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John Demos: The Heathen School

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Date and time
Thursday, April 17, 2014

Harvard Book Store welcomed Yale professor and National Book Award finalist John Demos for a discussion of his book The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic in conversation with Megan Marshall, author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Near the start of the nineteenth century, as the newly established United States looked outward toward the wider world, a group of eminent Protestant ministers formed a grand scheme for gathering the rest of mankind into the redemptive fold of Christianity and "civilization." Its core element was a special school for "heathen youth" drawn from all parts of the earth, including the Pacific Islands, China, India, and, increasingly, the native nations of North America. If all went well, graduates would return to join similar projects in their respective homelands. For some years, the school prospered, indeed became quite famous. However, when two Cherokee students courted and married local women, public resolve 'and fundamental ideals' were put to a severe test. The Heathen School follows the progress, and the demise, of this first true melting pot through the lives of individual students: among them, Henry Obookiah, a young Hawaiian who ran away from home and worked as a seaman in the China Trade before ending up in New England; John Ridge, son of a powerful Cherokee chief and subsequently a leader in the process of Indian "removal"; and Elias Boudinot, editor of the first newspaper published by and for Native Americans. From its birth as a beacon of hope for universal "salvation," the heathen school descends into bitter controversy, as American racial attitudes harden and intensify. Instead of encouraging reconciliation, the school exposes the limits of tolerance and sets off a chain of events that will culminate tragically in the Trail of Tears.

John Demos is the Samuel Knight Professor of History at Yale University, where he has taught since 1986. He is a social historian of early America whose most recent work, Circles and Lines: The Shape of Life in Early America (Harvard University Press, 2004), is an illuminating portrait of how colonial Americans, from the first settlers to the postrevolutionary generation, viewed their life experiences. During his fellowship year, Demos will be part of a humanities cluster that will explore the promise and perils of biography as a mode for understanding the past. He will be working on a book titled “The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic,” which will trace the spectacular rise and fall of the Foreign Mission School, founded in Connecticut in 1817 explicitly to "save the world." Demos received his MA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1961. Among his publications are The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (Knopf, 1994), which received the Francis Parkman and Ray Allen Billington prizes in American history and was a finalist for the National Book Award in general nonfiction, and Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (Oxford University Press, 1982), for which he received the Bancroft Prize in American History.