The Heathen School
A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic
By John Demos
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780679455103, 352pp.)
Publication Date: March 18, 2014
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Longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award
The astonishing story of a unique missionary project—and the America it embodied—from award-winning historian John Demos.
Near the start of the nineteenth century, as the newly established United States looked outward toward the wider world, a group of eminent Protestant ministers formed a grand scheme for gathering the rest of mankind into the redemptive fold of Christianity and “civilization.” Its core element was a special school for “heathen youth” drawn from all parts of the earth, including the Pacific Islands, China, India, and, increasingly, the native nations of North America. If all went well, graduates would return to join similar projects in their respective homelands. For some years, the school prospered, indeed became quite famous. However, when two Cherokee students courted and married local women, public resolve—and fundamental ideals—were put to a severe test.
The Heathen School follows the progress, and the demise, of this first true melting pot through the lives of individual students: among them, Henry Obookiah, a young Hawaiian who ran away from home and worked as a seaman in the China Trade before ending up in New England; John Ridge, son of a powerful Cherokee chief and subsequently a leader in the process of Indian “removal”; and Elias Boudinot, editor of the first newspaper published by and for Native Americans. From its birth as a beacon of hope for universal “salvation,” the heathen school descends into bitter controversy, as American racial attitudes harden and intensify. Instead of encouraging reconciliation, the school exposes the limits of tolerance and sets off a chain of events that will culminate tragically in the Trail of Tears.
In The Heathen School, John Demos marshals his deep empathy and feel for the textures of history to tell a moving story of families and communities—and to probe the very roots of American identity.
John Demos is the Samuel Knight Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University. His previous books includeThe Unredeemed Captive, which won the Francis Parkman Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Entertaining Satan, which won the Bancroft Prize. He lives in Tyringham, MA.
The 19th century, Connecticut school sought to convert young men from Hawaii, China, India and the Native American nations and then send them home as Christian missionaries. It did not go as planned. More at NPR.org
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Praise for The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic:
"Absorbing . . . considerable narrative skills are again on display . . . the men and women in his stories come alive across the centuries . . . The book is peopled with a long cast of interesting characters—preachers, professors, philanthropists, missionaries, tribal chiefs."
—Melanie KirkPatrick, The Wall Street Journal
"Strange and fascinating narrative history . . . Demos gracefully interweaves the two couples' stories with the historical and intellectual context in which they took place, raising key questions (espically, and devestatingly, '[m] not the heathen prefer to remain as they were?')."
—Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe
"Cornwall, a small community in northwestern Connecticut, would seem to have been an unlikely place to launch a campaign to save the world. But as John Demos recounts in this wonderfully crafted, deeply disturbing narrative, that is precisely what happened during the early decades of the 19th century. . . This splendid reconstruction of everyday life. . . Demos. . . describes what happened at Cornwall as a story of 'high hopes, valiant effort, leading to eventual tragic defeat.'"
—The American Scholar
“Engrossing . . . When John Demos came upon the story of the Heathen School, it was presented to him as mere local lore. But the seasoned historian recognized there was a lot going on in that little schoolhouse. It gave him a window into both the early 19th century evangelical movement as well as the shifting American attitudes toward racial mixing . . . Demos intersperses his historical narrative with short personal essays of on-the-road reportage, in which he travels to Hawaii, where some of the school's most famous students hailed from, as well as to the Cherokee Nation home sites of the Boudinot and Ridge families . . . The Heathen School is a provocative addition to recent narrative histories that explore how racial categories and attitudes have changed over time in America.”
—Maureen Corrigan, NPR Books
“I consider John Demos a superbly gifted scholar and writer . . . the appearance of this finely crafted, fascinating book can be a reason for celebration. Demos tells us how the story of a mission school in a small New England town connects to global events and major concepts of its era . . this book demonstrates the power of historical narrative to illuminate ideas and issues that shaped the American past . . . This tale is filled with surprises . . . [The] larger historical lessons that John Demos provides make for absorbing reading.”
—Clyde A. Milner II, The History Book Club
"A complex account of a number of linked episodes in American history and their tragic aftermath . . . It is in noticing countercurrents, complexities, and contradictions that Demos's greatness as a historian lies, and his consideration of all aspects of unfolding events shows to truly arresting effect in the rest of the story told here. . . Such scrupulousness, erudition, and talent."
“John Demos . . . has gifted us with a historical opus . . . The book is outstanding in many ways. Primary among them, it is beautifully written — the mixing of Demos’ craftsmanship and early melodious borrowed quotes . . . wonderfully executed impressions of his personal sojourns around today’s Cornwall and Hawaii. As the professor reminds us, The Heathen School was at one point ‘poised on the threshold of a new project, whose aim was nothing less than to save the world.’”
—Barbara Hall, Providence Journal
"Much-needed . . . Demos shows how the founders' dreams fell victim to racial bigotry within both the student body itself and in the greater Cornwell community . . . This brilliant work is highly recommended"
—Library Journal (starred)
"A poignant, well-researched historical vignette of how changing the world weighs on the individual shoulders bearing the task."
“Demos, a Yale historian and master of micro-history (Bancroft and Parkman Prize winner for Unredeemed Captive), turns his attention here to a well-intentioned 1820s effort to create a Connecticut school to Christianize “heathens” (mostly Indians and Hawaiians) and send them forth to missionize . . . Demos tells this tall with scarcely hidden feeling. His research is characteristically prodigious, his writing disarming, and his story captivating and of national resonance.”
"Demos manages a sly, significant feat in this historical study/personal exploration. . . In “interludes” alternating with his historical narrative, Demos chronicles his visits to the places involved—e.g., Hawaii, Cornwall—in order to impart a personal commitment to this collective American tragedy. A slow-building saga that delivers a powerful final wallop."
—Kirkus (Starred Review)
"No one knows early New England better than historian John Demos. . . he has used the letters, diaries and other documents of the era to bring whole towns and their leading characters virtually back to life, writing about them with a scholar's precision, a storyteller's imagination and, not least important, a large heart. . . If one of Demos' hallmarks as a writer is his subtle interpretations of his sources, another is his sensitive rendering of his subjects, almost always in their own words. . . the book is not only illuminating, it is, at times, positively gripping."
—Elinor Langer, The Oregonian
"Demos . . . places the history of the Mission School in the context of quintessentially American optimism about the universal salvation and, alas, distinictively American racial intolerence . . . [a] textured account this utopian experiment in acculturation is engrossing and, at times, poignant."
—Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa World
“The masterful account of a utopian 19th century experiment in education -- one that goes painfully awry. A splendidly nuanced, wholly absorbing tale; patiently, brilliantly, John Demos coaxes unexpected lessons from a singular collision of enlightenment and assimilation.”
—Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Cleopatra: A Life
“Demos has done it again, finding macroscopic meanings within a microscopic locale, which in this instance is a school in Cornwall, Connecticut, designed to civilize heathens into mainstream American culture in the early years of the nineteenth century. The best of intentions have the worst of consequences in this story, and the tragedies that almost inevitably ensue are like tombstones telling the saddest story of all. In my judgment, no one know how to manage this material as well as Demos, disdaining moralistic judgments and condescending appraisals in favor of an elegiac tone that makes us all complicitous in ‘the tragedy.’”
—Joseph J. Ellis, author of Revolutionary Summer
“This moving, engrossing history of an early American experiment in multicultural education charts the collision between soaring aims and human limitations. An evangelical boarding school in a remote Connecticut town aimed at the romantic, hugely ambitious goal of converting the world’s heathens to Protestantism. Instead, conflict over interracial marriage became emblematic of Americans’ failure to fulfill their highest dreams. Embedding personal stories in the long history of Anglo-Americans encounter with “others,” Demos weaves a compelling tale that invites us to reflect on the meaning of the nation’s struggles towards equality.”
—Richard D. Brown, author of The Strength of a People
“The global meets the local as rarely before in The Heathen School, an eye-opening story about a stunningly cosmopolitan community in the heart of early national New England. John Demos uses his powerful literary gifts and insight to animate the experiences of people brought together by love, learning, and loss, across dramatic cultural divides. Imaginative, compassionate, and exquisitely written, this book will change your understanding of America’s founding project to make a difference for the world—and to make our different peoples into a national whole.”
—Maya Jasanoff, author of Liberty’s Exiles
“In 1816, in a small town in Connecticut, wide-eyed Christian missionaries opened a school for ‘heathens,’ hoping to train young men from the four corners of the world to spread the word of God. John Demos’s deeply moving account of the school’s rise and fall tells at once of its founders’ grand ambitions and its students’ tangled fates. ‘The hills of little Cornwall/Themselves are dreams,’ the poet Mark Van Doren once wrote. Demos, a consummate storyteller, has written a parable about the nature of the American experiment itself: the hills and valleys of our dreams.”
—Jill Lepore, author of Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin