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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.
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, Conn.
The year was 1743.
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.
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.
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 Whitfield 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.
It 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.” 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.”
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 will appear next week, 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 Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Occom also was unafraid to broach the subject of slavery, prompting the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley to write the following:
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
Although 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.
For the rest of the hymn, and to discover more about Samson Occom, read the original article on the Leben website.