- Duncan F. Faherty
Hammon, Jupiter (11 October 1711–?), poet and preacher, was born on the estate of Henry Lloyd on Long Island, New York, most probably the son of Lloyd’s slaves Opium, renowned for his frequent escape attempts, and Rose. Few records remain from Hammon’s early life, though correspondence of the Lloyd family indicates that in 1730 he suffered from a near-fatal case of gout. He was educated by Nehemiah Bull, a Harvard graduate, and Daniel Denton, a British missionary, on the Lloyd manor. Except for a brief period during the revolutionary war, when Joseph Lloyd removed the family to Hartford, Connecticut, Hammon lived his entire life on Long Island, in the Huntington area, serving the Lloyds as clerk and bookkeeper. There is no surviving indication that Hammon either married or had children. The precise date of his death and the location of his grave remain unknown, although it is known that he was alive in 1790 and had died by 1806.
Hammon is best known for his skill as a poet and preacher. Early in the spiritual Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s he was converted to a Wesleyan Christianity, and his poems and sermons reflect a Calvinist theology. Within the framework of these religious doctrines Hammon crafted a body of writing that critically investigates slavery. His first published poem, “An Evening Thought,” appeared as a broadside on Christmas Day 1760. Imbedded within the religious exhortation is a subtle apocalyptic critique of slavery in which the narrator prays that Christ will free all men from imprisonment:
Now is the Day, excepted Time;The Day of Salvation;Increase your Faith, do not repine:Awake ye every Nation.
The poem ends by calling on Jesus to “Salvation give” and to bring equality to all: “Let us with Angels share.” Hammon couples a protest against earthly injustice with his religious conviction that all men are enslaved by sin.
Hammon’s next publication, “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley,” appeared in Hartford on 4 August 1778. The language of the poem offers Phillis Wheatley, then the most prominent African in America, spiritual—and thereby literary—advice. From the position of elder statesman Hammon attempts to correct what he sees as the pagan influences in Wheatley’s verse:
Thou hast left the heathen shore;Thro’ mercy of the Lord,Among the heathen live no more,Come magnify thy God.Psalm 34:1–3.
Typical of eighteenth-century American poetry, and primarily influenced by Michael Wigglesworth, Hammon’s verse portrays America as a site for spiritual salvation since it is free of the corruption of the Old World. The poem seizes on biblical passages in order to fashion an argument that he hopes will convince Wheatley to write more religious verse. Hammon’s next piece, An Essay on the Ten Virgins, advertised for sale in Hartford in 1779, is now lost.
Hammon exhorts his “brethren” to confess their sins and thus receive eternal salvation in his 1782 sermon Winter Piece. Its call to repentance and the proclamation of man’s inherent sinfulness is consistent with other sermons of this era. Another prose essay, An Evening’s Improvement, was printed in Hartford in 1783, and in it Hammon continues his protest against the institution of slavery. Published along with the sermon is Hammon’s greatest poem, “A Dialogue, Entitled, the Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant,” wherein he directly questions the unequal relationship between slave and master by emphasizing that before God, only sin divides Man:
MasterMy Servant we must all appear,And follow then our King;For sure he’ll stand where sinners are,To take true converts in.ServantDear master, now if Jesus calls,And sends his summons in;We’ll follow saints and angles all,And come unto our King.
The end of the poem disrupts the dialogue structure as the voice of the servant blends into that of the poet’s. In the last seven stanzas Hammon instructs all in how to attain peace and harmony:
Believe me now my Christian friends,Believe your friend call’d Hammon:You cannot to your God attend,And serve the God of Mammon.
Here Hammon argues that materialism (Mammon), a code for economic slavery, prohibits salvation because it leads an individual away from religious contemplation.
Hammon’s final and most widely read piece, An Address to the Negroes in the State of New-York, was first printed in 1787 and then republished by the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting Abolition in 1806. In it Hammon speaks most directly against slavery. Within the body of his address Hammon argues that young African Americans should pursue their freedom even though he, at age seventy-six, does not want to be set free. Hammon calls for gradual emancipation: “Now I acknowledge 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.”
Hammon argues that earthly freedom is subordinate to spiritual salvation and that the need to be born again in the spirit of Christ overpowers all else, for in death “there are but two places where all go … white and black, rich and poor; those places are Heaven and Hell.” Eternal judgment is what ultimately matters; thus Hammon urges his fellow African Americans, in their pursuit of freedom, to seek forgiveness through repentance and to place spiritual salvation above mortal concerns.
Hammon remained unknown from the early nineteenth century until 1915, when literary critic Oscar Wegelin, who rediscovered Hammon in 1904, published the first biographical information on him as well as some of his poetry. Although Hammon apparently was not the first African-American writer (evidence suggests he was predated by one Lucy Terry poem), his canon makes him one of America’s first significant African-American writers.
Biographical information can be found in Oscar Wegelin, Jupiter Hammon: American Negro Poet (1915); Stanley Austin Ransom, Jr., ed., America’s First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island (1970); M. Thomas Inge et al., eds., Black American Writers, vol. 1 (1978); Carol Aisha Balckshire-Belay, ed., Language and Literature in the African American Imagination (1992); and Sondra A. O’Neale, Jupiter Hammon and the Biblical Beginnings of African-American Literature (1993).