Samson Occom Critical Essays

Introduction

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.’”