- Who Are Lost and How They're Found:Redemption and Theodicy in Wheatley, Newton, and Cowper
On February 19, 1788, the poet William Cowper wrote to his friend and minister John Newton, thanking him for his recently published Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. And while Cowper commends Newton's important contribution to the antislavery cause, he admits that this subject leads him to become "lost in mazes of speculation never to be unravell'd" regarding how divine justice could allow "millions of that unhappy race" to experience such misery and injustice:
Is it to be esteem'd a sufficient vindication of divine justice, if these miserable creatures, tormented as they have been from generation to generation, shall at last receive some relief, some abatement of their woes, shall not be treated absolutely as brutes for the future? The thousands of them who have already passed into an eternal state, hopeless of any thing better than they found in this life, what is to become of Them? Is it essential to the perfection of a plan concerted by infinite wisdom, that such wretches should exist at all, who from the beginning of their Being through all its endless duration can experience nothing for which they should say, It is good for us that we were created?(Letters 106)
Cowper knows that he ought to be content with the Calvinist answer that "God is Sovereign," but he confesses that because he has doubted God's sovereignty regarding his own life, he is no longer satisfied with this solution. Pondering the problem of African slavery now leads Cowper to feel "[a] wish that I had never been. A wonder that I am. And an ardent but hopeless desire not to be" (Letters 107).1
Cowper's deep angst concerning the plight of the Africans and his resultant theological dilemma illustrates the widespread concern that the [End Page 561] British evangelical community felt during the late eighteenth century over the injustice of the slave trade. Both Newton and Cowper contributed to the evangelical rhetoric employed by the antislavery movement as it sought to clarify the terms of Christian redemption: individuals were saved not by their race, their economic standing, their culture, or their good works but rather by the transformative grace of God. This Calvinist, evangelical definition of redemption provided a religious rationale for racial equality, but it failed to answer the more difficult questions regarding theodicy that Cowper raises in his letter to Newton: How can a just God allow a practice as evil as the slave trade? What was God's purpose in creating a whole race of people who would never hear the gospel? Another poet was asking these same questions on the other side of the Atlantic. Phillis Wheatley had been brought to America as a slave at the age of seven. She was bought by an evangelical family with connections to the same transatlantic community to which Cowper and Newton belonged, and her poems addressed these same theological problems raised by racial slavery. I suggest that Phillis Wheatley's story and poetry offer potential answers to these questions and that Newton and Cowper grappled with similar proposals in their antislavery poems, ultimately adopting a rhetorical approach similar to Wheatley's concerning the first question of why God would allow the slave trade while they remained unable to follow her answer to the second, regarding whether God could save Africans who had never heard the gospel.
Four of Wheatley's early poems—"On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield," "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth," "On Being Brought from Africa to America," and "On Recollection"—outline her theodicy regarding the slave trade. In the first three poems, she suggests that while slavery is evil, God nevertheless can bring some good from this evil by bringing hypocritical, white Christians to a place of repentance and then redemption and by bringing the Christian gospel to Africans. By maintaining a clear distinction between the evils of slavery and God's merciful, providential redemption, she offers a way to avoid the imperial Christian rhetoric that some used to rationalize the slave trade. In "On Recollection," Wheatley...