Evangelicals and Interracial Marriage at "The Heathen School"

By Carol Faulkner

It will be no surprise that John Demos's new book, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic, is a great read. It will also be no surprise that he uses some unusual methods to tell the history of the short-lived (1817-1826) Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut, including his travels to various historical sites, vignettes in blocked paragraphs, and the free use of italics (if he had written a few sentences in all caps it would be like reading a nineteenth-century text). As the subtitle suggests, Demos is interested in the evangelical and egalitarian impulse that inspired the school, and its rapid demise following two intermarriages between Cherokee students and local white women. After the failed experiment, which aimed to bring promising "heathen" converts to Cornwall to train as missionaries, evangelicals changed course, instead sending white missionaries to foreign lands. Demos argues that evangelicals betrayed their students-- Hawaiians, Native Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, and even some local Yankees--by revoking the promise of religious and racial equality. In addition, Demos links the closing of the school to the larger betrayal of Cherokee removal.

Demos begins with the intense evangelical interest in Henry Obookiah, a Hawaiian sailor who arrived in New Haven and declared his desire to study at Yale. Obookiah's story captured the imagination of optimistic American evangelicals, who decided to educate other "heathens" in a similar manner. (As context, Demos gives a brief history of American religion--from the Puritans to the Second Great Awakening--in eight pages). Once the school opened, this optimism about saving souls became focused on Cornwall, with a powerful impact on the town. One local resident recalled, "We always laid aside all out work when the scholars came. They talked and prayed from the heart. It would revive us, so solemn and yet so joyful. It was a great wonder to them why every one in town were not Christians, when they had heard of Jesus all their lives." As Demos writes,  "Religion was the bridge to contact; but perhaps, too, there was something more. One feels an openness, an eagerness here, even a sense of delight ('so joyful')" (174).

Though some effort was made to keep the students and locals apart, the joy, interest, and small community made it difficult. Student John Ridge (above), son of a prominent Cherokee leader, met his future wife Sarah Northrup when an illness brought him to the home of her parents (her father was the school's steward). When they fell in love, her parents intervened and sent Sarah away, introducing her "to other gentlemen, and try[ing] every way to get her mind off John Ridge. Sarah would have none of it. She stayed three months, but would take no notice of any gentleman or any company" (150). The Northrups eventually relented, and the couple married in Cornwall on January 27, 1824. On their departure for the Cherokee Nation, the newlyweds dodged mobs and vitriol. Even so, a second marriage followed, between Elias Boudinot and Harriet Gold, whose parents were supporters of the school. When Harriet told her brother Stephen of her engagement, she did it in writing to avoid fight, handing him a letter and then locking him in a room to read it: "He screamed and called 'Harriett! Harriett!' like a madman, She locked herself in her room upstairs and would not come out until he promised to behave. This was before it was publicly known" (179). But Harriet was firm, stating, "We have vowed, and our vows are heard in Heaven; color is nothing to me; his soul is as white as mine" (180). Eventually, her family yielded, and the two married at her home on March 28, 1826. Rocked by these two marriages, the school's board condemned the unions, and those who supported them, as "criminal" (180). Support for the school declined sharply.

Demos follows the Ridges and Boudinots back to New Echota, and his history of Cherokee removal is told from their perspective. He believes Ridge and Boudinot became leaders of the "Treaty Party," those Cherokee who agreed to removal, because of their experience at the Mission School. Channeling Ridge and Boudinot, he explains their decision to support removal: "Another desertion, another betrayal: We have seen this script before.  Nothing more heard from white leaders can be trusted. Better, then, go--to take our people as far away as possible. Amalgamation? Never! That way lies 'degradation' and disaster" (260). Harriet Gold died in 1836, and Boudinot married a white teacher named Delight Sargent. With their families, Boudinot and Ridge moved to Indian Territory and began to reconstruct their lives. Their early migration put them in an advantageous position. But, when their political opponents arrived in Indian Territory, having experienced a devastating forced removal, they killed Ridge and Boudinot. Demos is sympathetic to the two former Mission School students. But how had Ridge and Boudinot betrayed their fellow Cherokee?

For Demos, the Mission School illuminates the painful history of religion and racism. After the Ridge and Boudinot marriages, evangelical leaders retreated rapidly from the goals of the school. Jeremiah Evarts wrote, "it is not generally expedient for Indian youth to be educated in the white settlements. The notions & feelings which they acquire are not such as to fit them for usefulness among their people afterwards. The Board have educated many in this [way], & with very few exceptions they have returned to their friends & exerted a bad influence, or become wholly inefficient" (226). Another concluded that it had been a "failure" to think that "unevangelized foreigners" could "act the part of enlightened & Christian men" (227). In my view, it is also a history of the intersection of race and gender. Throughout this period, white men, including missionaries, had married and continued to marry Cherokee and other Native American women. These marriages seemed to occur without much scandal or comment. The Boudinot and Ridge marriages challenged this white male privilege. One particularly virulent newspaper editor made this point clear, expressing his outrage that "Indians are treated with more respect and attention than the young white men of good standing" (156). The missionary language of brotherly love and global salvation proved threatening when embraced by both Native Americans and white women.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks so much for this wonderful overview, Carol! This book is definitely going in my early surveys for next year.

Popular Posts