Letter to Reverend Samson Occum (1774)

Enslaved African-American poet Phillis Wheatley’s letter to Reverend Samson Occum, an ordained Presbyterian minister who was a member of the Mohegan Tribe. This letter appeared in the March 11, 1774 edition of The Connecticut Gazette.
Phillis Wheatley
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concepts 5 and 10.

Wheatley P

Rev'd and honor'd Sir,  
I have this Day received your obliging kind Epistle, and am greatly satisfied with your Reasons respecting the Negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights: Those that invade them cannot be insensible that the divine Light is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reign'd so long, is converting into beautiful Order, and reveals more and more clearly, the glorious Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably Limited, that there is little or no Enjoyment of one Without the other: Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian slavery; I do not say they would have been contented without it, by no means, for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward tile Calamities of their fellow Creatures. This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically, opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree, I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h19.html.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What does Wheatley say is the relationship between civil and religious liberties?
    She believes the two types of liberty are inseparable—individuals cannot have “one without the other.”
  2. Question
    In what ways does the author reference colonial grievances against England?
    Wheatley references rhetoric of the Revolution such as: freedom, liberty, and natural rights.
  3. Question
    Wheatley refers to missionary work on the African continent. How so? What does she say is their result?
    Wheatley states: “the divine Light is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reign'd so long, is converting into beautiful Order.” Missionaries are bringing “light”, meaning Christianity, to Africa, which is moving the continent from “chaos” to “order,” thus she believes Christianity to be improving the continent.
  4. Question
    What comparisons does the author make between Biblical stories and slavery in her time? What is the implied result?
    She compares enslaved people in the American colonies to the Israelites, who will be freed by God “in his own way and time,” as the Israelites were. Enslavers are described as “modern Egyptians.”
    This casts enslavers as acting against God’s will, thereby placing a religious (and moral) imperative on emancipation.
  5. Question
    “Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitious for their Freedom from Egyptian slavery…” How does this passage embed a religious argument for emancipation?
    That if not for their desire to practice their religion (Christianity being the implied religion of enslaved people in the American colonies), then enslaved people wouldn’t be asking for civil liberties/ emancipation. This makes emancipation a matter of fostering and/or spreading Christianity.
Reveal Answers
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