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The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic
368 pp., $16.95
Richard A. Bailey
The Foreign Mission School
Great storytellers make even the dullest tales captivating. They transform mediocre material into bestsellers and award-winning analyses. And when such a storyteller meets an exciting tale, the results can be riveting. Take historian John Demos, for example. As his body of work illustrates, Demos is clearly a masterful storyteller. More than that, though, as anyone who is familiar with his Unredeemed Captive or Entertaining Satan knows, Demos also selects tales that beg to be told. The Heathen School, his most recent offering, is no exception. Tracing the history of the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut, from its infancy to its demise, Demos brings together the 19th-century worlds of white American evangelicals and "heathen" students from the Pacific Islands, India, China, and the indigenous peoples of North America; at the same time, through the book's structure he also demonstrates some of the ways his method of research and writing allowed that past and his present to coincide. Where those worlds met, Demos crafted a narrative that examines the intersections of various themes of the early American republic (and beyond), including the idea of America as the exceptional and redeemer nation, how such concepts influence (then as well as now) the ways we understand and treat those "others" living as our neighbors both at home and abroad, and more.
Demos' ability to take his readers into the various worlds of the 19th century that came together in Cornwall, Connecticut, in 1816 allows him to weave together the strands of the then-fledgling nation's entrance not only into the worlds of the industrial revolution and imperial ambitions but also into the world of a new missions movement. As the United States entered more fully into the "China Trade" early in the 1800s, the notion of America as an exceptional, integral part of redemptive history captivated many of the nation's political, industrial, and religious ...