The Heathen School

One way of looking at the story of the Foreign Mission School, or “Heathen School,” of Cornwall, Connecticut, is that it was founded in presumption and ended in hypocrisy. Established in 1817, the tiny institution sought to convert “heathens” into Christian missionaries and produce spokesmen for American principles. The school, however, operated for only nine years before being closed down in 1826, after two American Indian students became involved with local (white) young women. But this crude summary ignores the welter of other conflicting, competing, and augmenting aspects of the story set forth by John Demos in The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic. Instead of a simplistic illustration of specious do-gooding, the work is a complex account of a number of linked episodes in American history and their tragic aftermath, 1,500 miles away from their point of origin.

The founding of the Foreign Mission School reflected not only the upwelling of Christian fervor for spreading the Word at home and abroad that attended the Second Great Awakening, but also the young republic’s burgeoning conviction that it was in the vanguard of a new age of self-government and freedom. Demos, who has a gift for the telling quotation, gives a wealth of examples of this exultant rhetoric, including that of John Adams, who saw the country’s recent history as “the opening of a grand scene…for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.”

The school’s first students included a number of Hawaiians, a Canadian Indian, two Indians from India itself, and a couple of Yankees, already Christian and English speaking but seeking to gain experience with “heathens” before being sent off on missionary work. In the years that followed nearly 100 students attended the school, an increasing proportion of which were American Indians from the Southeast; these were followed in number by Pacific Islanders and East Asians. A few Europeans, including a German Jew, also attended, as did one Mexican and a dozen Yankees. All the students were instructed in English (which, of all languages “contains more of the elements of civilization and moral reformation than all others united”) and religion. Beyond that the subjects ranged from Latin and Hebrew to natural history and mathematics. Manual labor, chiefly agricultural, was expected of all the students.

As important as anything going on within the school, however, were public relations and fundraising. These are aspects upon which Demos devotes much warranted attention, and indeed the mood of the new republic included a large note of boosterism, with many Christians in this religiously aroused era seeing the independent, self-governing nation’s very existence as a harbinger of the glorious millennium. Rosy reports of the school’s progress and missionary promise were issued by its supporters, and its greatest publicity coup emerged from what had seemed at first a terrible blow: the death of the most charismatic and highly touted of the original students, a Hawaiian. But nineteenth-century spin transformed the tragedy into an inspirational event and the young man into a martyr who “had come to this country to teach Christians how to die.”    

The school’s message was not aimed solely at those who agreed with its aims and might be persuaded to open their wallets but was also designed to offset the diverse objections of its detractors. In fact, as Demos points out, critical views of the school and its goals grew in tandem with the school itself. At one end of the spectrum was the objection that institutions like this would undermine the separation between church and state. At the other, less edifying end, was the argument that savages were simply incapable of civilization, and that the project was futile and delusional. Other critics were convinced that all the attention paid to the students was puffing them up beyond reason; others that these “scholars” were sunk in luxury and indolence; and yet others again, that the whole thing was an “Indian show,” a mere spectacle put on to bilk the credulous of donations. Then there was the more general point made in some circles that women, who by their nature were especially prey to “the great missionary delusion” and thus more active in missionary causes than men, were developing an inflated view of their power, becoming filled “with all manner of conceits, pride, vanity, self-consequence, haughty and domineering propensities.”  

The public image of the school was a good deal more propitious than the reality from any point of view. During its entire run, only about a quarter of its students were converted to Christianity (“the madness of paganism” clearly “enwrought into the very structure of their minds”). Moreover, many of those sent out as missionaries relapsed into “heathen” ways, and a number went so far as to fall into drunkenness and sexual license. Within the school itself, some students felt too dislocated from their communities to thrive; others presented disciplinary problems, chiefly dissipation and thievery. Factions and resentments arose, much of this a consequence of galling inequalities, the result of many of the American Indians having come from well-off families who provided them with fine clothes, luxuries, and a superior attitude.

Soon enough, the Mission Board itself began to have reservations about the school and took the opportunity to close it down when John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, two Cherokee students, become engaged to two white women, whom they subsequently married. Demos tells the story of these difficult romances and the upset they caused — in the school, missionary community, town, and nation — in fascinating human detail.

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. He follows the careers of Ridge and Boudinot, who had returned with their wives to the Cherokee Nation in Georgia: in Ridge’s case to take up farming, to which end, it might be added, he worked a dozen or so slaves; in Boudinot’s, to run the nation’s newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix.

Both men assumed leading roles in the Cherokee struggle against their impending removal from Georgia to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, an eviction designed to open their land to white settlers. But in time both men switched sides, claiming that it was better to submit to the inevitable in the hope of receiving compensation and assistance and to avoid bloodshed. This did not sit well with the majority of their fellow Cherokee, nor does it sit especially well with the reader — safe at home, to be sure, in the twenty-first century. The two men went so far as to court the favor of that notorious Indian killer in the White House, Andrew Jackson, Ridge even naming one of his children after him. Both Ridge and Boudinot signed the treaty that followed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and culminated in the infamous Trail of Tears. In another painful detail, Ridge went on to capitalize on the forced transfer, operating a general store and setting up as a moneylender to the beaten-down Cherokees trudging into Oklahoma. And the story, told by Demos with such scrupulousness, erudition, and talent for illustrative quotation, does not end there. But I shall leave the last, terrible chapter of this intricate, multifaceted history for you to confront on your own.