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The astonishing story of a unique missionary project—and the America it embodied—from award-winning historian John Demos

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 and 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.

In The Heathen School, John Demos marshals his deep empathy and feel for the textures of history to tell a moving story of families and communities—and to probe the very roots of American identity.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “The masterful account of a utopian nineteenth-century experiment in education—one that goes painfully awry. A splendidly nuanced, wholly absorbing tale; patiently, brilliantly, John Demos coaxes unexpected lessons from a singular collision of enlightenment and assimilation.”

    Stacy Schiff, New Yok Times bestselling author

  • “Demos, a consummate storyteller, has written a parable about the nature of the American experiment itself: the hills and valleys of our dreams.”

    Jill Lepore, New York Times bestselling author

  • “Absorbing…considerable narrative skills are again on display…The men and women in his stories come alive across the centuries…The book is peopled with a long cast of interesting characters—preachers, professors, philanthropists, missionaries, tribal chiefs.”

    Wall Street Journal

  • “Strange and fascinating narrative history…Demos gracefully interweaves the two couples’ stories with the historical and intellectual context in which they took place, raising key questions (especially, and devastatingly, ‘might not the heathen prefer to remain as they were?’).”

    Boston Globe

  • “Engrossing…Demos intersperses his historical narrative with short personal essays of on-the-road reportage…The Heathen School is a provocative addition to recent narrative histories that explore how racial categories and attitudes have changed over time in America.”


  • “Cornwall, a small community in northwestern Connecticut, would seem to have been an unlikely place to launch a campaign to save the world. But as John Demos recounts in this wonderfully crafted, deeply disturbing narrative, that is precisely what happened during the early decades of the nineteenth century…This splendid reconstruction of everyday life…describes what happened at Cornwall as a story of ‘high hopes, valiant effort, leading to eventual tragic defeat.’”

    American Scholar

  • “I consider John Demos a superbly gifted scholar and writer…the appearance of this finely crafted, fascinating book can be a reason for celebration…This book demonstrates the power of historical narrative to illuminate ideas and issues that shaped the American past…[The] larger historical lessons that John Demos provides make for absorbing reading.”

    History Book Club

  • “This brilliant work is highly recommended for all who study American history.”

    Library Journal (starred review)

  • “Demos manages a sly, significant feat in this historical study/personal exploration…In ‘interludes’ alternating with his historical narrative, Demos chronicles his visits to the places involved—e.g., Hawaii, Cornwall—in order to impart a personal commitment to this collective American tragedy. A slow-building saga that delivers a powerful final wallop.”

    Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

  • “Demos, a Yale historian and master of micro-history, turns his attention here to a well-intentioned 1820s effort to create a Connecticut school to Christianize ‘heathens’ (mostly Indians and Hawaiians) and send them forth to missionize…Demos tells this tale with scarcely hidden feeling. His research is characteristically prodigious, his writing disarming, and his story captivating and of national resonance.”

    Publishers Weekly

  • “Demos has done it again, finding macroscopic meanings within a microscopic locale…The best of intentions have the worst of consequences in this story, and the tragedies that almost inevitably ensue are like tombstones telling the saddest story of all. In my judgment, no one knows how to manage this material as well as Demos, disdaining moralistic judgments and condescending appraisals in favor of an elegiac tone that makes us all complicitous in ‘the tragedy.’”

    Joseph J. Ellis, author of Revolutionary Summer

  • “Moving, engrossing…Embedding personal stories in the long history of Anglo-Americans encounter with ‘others,’ Demos weaves a compelling tale that invites us to reflect on the meaning of the nation’s struggles towards equality.”

    Richard D. Brown, author of The Strength of a People

  • “The global meets the local as rarely before…John Demos uses his powerful literary gifts and insight to animate the experiences of people brought together by love, learning, and loss, across dramatic cultural divides. Imaginative, compassionate, and exquisitely written, this book will change your understanding of America’s founding project to make a difference for the world—and to make our different peoples into a national whole.”

    Maya Jasanoff, author of Liberty’s Exiles

  • “Tom Weiner brings professional polish, expressiveness, and intelligence to his narration of this history…His voice is strong and likable, and he matches his tone to the sense of the text well…It’s an admirably clear reading overall and will ably serve anyone interested in this odd, and often sad, corner of history.”


  • Longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award
  • One of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014
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About the Author

John Demos is the Samuel Knight Professor Emeritus of History at Yale. His books include The Unredeemed Captive, which won the Francis Parkman Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Entertaining Satan, which won the Bancroft Prize. He lives in Tyringham, Massachusetts.