FOREIGN MISSION SCHOOL, 1817 – 1826
The Foreign Mission School was a bold new venture in evangelism: to find in this country, convert, and educate young men, predominantly people of color, from indigenous cultures around the world, and send them home to be native preachers, translators, teachers, and health workers. It was established by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, who held the view that Christianity and civilization were inseparable gifts to be brought to the heathen. Cornwall was chosen for the site because of its pious citizenry, healthy climate, and willingness to donate land, work, and money to a devout cause. This small institution, which during its short lifetime taught about one hundred young men, quickly gained a wide celebrity here and abroad as a manifestation of the “Second Great Awakening” of American religious fervor. Its successes linked little Cornwall to great issues of the day – the worldwide missionary efforts; the settlement and conversion of Hawaii; the abolition movement; and the Trail of Tears, which resulted from the forced removal of the Cherokees from Georgia under Andrew Jackson in 1838-9.
The founding pupil was Heneri Opukahaia, an unlettered 18-year-old Hawaiian refugee from a blood feud, left by a ship’s captain in wintry New Haven in 1810. His circumstances inspired efforts to shelter and educate him and others, some from American Indian tribes, many displaced from great distances – Asia, Europe, Polynesia, and Africa – as missionaries. As an exponent of the ABCFM’s vision, he traveled widely to preach its message, but he died in Cornwall at 26 before he could return home as a missionary.
The students brought 24 different native languages to Cornwall. While they were objects of curiosity, admiration and sympathetic interest, they were not coddled. The climate was harsh; strict rules applied for study, labor and behavior. Not all the boys became converts or success stories. They did field work on the School lands and wood lot; 7 hours were devoted to study daily; attendance at church and prayers was mandatory. Besides the three R’s, blacksmithing and coopering, the curriculum included astronomy, calculus, theology, geography, chemistry, navigation and surveying, French, Greek, and Latin. Two students independently calculated the next eclipse.
In time, questions were raised about this method of evangelizing heathen lands. The School might have declined slowly, but the marriages of two Cornwall girls with Cherokee cousins – later distinguished in their Nation – caused a local furor and public scandal, and it closed its doors in 1826.
|The Foreign Mission was one of the state’s three notable educational sites. The others: Yale and Hartford’s The American Asylum for Deaf and Dumb.||Henry Opukahaia
This 1835 sketch of the village by John Warner Barber shows the buildings used by the Foreign Mission School, to the right of the church at center. The school used the building from 1817 to 1826
|Within this Cornwall cemetery grave Opukahaia’s coffin had a viewing glass and a heart-shaped decoration picked out with brass tacks. Opukahaia died in 1818, age 26.|
SMALL TOWN, TINY SCHOOL, BIG IMPACT
The Cornwall Historical Society presents Visions and Contradictions: The Foreign Mission School, 1817-1826,the short and highly eventful history of Cornwall’s Foreign Mission School. The school was founded in 1817 to teach “heathen” youths from around the globe to become Christian missionaries in their own cultures. Despite good intentions, the founders failed to understand the inherent conflicts between the mission of the school, the understanding of the community, and the goals of the students themselves. The collision of these conflicting ideals lead to upheaval in Cornwall and the abrupt closing of the school in 1826, only nine years after it opened and permanently changed the American missionary movement.
“We will tell the full story of the school through the eyes of the students, teachers, and community leaders who were actually here,” says curator, Michele Musto, “We hope our visitors will see what it really felt like for young men from China, Greece, Hawaii and Native American tribes to come to this cold corner of Connecticut.” Did they like it? Did they hate it? Did they become missionaries or did they pursue other paths? The exhibit is family friendly and will tell this intriguing tale.
The Cornwall Historical Society has received a generous grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council for the exhibit, making possible the best use of its collection of Foreign Mission School documents and artifacts. A grant from the Cornwall Foundation has helped to create a model of the Foreign Mission School building for the exhibit and for later use with local school history projects.
Explore the Foreign Mission School:
Friendship Album Information
Friendship Album Slideshow
Text panels from the exhibit
Instructions for making a paper model of the Foreign Mission School building
Page 1, FMS paper model
Page 2, FMS paper model
Foreign Mission School Virtual Tour
Select a section to begin your tour.
- Why Cornwall
- Daily Life
- The Vision Falls Apart
- FMS Today