Book Review Thursday: The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic

HeathenSchool    Author John Demos, an emeritus history professor at Yale University, tells the story of a unique American “utopian” experiment that eventually went awry.  In the summer of 1996 he and his wife were visiting friends in Cornwall, Connecticut when he heard a story that his friends tell him is “just a piece of local history.”  By the time his friends finished the story Demos was intrigued enough to begin his own research and eventually write this book.

Familiarly it was referred to as a “heathen school” although its formal name was the “Foreign Mission School.”  It was conceived of and sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) which had been founded in 1810, inspired by the Second Great Awakening.  Young men, referred to as “scholars” were brought to the school to be educated and ostensibly evangelized them and send them back to their native land to further spread the gospel – or at least that was the plan.

In a few instances their plan succeeded.  Demos relates an extensive story that I found interesting (although a bit tedious at times) of basically how Hawaii, then called the “Sandwich Islands” or referred to as “Owhyhee”, came to be evangelized.  One of their first students was Henry Obookiah, an “exotic” young man who had been orphaned and made his way to New England via Captain Britnall’s ship the Triumph.

Henry and his story were used as a fund-raising tool for the school, and when Henry later became seriously ill and died, his story began to be shared even more extensively.  Other students, some successful at acclimation to American and religious culture and some not, came and went over the years the school was in operation.

The decline of the school, however, ultimately involved what we would term today as racism.  The school had begun to admit more American Indians (Cherokee, Oneida, Choctaw, etc.) to the school.  The story of how two young men, cousins, came to the school and did rather well for themselves and were accepted by the community – that is until they fell in love with white women and wanted to marry them.

It takes awhile for the courtships and eventual marriages to play out in the community, but it was essentially not “good press” for the school.  The story of the two Cherokee men, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, continues as they leave with their brides to head back to their own people in what is now Georgia and eastern Tennessee.  Eventually their story takes a decidedly tragic turn which is intertwined with the infamous “Trail of Tears” where Indians were forced to leave their native lands and re-settle in Indian Territory (later Oklahoma).

The book is a fascinating, although tedious read at times.  I found myself skimming quite a bit at times, but still able to essentially grasp the story and its historical implications (the author quotes quite a bit of original material and historical documentation).  My biggest criticism of the book (reflected in my rating) is how it is laid out.  The central story was laid out in a handful of exceedingly long chapters – that for me was hard to digest as I prefer a more reasonable chapter breakup in books I read.  Just an observation that anyone thinking about reading the book might want to consider.

If you’re interested in early American missionary efforts from a unique historical perspective or the Trail of Tears, then you would likely enjoy the book.

Rating:  ★★★-½

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


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