Samson Occom Essay - Critical Essays

Occom, Samson


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.’”

Principal Works

*“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.


Belle M. Brain (essay date 1910)

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 these glimpses of his early life:

I was Born and brought up in Heathenism till I was between sixteen and seventeen years of age, at a Place called Mohegan, in New London, Conn., in New England. My Parents lived a wandering life, as did all the Indians at Mohegan. They Chiefly Depended upon Hunting, Fishing and Fowling for their living, and had no connection with the English, except to Traffic with them in their small trifles, and they strictly maintained their Heathenish ways, customs and Religions. Neither did we cultivate our Land nor keep any Sort of Creatures, except Dogs, which we used in Hunting, and we Dwelt in Wigwams. …

Once a Fortnight in ye Summer Season a Minister from New London used to come up and the Indians to attend; not that they regarded the Christian Religion, but they had Blankets given to them every Fall of the year, and for these things they would attend. And there was a Sort of a School Kept, when I was quite young, but I believe there never was one that ever Learnt to read anything. And when I was about ten years of age there was a man who went about among the Indian Wigwams, and wherever he could find the Indian Children would make them read, but the Children used to take Care to keep out of his Way; and he used to Catch me sometimes and make me Say over my Letters, and I believe I learnt some of them. But all this Time there was not one amongst us that made a Profession of Christianity.

For fully fifty years faithful workers among the colonists had endeavored to give the gospel to these Indians, but with almost no success. “There has been Something done to Christianize the Mohegans and other Indians in the Colony of Connecticut,” wrote Cotton Mather in 1715; “but, Lord, who has believed! They have been obstinate in their Paganism; however, their obstinacy has not put an End unto our Endeavours.”

About the year 1740, however, when the great revival under Whitefield was sweeping over the colonies, the whites redoubled their efforts for the Indians, and the Indians responded as never before. Among those early convicted of sin was young Occom, then in his seventeenth year. After six months of doubt and darkness, he finally accepted Christ and resolved to devote his life to His service. So eager did he now become to learn to read the Word of God that he bought a primer and went from house to house begging his white neighbors to give him a little instruction.

As time went on his desire to serve Christ grew greater rather than less. By dint of great perseverance he learned to read a little in the bible, and he faithfully used every opportunity for talking to the Indians concerning their souls, but he sorely needed further instruction. This he presently secured from the Rev. Eleazer Wheelock, a Congregational minister in Lebanon, Conn., who afterward became president of Dartmouth College. In the manuscript already quoted, Occom tells how his acquaintance with this good friend began:

At this time my Poor Mother was going to Lebanon, and having had some knowledge of Mr. Wheelock, and Learning that he had a number of English Youth under his Tuition, I had a great Inclination to go to him and be with him a week or a Fortnight, and Desired my Mother to Ask Mr. Wheelock whether he would take me a little while to Instruct me in Reading. Mother did so, and when she came Back she said Mr. Wheelock wanted to see me as soon as possible. So I went up thinking I should be back again in a few Days. When I got up there, he received me with Kindness & compassion, & instead of staying a Fortnight or 3 weeks, I spent 4 years with him.

When, on December 6, 1743, Dr. Wheelock opened the doors of his home and received the young Mohegan into his household, he little realized how great an event it would be in the lives of them both. Not only did it give Occom the preparation needed for his life work, but it led the good doctor to establish his famous Indian Charity School, which played an important part in the early evangelization of the Redmen.

Quick to recognize the latent talents of his dusky pupil, Dr. Wheelock set about developing them with rare patience and skill. Under his wise instruction Occom soon mastered the arts of reading and writing and began the study of Latin and the classics. At the same time he was learning many things not found in the textbooks. The refining influence of the Christian home of which he was an inmate did much to mold his character, and association with white youth of his own age revealed defects in his training which he was wise enough to endeavor to remedy.

In view of Occom's desire to be a missionary, it was planned to give him a course at Yale on the completion of his preparatory work with Dr. Wheelock. But at the end of four years, tho he had made “such progress that he would doubtless have entered upon his second year at his first admission,” this plan had to be reluctantly relinquished. His eyes had been so seriously overstrained by application that continuous study was out of the question.

It was hopeful, however, that he might be able to take a private course in theology under some minister, and in the autumn of 1748 negotiations to this end were entered into with the Rev. Solomon Williams, of Lebanon. But Occom's eyes continued so weak and he had such a spell of illness, that this plan had to be given up.

Poor Occom was greatly disappointed, yet his missionary zeal continued unabated, and his heart was full of hope that he might yet find a field of labor among his people. Ere long God honored his faith and called him to a work in which He greatly blest him.

This was at Montauk, the eastern extremity of Long Island. The place was ever a favorite resort of the Indians, and in the summer of 1749 Occom went there on a fishing excursion with a party of his fellow tribesmen. He was an expert fisherman, but he cared more for men than for fish just then, and leaving his companions to engage in their sport, went about among the wigwams fishing for men. So great was the interest that the Indians pleaded with him to come and start a school among them. As a result he returned to Montauk in November, 1749, and began a work there in which he continued twelve years.

Tho merely a teacher, he soon added to his work in the school three religious services on the...

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Harold Blodgett (essay date 1935)

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...

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Bernd Peyer (essay date 1982)

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...

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David Murray (essay date 1991)

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,...

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A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff (essay date 1992)

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...

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Michael Elliott (essay date 1994)

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...

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Margaret Connell Szasz (essay date 1994)

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...

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Bernd C. Peyer (essay date 1997)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 133 words.)