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  • The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic by John Demos
  • Kelly Wisecup (bio)
The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic john demos New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014 337 pp.

In his latest work, John Demos offers a narrative history of the rise and fall of the Foreign Mission School, or, as the school’s first principal, Edwin Dwight, called it, the “Heathen School.” Founded in Cornwall, Connecticut, the school aimed to educate and convert boys and men of non-European [End Page 948] descent and so-called pagan religious practices. Demos traces the origins of the school to New Englanders’ interest in a young Hawaiian man, Henry Obookiah (or Opukaha’ia), who traveled to the United States on a China trade ship and temporarily lived in the home of Yale’s president, Timothy Dwight, as well as with other New England families. There, Obookiah learned English and encountered Protestant religious beliefs, and his desire for a western education and religion drew much local interest. Building on financial support for his education, trustees from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and New England philanthropists and clergy founded the school with several lofty goals in mind: to educate a group of men who could return to their nations as missionaries, and to spread Anglo-American educational and religious ideals throughout the world. The school educated as many as ninety-five students at one time before the decision to close it in 1826, amid concerns about interracial marriages between several Cherokee students and white women from Cornwall.

For Demos, the story of the Foreign Mission School is a narrative with three themes, and he expertly weaves their histories and contemporary consequences into a compelling text that is at once far reaching and grounded in specificity. Indeed, one of the book’s strengths is the way that it links stories usually considered separately, spanning diverse locales and distinct historical periods. The first theme considered is American exceptionalism, by which Demos means “a generous spirit of outreach toward neighboring peoples and nations, a feeling of obligation—not to say ‘mission’—to make the world as a whole a better place” (4). Admitting that exceptionalism and some of its consequences do have a “downside look,” Demos traces some of the contradictions of America’s “redemptive project” through the school’s story (4). Second, this history encompasses the question of how “we deal with others who are manifestly different from ourselves” (5). And finally, this is a book about failure, or, as the subtitle suggests, of “betrayal.” Demos weaves these themes throughout chapters about the school’s history and the lives of some of its students, as well as “interludes” that reimagine various places—from Hawaii to Cornwall and New Echota, Georgia, the nineteenth-century Cherokee capital—through historical documents and Demos’s own visits to those places (197).

The book initially contextualizes the inspiration for the school in the aforementioned history of American exceptionalism. This story, for [End Page 949] Demos, has New England origins, and so the account of America’s belief that it must share its knowledge and ideals with the world begins with New England’s settlement and continues through the Great Awakenings and the American Revolution. The millennialism and utopianism spawned by these events reached one culmination in the school, for its trustees imagined that the institution would contribute to the project of converting the entire world. Yet as scholars such as Jean M. O’Brien have documented, this exceptionalism was also linked to a denial of Native Americans’ presence in New England (Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England, 2010). World-saving fervor was not, as Demos implies, simply a utopian belief in America’s status as redeemer nation, but was inextricably attached to a denial of native sovereignty and a concomitant redirection of attention from indigenous people in New England to people in Hawaii, India, or the Cherokee Nation.

Such confidence that New England would change the world was challenged when a crisis engulfed the school and threatened its identity by suggesting...


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