Samson Occom, American Indian, Ordained
There was a great stir of religion in these parts of the world both amongst the Indians as well as the English, and about this time I began to think about the Christian religion, and was under great trouble of mind for some time.” That is how Samson Occom, direct descendant of the great Mohegan chief Uncas, described the effect of the Great Awakening on himself when he was sixteen years old. As a consequence, he put his faith in Jesus Christ.
In 1743, when he was twenty, he went to study with Rev. Eleazar Wheelock who ran a school. Since his conversion, Samson had shared the gospel with other Indians. Now he hoped to learn to read so that he could study the Bible for himself. In this, he was successful. Despite poor eyesight, he became one of the first American Indians to publish works in the English language. These included sermons, hymns and a short autobiography.
Word of Samson’s work among the Indians impressed American religious leaders. Wheelock himself recognized that if more Indians could be trained like Occom, they could carry the gospel to their own people. He threw open his school to Indians.
Meanwhile, Presbyterian leaders in Long Island took notice of Samson’s work. He had not been able to go to college and get his theological training because of his poor eyesight; nonetheless, they ordained him on this day, August 30, 1759, to go as a missionary among his own people. To its shame, the church never paid Samson what it paid its white preachers. But despite his deep poverty and continual bad health, he worked tirelessly to convert Indians and to pass on to them the things he had learned in school.
Rev. Wheelock found that few Indians attended his school. He realized this was because it was far from centers frequented by the Native Americans. Looking about for a new location, he settled on the Connecticut Valley of New Hampshire. An Indian trail led across this area. He solicited funds to build an Indian school there, but among settlers who had had their fill of Indian wars, the scheme met a cool reception. Wheelock realized he’d have to raise the money overseas.
That is how it came about that Samson Occom sailed to England in 1765. Preaching from church to church with his traveling companion Rev. Daniel Whitaker, he was a sensation, drawing large crowds. He raised the enormous sum of twelve thousand pounds. The money was banked and its interest drawn to build the new school. Unfortunately, Rev. Wheelock did not abide by his original intent. Instead of using the money primarily for Indian education, he diverted it to the education of “English” youth. All the same, it is largely owing to Samson Occom that the institution we know as Dartmouth University was created.
Samson felt betrayed. He realized he had been used. It seemed to him that Wheelock saw him not as a brother equal in Christ, but as an exhibit or a performing monkey. In spite of his pain, or because of it, he clung even more tightly to Christ. To the end of his life, he preached among the Indian tribes and also pleaded for their rights and privileges.
His wife found him dead on July 14, 1792. He had just completed writing an article and collapsed while walking back to the house. Hundreds of Indians attended his funeral.
Dan Graves, MSL
On This Day in Church History <Christianity@crosswalkmail.com>
- Bowden, Henry Warner. American Indians and Christian Missions; studies in cultural conflict. University of Chicago, 1981.
- Handbook of Native American Literature. Andrew Wiget, editor. New York; London: Garland, 1994.
- Humphreys, Mary Gay, ed. Missionary Explorers among the American Indians. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1913.
- Love, William DeLoss. Samson Occom and the Christian Indians of New England. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
- Ninde, Edward S. The Story of the American Hymn. New York: Abingdon, 1921, source of the portrait.
- Richardson, Leon Burr. An Indian Preacher in England; being letters and diaries relating to the mission of the Reverend Samson Occom and the Reverend Nathaniel Whitaker to collect funds in England for the benefit of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indian Charity School, from which grew Dartmouth College. Hanover, N.H., Dartmouth College Publications, 1933.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles such as “Samson Occum” at the Mohegan Tribe pages http://www.mohegan.nsn.us/heritage/SamsonOccum.aspx.