I have been away from Frost Library for the past month on a short (three month) research leave. My research project is to explore the printing history of one of the texts we acquired as part of the Younghee Kim-Wait (Class of 1982)/Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection: A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, An Indian by Samson Occom.

Samson Occom. A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul. New-London: T. Green, 1772.
Samson Occom. A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul. New-London: T. Green, 1772.

This copy of “The Fourth Edition” arrived at Amherst as part of the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Collection. It is generally regarded as the first book published by a Native American author as his own work. At the end of 2014, we received an earlier edition from alumnus Peter Webb (Class of 1974), which I wrote about here. That blog post from January also includes some information about the other editions of Occom’s Sermon held in the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College. We have two New-London editions, two copies of the 1788 London, England edition, the 1805 Springfield, MA edition, and the 1827 Welsh edition. My interest was piqued, and I began to dig in to the scholarship on Occom to see just how many editions of this text are known to exist.

In 2006, Oxford University Press published The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan: Leadership and Literature in Eighteenth-Century Native Americaedited by Joanna Brooks. In her biographical sketch of Occom that opens the volume she writes: “A Sermon, Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, An Indian was first published on October 31, 1772. It subsequently went through nineteen editions, ranking Occom as the sixth leading author in the American colonies during the 1770s” (23). This information only deepened my interest and I continued to dig. Other sources repeated the “nineteen editions” statement, and I recently turned up the source of that number: Samson Occom and the Christian Indians of New England by W. DeLoss Love, a biography originally published in 1899.

In his book, Love notes the popularity of the Sermon and lists nineteen different editions in a footnote on pages 174-175. He also says “There may have been others which we have not met with or seen noted by bibliographers” (174). It soon became clear to me that I had discovered a gap in Occom scholarship that neatly fit my professional training and interests. Love’s own lack of bibliographical knowledge is revealed by his description of ALL printings of the Sermon as octavo, when the majority are clearly quartos. Although there has been some excellent recent scholarship on Occom from a book history perspective, there was a lack of old-school bibliographical data — basic information on the number of editions and the when, where, and why of their publication.

I began my search with two online resources, one free to all, the other a subscription database available through Frost Library. The English Short Title Catalog is freely available via the British Library and is one of the best sources for bibliographical information on books, pamphlets, broadsides, and other printed material produced prior to 1801 in British Isles, Colonial America, United States of America (1776-1800), Canada, or territories governed by Britain, in all languages. (You can read more about its history and scope here.)  The other handy resource, though not available for free, is The Early American Imprints Series, parts I and II, which is one of many databases Amherst College pays to access via NewsBank/Readex. Though diligent searching of these databases, I assembled a list of twenty-two separate editions of Occom’s Sermon.

But database searching was just the first step in my ongoing quest; I am determined to personally inspect as many copies of each edition as I possibly can. It’s important to understand what the term “edition” means, both its technical definition as well as the larger implications. For the technical definition, we turn to Principles of Bibliographical Description by Fredson Bowers:

An EDITION is the whole number of copies of a book printed at any time or times from substantially the same setting of type-pages. (39)

To stick with our two New-London editions for now, what this means is that T. Green (or someone in his shop) picked out each tiny piece of metal type, set it up on the press, printed however many copies they needed, then put all those pieces of type away so they could be used to print something else. Which means that the first New-London edition and the fourth New-London edition, while reproducing the same text, will have some differences.

As luck would have it, I had to make a trip to Philadelphia a couple weeks ago, so I arranged my travel to leave plenty of time for a visit to the Library Company of Philadelphia, where I had identified seven editions of the Sermon. Based on the basic information in their catalog, they appeared to have two copies of the 1772 New Haven edition, so I asked to see both.

New Haven editions. Images courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.
New Haven editions. Images courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

It was apparent the moment I saw the second copy that there were two separate settings of type here. Page-by-page comparison of the contents of each copy made it clear that these books were produced from entirely separate settings of type. Already my twenty-two editions was bumped up to twenty-three.

But what does that mean? What insight can we gain into Occom’s life and work by nit-picking over the exact number of editions of this work? Achieving a more accurate count is just the first phase of this project, but I am already starting to make some interesting connections and raise new questions. At the most basic level, each edition is an indicator of consumer demand. No colonial printer would take on the time, labor, and materials costs of typesetting, printing, and binding unless they thought someone would purchase their product. Knowing that there were two New Haven editions instead of just one tells us that there was ongoing demand for this work in and around New Haven after the first edition sold out. Knowing that a total of three separate editions were printed just down the road in New-London in 1772-73 suggests an even greater degree of popular demand.

It will take me a long time to complete my physical inspection of the copies available in the collections of the Northeast — I spent a fruitful day at the American Antiquarian Society last week, and next week I will visit New York Public Library and the New-York Historical Society. I have also expanded my search to include other printed material related to the execution of Moses Paul, such as broadsides, newspaper articles, and another pamphlet — none of which were authored by Samson Occom. What has begun to emerge is a sense of the execution of Moses Paul as a media event that involved multiple participants, rather than the story of a single sermon by a single author.

One thought on “Research Leave Progress Report: Samson Occom

  1. I am curious to know how your Occom research project is progressing. Have you found any additional editions of his sermon?

    I would also like to ask if you have perhaps run across a letter (or advertising for such) written by fellow Mohegan Joseph Johnson.


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