Old South Church will again celebrate one its most notable past parishioners this May 8, with the return of Phillis Wheatley Sunday.
A member of the church during the American Revolution, as well as the first published African American author, Wheatley was kidnapped from her African homeland at around the age of 7. She learned English and Latin on her own, as well as how to write from white children. Wheatley began writing poetry as a teen and went on to become a celebrated poet.
“She was an extraordinary American and an extraordinary Christian,” Rev. Taylor said of Phillis Wheatley.
Old South Church wasn’t the “church of the Wheatleys,” however, as Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister and CEO of Old South Church, is quick to point out. But instead, it’s the church Phillis Wheatley (born circa 1753) chose for herself as a free woman and where she would be baptized into on Aug. 18, 1771. (As was usually the case, freed slaves, like Phillis Wheatley, didn’t often choose to become a part of the churches of their former enslavers, said Rev. Taylor.)
“During the American Revolution, when Sam Adams, who was also a member of the church, was seeking freedom from the Crown, Phillis Wheatley was saying, ‘excuse me, what about my freedom?’” said Rev. Taylor. “And she held the feet to the fire of these great American Patriots.”
Moreover, Rev. Taylor said, “Reading the Bible on her own, Phillis Wheatley saw the story about the enslaved people in Egypt being freed by God and Moses, and she said to Sam Adams and the other Patriots, ‘where am I in your fight for freedom?’ and ‘why does God, who chose to free the Hebrews in Egypt, not want us free?’”
Old South Church started the tradition of Phillis Wheatley Sunday circa 2010 to honor a woman Rev. Taylor describes as “one of the saints of the church” and whose legacy she hopes Old South will keep alive by teaching Wheatley’s story to every child who passes through the church’s doors.
Phillis Wheatley Sunday begins at Old South Church at 645 Boylston St. with the First Worship by The Rev Dr Emmett G. Price III at 9 a.m.
Price is Berklee College of Music’s inaugural dean of Africana Studies, as well as an internationally recognized expert and accomplished writer, lecturer, scholar, educator, and speaker on the subject of Black music and culture.
“One interest of his is hip-hop music, which created a path for people with different experiences to express themselves,” said Rev. Taylor.
At 10 a.m., parishioners and guests will promenade about four blocks from the church to the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, which immortalizes Wheatley, alongside Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone, a prominent U.S. orator, abolitionist, and suffragist. As they make their way there, participants will hold up signs declaring “Happy birthday, Phillis,” and they’ll sing “Happy Birthday” to her and share cupcakes upon reaching the monument, said Rev. Taylor.
At 11 a.m., the church will hold its Festival Worship with Emmett Price preaching, along with the presentation of its annual Open Door Award.
The annual Open Door Award was, according to Rev. Taylor, was created in 2014 to “honor people who have jacked, pried, or sweettalked their way to open previously closed doors and allow new people to walk through them.” Past award recipients have included Boston Globe Metro Columnist Adrian Walker; Callie Crossley, pioneering broadcast journalist and host of “Under the Radar with Callie Crossley” on WGBH; Sarah-Ann Shaw, Boston’s first African American female TV reporter; Sen. Elizabeth Warren; and former State Rep. Byron Rushing, among others.
This year, the Open Door Award goes to Price, as well as to June Cooper, Old South Church’s Theologian in the City.
Cooper recently retired from her long-held position as executive director of City Mission, the second oldest nonprofit organization in the U.S., and she also previously managed the Boston Health Start program, which has been credited with significantly decreasing the infant mortality rate in the City of Boston in the late ‘90s.
At noon, a second promenade will make its way from the church to the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, where once again Wheatley will be feted by guests.
Also on hand for Phillis Wheatley Day will be a film crew making a full-length OMNI documentary (running between 30 and 40 minutes) for the Museum of Science, which celebrates New England and its people.
The documentary , which is being made exclusively for viewing on the large format dome-screen at the museum’s Mugar Omni Theater, will feature Dr. Paula Hammond, a professor at MIT, as well as a member of the Old South who asked that her church be featured in the film.
“Dr. Paula Hammond of MIT, who will be the voice of science, education and innovation in New England,” according to Old South Church. “One of the angles of innovation that interests them is the idea of social innovation – the history of revolutionaries who refused to accept the way things were and challenged New England society through their words and actions.”
To this end, the documentary will look at the region’s “social innovators and revolutionaries, as Hammond is in medicine.,” and as Phillis Wheatley was as a poet and an early civil rights trailblazer, said Rev. Taylor.
Visit https://www.oldsouth.org/news/phillis-wheatley-sunday for more information on Old South Church’s Phillis Wheatley Sunday.