Evensong for Samson Occom, 1st Native American Christian Minister

The Reverend Samson Occom (1723 – 1792) was a member of the Mohegan nation, from near New London, Connecticut, who became a Presbyterian cleric, the first Native American ordained Christian minister. He was believed to be a direct descendant of Uncas, the notable Mohegan chief (who was clearly not the last of his tribe). Occom was the first Native American to publish his writings in English, and also helped found several settlements. Together with the missionary John Eliot, Occom became one of the foremost missionaries who introduced Native American communities to Christianized European culture.

Rev. Occom is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on July 14. The Cathedral will honor him with an Evensong at 5:30 pm on his feast day. The setting will be the Evening Service by Todd Beckham, who will conduct the Cathedral Choir. Other music will include the Magnificat by Martin How, Nunc Dimittis by David Hurd, the anthem “Say, radiant seraphs, throned in light” by Oliver Holden (with text by Samson Occum), and a the Voluntary in D Major by William Selby.

In 1766, Occom went to England to raise money for an Indian charity school in Lebanon, CT, founded by Eleazar Wheelock. He preached his way across Britain from February 16, 1766, to July 22, 1767, delivering between three and four hundred sermons, drawing large crowds wherever he went, and raising over ₤12,000 (pounds) for the project. King George III donated 200 pounds, and William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, subscribed 50 guineas. On his return, however, Occom found that Wheelock had failed to care for Occom’s wife and children while he was away. Furthermore, Wheelock moved to New Hampshire and used the funds raised to establish Dartmouth College (named after the generous aristocrat) for the education of Englishmen, rather than Native Americans as originally promised to Occom. In 1768, Occom wrote a short autobiography. A later, longer version is now held in Dartmouth College’s archive collection.

Upon his return from England, Occom lived with the Mohegan people. After Wheelock’s betrayal, Occom worked to organize Christianized Indians of New England and Long Island into a new tribe, located in western Connecticut. Under continuing pressure from settlers following the American Revolutionary War, in 1785 they migrated to their reservation in central New York state, where they established several settlements. Occom not only ensured that these villages received civil charters in 1787, but also evicted white settlers on April 12, 1792. Occom died on July 14, 1792.