Jupiter Hammon (1711-1806?)
William H. Robinson and
Phillip M. Richards
Classroom Issues and Strategies
African-American literature emerges at an auspicious time in the settlement
of North America. The number of blacks entering the colonies increased
markedly at the middle of the eighteenth century. Settled blacks in the
New World may have acquired a new self-consciousness as they encountered
large numbers of newly arrived Africans. Their consciousness as a separate
group was defined by laws restricting racial intermarriage, by racist portrayals
in the press, and by their increased involvement in the evangelical religion
that emerged in the aftermath of the Great Awakening.
Jupiter Hammon, whose life roughly covers the span of the eighteenth
century, was in an excellent position to see these trends. His writing
reflects his efforts to evangelize his black brethren at a time when most
African-Americans were not Christians. He is a traditional Calvinist. He
is aware of Africa and the experience of the middle passage. Not surprisingly,
his use of traditional evangelical rhetoric is deeply suggestive of the
political implications that this discourse might have in the work of future
Students should be aware that we read Hammon as we might read any American
Calvinist writing in the last half of the eighteenth century. We look for
the rhetoric that underlies his evangelical strategies; we try to establish
the speaker's relationship to his white and black audiences; and we assess
the way in which the religious language of his discourse begins to acquire
a political resonance, particularly in its use of words such as "king,"
"nation," "salvation," and "victory."
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Psalms is the most quoted biblical book in the poem addressed to Phillis
Wheatley. Why would Psalms be such an important book to a black preacher-poet
such as Hammon? What importance do you think the broad sweep of Old Testament
history might have had to Hammon? What importance did this history have
to evangelicals and political revolutionaries in late eighteenth-century
New England? At what points do you think that Hammon and his white evangelical
peers' understanding of scripture might have diverged?
What poem by Phillis Wheatley has Hammon obviously read? Why do you
think that he seized upon this verse in his own longer poem? What stance
does the speaker of this poem assume toward his ostensible reader, Wheatley?
Does this stance resemble the speaker's stance in Hammon's other work?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Examine the formal impact of the literary structure of the Psalms on
Hammon's poems. What literary influence do hymn stanza form and sermon
form have on his writing? In what social context do hymns and sermons occur?
Why would Hammon be attempting to evoke that context in his writing?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
In what way does the rhetoric of Christian salvation, both personal
and national, imply a historical construct? Compare Hammon's and Wheatley's
use of that construct. Why would such a construct be important to early
American black writers?
Think of other early American writers who treat the subject of salvation
in radically different ways. Would Jonathan
Edwards and Benjamin
Franklin respond to Hammon in the same ways? How would the two white
writers differ, if they differed at all?
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Describe the way in which Christian thought and rhetoric structured
Hammon's racial consciousness. Why is it significant that America's first
black writers are Puritans? In what sense could a shared religious belief
be important for racial relations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth