Phyllis Wheatley Essay, Research Paper
Televangelists like Jimmy Swaggert and Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker promise the Christian faith to
millions everyday. For the right price, anybody can have something- a.k.a. Christianity, God, and
faith- in their lives. On these shows, there is no need to have believed in religion before, as long
as there is a need for it now.
Religious telecasts asking for money in exchange for faith attract nearly five million people
each year. Fifty-five percent of these people are elderly woman; Thirty-five percent are from the
desperation pool, the poorest and neediest members of society; The remaining ten percent are
those who might be classified as upper-middle class, who want spiritual justification for their greed.
Most of us know that the religion professed on these telecasts is not about trusting in God or
having a deep belief in his teachings, ideas that aggregate Christianity in society. Instead, the old,
the poor, and the rich are buying something to have as their own when they have nothing else,
whether it be in the material, social, or emotional sense. So-called faith gives them possession, yet
places responsibility in the hands of a higher force. And in that, they are hoping to find freedom in
knowing that their lives are less empty and without direction.
It may seem that we can hardly relate the televangelist audience of the 20th Century to
poetic views on Christianity of the 18th Century, but surprisingly, there lies many similarities
between the two.. Both Anne Bradstreet and Phyllis Wheatley appeal to Christianity after their
own personal tragedies. These women, like the many viewers who watch Church-TV everyday, have
lost everything and are left with nothing. In an attempt to fill the void in their lives, left by
Bradstreet?s burnt house and Wheatley?s treatment as a slave, they turn to the Christian faith that at
times seems as empty as the faith that can be commercialized and sold by dramatists on television.
In analyzing "Here Follows Some Verses Upon the Burning of Our House" and "On Being
Brought from Africa to America," I will consider Christian faith as means of coping with nothingness,
rather than a pious way of life. While making references to Anne Bradstreet?s similar development
of faith, I will contend that Phyllis Wheatley?s Christianity seen is sought out for her own purposes
in times of feeling nullity rather than a confident belief or trust in God and the acceptance of
Phyllis Wheatley?s first appeals to Christianity emerge as she is transported on a slave ship
from West Africa to Boston in July 1761, which begins the poem under analysis. In this voyage, she is
still indentured into slavery, indicating that she has no material possessions of her own. Slavery has
also stripped her of any feelings of self-worth or emotional well-being, through its harsh treatment
and totalitarian control. Like a slave master, she views herself as no more than an object, as seen
in line one of the poem through the use of the passive "brought." Wheatley makes reference to
her race throughout the poem, however, I think that because of the way she chooses to identify
her race as "benighted," "diabolic," and needing to "be refined," she denigrates it just as the
system of slavery does, shaping white skin into the mold for the perfect human being in her mind..
And because she chooses Christianity and European-base ways of life, Wheatley encounters
feelings of resentment and isolation from her own people., leaving her with nothing, when she is
nothing to anyone.
Anne Bradstreet encounters Christianity after the burning of her house in July 1666. Within
the body of the poem, she specifically sites material possessions that she has lost: "the trunk,"
"that chest," "thy table," and the "candle." The loss of material goods appears to be a way in
which Bradstreet measured the tragedy of the fire, since she made no reference to anything else,
such as the value of her family or the importance of her memories. In comparison, though Wheatley
has no material belongings, both women share a sense of emptiness caused by loss of all that they
have. Because Bradstreet has nothing material, she seems to communicate that her life on earth is
insignificant. She cannot be bothered to think of the rest of her life here on earth without her
possessions, but looks to God for the promise of a "house" in eternity, which mirrors the image of
Wheatley looking forward to her life of Christianity in America.
Christianity then unintentionally becomes a possession for Wheatley, as she seeks to find
salvation in faith and looks forward to Christianity in America. In line four of the poem, she refers
to "redemption" as an object which can be equated with what I believe epitomizes her view of
Christianity. Since Wheatley has never been able to possess anything because she has always
been the possession, she now craves something to own, something to call her own. She fills this
void of ownership with Christianity, the only thing accessible in her dire situation. I do not doubt
that Wheatley believes in a Christian god, I do, however, believe that her faith was first created to
fill a personal emptiness similar to the vacuity filled by the promise of Christian eternity for
Bradstreet after the devastation of her home. For both, Christianity becomes something that
cannot be taken away by a master or fire as their other possessions have been. It is secure and
safe, offering promise of a better tomorrow and placing control in a higher spirit rather than the
individual. In Wheatley?s case, the prospect of an improved life without having to be responsible
for making it happen is appealing. Since both women feel they are nothing and have nothing, they
are intimidated by risk, and find assurance in Christianity.
Irony exists in that Wheatley finds freedom in the possession of something else. Not until
she has Christianity in her life, does she feel autonomous of the dredges of slavery. Christianity
creates an idealism in Wheatley?s mind that frees her spirit for redemption and allows her to feel
independent of her doomed fate. Since most of the slave masters were white and Christian, she
may have instinctively correlated freedom with those two attributes, particularly since within the
poem she refers to her color as "dye" as to suggest white skin as a sign of purity. She goes on
linking blackness with the sin demonstrated by Cain, and closes with the prospect of black people,
such as herself, to be "refined." From the beginning of the poem to the end, Wheatley remains a
slave, possessing and gaining no more, yet when she turns to Christianity, she sees a future,
possibly marked by salvation..
Similarly, after Bradstreet loses all of her material possessions, she immediately wishes to
replace them with the promise of part of God?s "house on high erect." Within the last several lines
of the poem, she explains how she "needs no more," despite the requests she is making to have
part of eternity. From this, it appears that Bradstreet must replace the loss of her earthly
possessions with the promise of eternal rewards created by Christianity. Bradstreet uses phrases
such as "richly furnished," "purchased and paid for too," "a price so vast" to describe eternity
which pose questions of the strong materialistic influence on her Christian heaven. Bradstreet even
boasts that, "His gift is made thine own," which is similar to the way that Wheatley makes salvation
her own, "Once I redemption neither sought nor knew."
Through comparison with Anne Bradstreet?s Christian faith and making allusions to the faith
broadcasted and sold by televangelists, I argue that Phyllis Wheatley approaches Christianity as a
result of the emptiness caused by enslavement while altering faith into her one and only possession,
and paradoxically finding freedom in this ownership of something else. She, like the victim of a 17th
century house fire or the casualty of the lonely war against aging, turns to faith when she has nothing,
needs something or anything, and uses this possession for her own needs. This is, nevertheless, a
faith in something, but it is not yet a true example of the believing, professing, or belonging to the
religion of Christ. For Wheatley, Christ is not most important; she is. And