Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Samson Occom and John Sergeant Jr

A photo of present-day Madison County, New York (courtesy of Carleen Vandezande).
While it could be said that the white Calvinist establishment was responsible for the betrayal of Samson Occom, I don't think of John Sergeant [Jr.] as being part of the Calvinist establishment. In fact, I read somewhere that he was not even ordained as a minister until late in his career. Sergeant just didn't have enough Calvinist orthodoxy in him to be an insider. On the other hand, Samson Occom, despite being an orthodox Presbyterian, was discriminated against for being an Indian.

For quite a few years, Rev. Occom was on good terms with John Sergeant. In his journal, Occom noted a number of times in which he ate with Sergeant, or stayed at Sergeant's house while traveling [see entries from July 15, 1774 to August 30, 1786]. In one 1774 entry, Occom even referred to the son of the first missionary on the Housatonic River as "good Mr. Sergeant." The Revolutionary War would later force Occom's people, the Brothertown Indians, to retreat to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which likely brought the two men into more frequent contact. They must have known each other quite well.

John Sergeant and his family didn't make the New York migration with the tribe. In the wake of the Revolutionary War, the philanthropists in London would no longer pay his salary and he knew the Indians couldn't pay it themselves. He just kept in touch with them well enough to make reports to other ministers in Boston. Some of those ministers eventually put together a mission society of their own. Meanwhile, beginning in 1785, Rev. Occom's Sunday worship services alternated in location between Brothertown and New Stockbridge, which were about six miles apart (Love, pages 279-280). On August 29, 1787, some Stockbridge leaders wrote to Rev. Samson Occom asking him to "settle with" them and minister to them on a more formal basis. They offered only twenty shillings, but it was something, at least. (A letter Occom wrote to clergy residing near Albany on December 26, 1791 tells us, however, that more than three years went by before he actually moved his family to New Stockbridge.)

Back in Massachusetts, the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America was incorporated, and on October 25, 1787 - just two months after Occom's call. They appointed John Sergeant to work and live among the Indians at New Stockbridge and to receive a salary of fifty pounds sterling.

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