Jupiter Hammon’s Religious Influences

By: Kaitryn Evans

Hammon’s first poem, “An Evening Thought, Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries,” was published in 1760. As no other African Americans had been published prior to Hammon, there were very few individuals for him to draw inspiration from. Rather than making arguments based on previously published works, Hammon’s writing was greatly influenced by the Bible and personal experiences within the white Protestant church he attended with his master’s family. Often using the biblical themes of salvation and redemption found in Calvinism, as Sondra O’Neale points out in Jupiter Hammon and the Biblical Beginnings of African-American Literature (1993), “as a dominant theme in all of his writing, Hammon is challenging the idea of racial and individual selectiveness” (43).

The Christian values derived from the Bible were used by white Americans as a means of justification for slavery, especially during the eighteenth century. A slave his whole life, Hammon was keen to the fact that his writing would have to meet the approval of white slaveholders in order to receive publication. Knowing that he would be unable to make a call to action for the immediate end to slavery, his writings suggested “that moral persuasion based on Christian principles . . . would be effective for the eventual eradication of slavery” (O’Neale 53-54).

His ideas about how best to combat slavery through moral persuasion are best demonstrated in Hammon’s final, famously controversial, publication, “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York,” published in 1806. Taking his words at face value, many readers have misinterpreted Hammon’s thoughts on slave emancipation. It is in this piece specifically that modern critics have chosen to dismiss his work, “assum[ing] that Jupiter Hammon was an Uncle Tom” (O’Neale 219). When considering the time and place in which Hammon wrote, this assumption could not have been further from the truth. Rather than strictly calling attention to the unfair treatment of Africans in America, “as a slave himself, Hammon attacked slavery at its jugular vein – the world of the Bible and of the spirit” (O’Neale 33).

Work Consulted:

O’Neale, Sondra A. Jupiter Hammon and the Biblical Beginnings of African-American Literature. Metuchen, NJ: The American Theological Library Association and The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993.