Samson Occom

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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;...

(The entire section is 755 words.)