Educating ‘Heathens’ And Testing The Boundaries Of Tolerance

In 2010 the Cornwall Historical Society mounted an exhibition on the Foreign Mission School. It included this scale model of its "Academy building." (Courtesy of the Cornwall Historical Society)

In 2010 the Cornwall Historical Society mounted an exhibition on the Foreign Mission School. It included this scale model of its “Academy building.” (Courtesy Cornwall Historical Society)

In 1816, the town of Cornwall, Conn. launched a remarkable experiment. It was called the Foreign Mission School, but its informal name is probably more revealing. “The Heathen School” set out to find promising young men from as far away as China, India, the Pacific Islands and Native American nations, educate them in the ways of Christianity and “civilization” and see them return to their native lands to become doctors, ministers and leaders.

The Heathen School was founded with the best of intentions. It was to be a true early melting pot of people and ideas that exemplified American potential and ideals. It worked, for a time, until the melting pot experiment turned into a tragic demonstration of the limits of American tolerance.

This failed experiment is described in the new book “The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic.”


John Demos, Samuel Knight Professor Emeritus of history at Yale University. On April 17, Demos will be speaking at the Boston Athenaeum at 12 p.m. and at the Harvard Book Store at 7 p.m.


WBUR: What U.S. Learned From ‘Heathen School’ Wasn’t Part Of The Lesson Plan

    • “Picture this. You’re a young girl, living in a remote town in Connecticut in 1825. You’ve taken refuge in a neighbor’s house and, as night falls, you peek out a window to see your friends and family members assembling outdoors around two crude paintings: One is of a young white woman (you); the other painting is of a man, a Native American.”

Wall Street Journal: Book Review: ‘The Heathen School’ By John Demos

    • “In 1809, or so the legend goes, a dark-skinned young man in ragged clothing was observed loitering in front of the main entrance of Yale College in New Haven, Conn. When students stopped to ask him what was the matter, he is said to have replied, in halting English, that ‘nobody gives me learning.'”

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