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.
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.