Phillis Wheatley Peters and the Black Congregational Calvinist Tradition

Steven Harris, Stephen G. Ray Jr., and Cassander L. Smith
Promotional graphic for the event, featuring a picture of "Poems on Various Subjects"

1-2:30 pm EDT


This event will held live on Zoom with an interactive Q&A



Join us for an important discussion of Phillis Wheatley Peters as a theological thinker within the Black Calvinist tradition with Steven Harris, Rev. Dr. Stephen G. Ray Jr, and Dr. Cassander L. Smith in honor of the 250th anniversary of the publication of Wheatley Peters’ Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

Wheatley Peters has rightfully garnered popular and academic interest for her work as a Black poet writing in eighteenth-century Boston. Kidnapped from West Africa and sold into enslavement as a young child, Wheatley Peters learned to read and write, and soon produced highly esteemed poems for members of her community. On September 1, 1773, her first book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in London while on a trip with the son of the family that enslaved her.

Curiously absent from consideration, however, has been exploration of Wheatley Peters' contribution to Black theology. Wheatley Peters sits uncomfortably in the narrative arc often told about Black theology, especially the Calvinist tradition she participated in as a member of Old South Church in Boston. Putting Wheatley Peters into conversation with other Black Congregationalists in the Calvinist tradition, such as Jupiter Hammon and Lemuel Haynes, reveals in important and interesting ways how she both adopted and adapted the theological material and resources available to her to make sense of her identity and social location.

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Steven Harris is a faith-based public policy expert and scholar of American religious history and African American studies. He currently serves as Senior Director of Academic Programs at the Center on Faith and Justice at Georgetown University. Prior to arriving at Georgetown, Steven spent several years on Capitol Hill building coalitions and working on domestic and international public policy issues at the intersection of religion, justice, and human dignity. his research interests lie at the historical intersection of black religious thought and Calvinistic theology, as well as the theo-logics of historical black religious actors in conversation with the contemporary discursive edges of critical race theory and Afro-pessimist thought. His most recent published writing on the topic was a contribution to the edited volume, The Oxford Handbook of Calvin and Calvinism (OUP, 2021). A Vanderbilt graduate, Steven received an MDiv from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an MA in Religion from Yale Divinity School, an MA in Religion from Harvard University, and is currently a PhD candidate at Harvard.

Cassander (Cassie) Smith is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Alabama. Her teaching and research focus on representations of black Africans in early Atlantic literature, emphasizing the racial/cultural ideologies that helped shape English encounters with the early Americas and helped shape the literature produced about those encounters. She is the author of Race and Respectability in an Early Black Atlantic (LSU, 2023) and Black Africans in the British Imagination: English Narratives of the Early Atlantic World (LSU, 2016) as well as the co-editor of several anthologies. Along with Tara A. Bynum and Brigitte Fielder, she wrote the introduction to a special issue of Early American Literature in 2022 devoted to Phillis Wheatley.

Rev. Dr. Stephen G. Ray Jr. is the Senior Minister at the historic United Church on the Green, New Haven CT. Prior to this call he served as the 13th President of Chicago Theological Seminary and a past President of the Society for the Study of Black Religion. Ray had a distinguished career in theological education as holder of two endowed chairs and published broadly in the areas of religion and African-American Studies.