Native American Believer Samson Occom Is Ordained
THE GREAT AWAKENING swept America in the 18th century and Native Americans were not immune to its influence. Samson Occom described its effect on him: “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.” The upshot was that this sixteen-year-old grandson of a Mohegan chief put his faith in Christ.
Following his conversion, Occom immediately began to share the gospel with other Native Americans. He did not yet know how to read, but longed to study the Bible for himself, so at twenty he went to study with Rev. Eleazar Wheelock in Connecticut. Despite poor eyesight, he learned to read English and Hebrew. He seems to have been the first Native American to publish in English.
Wheelock was impressed with his pupil and thought that if more Indians could be trained like Occom, they could carry the Gospel to their own people. He invited Native Americans to his school.
Meanwhile, Occom continued his efforts to win his people to Christ. He founded a school and took about thirty pupils. Impressed by his efforts, the Presbyterian leaders of Long Island, New York ordained him on this day, 30 August 1759, to be a missionary to his own people. He worked in deep poverty, supporting himself in part through bookbinding and carving, because the mission paid him only a fraction of what it paid its white ministers.
Meanwhile, Rev. Wheelock developed a design to found a college for Native American students. Realizing that he would never be able raise adequate funding from American contributions, given the antipathy toward Indians, he asked Samson Occom and Nathaniel Whitaker to raise funds in England. They sailed in 1765. Occom drew large crowds wherever he spoke, preaching three hundred sermons in the course of two years. He raised twelve thousand pounds for the school.
Wheelock moved the school to New Hampshire and named it Dartmouth. Finding it hard to attract Native Americans and seeing that most who did enroll showed little or no Christian spirit, he diverted the money to train “English” students. Occom felt betrayed, not only for this but because Wheelock had gone back on a promise to care for his family while Occom was in England. Occom believed Wheelock treated him not as an equal in Christ, but as a performing exhibit.
To the end of his life, Occom preached and taught among the Native American tribes and employed his knowledge of “English” ways to defend their rights and privileges. On 14 July 1792 his wife found him dead. A hymn by him titled “Christ’s Sufferings” appeared in Smith and Sleeper’s Divine Hymns (1794). It closes with the appeal:
Shout, brethren, shout with songs divine,
He drank the gall to give us wine.