Phillis Wheatley

Contributing Writer
The Rev. Laura A. Csellak, Chaplain

Challenged to find a theme for this edition of Faith Matters, I decided to see what famous persons were born on May 8. Phillis Wheatley was on this list. I remember learning about this poet back in elementary school. She is considered the first African-American author of a published book of poetry.

Wheatley was born in West Africa in 1753. Around the age of eight she was sold by a local chief to a visiting trader, who took her to Boston on the slave ship The Phillis. She was bought by the wealthy Boston merchant and tailor John Wheatley as a slave for his wife Susanna. They named her Phillis after the slave ship. John Wheatley afforded Phillis an unprecedented education for an enslaved person, certainly one for a woman of any race. By the age of 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics in their original languages, as well as difficult passages from the Bible.

In 1773 Wheatley travelled to London to seek publication of her work. She met prominent people who became patrons. The publication in London of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral brought her fame both in England and the American colonies.

In 1775, Wheatley sent a copy of a poem entitled “To His Excellency, George Washington” to the then-military general. Washington invited Wheatley to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she did. Thomas Paine republished the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette in April of 1776.

Still, many colonists found it difficult to believe that an African slave was writing “excellent” poetry. Wheatley had to defend her authorship of her poetry in court in 1772. They concluded she had written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation.

It should grieve us that 170 years after Phillis’s birth, we continue to question the talents of those deemed different from ourselves. Fortunately, we have a local partnership to help us with this. It is the Chautauqua County I.D.E.A. Coalition. IDEA stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access. Its mission is to make Chautauqua County a place where everyone belongs and has opportunities to thrive, especially those who have been historically marginalized. I encourage you to contact the IDEA Coalition at 717/483-1561 or With our support, there is a young girl in an elementary school nearby, just beginning to write poetry. She will not be questioned about her talents, and will be nurtured to inspire many as did Phillis Wheatley.

I close with Wheatley’s “Thoughts on Works from Providence”:

Ador’d for ever be the God unseen,
Which round the sun revolves this vast machine,
Though to his eye its mass a point appears:
Ador’d the God that whirls surrounding spheres,
Which first ordain’d that mighty Sol should reign
The peerless monarch of th’ ethereal train:
Of miles twice forty millions is his height,
And yet his radiance dazzles mortal sight
So far beneath–from him th’ extended earth
Vigour derives, and ev’ry flow’ry birth.

For more inspiration and insights from past columns, please visit and click on the Faith Matters page. The Jamestown Gazette is proud to present our county’s most creative and original writers for your enjoyment and enlightenment.