Samson Occom, or, the Native American Presbyterian You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (But Should Have)

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~library/digital/collections/manuscripts/occom-samson/occom-detail.jpg

Credit: Dartmouth Library

I’ve been working on an interactive timeline of American religious history for the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). I’ll post soon about ARDA and all the cool data-related stuff you can find out with it, but for now I’ll share with you a post I drafted about Samson Occom, or, as I think of him, the coolest Presbyterian ever.

Samson Occom was born in 1723 as part of the Mohegan Indian tribe. He claimed descent from the line of the great Mohegan sachem Uncas, who fought against the expansion of English settlement in New England during the Pequot and King Philip’s Wars in the seventeenth century.

Given the Mohegan proximity to the Connecticut colony, they were an early target for missionary efforts during the First Great Awakening. Occom later described the Awakening as hearing a “Strange Rumor among the English, that there were Extraordinary Ministers Preaching from place to Place and a Strange Concern among the White People.” David Brainerd spent a year living with the tribe before leaving for New Jersey, but it was an evangelist named James Davenport whose preaching led to Occom’s conversion as a teenager.

Occom, hungry for education, went to live with Congregationalist minister Eleazar Wheelock for four years and learned to read and write in English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Occom’s aptitude for learning encouraged Wheelock to open a charity school for Indians in 1754. In 1766 Occom traveled to England to raise funds with which to expand Wheelock’s school. While there he preached on more than 300 occasions and raised the extraordinary amount of a least 11,000 pounds.

When Occom returned to Connecticutt, however, he found that Wheelock had failed to care for Occom’s wife Mary and their children. Furthermore, Wheelock decided to use the funds to start a school for the education of white settlers. Adding insult to injury, the school, Dartmouth College, was named after a wealthy, noble donor. Occom subsequently left Wheelock’s association and sent him a blistering letter with a Latin play on words: “I am very Jealous that instead of your Semenary Becoming alma Mater, she will be too alba mater to Suckle the Tawnees.” (“Alba mater” means “white mother.”)

Occom’s mistreatment by Wheelock was standard for Indian converts to Christianity. Although evangelical proponents of the First Great Awakening prized Indian missions, after their conversion they often continued to treat them as second-class brethren. For instance, Occom was paid barely a fifth of the salary given to a white fellow missionary, “because,” as he put it, “I am an Indian.” Occom’s concern for the rights of marginalized Indians spilled over into opposition to slavery. The young poet and slave Phillis Wheatley, impressed by Occom’s publication of a sermon condemning slavery, wrote to him saying, “In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”

After parting with Wheelock, Occom continued to minister to multiple Indian tribes. He wrote prolifically during this period and, inspired by a several day-long sojourn with English hymn-writer John Newton, published a hymnbook in 1774 designed for distribution among Indian Christians.

Throughout his ministry, Occom served as a leader among the Mohegan, for example handling land disputes between the tribe and the Connecticutt colony. After the American Revolution, he lead a coalition of seven Indian tribes to form a new community called “Brothertown” for Indian Christians in upstate New York. In 1792 Occom founded a Presbyterian Church in Brothertown but died shortly afterwards. During the War of 1812 white New Yorkers, worried about the Iroquois allies of the British and thus suspicious of Indians in general, forced the Brothertown community to move to Wisconsin in keeping with Congressional wishes that all tribes be relocated out of the East. The Brothertown Indian Nation still exists today although it is entangled in a long-running legal battle for recognition from the federal government.

If you enjoyed reading this, there’s a lot more where it came from. Check out some of the completed timelines, like this one for Baptists.

What’s striking to me is that I can’t find any recent, scholarly biography of Occom. (Much of the information above I culled from Margaret Szasz, Indian Education in the American Colonies, 1607-1783.) It’s unfortunate because in a sense it repeats the harms committed against Occom by Wheelock. His contemporaries treated him as an inferior, overlooking his contributions to the First Great Awakening. Now we are doing likewise. Occom has all but disappeared from histories of Presbyterianism. Given the relatively poor track record of Presbyterians on issues of race during the 19th century, we should recover the overlooked history of Occom and other marginalized voices from the century prior. He represents a path not taken by the mainstream of American Presbyterianism. I’d love to see P&R Publishing or one of the other church history publishing houses commission a biography of Occom.

Samuel Davies lectures King George II: A (Mostly) Forgotten Evangelical Myth

SamuelDaviesOfPrinceton

Samuel Davies played a significant role promoting the First Great Awakening among American Presbyterians in the 18th century. He fought for religious toleration in Virginia, preached a series of sermons in support of the British during the French and Indian War, and served as the fourth president of Princeton University. For extra details, here’s a link to my ARDA entry for Davies.

His reputation as a powerful preacher continued after his death into the 19th century and reprints of his sermons circulated widely. He was the “prince of preachers” long before Charles Spurgeon was born. Davies gave one of his final sermons to the students at Princeton on New Years Day 1761. The text was Jeremiah 28:16, “This year thou shalt die.” While exhorting the students to not waste what time in this life remained to them, Davies stated, “Perhaps I may die this year.” A month later, Davies was dead. They don’t make sermon illustrations quite like they used to!

Yet Davies’s most famous sermon was delivered while he was on a fundraising tour of Britain. As the story goes, Davies was called to preach in the royal chapel for King George II. When the king started whispering to others in attendance, Davies stopped talking, fixed his gaze on the King, and said, “When the lion roars the beasts of the forest all tremble; when King Jesus speaks, the princes of the earth should keep silence.” The chastened monarch later held a private audience with the bold minister, apologized, and donated some money which helped Princeton erect its first major building, Nassau Hall.

It’s a grand story and it’s easy to see why it was so often retold. What ardent republican in the early 19th century could resist a story about a native-born American bearding King George II in his own palace? It certainly would have gone down smoother after the American Revolution than, say, Davies’s eulogy to King George II–“George, the mighty, the just, the gentle, and the wise!”–upon the monarch’s death in 1761. After all, they had just fought a war with his ostensibly tyrannical, unjust, and foolish grandson, King George III.

However, the story of Davies and the King–coming to an Off Broadway show near you!–is a complete fabrication by an infamous 19th century booster of the Second Great Awakening, “Parson” Mason Locke Weems. He was an ordained Episcopalian minister until financial difficulties forced him out of the ministry. As an author and traveling book seller, Weems had a practical interest in compelling stories and didn’t let little things like evidence keep him from spinning tall tales. He specialized in well-selling biographies of prominent men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and General Francis Marion. The heroes of the founding and the Revolution were starting to die off, first Benjamin Franklin (1790), then Francis Marion (1795), George Washington (1799), and many others.

Americans wanted to memorialize their departed national heroes, but they also wanted to see themselves in them. Weems’s tailored biographies were a particularly smart sales tactic in the 1800s and 1810s as the revivals associated with the Second Great Awakening broke out. America was rather suddenly more evangelical than ever before. Weems was happy to supply that demand by “evangelicalizing” the Founding Fathers. His versions of the historical figures prayed more often, acted piously at all times, and were conspicuously loyal to the idea of America as a nation specially chosen by God.

Weems is famously responsible for the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. (Here’s a delightful painting by Grant Wood winking at the story by featuring Weems in the foreground pulling back the curtain on a surprisingly adult looking George Washington.) He also invented the story of George Washington praying at Valley Forge. Those are both famous examples, but Weems is likely also the author of the Samuel Davies sermon anecdote. Editions of Sermons on Important Subjects, by the late Reverend and Pious Samuel Davies, A.M. were routinely ordered by quite a multitude of booksellers in the 1790s and 1800s. In 1816 an edition was printed in Baltimore for “Mason L. Weems.” Prior editions did not include the anecdote, but Weems did and later editors imitated him. Despite attempts at debunking the story, the fiction was better than the truth.

Older

Older version

Newer version

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weems’s anecdote has declined along with the memory of Samuel Davies. Myths about the Founding Fathers continue to circulate despite the efforts of historians to stamp them out–that’s a constant!– but few evangelicals today have ever heard of Davies and the political and religious milieu is no longer served by fanciful stories about his showdown with the King of England. Still, the episode is a reminder of the natural human inclination to invent and believe histories that are convenient to those causes which we hold dear.

Mary Dyer’s “Monstrous Birth” and (Our) Puritan Hypocrisy

marydyerstatue

Puritans were no more dour, provincial, or narrow-minded than anybody else. That caricature was created much later by the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and HL Mencken. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter tells us more about the theological controversies of the 19th century than it does the 17th century. And when Mencken pithily defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” he was really criticizing religious conservatives of his own day. In reality, early American Puritans were an unusually cosmopolitan, well-educated lot. Take Henry Vane, who was educated at Oxford and worked for the English ambassador in Vienna before traveling to Massachusetts and serving a term as governor.

Unfortunately, Hawthorne and Mencken didn’t have to work too hard to create their caricatures. Puritans gave critics plenty of ammunition, especially in regards to the entanglement of church and state in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It doesn’t take more than a few hanged Quakers or burnt “witches” to make one thankful for religious toleration.

Let’s consider for a moment the story of Mary Dyer and her “monstrous birth.” Imagine that you’re a young mother (~26) who has just given birth to a stillborn daughter with anencephaly and obvious physical deformities. You bury her secretly because at the time deformed children are seen as signs of God’s displeasure. Your religious and political opponents pressure a friend into telling them where your daughter was buried. Then the civil authorities exhume your child without permission, write up a description of her deformities, mail copies to every minister in your area, and further publish a book that uses her as proof that you are under God’s judgement for your religious beliefs. All of this is done in order to bring your good friend to trial and banishment.

John Winthrop exploited the pain of a traumatized woman for political gain on the basis of questionable theology.

Winthrop leveraged the political controversy into a successful bid for the governorship and banished Dyer. She went to England and became a Quaker. When she returned to Massachusetts twenty years later, Winthrop was dead, but his successor and political ally, John Endecott, had enacted a ban on Quakers in the colony punishable by death. He hanged Dyer from an elm tree. Other Quakers were whipped, had their ears shaved off, and their tongues bored through with a hot iron. Like I said, Hawthorne and Mencken didn’t have too work too hard to construct their caricatures.

I’m no Quaker, but given the circumstances I find myself of one accord with Dyer’s last words. After she watched two other Quakers hanged, she approached the ladder to the gallows. One of her former pastors, John Wilson, called on her to repent and save her life and she replied, “Nay, man, I am not now to repent.” She was then asked if she wanted some of the church elders present to pray for her soul, to which she gave the biting answer, “I know never an Elder here.” Indeed.

I have a short moral for this story. There has been a revival of interest in Reformed theology among conservative evangelicals over the past two decades. Evangelicals are suddenly reading Puritan divines like John Owen. Yale University Press has been steadily publishing the complete works of Jonathan Edwards. You can even buy a t-shirt emblazoned with “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy.” (That said t-shirt is made of the finest “organic cotton” is no small irony. Ahem.)

Yet while this embrace of Puritan theology and history is heartening, it has been selective. We read Edwards, not John Cotton. Owen, not Cotton Mather. When Winthrop is mentioned it’s usually some imagination-deprived politico spouting off about America as a “city upon a hill.” Winthrop’s scurrilous attacks on a grieving mother? Yeah, that’s been forgotten. This selective reading of American Puritanism prevents evangelicals from learning from Puritan vices as well as their virtues. Jonathan Edwards and other Puritans have rightly been taken to task for their ownership of slaves, but who speaks for Mary Dyer?

A group of Puritan religious dissenters fled England for the sake of their religious freedom, a freedom they then denied to Baptist and Quaker dissenters. For sure, the entangling of church and state was an older mistake, but age did not impart one whit of grace to the harm that necessarily resulted from using the sword of the State to advance the Church. While erecting their city on a hill, Puritans forgot that they were strangers in a strange land. If contemporary evangelicals better understood their Puritan past, perhaps they would be less likely to repeat their mistakes.