetime, she wrote many poems. One of her poems was about George Washington. When it was published, he was so impressed with it that he arranged for her to come visit him and spend some time with him. She also wrote a poem about another Colonial George, the evangelist George Whitefield. She had heard him preach at Old South Church in Boston, and when he died, she eulogized him in a poem. She wrote a poem on virtue, what she called the bright jewel. And in that poem she has these two lines:
Attend me, Virtue, thro’ my youthful years;
O leave me not to the false joys of time.
She wrote a short poem called On Being Brought from Africa to America. That poem has the first line, “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land.” She was able to see God’s hand in bringing her as a slave across the Atlantic to Boston, because it was there that she learned of God, Christ, and redemption.
But the poem that I want to spend a little bit of time on is titled To the University in Cambridge, in New England. This, of course, is Harvard University, and from her home in Boston she could see Harvard, and I suspect Wheatley wished she could be a student there. But while she couldn’t attend Harvard, she could write a poem to the university’s students. This is what she said:
Students, to you ‘tis giv’n to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the ethereal space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
Of all these things they’re studying, this is what she thinks they should focus on:
The blissful news by messengers from heav’n,
How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows.
See him with hands out-stretcht upon the cross;
Immense compassion in his bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn:
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
She then ends her poem with these lines:
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shunn’d, nor once remit your guard;
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you ‘tis your greatest foe;
Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
And in immense perdition sinks the soul.
What does it gain a student, or what does it gain any of us, if we indeed gain the whole world and yet lose our soul? As the students of Harvard went out to conquer the world, Phillis Wheatley urged them—and us—to shun sin and focus on the sure salvation wrought by Jesus Christ.