John Demos. The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic. New York: Vintage, 2014. 368 pp. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-679-78112-7.
Reviewed by John Frederick Bell (Harvard University)
Published on H-AmRel (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Bobby L. Smiley (Vanderbilt University)
John Demos’s book recounts the rise and fall of the Foreign Mission School, an ambitious project of international and interracial religious education in the Early Republic. The American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions founded the institution in 1817. Their goal was to train young men from all corners of the globe to carry Christianity and “civilization” back to their homelands. Demos’s narrative transforms the little-known history of the school and its students into a case study in the origins of American exceptionalism and an object lesson in the conflict between race, religion, and equality.
Early chapters of The Heathen School set the scene for the American Board’s audacious experiment. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the China trade set America’s sights far beyond its borders. Protestant leaders, believing it the nation’s special mission to convert the world, mobilized missionary campaigns to the Pacific and elsewhere. Demos uses the story of Henry Obookiah, a native Hawaiian, to illustrate how these efforts shaped the lives of indigenous individuals and inspired the creation of the Foreign Mission School. American merchants brought Obookiah to New England in 1809 to receive a Western education. Prominent clergy such as Timothy Dwight of Yale became his patrons and promoters, overseeing his studies and publicizing his exploits. As other Sandwich Islanders arrived to follow in Obookiah’s footsteps, enthusiasm for starting a school for “heathen” youth grew among members of the American Board. Cornwall, Connecticut, won a bidding war for the school site and donated a building in the town center for its use.
The new academy would educate indigenous men, nurture their conversion, and ultimately prepare them for missionary service to their home countries. Gathering students from around the globe under one roof served important symbolic purposes by declaring America both the agent and the proving ground of the Christian millennium. And in an age of race-based slavery, universal education affirmed both the intellectual and spiritual fitness of nonwhite people. The diversity of the student body would manifest the American Board’s commitment to “‛evangelizing the world’” (p. 34). In the beginning, the school’s multiracial ethos succeeded. Along with donations came students: more Hawaiians, some South Asians, a few whites, and the first of many Native Americans, who made up a majority of matriculates by 1819.
In the school’s prime, the student body averaged thirty to thirty-five pupils. Its classical curriculum resembled those of other secondary programs at the time. Examinations took place as part of public exhibitions, during which students also sang, prayed, and performed skits reenacting their transition from “savagery” to “civilization.” Local audiences relished these events, which helped stoke enthusiasm for the school’s mission and sustain its coffers. Harmonious performances masked some of the school’s internal problems, including language barriers, disciplinary issues, and disease. Romances between foreign students and white townswomen proved more difficult to hide, however.
Cornwall had played host to a white-Indian marriage in the mid-eighteenth century, but as Demos shows, “the 1820s were a different time” (p. 143). Resentment for some tribes’ support of the British amplified stereotypes of Indian “savagery,” while pseudoscientific justifications for slavery propagated notions of inherent and inexorable racial difference. Even those who endorsed racial “amalgamation” imagined pairing white men and Indian women in order to subordinate Native culture in the service of white “civilization.” Thus, in 1824 when the daughter of the Mission School’s steward married John Ridge, son of a Cherokee chieftain, they created an uproar among local whites and consternation among the American Board. Intermarriage tested the limits of the school’s universalism. Demos writes: “while not explicitly condemning the marriage, school authorities distanced themselves from it as much as possible…. Plainly, their greatest concern was to preserve the school’s good name” (pp. 156-157). Yet the damage to its reputation was done—redone, in fact, when another Cherokee student, Elias Boudinot, became engaged to a white woman. That pair married in 1826. The same year, facing declining enrollment, scarce funds, and widespread public opposition, the Foreign Mission School closed.
Demos ably demonstrates how disagreements over these interracial marriages played out in the press, on the town green, and within families. Scholars of race and religion will appreciate his analysis of these debates, which reflect the larger conflict between Christian egalitarianism and color prejudice in early American religion. And historians of the Jacksonian era will gain a richer understanding of Indian Removal from Demos’s account of Boudinot and Ridge’s educational experience. In time, both became leaders of the Treaty Party supporting Cherokee emigration. Parsing their arguments in favor of removal, Demos finds an “intense concern with degradation, contamination, and pollution through contact with racial and cultural others”—in short, the logic of their white antagonists “framed … in reverse” (p. 259, author’s italics).
As he endeavors to untangle such knotty subjects, Demos pauses periodically to recount his visits to the sites associated with his story. These interludes lend a sense of place but do not substantially advance his argument. Greater attention to what Demos calls “the bitter irony” of Native slaveholding would help shed light on the significance of blackness to the larger question of color in the Early Republic, a topic fruitfully explored by such scholars as Barbara Krauthamer, Tiya Miles, and Gary Zellar (p. 247). Nevertheless, The Heathen School represents an important contribution to studies of race, missions, and education in the early nineteenth century. Demos’s tragic narrative recovers the initial exhilaration and ultimate despair of the American Board’s experiment. Within nine years, a project considered providential crumbled before the emergent realities of racism. The failure of the Foreign Mission School portended the drawing of a color line across much of the American religious landscape in the ensuing years.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-amrel.
John Frederick Bell. Review of Demos, John, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic.
H-AmRel, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|