Dr. Teresa Coronado
12 December 2012
Samson Occom (1723-1792) was a Mohegan tribal leader, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and the first published Native American author (Brooks 1). His various titles left him with an intermediary position in the community, and therefore he tried to connect with everyone instead of just focusing on one group of people. “Sermon on Temperance and Morality” and “Sermon on Matthew 22:42” show that he was very aware of the issues facing the community he lived in (such as fighting, excess drinking, and the struggle to remain focused on religion) and felt a need to address those issues head-on. Since many of the issues he addressed in these sermons are still relevant today, they continue to be worth reading.
According to a note attached to “Samson Occom’s Sermon on Temperance and Morality” on the Early Americas Digital Archive, “the sermon was written after 1771 and possibly before 1775” (Bouwman, Heather, et al). They list it as unpublished so it does not have a publication date. However, there is a possibility that it was inspired by a sermon he gave at the execution of Moses Paul. In 1771 Paul, who was also a Christian Indian, committed a murder while drunk in Bethany, Connecticut. He asked Occom to preach at his execution, and some of the points in that sermon he gave are similar to those in “Temperance and Morality.” (“Execution of Moses Paul”) “Samson Occom’s Sermon on Matthew 22:42” is also listed as unpublished. The Early Americas Digital Archive is unsure of the date the sermon was written, but speculates that it was most likely 1759. They state:
Though the sermon is undated, in diary entries for May 30 and June 3, 1760 Occom cites this text as his sermon text for the day (CHS papers, folder 21); and he wrote at least one other, very similar version of this sermon, dated 1759 (CHS papers, folder 21). The similarities between the 1759 sermon and this one suggest that this sermon may date from the same time period and may simply be another version of the 1759 sermon. (Bouman, Heather, et al.)
Since Occom seemed to touch on the topics in “Sermon on Matthew 22:42” and “Sermon on Temperance and Morality” on more than one occasion, it is important to show the origins of the sermons. This displays that the topics discussed were quite important at the time and that the issues faced continued to run rampant in the years to come. The sermons were taken “from a collection of Occom’s unpublished sermons and letters housed at the Connecticut Historical Society, in Hartford, Connecticut.” (Bouwman, Heather, et al) The sermons in that collection focused a lot on biblical and religious themes, but also weaved in the social issues of the time, “such as temperance and abolition.” (Bouwman, Heather, et al) This shows his ability to appeal to a wide audience, and that he was involved in the community.
Samson Occom’s “Sermon on Matthew 22:42” “is a call to rationality as a means of salvation.” (Bouwman, Heather, et al) In other words, he is preaching that people would be better-off if they used their thinking skills to think about Christ and religion (as opposed to temptations of the flesh.) He starts off by saying, “Man is a rational creature. He is capable of thinking and reflecting.” But he implies that the ability to think and reflect also makes things more challenging, because, “The mind of man is a restless thing, it is always upon a go, diving into many things daily. It is very inquisitive, and there are innumerable objects of thought continually. But Christ is [the] only worthy object of our thoughts.” The first three sentences of the sermon are particularly important because they can be applied to how people continue to waste their lives on seemingly frivolous topics, even today.
On a note linked to “Sermon on Matthew 22:42”, it explains that, “In Matthew 22:17, 22:24-28, and 22:36, the Pharisees and the Sadducees ask Jesus a series of questions designed to trip him up and to expose him as a fraud. Jesus answers these questions and then turns the tables on them, asking ‘What think ye of Christ?’” (Bouwman, Heather, et al) Occom also sums up the part of the Bible which he is referring to, but does so while weaving in the emotions of the people who asked the questions. He then describes the importance of the saying “What think ye of Christ?” He claims that it, “is the very center of our holy religion; it is the centre of the Bible. Our life depends on it, if we answer it right we shall live, if not we shall die.” (“Matthew 22:42”) Thus this sermon is important because it shows the kinds of questions people contemplated in their daily lives.
The remainder of the sermon is mostly an outline. It appears that Occom plans to give a short history of the life of Christ, and will ask “What think ye of Christ?” at each significant event in Christ’s life. By leaving it so open, it implies that he expects the audience to respond. Therefore this sermon gives a peek into the church-going experience of the time, as well as what was acceptable protocol while preaching. This, however, may seem mostly just relevant to religious people in today’s society. But that does not exclude non-religious people from being able to connect with Occom’s “Sermon on Matthew 22:42” since the first three sentences can be applied so broadly. The part about being “rational” is especially pertinent because it also ties in with the “Sermon on Temperance and Morality.”
Samson Occom’s “Sermon on Temperance and Morality” stands the test of time particularly because there are still many alcoholics, people that swear, people that fight, and people that gossip. Sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution, and men who cheat on their wives also still exist in society. And in this sermon, Occom references the idea of being rational and logical – an idea which showed up in “Sermon on Matthew 22:42” too. If “Temperance and Morality” is stripped of its religious aspects, it continues to be valuable because it teaches people to think before they act. With the religiousness included, it shows that these sermons were an opportunity for people to address issues in the community at the time.
He begins the sermon by addressing the problem of drunkenness. He explains that when a person drinks too much alcohol, they are unable to contribute to society. The Devil becomes the only one to benefit from their inebriation. This may cause people to blame the Devil for their drinking, but Occom points out that this is not a valid argument. He asks if the Devil carries the man to the tavern, orders the drinks for him, pays for said drinks, and forces the person to drink them. He claims that if this were the case, “then the man is clear of sin and blame, and the Devil is guilty of that sin.” But he continues by saying that the “drunkard” uses “that natural power and understanding which God has given him” in order to decide where to get the alcohol, and that the man walks himself to that place, orders those drinks, and uses “the power of swallowing” to drink them. Occom reiterates that he believes this cycle could be broken of the drinker’s free will if he only tried. He also explains that it is alright to get drunk sometimes, and as long as the drinker is ashamed and repents then he is not a “drunkard.” (“Temperance and Morality”)
The next segment of the sermon focuses on the practice of using profane language. He argues that it should not be used because “it is the most unprofitable sin. It neither clothes the body nor feeds it.” Occom also points out that while all white people seem to expertly partake in this sin, the Indians do not. He claims that it is not because they are incapable of such language, but rather simply they refuse to use it because “it is horrid.” He then tells a story about how they hold God’s name in such high regard that they believe “it is too great for children to mention.” He explains that they “in their perfect heathenism” called God Cauhtuntootc, and that they would appoint an old man with a loud voice to go around town at bedtime to tell the young people to “go to sleep and not to disturb God.” Occom insists that Christians should know better than to swear. He then states that even though Indians do commit other sins, many of those sins were taught to them by Christians. And since Christians are supposed to be smarter than Indians, who are only “ignorant heathens”, the Christians could be held at fault on Judgment Day. (“Temperance and Morality”)
Occom claims that Christians could also be held accountable for what he discusses in the brief paragraph that follows: diseases. In particular, he calls them “venereal diseases”, which are more commonly referred to today as sexually transmitted diseases. In the next section, which is also brief, he condemns indulging in “whoredom.” He clearly detests it, as he describes it as, “[an] abominable, inhuman, and beastly practice” which is made even worse when supported and accepted by who he refers to as, “polite, learned, and Christian people.” He again brings up the Indians as an example, by asserting that he has never heard of any such practice among them.
In the last two segments he focuses on how gossiping is wrong because it causes people to fight. He brings up the point that humans are supposed to be “rational creatures” and states that such behavior is “unbecoming” of them as such. He spends the remainder of the sermon explaining in great detail examples of what is and is not acceptable to say when speaking about someone behind their back. He ends by again talking about his belief that people can change and better themselves – an idea which people certainly can connect with today.
Samson Occom’s sermons provide a way for people today to see the issues that were faced during his time. They also show the importance of the community and religion at the time. The sermons can even be linked to today, because there are plenty of aspects that continue to hold relevance. Because of this, people reading them may be able to learn from the mistakes or wrongdoings which took place in the past so as not to repeat those actions. Occom addressed issues such as alcoholism, staying focused on things that truly matter, using profanity, sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution, fighting, and gossip. Although individual audience members may connect differently to each topic, they are all things that exist in the world today. And because they are not foreign concepts, people can still connect with them and apply any lessons learned to their own lives or to help improve the lives of others.
Bouwman, Heather, et al. Early Americas Digital Archive. Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Web. 30 September 2012.
Brooks, Joanna. "Six Hymns By Samson Occom." Early American Literature 38.1 (2003): 67-87. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.
Occom, Samson. “A Speech by Brothertown Indian Leader Samson Occom, 1771: A Sermon at the Execution of Moses Paul…” Wisconsin Historical Society. London: Buckland…et al, 1789. Web. 12 December 2012.
Occom, Samson. “Sermon on Matthew 22:42.” Early Americas Digital Archive. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
Occom, Samson. “Sermon on Temperance and Morality.” Early Americas Digital Archive. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.