We are gathered today in the presence of God to celebrate Phillis Wheatley, an early member of this church on this day near the anniversary of her birthday.
She was in her day the most famous African on the face of the earth. Voltaire wrote about her while Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of her published book of poems. She conversed with the likes of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. While on a trip abroad, she was sponsored by royalty and hailed and feted as a literary celebrity.
She is the mother of African American literature.
Although she was only 31 years old when she died, her voice still carries … and condemns and challenges and awes and inspires.
How did she do it? How did it happen that a slight and sickly young woman, an enslaved person—a stranger in a strange land with neither power nor wealth nor standing—managed such a feat in the 1700’s in Boston?
I submit to you that within her poem, Goliath of Gath, is found the answer to these questions.
The poem Goliath of Gath is Phillis Wheatley’s poetic paraphrase of the biblical story of David and Goliath (I Samuel 17). When the poem Goliath of Gath is placed side by side with the 17th chapter of 1st Samuel, Phillis’ interests and emphases emerge.
First, Phillis Wheatley identifies with the young biblical David … she sees herself in him. In the King James Version of the Bible, the version with which Phillis was intimately familiar, David’s complexion is called out. He is described as ruddy. He is the only person in the entire Bible whose complexion is called out. Phillis, too, was marked, indeed, identified by her complexion.
Both Phillis and David are youthful. Both undertaking challenges far beyond their years. Both are small in stature. Both come from obscurity and rise to improbable fame. Both are accused of thinking themselves above their stations. Both are poets and lyricists. Both love God.
There is more: The story of David and Goliath revolves around the high stakes question of freedom or slavery. If Goliath wins, the Israelite soldiers will become enslaved to the Philistine soldiers.
Phillis Wheatley identifies with the young David because his cause is the freedom of his people.
She identifies with the David because servitude verses freedom is the central issue of Phillis Wheatley’s life.
For Phillis Wheatley, the monstrous giant that makes the ground tremble … the gigantic, well-armed foe that stalks the earth and makes it shudder is slavery … slavery with all its minions, its foot-soldiers and its chiefs.
For Phillis Wheatley, as a Christian well-versed in her Bible, slavery is an affront to God. In this poem, she gives notice: slavery does not square with God’s teachings. Her poem is a warning: the monster of slavery will be felled and with it, the minions whom make slavery work.
Phillis Wheatley’s poem, Goliath of Gath, is resistance literature … literature with a double meaning. There is the first and simple meaning. As such it is just a harmless retelling, a poetic paraphrasing, of the biblical story.
There is a second meaning, a dangerous and daring meaning. For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, it is in this poem that Phillis Wheatley gives notice: just as David faced off against a monstrous foe in Goliath, she is facing off against the monstrous foe of slavery.
The trained clergy of Phillis Wheatley’s day—white, male, highly educated—were empowered by their learning and privilege to expound upon scripture. Laity, women, and certainly enslaved persons, were not so empowered. Yet, with this poem, Phillis Wheatley dares claim and exercise that very freedom and privilege for herself.
David used a small stone to fell the mammoth. Phillis’s small stone is her poem.
Listen then to an excerpt from Phillis Wheatley’s poem, Goliath of Gath. Listen as this young poetess dares launch a well-aimed poem at the Goliath of her time … a Goliath called slavery.
I am so very grateful to my long-time friend, Executive Director of the Museum of African American History, and member of Old South Church, Beverly Morgan-Welch, for assuming the challenge of reading this excerpt.
Listen, for Phillis Wheatley has been described as demure, even compliant. So, listen for yourself, Listen, and hear the rage, hear the anger and the warning.
Listen, church, and weep with pride. Weep with pride that Phillis Wheatley claimed Old South as her church home
Listen and give God thanks for Phillis Wheatley and all her courage and all her cunning.
“Subjection and prophecy in Phillis Wheatley's verse paraphrases of scripture”, by Scheick, William J. 10/01/1995
The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley, ed by John Shields
Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage by, Vinenct Caretta
The Trials of Phillis Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography by William H. Robinson