It is the 14th of July 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Sam Leanza Ortiz. Dan van Voorhis is on vacation.
Today marks the death of Samson Occom, who died on the 14th of July in 1792 in New Stockbridge, New York. Occom was a central character in the ongoing struggle between English and Native Americans and how the former was to evangelize the latter.
The history of Anglo-American engagement among the continent’s indigenous peoples is one fraught with broken promises. The frustrations and successes we find in the life of Samson Occom provide a glimpse into the broken promises that occur at the intersection of religion, empire, and clashing cultures.
Occom was born in 1723 to Joshua and Sarah Tomacham of the Mohegan tribe. Occom came to the Christian faith in the height of the Great Awakening in the 1730s and 40s. This period of religious fervor ignited a new wave of evangelization efforts in which Occom played a significant role.
Beginning with John Eliot in the 1660s, English missionary efforts among New England’s indigenous peoples were met with varying degrees of success that were often cut short by war and poorly considered strategies. King Philip’s War of the 1670s and Father Rale’s War of the 1720s undercut English Protestants’ abilities to reach those against whom they fought. Further complicating matters, English attempts to “civilize” potential converts met with understandable resistance.
One such proponent of “civilization as evangelization” enters our story in the person of Eleazar Wheelock. Wheelock was a pastor in Connecticut in the 1730s, whose frequent itinerancy lost him his pastorate in the early 1740s. Taking up tutoring to supply his income, Wheelock was approached by Occom for assistance with his classical education, particularly in the classical languages necessary for the ministry.
With Occom, Wheelock seized the opportunity to educate New England's various tribes, employing his "Grand Design" to instruct them in the liberal arts and sciences and Christianity so that once graduated, boys could return to their tribes as pastors with girls being fitted for their roles as proper pastors’ wives.
Wheelock's design reached its fruition in Moor's Indian Charity School, founded in 1754, which accepted dozens of indigenous boys and girls from the northern colonies.
Occom became something of a poster child for the potential success of Wheelock’s endeavors, having been ordained in the Presbyterian church and actively ministering. Occom himself never taught at Moor’s, however; he had taken up a teaching post in Long Island, but he lent his efforts to raising support for the school.
In 1765, Occom set sail for England with Nathaniel Whitaker for a two-and-a-half-year-long fundraising tour of Great Britain, where they raised over 12,000 pounds, amounting in value today at nearly three million U.S. Dollars.
While Occom was away, Wheelock had promised to care for Occom’s family; a promise Occom discovered to be broken upon his return as his wife and children languished in poverty. From this point forward, Occom distanced himself from Wheelock.
Wheelock gradually moved away from his initial mission to New England’s indigenous tribes, citing pride as the downfall of his students. Historians rightly cast Wheelock’s duplicitous agenda in more racial overtones, seeing as Wheelock believed his students to be incurably proud, incapable of taking up spiritual leadership, even as he sent glowing letters of their success abroad to raise funds.
Tensions reached a breaking point in the late 1760s, as parents began to remove their children from his care, as it became apparent that he treated children more like servants than students.
As Moor’s failure became imminent, Wheelock founded Dartmouth College in 1769 for white students with the money that Occom, whom Wheelock referred to as his “black son,” had raised abroad.
Stung with betrayal, Occom wrote to Wheelock “that instead of your Seminary becoming alma Mater she will be too much alba mater.” Occom’s prophecy came to pass as a mere nineteen indigenous students would graduate from Dartmouth in its first 200 years.
Occom continued working among the Christian "praying Indians" of the northeast, eventually settling among the Brothertown Indians in New York, where he died on this day in 1792.
The last word for today comes from Occom himself, in the hymn “Now the Shades of Night Are Gone,” the first two verses.
1 Now the shades of night are gone,
Now the morning light is come.
Lord, may we be Thine today;
Drive the shades of sin away.
2 Fill our souls with heav’nly light,
Banish doubt and cleanse our sight.
In Thy service, Lord, today
Help us labor, help us pray.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 14th of July 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie.
This episode was written and read by Sam Leanza Ortiz.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.