Phillis Wheatley is Baptized at Old South Church
Wheatley was a devout Christian and was admitted to Old South’s congregation when she was about 18 years old. Jeffers imagines her thoughts at a moment of baptism, which might have included a mix of joy at a deepened connection with Christ and frustration at the church’s treatment of African Americans. Here, the character of young Phillis speaks to the experiences of Black Christians who somehow carved a pathway to the divine while living in a spiritual community with enslavers who viewed them as lesser people. This short film was shot in the Old South Meeting House, where Phillis Wheatley was a member beginning in 1771.
Phillis Wheatley was deeply influenced and inspired by the Christian religion, corresponding with and consuming sermons from religious leaders like Reverend Samson Occum and Reverend George Whitefield. Her publishing patroness, the Countess of Huntingdon, was also a devout and trailblazing Methodist.
The Wheatleys were active members of the New South Congregational Church; despite this, Phillis Wheatley joined the congregation of the Old South Meeting House on August 18, 1771 upon her “legal” coming of age. The frontispiece of her 1773 collected works, the only known likeness of the poet, features a display of her religious engagement: a small Bible on the desk in front of her. Much of Wheatley’s poetry is steeped in spiritual contemplation, biblical allegory, and religiously infused lamentations of death.
Links to documents and artifacts relating to the moment and events referenced in the poem.
The Congregational Library and Archives, Admission Records for “Phillis, Servant to Mr. Wheatley” dated August 18, 1771
Massachusetts Historical Society, Frontispiece to “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” dated September 1773.
In Phillis’s Words
Excerpts of Phillis Wheatley Peters’s writings that resonate thematically with Jeffers’s poems.
“‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
‘Their colour is a diabolic die.’
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”