Federal Street Church (Franklin St. & Federal St.)

Wheatley
Scipio Moorhead designed this engraving of Phillis Wheatley for her book, “Poems on various subjects, religious and moral.” (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In 1729, Revered John Moorhead became the first minister of a Scot-Irish Presbyterian community on Long Lane in Boston. This community built a bigger structure, the Long Lane Meeting House, in 1744, which served as the space for the Massachusetts Convention in 1786. In honor of this event, the city renamed the street, Federal Street, and the community became known as the Federal Street Church.

As a liberal and highly educated clergyman, Rev. Moorhead kept close acquaintance with many of Boston’s elite families, including the Wheatley family. He and his black slave, Scipio Moorhead, became good friends with Phillis Wheatley, and when her literary capabilities were questioned, Rev. Moorhead became one of the eighteen Bostonian men to testify to her talents. On the 14th of November 1772, the trial and interrogation of Phillis Wheatley confirmed that her poetry was her own intellect and was that of a uniquely high excellence. Shortly thereafter, Phillis traveled to England in hopes to publish her first collection of writings with greater ease.  English patrons, such as the Countess of Huntingdon (Selina Hastings), advocated and promoted African American and Afro-Briton intellectual development during this period of the Great Awakening.

In 1773, her first book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in England. Also contained within this book was a depiction of young Phillis Wheatley perched and pensive at her writing desk within the Wheatley family’s residence on King Street. The artist was her close friend Scipio Moorhead.  Using a 5”x 4”copper plate he engraved a profile image of Phillis. He captured her docile and humble physical appearance while still reflecting her superb intellect as she thoughtfully positions her quill pen on the paper waiting for the perfect inspiration. Similar to other African American and Afro-Briton authors of her time who developed a sense of Christian religiosity in conjunction with attaining literacy, she penned poems that contained references to Evangelical themes and praised religious individuals such as George Whitefield. She made sure to acknowledge fellow African Americans within her New England community.  In fact, after viewing Scipio Moorhead’s artistic works, Phillis wrote a poem for the young artist.  The following poem expresses her reciprocal inspiration and common goals of developing intellect through the arts and literacy, which she shared and promoted amongst contemporary African Americans in New England. In many ways, the Federal Street Church is a reflection of her and other African Americans struggle for recognition in colonial New England.

TO show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent, And thought in living characters to paint, When first thy pencil did those beauties give, And breathing figures learnt from thee to live, How did those prospects give my soul delight, A new creation rushing on my sight? Still, wond’rous youth! each noble path pursue, On deathless glories fix thine ardent view: Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire! And may the charms of each seraphic theme Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame! High to the blissful wonders of the skies

Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes. Thrice happy, when exalted to survey That splendid city, crown’d with endless day, Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring: Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring. Calm and serene thy moments glide along, And may the muse inspire each future song! Still, with the sweets of contemplation bless’d, May peace with balmy wings your soul invest! But when these shades of time are chas’d away, And darkness ends in everlasting day, On what seraphic pinions shall we move, And view the landscapes in the realms above? There shall thy tongue in heav’nly murmurs flow, And there my muse with heav’nly transport glow: No more to tell of Damon’s tender sighs, Or rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes, For nobler themes demand a nobler strain, And purer language on th’ethereal plain. Cease, gentle muse! the solemn gloom of night Now seals the fair creation from my sight.

(S.M. a Young African Painter, on Seeing his Works)

 

References

Carretta, Vincent, ed. Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in
the English Speaking World of the 18th Century. Expanded ed. Lexington, KY:
The University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Foster, Frances Smith. “Creative Collaboration: As African American as Sweet Potato Pie.” African-American Poets 1 (2009): 87.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. America’s First Black Poet and Her encounters with the
Founding Fathers. New York, NY: Basic Civitas Books, 2003, 7.

Lambert, Frank. “‘I Saw the Book Talk’: Slave Readings from the First Great
Awakening.” The Journal of Negro History 77, no. 4 (Autumn 1992), 186.

 

 

 

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