“Peace never does any hurt . . . be at Peace among yourselves, and with all men, and the God of Peace Dwell with you.”
Samson Occom was an American Indian missionary who worked to spread Christianity among the tribes in Britain’s northern colonies throughout the eighteenth century. In 1775, as hostilities between American colonial revolutionaries and the British government worsened, Occom wrote the letter “Beloved Brethren,” which he most likely intended to be read by fellow American Indians. In the letter, Occom attempts to convince his readers to remain peaceful rather than become involved in the violence of the tumultuous era. Occom writes that those who live in peace in their hearts and who do good unto their brothers and sisters in the community at large, not merely within their own family, will receive heavenly peace and salvation. However, those willing to commit violence toward others will likewise experience violence in their own lives, as the Christian God is one of “Peace and Love” and cannot tolerate such behavior.
Likely written either to members of the Oneida tribe or to individuals with whom Occom was working to establish an American Indian community in New York, “Beloved Brethren” is an impassioned attempt to encourage his greater community to embrace compassion in a world that was quickly spiraling into a bloody war. His words are frank and unaffected; though his position as an educated missionary afforded him a degree of status, there is no sense of superiority within his address. His letter is an honest plea to help those without Christianity, or those with a weaker sense of faith, find a sense of stability in a tumultuous time.
At the time in which Occom wrote “Beloved Brethren,” many major events in the colonies’ ongoing fight for independence were occurring in the North, where he lived. Tensions between the colonies and the Crown had risen following the imposition of a number of new taxes in the 1760s, and in 1768, British troops occupied Boston. For those living in the northern colonies in particular, the year 1775 was one of fear and uncertainty. This year alone saw the closure of Boston Harbor under the auspices of the series of laws known as the Intolerable Acts, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, the Second Continental Congress, and the Battle of Bunker Hill, among other major events that would dramatically shape the Revolutionary War.
As the letter was not dated, the specific day on which Occom wrote it is unknown, and whether there was any precise event that served as a catalyst for his writing is a matter of conjecture. It seems likely that the letter was written simply in response to the increasing hostilities and tension that Occom feared would spread to the American Indian communities. Thus, Occom sought to provide spiritual reassurance to the tribes of New England. His statement that “peace never does any hurt” is a substantial one and may be read twofold. Living peacefully and expressing peace to one’s family and neighbors is a simple concept. The process does not require anything special, nor any obligations other than to comport oneself harmoniously with others. More to the point, though, and more to Occom’s belief, is the idea that living peacefully means the exclusion of violence toward one’s fellow humans. In the face of war, Occom sought to promote a largely pacifist stance, which derived from his Christian beliefs.
Samson Occom was born in 1723 to Joshua Occom (sometimes spelled Ockham) and his wife, Sarah, members of the Mohegan tribe. In his brief autobiography, “A Short Narrative of My Life” (1768), Occom writes that he lived near New London, Connecticut, and was “Born a Heathen and Brought up In Heathenism” until his teenage years. His narrative states that although Christian missionaries came to his village from time to time, attempting to give lessons in English as well as convert the American Indians to their faith, these attempts initially had little effect on him. After he began to attend meetings held by traveling preachers of his own volition, Occom converted to Christianity.
Along with his newfound aspiration for a Christian life, Occom also strove to educate himself in the English language and sought out help from English neighbors to further his understanding. It was soon after this, in 1743, that he became a student of Reverend Eleazer Wheelock. Over the course of the following decades, Occom worked as a teacher and missionary, visiting and preaching to American Indian tribes in New England and elsewhere. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1759 and traveled to England and Scotland late in the 1760s.
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Occom began to focus on establishing a Christian American Indian community that became known as the Brothertown Indian Nation; the group lived in New York for a time before later settling in Wisconsin. As hostilities between the American colonies and Great Britain escalated, Occom sought to promote peace, arguing in his 1775 letter “Beloved Brethren” that it would be best for American Indians not to “intermeddle in these Quarrils among the White People.” However, he supported the revolutionary cause in principal, believing that the British government was oppressing the people of the colonies. After the United States gained its independence, Occom resumed his travels and promotion of Christianity among American Indians and continued to work in support of the Brothertown community. He died in New Stockbridge, New York, in 1792.
Written as it was, “Beloved Brethren” may be read in two different ways. First, it may be read as being directed to anyone in need of religious guidance and a means of understanding the events unfolding around them. Occom implores his readers to live their lives according to the laws of God—namely, to live in peace. In doing so, they would find themselves protected by God. Seeing human beings living harmoniously with one another, God would then reward them with peace in their time and salvation after their deaths. Those who sought to commit violence during their lives—especially violence toward others—lived against God’s laws. Therefore, Occom believed, such people would not find God’s peace. Such individuals would only find themselves surrounded by what they had created themselves. Therefore, it is better for people to remain peaceful. “Peace,” Occom writes, “never does any hurt.”
“Beloved Brethren” may also be read as being specifically directed toward American Indians, or at least toward those who were both literate in English and familiar with Christian teachings. Two pieces of evidence strongly suggest this to be the case. The first is Occom’s closing, in which he identifies himself as the recipient’s “true brother.” Being a true American Indian would hold a special meaning for others of his background. Those living within the various tribes of the northern colonies would likely not have responded well to being lectured by yet another white missionary who presumed to tell them how to go about their lives and whether they should involve themselves in conflicts. In identifying himself as an American Indian, Occom indicates that he is not an outsider but a member of the group and thus is able to share his religious views with his community and show how Christianity could better the lives of his peers. He wished to help them make their lives better; he was their true brother. The second indication that Occom intended the letter to be read by other American Indians is that Occom specifically uses the phrase “white people,” cautioning his readers not to become involved in their affairs. In particular, Occom warns his readers against getting involved in the quarrels of the American Revolution, which he describes as disputes among white people.
Some scholars have suggested that Occom wrote his letter to members of the Oneida tribe, who lived largely in New York. Others have suggested that the letter was addressed to members of Occom’s Brothertown initiative, which sought to create a community made up of Christian American Indians from a number of northeastern tribes. Regardless of which interpretation is correct, it seems likely that the letter was intended mainly to provide advice to American Indians regarding their role in the worsening conflict between the colonies and Great Britain. As an American Indian writing to other members of his community, Occom may have been more successful in promoting Christian ideas of peace than white missionaries making the same attempt.
As a missionary, Occom worked with his mentor, Wheelock, to convert other American Indians to Christianity. An educated Christian Indian, Occom was able to approach and preach to potential converts in a more effective manner than a missionary of European descent. However, Occom and Wheelock had different views on conversion and assimilation. In her essay “Conversion, Identity, and the Indian Missionary,” scholar Keely McCarthy discusses these conflicting views. She argues that Occom displayed his true American Indian identity to his potential converts, presenting himself as a Mohegan who was educated and worshipped Christ. Wheelock and his peers, however, felt that conversion was directly tied to assimilation—that is, in order to adopt the Christian religion, American Indians also had to adopt the English way of life. Indeed, some sources assert that Occom did, in fact, assimilate and required his students to do so as well.
While some have claimed that Occom shed his American Indian self in exchange for his English education and Christian values, his writings indicate that he thought of himself as an American Indian as well as a devout Christian. He endeavored to better himself through learning and to gain spiritual peace through his new religion; in both areas, he showed his brethren that it was possible to do so while holding steadfast to his own traditions. Scholars such as Joanna Brooks have analyzed the dual Christian and American Indian elements in his writings, particularly in the various hymns he wrote throughout his lifetime. In her essay “Six Hymns by Samson Occom,” Brooks examines the American Indian traditions found throughout Occom’s Christian hymns. She argues that Christian Indians viewed tribal song in general and hymnody in particular as effecting reconciliation between the individual and the community, the dead and the living, the past and the present. Brooks also states that the repetition typically found within Occom’s musical works builds on tribal tradition, as repetition was a notable element within traditional American Indian music.
It has also been argued that the more American Indians were converted and assimilated, the more they lost hold of their language and oral traditions. However, Brooks notes that, at times, written works by American Indians incorporated elements of such traditions. Occom’s hymns, incorporating both Christian and American Indian imagery, helped his brethren cope with the times in which they lived and preserved tradition musical and performative styles. Elements of such American Indian traditions are evident in “Beloved Brethren.” Repetition, for instance, is used to great effect. Occom reiterates his point about the Christian idea of peace several times, and he repeats the word “peace” more than ten times in the short letter. These strategies further emphasized his message and likely appealed to his American Indian readers.
In addition to offering spiritual guidance during uncertain times, “Beloved Brethren” also attempts to educate the reader about the events of the day. Occom’s status as a member of the American Indian community lent him a degree of social and political influence, and as someone who had spent a great deal of time interacting with the people of the colonies, he had a perhaps more in-depth understanding of the ongoing disputes between the American colonists and the British government. Occom saw King George III as a tyrant who, unlike the previous kings, sought to enslave the American colonists. Occom very clearly held no respect for members of the upper classes of Britain who were content for their brethren to live far below them, writing, “They are very Proud and they keep the rest of their Brethren under their Feet, they make Slaves of them. They great ones have got all the Land and the rest are poor.” Clearly, Occom did not understand or approve of the disparity between the classes. While he does not elaborate on the topic, it is possible that this sentiment was influenced by Occom’s belief in the overall community ethic of American Indian tribes, which differed somewhat from the economic systems in place in the colonial towns.
In light of his disapproval of the class disparity in British culture and the actions of the British king, Occom writes that his readers “must see who is the oppresser and who are the oppressed.” As the revolutionaries are members of an oppressed populace who are revolting against their oppressors and are “oblig’d to Defend themselves” against British forces, Occom considers their cause to be morally justified. Therefore, while he urges his brethren to remain peaceful and not “intermeddle” in such disputes, he notes that should any American Indians become involved, they should work to aid the oppressed parties rather than the oppressors. This injunction was also in keeping with Christian beliefs, which stress the importance of caring for those who are weak or oppressed and of fighting oppression. Peace nevertheless remains the ideal state, Occom asserts.
In “Beloved Brethren,” Occom attempts to convince his fellow American Indians to adopt the Christian ideal of peace in the face of increasing hostilities between the people of the colonies and the government of Great Britain. His lesson in the letter is simple: Follow God’s laws, and peace will be found. Those who lead peaceful lives will be rewarded by God with salvation. As an American Indian, Occom found himself at odds with the expectations of missionaries who assumed that once he converted to Christianity, his American Indian self would disappear. However, Occom did not forsake his background for their appeasement and instead showed that Christianity and Mohegan traditions and culture were not mutually exclusive. To others in the Mohegan community, and the greater American Indian community at large, Occom provided assurance that they would not necessarily lose significant parts of themselves if they chose to convert. Ultimately, Occom sought to encourage people in general, and American Indians in particular, to follow Christian teachings and live in harmony with others because, as he writes, “the Lord Jesus Christ says, Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God.”
During the era in which Occom wrote “Beloved Brethren,” assimilation was a significant concern among American Indians and European American residents of the colonies, the northern colonies in particular. Some American Indians, such as Occom, adopted elements of European religion, language, and social values while retaining aspects of traditional culture. Others, however, rejected even those elements of colonial life. Though she is not mentioned in “Beloved Brethren,” Occom’s wife, Mary, serves as an intriguing example of this sort of resistance.
Occom married Mary Fowler, believed by some scholars to have been one of his students, in 1751. The Occoms initially lived in a wigwam in the Montauk American Indian community and started their own family before eventually settling into an English-style house. In her essay “Mary Occom and Sarah Simon: Gender and Native Literacy in Colonial New England,” scholar Hilary E. Wyss asserts that Mary Occom actively resisted assimilation, both through her use of language and her traditional style of dress. While her husband used his knowledge of English to educate himself about Christianity and promote the religion among American Indians, Mary, according to Wyss, resisted assimilation through her refusal to speak English. Wyss cites a contemporary account that states that when Occom spoke to Mary in English, she typically responded in her native language. It seems that Mary wished to demonstrate that her knowledge of English would in no way impede her heritage. Acquiring and holding this knowledge but refusing to use it served as a means by which Mary could establish her resistance to assimilation.
The assimilation of American Indians and other ethnic or cultural groups remained a subject of concern throughout the centuries after Occom’s death, particularly as large waves of immigrants from a variety of countries began to arrive in the United States. The arrival of such groups and the efforts among certain American Indian populations to reclaim elements of their traditional cultures have prompted a great deal of debate about whether and to what extent assimilation is necessary. As in the case of Occom and his wife, language and religion have remained primary areas of assimilation or cultural resistance.
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