Samson Occom 1723-1792
American missionary, educator, sermon and hymn writer, and essayist.
Occom was one of the first Native American scholars and writers, and, with the issuing of A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian (1772) and A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1774), the first to be published.
Occom was born in a Mohegan settlement in Connecticut, to Joshua and Sarah Ockham. Occom's mother, who had a great influence on her son, was descended from the great Mohegan leader Uncas, and it was she who first converted to Christianity. Occom himself converted at the age of seventeen. When he was only nineteen he became one of the leaders of the Mohegans when he was named one of the tribal councilors. During this time he taught himself English in order to read the Bible, and in 1743 he was accepted into the private school of Eleazar Wheelock, pastor of the Second Congregational Church of Lebanon, Connecticut. After studying four years with Wheelock, Occom planned to enter college, but poor health and eye strain prevented him. For the next two years he taught school at New London before moving to Long Island, New York, where he spent eleven years teaching and serving as minister to the Montauk. In 1751 he married Mary Fowler, a Montauk woman with whom he was to have ten children. Inadequately paid in his official positions, Occom supplemented his income by farming, fishing, hunting, making and selling wooden utensils, and bookbinding. He was ordained by the New Light Calvinist sect of Connecticut in 1756 and by the Presbytery of Suffolk, Long Island, in 1759. Occom's affiliation with Christianity and the white establishment led to conflict when he openly opposed government acquisition of tribal lands and advocated better education for Native Americans. In 1765 Occom was sent to England with the Rev. Nathaniel Whitaker to raise funds for Wheelock's Indian Charity School. There he delivered over three hundred sermons and collected over £12,000. When Wheelock subsequently moved the school from Connecticut to New Hampshire and severely restricted the number of Indian students, Occom felt betrayed, and their relationship became permanently strained. In 1785, Occom co-founded—with Joseph Johnson, his son-in-law and former pupil—Brothertown in Oneida County, New York, which was populated primarily by converted Native Americans. He moved his family there four years later and spent his remaining years engaged in pastoral and civic duties. Shortly before his death in 1792, Occom established the first Indian Presbyterian church in Brothertown.
Occom's A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian and A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs are believed to be the first two books published by a Native American. The Sermon was first delivered on September 4, 1772, at the execution of Paul, a Mohegan who had killed Moses Cook, a white man, in a drunken brawl. Occom's message on the need for temperance so moved his audience that he was encouraged to publish it. The first edition sold out in two weeks, followed by a second and a third that same year; ultimately, nineteen editions were published. Two years following the publication of the Sermon, Occom issued A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs, a compendium of pieces he had gathered during his ministry, including some that he had composed himself. This work went through three editions.
Occom's works have often been viewed as pioneering efforts, valued for their historical significance as among the earliest efforts by a Native American writer and as expressions of an active proponent of Indian rights. Bernd Peyer has called Occom “the ‘father’ of modern Native American literature” for his groundbreaking works, and A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, pointing to the nineteen editions of A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian has declared this work “the first Indian best-seller.” Increasingly, however, critics—including Brown Ruoff—have begun to view Occom's writings as literary works. Brown Ruoff has analyzed the Sermon within the genre of the “execution sermon” and praised Occom's handling of “the delicate task of communicating with both white and Indian audiences without alienating either one.” David Murray and Michael Elliott have similarly noted Occom's precarious position between two cultures and examined the rhetorical strategies in the Sermon necessitated by its dual audience. For her part, Margaret Connell Szasz has investigated Occom's role as a mediator between the two cultures, observing that while Occom's message “appealed to both native and non-native, his heart and affections lay with the natives, whom he often described as ‘my people.’”
*“An Account of the Montauk Indians, on Long Island” (essay) 1761
†“A Short Narrative of My Life” (autobiography) 1768
A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian; Who Was Executed at New-Haven, on the Second of September, 1772; for the Murder of Mr. Moses Cook, Late of Waterbury, on the 7th of December, 1771. Preached at the Desire of Said Paul (sermon) 1772
‡A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs: Intended for the Edification of Sincere Christians, of All Denominations [editor] (song collection) 1774
§“Sam Occom's Diary” (diary) 1993
*This work was not published until 1804, when it appeared in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Volume 9.
†This work was not published until 1982, when it appeared in The Elders Wrote: An Anthology of Early Prose by North American Indians, 1768-1931, ed. Bernd Peyer.
‡Scholars believe that, in addition to compiling this collection, Occom composed some of the songs himself, including “Awaked by Sinai's Awful Sound” and “Now the Shades of Night Are Gone.”
§This work, covering the years 1743 to 1790, was edited by Julia Clark and published in 1993 in The History and Archaeology of the Montauk, ed. Gaynell Stone.
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SOURCE: “Samson Occom, the Famous Indian Preacher of New England,” in Missionary Review of the World, Vol. 33, 1910, pp. 913-19.
[In the following essay, Brain offers a survey of Occom's career.]
Samson Occom, the foremost Christian Indian of New England, was one of the best-known and most eloquent preachers of his day. Until the close of the last century his story was but little known; but now, thanks to the exhaustive researches of Dr. W. De Loss Love, we have a full account of his life and the times in which he lived and worked.1
Occom was born in 1723 in a wigwam in the Indian village of Mohegan, not far from New London, Conn. His father, Joshua Ockham, Aucom or Mawcum, as the name is variously spelled, seems to have been a man of some distinction in his tribe; while his mother, who soon figures in the records as “Widow Sarah Occom,” implying her husband's early demise, was far above the average of Indian women in industry, intellect and affection. She is said to have been a descendant of the famous Mohegan chief Uncas.
Tho Sarah Occom eventually became an earnest Christian and exercised a strong influence on the life and character of her distinguished son, at the time of his birth she and her entire family and tribe were heathen. In an old manuscript still preserved at Dartmouth College, written by Occom at the age of forty-five, he quaintly gives...
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SOURCE: “Conclusion,” in Samson Occom, Dartmouth College Publications, 1935, pp. 215-18.
[Blodgett is the author of the first comprehensive biography of Occom. In the following excerpt from that work, he offers a summation of the missionary's life and work, declaring that Occom “never ‘sold out,’ as so many Indians did. … [He] stood for Indian autonomy, dying at last in an independent Indian township which he had fought to create and preserve.”]
The Indian who emerges from the foregoing record is not a subtle character. No complex analysis is required to arrive at a fair estimate of the man. As a preacher he never questioned the orthodoxies in which he was trained. Unlike so many ministers in his day, he was not given to the kind of textual interpretations which led so often to new offshoots from the main stream of a religious faith. The gospel he learned from Eleazar Wheelock sufficed him to the end of his days, and he regarded with suspicion—witness his conversation with a “Shaking Quaker”—all attempts to develop new faiths from the sacred text. His sermons were simple, orderly, at times eloquent, and nearly always effective with his audience. He was prone to dwell in the fashion of his time upon the peril of the soul. He gauged the success of his pleading by the tears he produced, by the degree to which his auditors were aroused to fright and alarm over the terrible question of...
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SOURCE: “Samson Occom: Mohegan Missionary and Writer of the 18th Century,” in The American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 6, Nos. 3 & 4, Fall/Winter, 1982, pp. 208-17.
[In the essay below, Peyer characterizes Occom as “the ‘father’ of modern Native American literature.”]
Native American scholarship began early in the 17th century—almost immediately after the foundation of the first New England colonies—as a consequence of efforts made by elergymen such as John Eliot and Thomas Mayhew who hoped to speed up the dissemination of Christianity by educating Native Americans and training them as missionaries. In 1665, the Harvard Indian College commenced offering courses for Native Americans in English, Latin and Greek until 1693, when that institution was again closed down. The missionaries further established a number of “Praying Indian Towns”—each with its own school and instructors.
By 1624, the number of converts in Massachusetts and Plymouth, alone, was estimated to be 4,000. Unfortunately, the only remaining evidence of Native American literary activity during this period are a few scattered letters, written primarily by former pupils of John Eliot (Meserve, 1956). Thus, Native American literature in English actually began in the second half of the 18th century with the writers Samson Occom, Joseph Johnson,1 and Hendrick Aupaumut2—the former...
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SOURCE: “Christian Indians: Samson Occom and William Apes,” in Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing and Representation in North American Indian Texts, Pinter Publishers, 1991, pp. 49-64.
[In the following excerpt, Murray argues that the deferential tone in Occom's letters addressed to whites is a rhetorical tactic that allows him to mount criticisms of the whites.]
The difficulties of talking about self-expression and power can be seen particularly clearly in the intermingling, in the early writings of Indians, of their perceptions of their own inferiority and the injustices done to them. The interconnection of these two issues was a historically determined matter, given the unequal relation of whites and Indians. Indians were inadequate and inferior to whites, if left in their natural state. If, therefore, they suffered under the march of progress it was not anyone's fault, least of all the whites'. On the other hand, once they had had the chance of civilisation any backsliding was then a moral failing, and if there was a great deal of backsliding, then that seemed to reaffirm the idea of a natural frailty and inadequacy. (The later development in the nineteenth century of scientific racism, of course, confirmed this natural inadequacy, but did not necessarily remove the moral disapproval.) This is of course a white view, but how were Christian Indians to think of themselves and their actions? How were...
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SOURCE: “Introduction: Samson Occom's Sermon Preached by Samson Occom … at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian,” in Studies in American Indian Literatures, Vol. 4, Nos. 2 & 3, Summer/Fall 1992, pp. 75-81.
[In the following excerpt, Brown Ruoff explores Occom's Sermon in the context of the genre of the “execution sermon.”]
Occom (1723-92) was raised as a traditional Mohegan, the northernmost branch of the Pequots and fiercest of the New England tribes. For a brief period in the mid-seventeenth century, the Mohegans, then numbering 2,000, greatly expanded their territory. By the end of the seventeenth century, this territory had been greatly decreased by land cessions. Because the settlers regarded the nomadic Mohegans as idle thieves, they issued orders to remove the Indians from the towns. By the end of the seventeenth century, Mohegans were no longer independent. The first successful attempt to gather Mohegans into villages was made in 1717. Eight years later, the tribe numbered only 351 and was split into two opposing camps, located one-half mile apart on the west side of the Mohegan river between New London and Norwich, Connecticut.
Born in a wigwam, Occom was the son of Joshua Tomocham and Sarah, who was reputed to be descended from Uncas, the famous Mohegan chief. Joshua's father, “Tomockham alias Ashneon,”...
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SOURCE: “‘This Indian Bait’: Samson Occom and the Voice of Limnality,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1994, pp. 233-53.
[In the essay below, Elliott analyzes Occom's discourse in his correspondence, Sermon, and other writings, contending that the rhetorical strategies he employs reflect his precarious position between white and Indian cultures.]
In 1759, Samson Occom (1723-1792) became the first Native American to be ordained as a minister of the Christian gospel. As both Mohegan Indian and a Protestant minister, Occom held a socially and discursively precarious position in New England society. Perhaps no one event better encapsulates the complexity of his status than the execution sermon he delivered in 1772, which was soon after published as A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian. As the title indicates, the offender was indeed another Native American; Moses Paul was a Christian Indian who had been convicted of murdering a white man. This unique racial configuration was surely the source of the particular interest in the work, of which there were nineteen different imprints.1 The sermon was both an opportunity for English Americans to watch Native Americans enacting the judicial rituals of the dominant culture and a chance for American Indians to hear one of their own people speak from a position of cultural authority (D. Murray...
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SOURCE: “Samson Occom: Mohegan as Spiritual Intermediary,” in Between Indian and White Worlds: The Cultural Broker, University of Oklahoma Press, 1994, pp. 61-78.
[In the following essay, Szasz investigates Occom's position as a cultural mediator between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans.]
The traveler bound along the turnpike road to New London, Connecticut, in 1764 might have noticed the construction of a large, two-story house just east of the town of Norwich. But the home would have attracted little attention unless a local resident had explained that it belonged to Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian.
By the 1760s, when the Occom family home was being built, Samson Occom had traveled a considerable distance from his traditional childhood. His move from native wigwam into an English-style home marked the passage from Mohegan upbringing to prominence as a cultural broker moving between Indian and non-Indian worlds. From the era of the American Revolution to the early years of the republic, Occom achieved a singular fame as minister and missionary, fund raiser and author, tribal leader and school-master. Known throughout New England, New York, and nearby colonies and admired in England and Scotland, Occom shattered so many stereotypes, it is virtually impossible to force him into any mold. His contemporary influence and his legacy emerge from his position somewhere between the...
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SOURCE: “Samson Occom and the Vision of a New England Christian Indian Polity,” in The Tutor'd Mind: Indian Missionary-Writers in Antebellusm America, University of Massachussetts Press, 1997, pp. 54-116.
[In the following essay, Peyer surveys Occom's complete body of work, stressing the “vision of a New England Christian Indian ‘Body Politick’” expressed throughout his writings.]
Samson Occom's Remarkable life history spans a dark period in the evolution of Indian-white relations in North America, dominated by suspicion and hatred on both sides. In spite of severe health problems and permanent disillusionment with Anglo-Saxon ethnocentrism, the “Pious Mohegan” managed to establish a solid reputation as an ordained Presbyterian minister, best-selling author, accomplished hymnist, and widely acclaimed orator. In his difficult role as cultural broker during troubled times he never once veered from the missionary path he had chosen for himself and remained true to his personal vision of an evangelical revival among his colonized people. When he finally came to the realization that it was practically impossible for Indians to live in “civilized” society according to the principles he had been taught to believe in by Protestant missionaries, he chose instead to found a new nation of Christian Indians in the “wilderness.”1 …
Occom's English writings cover...
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Eells, Earnest Edward. “Indian Missions on Long Island, Part V: Samson Occom.” Journal of the Department of History of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, XIX, No. 3 (1940): 99-109.
Surveys Occom's career and declares that his “Awaked by Sinai's Awful Sound,” included in A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs put Occom in the “proud position of being the first hymn writer of the American Presbyterian Church.”
Richardson, Leon Burr. An Indian Preacher in England. Dartmouth College Publications, 1933, 376 p.
Reprints letters to and from Occom, as well as extracts from his diary relating to his fundraising mission to England in the 1760s.
Additional coverage of Occom's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 175 and Native North American Literature.
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