Samson Occom, Mohegan

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The stories of America’s great Native American Christian leaders have been largely left either untold, or mistold, in our time. The reasons are not difficult to discern. The contemporaneous written historical accounts penned by whites seem condescending and paternalistic to the modern reader, while much of modern secular Native American studies discount the authenticity of these early leaders’ conversions and ministries. Ironically, this latter prejudice so rampant in academia today is far more paternalistic and offensive than the former.

It is, therefore, with great delight that we present an introductory portrait of Rev. Samson Occom, the colonial-era Mohegan who labored tirelessly for the cause of his people and the Gospel.

OccomPortrait

The 17-year old Mohegan had been slain, but not by the enemies of his now-small and obscure tribe. He had been slain by the words he had heard preached and determined at once to teach himself how to read and write so that he might learn more about his newborn faith. He soon learned about a school operated under the care of Eleazar Wheelock and, with his mother’s blessing and support from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, young Samson Occom headed to Lebanon, Connecticut. The year was 1743. In just four years Samson advanced “from rudimentary literacy to fluency in English and relative proficiency in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.”{footnote}Bernd Peyer, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, 1998.{/footnote}

Samson was a Mohegan, one of only a few hundred remaining members of the once-mighty tribe. For most Americans, James Fennimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” has confounded the distinction between two quite separate tribes, the Mohicans, and the Mohegans. Cooper’s Mohicans are a mixture of traditions and names from the two Algonquin-speaking tribal groups. Both tribes had been severely depleted through a combination of disease, displacement and war.

From his writings, which are quite extensive, it is apparent that Samson was interested in more than knowing for his own sake. He clearly had a hunger to spread the Gospel among his own people, a desire which coincided with Wheelock’s own stated goals. During his own lifetime, Samson Occom would be slandered, cheated and lied to, but the judgment of history weighs far more heavily upon Wheelock whose plan to train Indian missionaries would serve to “keep Indians from roaming the land and causing disturbances along the frontier” and would be “four times as serviceable” as whites because they would be cheaper to maintain and more willing to live under substandard conditions.{footnote}Ibid.{/footnote}

It is possible that Wheelock’s practical approach, which seems callous to the modern reader, may have been more “marketing” than conviction, helping to allay fears and to raise funding, but when Occom eventually embarked upon his first mission trip, he was paid even less than Wheelock had postulated, receiving only one-sixth the wages of English missionaries.{footnote}Ibid.{/footnote}

In 1749, Samson embarks upon a fishing expedition to Montauk Island, where he soon founds a school with 30 students. He also meets and marries a Montaukett young lady, Mary Fowler, and together they will have ten children. Needless to say, supporting a family while attempting to serve as a teacher and itinerant missionary proved to be a tremendous hardship on the Occoms. Then, in 1758, Rev. William Davies came calling to enlist Occom in a mission work among the Cherokees, whereupon Occom was referred to the Long Island Presbytery for examination and ordination. The following year, Occom sustains his examination by the presbytery and is ordained, but is soon called upon to minister closer to home in communities, and among native peoples, throughout the region.

Occom, who had become acquainted with Jonathan Edwards during the New England divine’s time serving as a missionary to the Indians, would accompany George Whitefield in 1764 on an evangelistic crusade throughout New England. Upon returning to his home in Mohegan, Occom was distressed to find that a large portion of Mohegan lands had been lost through the actions of a tribal council leader. Thus began a lifelong commitment by Occom to prevent the loss of native lands through deceit, theft and seizure, a commitment that would place him squarely at odds with leading economic interests in the white community whose commitment to Christian virtues ended at the bottom line.

WheelockEleazarIt is remarkable that any scholar today could question Occom’s love for his people or for the Gospel, yet it was not Occom’s ignorance that is responsible for such dismissive opinions, but rather his intellect and his grasp of the fundamental imperatives of the Christian faith. Occom not only grasped the nuances of theology, he was singularly unafraid to risk scorn and abuse when the Gospel was at stake. We can be thankful that Joanna Brooks has done such a wonderful job of editing and publishing “The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan.”{footnote}The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan, ed. Joanna Brooks, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).{/footnote} Her respect for Occom is evident, yet in the Foreward to her 2006 edition, Robert Warrior feels the need to apologize for Occom’s A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, writing that its “strong strains of moralism and triumphant Christianity can buttress, rather than challenge, a view of Occom as a cold-souled Calvinist who seemed never to miss an opportunity to scold sinners, warn of the dangers of unbelief, and at least flirt with capitulation to the structures and ideologies that were spelling ruin to Native American communities in his time.”{footnote}Ibid, p. V.{/footnote}

In order to understand how misguided and utterly wrong such a conclusion would be, one must read the Execution sermon in its entirety. A portion of it is printed elsewhere in this issue of Leben, but there is not a phrase or a sentence in this sermon, delivered literally minutes before the execution of a man convicted of murder, that does not shout forth the depth of Occom’s passion for the truth and for his brethren. Its publication led to Occom’s fame spreading far and wide, and it was reprinted frequently, similarly to Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

At one point, when Occom went to England to raise funds for the school he had founded with Wheelock, he returned only to find that Wheelock had left Occom’s family destitute and diverted the funding to the founding of a college. What stung worse was that the new college was not intended to serve the growing crop of promising young Native Americans, a slight which the school in our own day has corrected. Dartmouth College (which is the college which re-ceived the funds raised by Occom) now has a large and growing Native American student contingent, thanks largely in recognition of Occom’s role in its founding.

GeorgeWhitefieldWheelock, now estranged from Occom, took the opportunity to slander his name, including sending letters accusing Occom of intemperance. The irony is that the basis of the charge was a letter Occom himself wrote to his presbytery confessing to this sin. The presbytery investigated and concluded that Occom’s confession was unwarranted and that the incident arose “from having Drank a small quantity of Spirituous Liquor after having been all day without food.”{footnote}Suffolk Presbytery, footnote, as quoted in Brooks, Samson Occom.{/footnote}

Occom also was unafraid to broach the subject of slavery, prompting the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley to write:

Rev’d and honor’d Sir,
I have this Day received your obliging kind Epistle, and am greatly satisfied with your Reasons respecting the Negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights: Those that invade them cannot be insensible that the divine Light is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reign’d so long, is converting into beautiful Order, and [r]eveals more and more clearly, the glorious Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably Limited, that there is little or no Enjoyment of one Without the other: Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian slavery; I do not say they would have been contented without it, by no means, for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward tile Calamities of their fellow Creatures. This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically, opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree,—
I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.—
February 11, 1774

Dartmouth_CollegeAlthough the hymns Occom penned do not rise to the standards of some others of his era, their heartfelt simplicity accounted for their popularity and inclusion in the growing publication of cross-denominational hymn books. One such hymn, published anonymously in a 1793 hymnbook, was in fact authored by Occom. Titled “Conversion,” it was also regularly cited by its first line “Wak’d by the Gospel’s Joyful Sound.” Words fail to find a more fitting summary of his life and ministry.

Wak’d by the Gospel’s joyful sound,
My soul in guilt and thrall I found,
Expos’d to endless woe;
Eternal truth did loud proclaim,
The sinner must be born again,
Or else to ruin go.

Surpris’d I was, but could not tell
Which way to shun the pains of hell,
For they were drawing near;
I strove, indeed, but all in vain,
The sinner must be born again,
Still sounded in my ear.

Then to the law I flew for help,
But still the weight of guilt I felt,
And no relief was found;
While death eternal gave me pain,
The sinner must be born again,
Did loud as thunder sound.

God’s justice now I did behold,
And sin lay heavy on my soul,
It was a heavy load;
I read my Bible, it was plain,
The Sinner must be born again,
Or feel the wrath of God.

I heard some tell how Christ did give
His life, to let the sinner live,
But him I could not see;
This solemn truth did still remain,
The sinner must be born again,
Or dwell in misery.
But as my soul, with dying breath,
Was gasping in eternal death,
Christ Jesus I did spy;
Free grace and pardon he proclaim’d,
The sinner now is born again,
With rapture I did cry;

The angels in the world above,
And saints are witness to his love,
Which then my soul enjoy’d;
My soul did mount upon faith’s wing,
And glory, glory, in my King,
In Jesus Christ my Lord.

Come, needy sinners, hear me tell
What boundless joys in Jesus dwell,
How mercy doth abound;
Let none of mercy doubting stand,
Since I the chief of sinners am,
Yet I have mercy found.

Are you a sinner? so am I;
It was for sinners Christ did die,
His precious life laid down:
He is the all-atoning Lamb,
For I the chief of sinners am,
Yet I have mercy found.

O come, the love of Jesus try,
Repent, believe, and grace is nigh,
And mercy will you crown:
Defy the tempter, seek the Lamb,
For I the chief of sinners am,
Yet I have mercy found.

O come to Jesus, sinners all,
And at his feet repenting fall,
He will not on you frown;
Sinner, why will you doubting stand,
For I the chief of sinners am,
Yet I have mercy found.