Samson Occom first ordained Native American minister (1723-1792)

"A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian" (1772)

Historical Context

  • Mohegan Native American born in 1723 between New London and Norwich, Connecticut
  • Age 17, converted to Christianity under the “Great Awakening” evangelistic preacher, James Davenport
  • December 1763- Occom was admitted to a school in Lebanon in the home of Eleazar Wheelock (Davenport’s classmate at Yale and Brother-in-law.)
  • Learned to read and write in English, studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew under his four years with Wheelock
  • 1749 – Became a schoolmaster to a group of thirty-two families of Mantauk living at the tip of the Long Island
  • November 1756- Occom became ordained by the New Light Calvinist sec of Conneticut
  • Sent to minister to the Cherokee under the sponsorship of the Scotch Society of Missions and his job was to recruit Oneida students for Wheelock’s school

Eleazer Wheelock and Samson Occom

  • December 1765- Occom and Nathaniel Whitaker set sail from Boston to England to try and raise funds for Wheelock’s Indian Character School
  • February 1765- Arrived in England and earned Wheelock’s school a hefty sum of donations
  • Fall 1768- Returned to Mohegan
  • Bitter about the Native American treatment from of the colonists
  • Found his wife and children were living in poverty when Wheelock promised him they would be taken care of
  • Occom spoke out in favor of a lawsuit to regain Mohegan land that had fraudulently been taken by white colonists
  • Rumor campaign started against him
  • Rumors included, not really being a Mohegan Native American, not being converted until his trip to Britain, and that he was an alcoholic
  • He wrote his ten-page autobiography
  • Additionally, Wheelock’s school, that Occom raised so much money for, was moved in 1769 to Hanover, NH, despite Occom’s objections
  • The school closed as an Indian school and later became Dartmoth College

Read & Respond

". . . I verily thought once that your Institution was Intended Purely for the poor Indians with this thought I Chearfully Ventur'd my Body and Soul, left my Country my poor young Family all my Friends and Relations, to Sail over the Boisterous Sees to England, to help forward your School, Hoping, that it may be a lasting Benefit to my poor Tawnee Brethren . . ." (Occom, 389).

Is Occom justified in his bitterness towards his friend and mentor, Eleazar Wheelock? Why or why not?

The Big Picture

  • Identity Crisis
  • Raises the question if one could be fully Christian and fully Indian
  • Culture class
  • Occom demonstrates that there should be no contradiction between his Christian and Native American identities
  • Wide spectrum of Native American responses to Protestant evangelism from resistance, indifference, and personal conviction.

Discussion Questions

  1. Occom does not approach conversion as a means of abandoning his Native American roots, yet he was constantly criticized for being either “too Native American” or “Not Native American” enough. Is it possible for one to be fully Christian, and fully Indian, and in doing so, would this reject the British-American notion that race, culture, and religion were inherently linked?
  2. Over the course of the class, we have discussed the frictions between Native Americans and Christian colonists. Do you believe that Samson Occom further exacerbated the tension through his desire to be both Christian and Native American, or did he strengthen the relationship between the two cultures through his attempt to be “simultaneously Indian and non-Indian”? Justify your response.

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