Jupiter Hammon

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Jupiter Hammon (October 17, 1711 – before 1806) is the first known African American to have his writing published in the United States of America in 1760. Hammon was born into slavery and remained a slave in the Llyod family household for the remainder of his life. He published several poems and prose pieces, all of which are imbued with his deep Calvinistic religious convictions. Although he has been “[g]enerally neglected by literary and historical scholarship, Hammon's poetry and essays nevertheless can shed light on how black people, both enslaved and free, entered discussions concerning their destinies as human subjects in British America.”[1]

Hammon address.jpg


Jupiter Hammon was born on October 17th, 1711. He was born into slavery in Henry Lloyd's household and his birthdate is recorded at the back of a ledger belonging to Lloyd.[2] The ledger records the newborn slave's name as "Jupiter."[3] This name appears to derive from a classical origin. It was not uncommon for masters to use classical names in reference to their slaves. Documentation in Carolina history reveals that the earlier the time period, the more likely masters would denominate their slaves with classical names.[4] The name “Jupiter Hammon” is a combination of the Roman god, Jupiter, and a form of the Egyptian god, Ammon.[5] Jupiter was the Roman king of gods, similar to Zeus in Greek mythology. Ammon was often combined with such figures to create gods known as “Zeus-Ammon” or “Jupiter-Hammon."[6] A form of the name “Jupiter-Hammon” was first recorded in Vergil’s Aeneid. It is documented that Henry Lloyd owned a copy of the Aeneid. Thus, Lloyd was likely familiar with the classical reference when he gave the name, Jupiter Hammon, to his newborn slave.[7]

Hammon lived and died as a slave in the Lloyd family; after Henry he was owned by "Joseph Lloyd and later, Joseph's grandson John". [8] Little is known about Jupiter Hammon's early life except that he was raised on the Lloyd estate on Long Island's North Shore and that his education along with that of the other children, such as it was, was supplied on the estate by the Lloyd family. Exactly what his duties were is unclear and the only statement we have from him on the subject is that he was "able to do almost any kind of business" but as he was able to purchase a Bible from his master in May 1733 he may have had the opportunity to earn some small independent income.[9] [10]

His first published work was "An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries: Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd, of Queen's Village, on Long Island, the 25th of December, 1760." and was published early in 1761 when Hammon was already 50 years old. In 1763, upon the death of Henry Lloyd, Hammon "became the property of Joseph Lloyd, an American patriot" and moved with him and his other slaves to Connecticut to escape the British army.[11]

Over the next twenty six years Jupiter wrote and published at least eight pieces both in Hartford during the war and in New York afterward. "An Address to the Negroes, In The State of New-York," which was probably his last piece, was published in 1787. [12] The exact date and place of Jupiter Hammon's death are unknown; however, it is "probable that he died at Lloyd Neck" and was buried in the plots reserved for slaves there some time between 1790 and 1806. Attempts to discover more specific information have thus far been unsuccessful. [13]


Jupiter Hammon is the first "Negro" that we have evidence of writing and publishing poetry in Early America.[14] His poetry was largely centered around themes of Christian religion, death, and salvation, and often directly referenced the bible in verse. [15] "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries" (1760) is thought to be his first published poem, with "An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley" (1778), "A Poem for Children with Thoughts on Death" (1782) following, all published when Hammon lived in Hartford, Connecticut. Hammon also published a dialogue titled "The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant" while he was in Hartford- this work is without a known date. At the time Hammon lived there, Hartford was considered to be the "literary capital of America," and several Hammon scholars believ that the local-literary elite of Hartford would have criticized Hammon's works as unstructured and repetitive.[16] [17] Through today's lenses, his works have taken on new meaning, as we place "high value on the artlessness of folk poetry" in today's world much more than they did in Hammon's. [18]

"An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries" (1760)

"An Evening Thought" is Hammon's first published work, and was discovered by Oscar Wegelin in 1915[19]. As is implied by the title, Christian Salvation is a major theme running through this poem. Within this poem's 88 lines of verse, the word Salvation appears 23 times. This repetitiveness is something that Hammon's contemporaries may have criticized him for. [20] Perhaps more interesting than his strong focus on the Salvation however, is the nuance with which Hammon discusses Salvation. For example, he states that Salvation is "now to everyone who loves his holy Word," and asks for god's "Grace to every Nation," while repeatedly using the pronouns "we" "our" "us"- all of these textual features imply a communal vision of Salvation that is open to all. There is also a focus in the poem on achieving Salvation as the end to a rough struggle. One line of the poem states "Ye shall not cry in vain," while in another line hunger is linked with sin and the word "tender" is connected to Salvation. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the poem is when Hammon discusses Jesus' fate (to give his life's blood so that the world could be redeemed) as a form of slavery and in so doing, draws a connection between the suffering of slaves and the suffering of Jesus and implies a kind of holiness that comes with servitude.

  "Dear Jesus by thy precious Blood,
  The World Redemption have:
  Salvation now comes from the Lord,
  He being thy captive slave." [21]

"A Poem for Children with Thoughts on Death" (1782)

This poem, published in Hartford, Connecticut on January 1, 1782 alongside Hammon's pamphlet A Winter Piece, urges "children" to "seek the living God" because life is short and full of uncertainty, and one never knows when he or she will "turn to their native dust" [22]. The poem is seemingly simple; Hammon uses straightforward language to encourage "ye young and thoughtless youth" to leave their sinful ways and seek salvation in Christ, that they might gain eternal life and "seek the joys of Heaven" upon death [23] . However, examination of the poem's historical, religious, and social contexts provides richer meaning than a twenty-first century reader might otherwise initially observe.

    "Little children they may die,
       Turn to their native dust,
     Their souls shall leap beyond the skies,
       And live among the just" [24]

Historical and Social Context

  • Slaves as 'Children' - “A Poem for Children with Thoughts on Death” goes beyond a simple address to youth, acting also as Hammon’s attempt to address larger paternal/child binaries found between God and his servants, and Masters and their slaves. Hammon believes all men are, as written in the bible, children of God through faith.[25] In this way, slaves are assimilated into the identity of God’s children, and given an awareness of collective, equal unity. In Hammon’s opinion, those who remain unconverted are “sick children”, or individuals who do not yet know God.[26] This sense of identity challenged hierarchical notions found in Master/Slave relationships, in which slaves were subservient and often dehumanized. Examples of this dehumanization include attempts to “consign [slaves] to a perpetual childhood as unsocialized people” by replacing traditional slaves names with names analogous to barnyard animals.[27] However, Hammon’s implied strength of identification as God’s children countered his audience’s sense “of being ‘poor’ and despised”, and positively redefined slaves as “children”.[28]
  • The Theme of Death - Whether one takes a literal or symbolic interpretation of the poem's intended audience (or both), the fact remains that death was a reality for Americans of European and African descent, alike. The mortality rate for infants of European descent in Colonial America was as high as 30% and approximately only 2/3 of children survived past age 10. [29] Samuel Sewall's diary gives a bleak illustration of the prominence of death, especially among children: his records show that half of his fourteen children died before age two, and he outlived all but three of his surviving children. [30] Mortality rates for infants and children of African descent were roughly twice as high as those for European American children; that is, until a child reached age nine, at which point the rate gradually decreased to approach almost the same rate for European Americans by age twenty-four. [31] Death remains a common theme in artistic and literary works, but Hammon's warning to the "youth" to "remember...the time is short" would have been even more poignant for his contemporaries in the late eighteenth century. [32]
  • Social Message - Hammon’s continued emphasis on the potential for life after death stresses to his audience that the suffering of their captivity was balanced against the promise of a fairer world in Heaven.[33] Christianity offered a refuge for children, or, more broadly, the children of God. Hammon encouraged slaves to recognize the condition of their life and enslavement, while highlighting what waited for them upon death:
Little children they may die,

Turn to their native dust,

Their souls shall leap beyond the skies,

And live among the just.[34]

Subsequently, Christianity became “a state of being and a state of mind where a covenant could be enacted and exacted”.[35] Hammon’s construction of Christianity provides hope of freedom in the afterlife, but does not encourage slaves to defy their established masters. Hammon advocated that his audience should be faithful to God, while continuing to be obedient to their masters.[36] The focus should be on seeking the living God, and understanding the truth of scripture to find salvation upon death.[37]

Poetic Influence

As an educated slave, Hammon would have been given access to literary texts which would have influenced his own work. It was not unusual for African American authors to read and emulate white writers from the Colonial period through the nineteenth century.[38] Such texts would have helped provide the basis of Hammon’s poetic formulation. Exposure to religious text and hymns would have also influenced Hammon’s stylistic and rhetoric choices. There is a specific cadence to this poem, as well as a conscious decision about rhetoric. Hammon rhetorically utilizes the event of death to highlight the potential joy of the afterlife if one has been saved, a theme found continuously throughout the Bible:

Like little worms they turn and crawl,

and gasp for every breath.

The blessed Jesus sends his call,

and takes them to his rest.[39]

While this poem is often thematically repetitious, it is not difficult to imagine how Hammon’s message could generate responses when recited to an audience.[40] It is Hammon’s deliberate melding of style, literary influence, and rhetoric that constructs his message to “the children”.

Biblical Context

Hammon addresses his poem to "children." Beyond a literal interpretation, this reference likely imitates Pauline literature--the apostle Paul commonly referred affectionately to those in his spiritual care as children: in Galatians 4:19 he calls the recipients of his letter "my dear children," [41] and in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 he likens himself and his fellow evangelists to "young children among you". [42] Hammon, like his ancient antecedent, clearly views himself - and rightly so - as a spiritual authority whose calling it is to proselytize his fellow man. Like Paul, Hammon uses familial and kinship terms both as rhetorical devices and to describe the way in which he views his relationship to his audience.

A more obvious source to speak of children in relation to spiritual matters - one whom both Paul and Hammon would have desired to imitate - was Jesus. Jesus' most famous words concerning children, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (Matthew 19:14),[43] sounds much like the first stanza in "A Poem for Children with Thoughts on Death": "O Ye young and thoughtless youth/Come seek the living God." [44] The reoccurring New Testament theme of Christians as holding the holy position of children of God no doubt also influenced Hammon's choice of diction; the term would have applied to anyone accepting God's grace, regardless of demographic.

"An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly" (1778)

The poem is comprised of twenty-one stanzas, each made up of four lines and written in a loose ABAB rhyme scheme. At the end of each stanza is a Bible verse, mainly from the Old Testament, which shows Hammon’s deep piety and is meant to be a supplement to the poem. In the poem, Hammon addresses Phillis Wheatley, a fellow African American poet many years his junior, and says that she should be thankful for “God’s tender mercy” that brought her “from distant shore/ To learn His holy word” [45]. God’s mercy is a recurring theme throughout the poem; Hammon uses variations of the word “mercy” seven times throughout the poem. Hammon asks Wheatley to “seek for heaven’s joys/ Where we do hope to meet,” because he hopes to see her one day in Heaven [46]. Hammon says the human body is only temporary, but the soul is immortal; the “soul will waft away” whenever they die, leaving “its cottage made of clay.” So during their time on earth they should give “united praises… incessantly” to the Lord, as he is their redemption [47].

Historical and Social Context

Hammon wrote the poem in 1778 as a response to Phillis Wheatley’s ‘’Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’’, which has been published five years earlier. Wheatley was four decades younger than Hammon and had survived the journey across the Middle Passage when she was only a small child. This age difference created a schism in their political and religious beliefs; though both were Christians, Hammon was much more conservative than Wheatley. Because of this, the poem was also response to her religious and political views, especially those regarding the American Revolution, gently urging her to be less radical. Wheatley believed in universal republicanism and used her poetry to argue against slavery and it spoke not just for her, but for other Africans forced to be slaves. She also wanted the separation between civil and religious exercises to dissolve, as she believed they were completely intertwined. Hammon, unlike Wheatley, did not want to involve himself in the American Revolution, which he believed was anti-Christian. This is why he advises "Dear Phillis [to] seek for heaven's joys/ where we do hope to meet,” in his poem for her, as Hammon’s Calvinist views caused him to eschew anything that “distracted from contemplation of a heavenly afterlife.” Hammon’s poetic response to Wheatley was the beginning of a new standard in both North American and African American literary history, as it shows two poets with different views in dialogue with each other, attempting the “negotiation of the ideals regarding the proper relationship between God and society.” Both Hammon and Wheatley's writings initiated a dialogue about slavery and morality in both America and Europe; while Hammon died a slave, Wheatley was eventually freed, with her internationally recognized work being a large reason for that. Though the poets had different political views, their works contributed to the argument against slavery, creating a legacy that goes far beyond their literary works. [48]

"The Kind Master and Dutiful Servant"

"The Kind Master and Dutiful Servant" is a poetic dialogue consisting of thirty four-line stanzas, most of which alternate between two speakers, the Master and the Servant. In the first eight stanzas of the poem, the Master exhorts the Servant four times to follow him, claiming it is God's will that servants follow their masters, and that servants who do so will be "blest." Each time, the Servant responds that he/she will follow the Master:

 Dear Master, I will follow thee,
 According to thy word,
 And pray that God may be with me,
 And save thee in the Lord.[49] 

It is clear throughout this section of the dialogue (particularly in lines such as, "And save thee in the Lord") that the Servant does not condemn the Master for owning slaves, but views the master/servant relationship as one that can help both members receive the grace of salvation.

In stanzas 9-15, the dialogue begins to examine the relationship between God and humankind. Rather than referring to God as "the Lord," as the Master does in previous stanzas, both the Master and the Servant refer to God in more inclusive language, such as "our King," implying that servants and masters are on an equal plane in concern to their relationships with God. This is further emphasized when the Master tells the Servant that God "governs all both high and low," and when he says, "we are sinners all."[50]

The poem changes subject a second time at the heading, entitled, "A Line on the present war," which refers to the American Revolution. Here, the Servant and Master are in agreement that during this "time of great distress" they should pray for happiness and peace for all nations. The Master, speaking of the war, also states, "This is the work of God's own hand," a statement which coincides with an argument Hammon poses in "An Evening's Improvement," namely, that God has allowed the American Revolution to occur so that people, in their affliction, seek His mercy: "for it may be that when the tender mercies of God will not allure us, afflictions may drive us to the divine fountain."[51][52]

The dialogue concludes with a seven-stanza exhortation spoken by the Servant, which urges that people should attend to the concerns of Heaven rather than those of temporal existence, and that only God can grant peace to the world.[53]

Historical and Social Context

The poem was first printed in Hartford, Connecticut, probably by Hudson & Goodwin, as an addition to the prose piece, "An Evening's Improvement."[54] The publication date of the two works is unknown, but, due to contextual references, such as a heading in the poem, entitled, "A Line on the present war," it is presumed that they were published some time during the American Revolution.[55][56]

The American Revolution may be considered the “central political event of Hammon’s experience.” [57][58] When the Lloyd family found themselves divided by political ideologies, Hammon was moved from his comfortable, stable life in Long Island to Connecticut. [59] Hammon viewed the American Revolution as a “cruel and unnatural war” and did not agree with his fellow “Afro-Americans’” involvement in the British-Americans’ affair. [60][61] Furthermore, Hammon believed that involvement in such a war was sinful and that God was passing his judgement upon those who became involved [62] Following the presumption that both “An Evening’s Improvement” and “The Kind Master and Dutiful Servant” were written and published during the Revolutionary War, one can more accurately interpret Hammon’s call for moral reformation within the present poem. It is important to note the three divisions that occur within the poem and how each reflects Hammon's wartime views: 1) The master’s obligation to bring their servants to the Lord, 2) The servant’s reflection on current times and his/her call to the master, and 3) Hammon’s personal address to the reader.

The first fifteen stanzas call for the servant to follow their masters:

 Come my servant, follow me,
 According to thy place;
 And surely God will be with thee,
 And send thee heav’nly grace. [63]

If one assumes that the poem, “The Kind Master and Dutiful Servant,” was indeed published close to the same time as “An Evening’s Improvement,” then the poem may be seen as a “[nationalistic] response to the social experience of blacks in the Revolutionary period." [64] During this time in American history, the slave population had grown immensely, as had the criminal reports of “drunkenness, sexual crime, theft, and violence” that occurred amongst them. [65] Many historians have “[noted] the failure of many masters to Christianize blacks and the relatively few blacks who converted” during this turbulent time. [66] Therefore, the first fifteen stanzas of Hammon’s poem may be seen as reflective upon the duty of the master to save his slaves through religious conversion.

Unlike the first portion of the poem, which begins with the master addressing the servant, the second portion of the poem begins with both a note on current affairs and the servant calling out to his master:

 A Line on the present war.
 Dear Master now it is a time,
 A time of great distress;
 We’ll follow after things divine,
 And pray for happiness.[67]

There are two important changes that Hammon makes at this point within his poem. First, the stanza recorded above directly follows the line: “A Line on the present war.”[68] By interjecting this line within the poem, Hammon draws a line that distinguishes the second portion of the poem from the first. “A Line on the present war” not only serves as a literal line that divides the poem, but also a figurative line that implicates the change in responsibility from master to servant based on the current events of the war. Here, the responsibility falls to the servant to remind his master to “follow after things divine, and pray for happiness.”[69] Within this portion of the poem, Hammon “show[s] how the African nation can participate in the moral transformation of America,” by redirecting their masters’ current focus on war back to the salvation of Christ.[70] It is important to remember that Hammon was openly against his fellow Afro-Americans' involvement in the Revolutionary War. It make sense that now, after the first portion of the poem represents master's responsibly to convert his slaves to Christianity, Hammon places the responsibility for the servant/slave's salvation into the hands of the slave, themselves. By doing so, Hammon stresses the importance of the African identity within the American identity as a whole. In doing so, Hammon shows the slaves that, while they are subservient to their British-American masters, the are independently responsible for their own salvation.[71]

The third and final portion of the poem begins at stanza twenty-four:

 Thus the Dialogue shall end,
 Strive to obey the word;
 When ev’ry Nation acts like friends,
 Shall be the sons of God.[72]

After bringing the master's focus back onto God, Hammon allows the servant, again, to take control of the poem and, here, end the dialogue betwixt the two. This stresses that the promise of salvation lies within the everyone's choice to follow the word of God, only then will the war end. Within the final third of his poem, Hammon expresses his belief that "You cannot to your God attend, / And serve the God of Mammon. . . . 'Tis God alone can give us peace; / It's not the pow'r of man: / When virtuous pow'r shall increase, / 'Twill beautify the land."[73]


Jupiter Hammon's known prose writing consists of three works originally published as pamphlets, A Winter Piece (1782), An Evening's Improvement (date unknown), and An Address to the Negroes of the State of New-York (1787). Additionally, there is a work, presumably a prose piece, entitled An Essay on the Ten Virgins (1779), of which no copy has been located. The first two works, A Winter Piece and An Evening's Improvement, were intended as sermons,[74] while the last text, An Address to the Negroes of the State of New-York is still heavily religious, but slightly more political than Hammon's other works.

A Winter Piece (1782)

Jupiter Hammon published his first work of prose, “A Winter Piece: Being a Serious Exhortation With a Call to the Unconverted: and a Short Contemplation on the Death of Jesus Christ” in 1782. “A Winter Piece” reads as a discourse on salvation and virtuous living similar to an “evangelical homily”[75]. Throughout the prose piece, Hammon addresses “my brethren” and reveals that this group consists of those who are enslaved.[76]

Hammon begins by quoting Matthew 11:28 and places emphasis on the phrase “ye that labour and are heavy laden.”[77] Hammon posits to make two points concerning this scripture. The first point emphasizes the need for penitent hearts to come to Christ with a sense of their “unworthiness."[78] Hammon suggests that those longing for salvation must first come to Christ “poor in spirit."[79] Hammon’s first lesson on humility leads to his second point: the maintenance of virtue. On this point, Hammon insists that the “poor in spirit” should also be “poor in heart."[80] He explains that Christians should seek to live virtuous, pure lives that please God. Later in the text, Hammon invites his brethren to “come without money and without price."[81] This continual insistence upon poverty suggests that Hammon is appealing to the enslaved by showing them that they are the perfect candidates for salvation, as they already fit all of its necessary requirements.

Throughout the text, Hammon addresses the idea of freedom, all the while expressing gratitude to white masters. Hammon reveals that he wishes that young black slaves would obtain their freedom, but he insists that this type of freedom is “temporal” and not in the will of God for his own life.[82] Furthermore, Hammon extends appreciation for birth in a “Christian land” and in a “Christian family."[83] He never condemns masters for forcing their servants into slavery, but proposes that slaves should continue on in slavery, as God has willed, and allow God to be their masters’ judge.[84] Hammon concludes “A Winter Piece” with a final call to salvation and the notion that slaves should not “murmur at the hand of Divine Providence” and accept their lot in life just as Christ did on his road to Calvary.[85]

Critical Interpretation

Throughout the text, Hammon explicitly addresses his African-American “brethren."[86] By identifying those enslaved as a group, Hammon suggests that they compose a community. Thus, “A Winter Piece” reveals Hammon’s assertion that humility acts as the civic virtue that will lay the foundation for a godly community.[87] Indeed, Hammon’s exhortations on humility and virtue serve as “a glaring contradiction to what the hegemony of slavery intended for Africans."[88] In “A Winter Piece,” Hammon ultimately suggests that the enslaved must join together to form a godly, virtuous community before freedom is achieved.

Biblical Imagery

While Hammon directly quotes Matthew 11:28 as the basis of his prose in “A Winter Piece,” the verse indirectly leads into Matthew 11:29 which states, “Take my yoke upon you.”[89] While this scripture describes a metaphorical acceptance of oppression rather than blatant acceptance of slavery, it is worth noting that Hammon excludes the idea of bearing the yoke set upon his brethren.

Hammon also references biblical characters in "A Winter's Piece" who were, at least at one point in their lives, lowly and destitute before they rose to a higher state. These references include the Samaritan woman who considered a foreigner to the Jews,[90]King David who was once a shepherd boy,[91] the prodigal son,[92] and a lowly publican, or tax collector.[93]

"An Evening's Improvement" (1783)

Publication Details and Intended Audience

Another sermon that Hammon wrote was "An Evening’s Improvement" (1783); this piece was printed in Hartford, Connecticut, “The Literary Capital of America” at that time. [94] Originally, the sermon was accompanied by the poem “A Dialogue Entitled The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant.” Well-versed in Calvinist traditions, Hammon delivered this sermon for the spiritual benefit of his “brethren.”[95] What is more, Hammon’s “superiors” requested that he compose this sermon for “friends,” individuals who were likely “slaves and other blacks,” as it is “unlikely that Hammon would have been allowed to exhort a congregation of Hartford, Connecticut, elites.”[96]

Structure of the Sermon

Hammon structures his sermon around five distinct goals, which he outlines in his introduction:

  1. to “shew the necessity of beholding the Lamb of God in the sense of the text,”
  2. to “endeavor to show when we are said to behold the Son of God in the sense of the text,”
  3. to “shew when we may be said not to behold the Lamb of God as we should,”
  4. to “shew how far we may be mistaken in beholding the Lamb of God,” and
  5. to “endeavor to rectify these mistakes.”[97]

He begins by quoting John I.29, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.”[98] It is this instructive that Hammon is primarily concerned with explaining, in greater detail, to his audience of fellow slaves. He encourages them to “behold,” or to see and contemplate Christ, “in the sense of the text” – which he defines as “in a spiritual manner” – with a sense of their own unworthiness, for Christ alone may forgive sins and touch man with the holy spirit.[99] This emphasis on coming to “the Lamb of God… weary and heavy laden with our sin,” echoes the Calvinist belief in humanity’s inherent depravity, as a result of the fall of Adam. [100]

In addition to penitence and humility, Hammon advocates a life lived in service to God, without focus on “the pleasures of this life,” as well as a worship with open, receptive hearts. [101] He cautions his audience not to “flatter” themselves, thinking that they are beholding the Lamb of God simply by “[living] in a Christian land” and “[attending] to divine service.” He reminds them that to truly behold Christ, “there must be a saving change wrought in our hearts.”[102]

Connecting with His Congregation

In addition to referring to his audience as his “brethren,” Hammon refers to his congregration as his “fellow servants” and “Africans.“ Throughout the sermon, Hammon repeatedly uses the pronouns “we” and “us” when he preaches. He tends not to alienate his audience by prioritizing neither his nor his "brethren's" spiritual needs as different from his own. In fact, he positions himself as a fellow sinner when he asks, “And now my dear brethren, have we repented of our sins?” [103]Since the repetition of certain words can “aid memory,” [104] perhaps the repetition of “brethren” and first-person plural pronouns served as a means of helping the congregation remember that the message of the gospel of Christ is intended not just for Hammon, but for the many gathered to experience "An Evening’s Improvement."

Establishment of Ministerial Ethos

Although Hammon authored several poems and prose pieces, his educational opportunities were limited as a result of his status as a slave. Clearly Hammon recognizes his own educational limitations, and he mentions that this lacking will not hinder his sharing with others the way to salvation through Christ. Hammon anticipates that his credibility will be questioned, points to himself, and exclaims: “Others may object and say, what can we expect from an unlearned Ethiopian?” [105] In his response to this question, Hammon provides a detailed discussion about the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. He includes specific chapter and verse references from the Gospel of John, an act which supports his position as a well-informed Christian.

Thematic Elements

This sermon, one of Hammon’s more substantial pieces of prose, has been described as “rhapsodic and incoherent” [106] In spite of the sermon’s supposed stylistic failings, "An Evening’s Improvement" does reflect a certain thematic consistency in the way Hammon uses biblical references to fear. As slaves, Hammon and his fellow congregants would have likely shared similar fears. However, fear is not merely an element that Hammon uses to bond with his fellow slaves. Fear strongly informs his Calvinist beliefs [107] As an example, he preaches that “we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling” [108] In another instance, Hammon refers to Psalms 11:6 when he pairs fear with the theme of wickedness, another word he often repeats in this sermon: "Upon the wicked he shall rain showers of fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest” [109]

Depiction of Christ

Despite the seemingly harsh belief in humanity’s inherent “darkness,” Hammon depicts Christ as a merciful being that calls “to us in the most tender and compassionate manner.”[110] This is underscored by his repeated use of the title “Lamb of God,” which calls attention to Christ’s self-sacrifice and suffering for the sins of humanity (as the proverbial “sacrificial lamb”). While Hammon decidedly emphasizes the depravity and unworthiness of man, asking “Have we not neglected to attend divine service? Or if we have… have we been sincere?” [111] and later “Have we not been going astray like lost sheep?”[112], he also highlights the significance of Christ’s burden and crucifixion for slaves in particular, who Hammon argues must, like Christ, “take up our cross,” “‘forgive them that trespass against us,’” and be “thankful for mercies bestowed . . . humbled by affliction.” [113] Hammon draws a direct parallel between the suffering of Christ and that of slaves. In this way, he portrays the burden of slavery as divinely ordained sacrifice and the inherent suffering involved in the institution as an opportunity for slaves to achieve salvation – if they live their lives in active service of God and remain humbled by their suffering.

The American Revolution

Hammon is gravely concerned that British-Americans have brought war on themselves because they have not been “thankful for mercies bestowed” upon them by God, nor have they been “humbled by afflictions.” [114] Hammon argues that God has “permit(ed) a cruel and unnatural war to be commenced,” and thus the current war is a “judgment” by God against the participating parties of the war. [115] Hammon finds that since God’s mercies have not brought British-Americans closer to God, then God’s purpose in allowing the war is so that British-Americans will be brought to fear God through their current “afflictions.” [116] Hammon believes that when entire nations behold the Lamb of God, “nations shall learn war no more,” as God will not need to punish sinful humans. [117]

Slaves were compelled to join the war through promises of freedom from both the British and American armies.[118] In this piece of prose, Hammon is concerned that his brethren, fellow African slaves, will not be selected to enter heaven, as they could die on the battlefield as a result of their sins and, paradoxically, before they repent of their sins: “how many hundreds of our nation and how many thousands of other nations have been sent out of time into a never ending eternity, by the force of the cannon and by the point of the sword.” [119] For Hammon, if an African slave dies on the battlefield, then he can never enter heaven, as he is engaging in an act of sinful disobedience at the time of death. If Hammon wishes to see his brethren enter the kingdom of heaven, then, dogmatically speaking, he has to argue against the war and all temporal concerns (freedom from slavery) that may have compelled African slaves to join either army.

Critical Interpretation

Hammon’s work has been read alternately as anti-slavery, pro-slavery, and unconcerned with slavery as a civil issue.[120] Others have suggested that Hammon’s conservatism is “a veneer used to protect himself form reprisal or punishment by the pro-slavery establishment.”[121] In this sermon, Hammon touches on slavery in a primarily spiritual context, perhaps in an attempt to offer comfort to slaves by portraying the burden of earthly bondage as a path to spiritual freedom. Though the spirituality put forth in “An Evening’s Improvement” ostensibly supports the status quo of slavery, this text also demonstrates Hammon’s engagement with the conversations about abolition, slavery, and religion happening among Christian slaves.[122]

An Address to the Negroes of the State of New-York (1787)

“An Address to the Negros of the State of New York” was first presented to the African Society in New York City on September 24, 1786 and later published in New York in 1787. The address was then reprinted by a Philadelphia abolitionist society and then reprinted again as a third edition after Hammon's death. In the address, Hammon begins by explaining to his intended audience, fellow slaves in New York, that he wants to give them the “dying advice, of an old man, who wishes your best good in this world, and in the world to come”[123] His advice to fellow slaves is divided in two parts. The first part, entitled “Respecting obedience to masters,” acknowledges that white men may not have any right to make them slaves, however, while they are slaves they it is their duty to obey their masters “in all their lawful commands, and mind them unless we are bid to do that which we know to be sin or forbidden in God’s word” [124]. Hammon appeals to his audience, who may be resistant to this advice, by first showing how, Biblically, God has commanded them to be obedient slaves. Hammon also appeals to his audience by explaining “if a servant strives to please his master and studies and takes pains to do it, I believe there are but few masters who would use such a servant cruelly” [125]. Hammon, for the rest of this first section, gives practical advice to slaves if their masters are cruel, despite their obedience.

Hammon’s second section, entitled “The particular I would mention, is honesty and faithfulness,” continues to encourage slaves to be obedient to their masters by asking them to be more honest and faithful. Hammon discourages stealing, idleness, and profaneness, while encouraging readers to devote their lives to God. He also encourages slaves to learn to read in order to be able to read the Bible, which, unlike all other books (which Hammon thinks are worthless,) will tell “you how you may escape misery, and be happy for ever” through God [126] Hammon’s essay ends with advice for the free black population, which he encourages to use their freedom to promote Christianity. Although the work is more political than some of Hammon's works, the address is heavily religious, like Hammon's other essays and poetry.

Abolition Connection

While much of Hammon's argument in the address is devoted to pacifism and obedience from the African American slave community, there are hints of Hammon's belief in freedom and abolition. It would seem that Hammon questions whether slavery is right in the eyes of God when he writes, "Now whether it is right, and lawful, in the sight of God, for them to make slaves of us or not..."[127] While some scholars have taken this as definite proof that Hammon did not believe slavery was just,[128] others have been more cautious in assigning Hammon such radical views.[129] Hammon further hints at equality, at least in Heaven if not on Earth, when he writes that "[t]he same God will judge both them and us" [130] of both slaves and their owners. Perhaps Hammon's most powerful remarks on freedom come when he conceded that "liberty is a great thing, and worth seeking for, if we can get it honestly; and by our good conduct prevail on our masters to set us free."[131] While Hammon is not calling for revolt and is advising pacifism on the part of the slaves, he is, in fact, asserting that freedom would be a good thing for the slaves. He follows this statement immediately with a disclaimer: "I do not wish to be free, yet I should be glad if others, especially the young Negroes, were to be free."[132] While Hammon does not desire freedom for himself, he does acknowledge that it might be a good thing for the younger generation. He wonders if the older slaves would be capable of caring for themselves if free, however. Hammon even suggests that one knows liberty is a great thing based on observing white people during the revolution. There is a hint of irony in the connection between white Americans fighting for their independence while denying it to their slaves. Hammon even goes so far as to write, "I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor blacks, and to pity us."[133] While the predominant message of Hammon's address to his fellow slaves may be focused on leading a religious and dutiful life, he does advocate the idea of freedom. It is unsurprising, then, that Hammon's address was reprinted by the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.[134]

Laws of New York

The year after Hammon was born the "Act for preventing suppressing and punishing the Conspiracy and Insurrection of Negroes and other Slaves" was passed in the state of New York. This law had many functions: the least of which was an attempt to protect non-slaveholders and others from having the responsibility of caring for elderly slaves who were freed and could not support themselves. [135] Jupiter Hammon effectively supports this law in his "Address" saying “for my part I do not wish to be free, yet I should be glad if others, especially the young Negroes, were to be free; for many of us who are grown up slaves, and have always had masters to take care of us, should hardly know how to take care of ourselves; and it may be more for our own comfort to remain as we are.” [136]

Critical Interpretation

Hammon’s address is most often read as an anti-slavery text, although some modern scholars are examining other themes in the address. After Hammon’s address was printed in New York in 1787, the address was reprinted by the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, indicating that Hammon’s contemporaries viewed his address primarily as an anti-slavery text. Many modern scholars, as well, tend to focus on the abolitionist message in the text, however, other critics have started to look at Hammon’s religious views in the address. For example, Hammon scholar, Dr. Cedrick May, argues that the address “marks the height of Hammon’s theological development....and gives insight into how many black Christians practiced in the context of difficult religious and political circumstances.” [137]Another critic, poet George Wallace, similarly argues that Hammon’s address indicates Hammon’s belief that “religious doctrine of his day offered comfort and solace to a people who had no hope of comfort.” [138] Although Hammon's address has typically been interpreted as an anti-slavery text, by examining other aspects and themes in Hammon's work, critics are adding to the much needed scholarship of Hammon’s works.

Unpublished Work

“An Essay on Slavery, with Submission to Divine Providence, Knowing That God Rules over All Things"

“An Essay on Slavery” is an unpublished 24-stanza poem written in Hammon’s hand and dated November 10, 1786. The handwritten poem was discovered in 2013 in the archives of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University [139] by Julie McCown, a PhD student studying under Dr. Cedrick May at University of Texas Arlington [140], and is the only known working draft of any of Hammon’s writings. The poem’s date suggests that it was written at the same time as An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York, and Hammon may have intended the poem to be published in tandem with the essay. [141]

Our forefathers came from africa

tost over the raging main to a Christian shore there for to stay

and not return again.
Dark and dismal was the Day

When slavery began All humble thoughts were put away

Then slaves were made by Man.
When God doth please for to permit

That slavery should be It is our duty to submit

Till Christ shall make us free

Unlike any of Hammon’s other works, this poem makes a direct reference to the Middle Passage, which further indicates the influence of Phyllis Wheatley’s writings on his own (see Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America”). [142] In the third stanza, Hammon reiterates the message of An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York, stating “It is our duty to submit/Till Christ shall make us free,” but explicitly defines the institution of slavery in the previous stanza as a creation of man rather than an edict of God, stating “slaves were made by man.” [143]

“An Essay on Slavery” is notable as it marks a concrete shift in Hammon’s perception of slavery. According to Dr. May, Hammon was “defining slavery as sin for the first time . . . defying the idea that you can have slavery and be Christian at the same time." [144] May suggests that Hammon’s masters might have withheld this poem from the public in order to avoid controversy, which may explain why the poem remain undiscovered for so long. [145]


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