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...
(The entire section is 3267 words.)