Cornwall School Trained Men for Outreach Service

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Dr. Ed Eastman
Spiritual Heritage Series: Part Five of Seven, December 3, 2006

One of the oldest unspoiled towns in New England is located just 25 minutes west of Torrington. Visitors to Cornwall Village find it takes just a few moments and a little imagination to travel back two hundred years in time. The village is significant, because it was a key staging area for one of the most important results of the 2nd Great Awakening, America’s modern missionary movement that took Christianity to the world.

Immediately across from the Village Meeting House on Bolton Hill Road, once stood the Foreign Mission School of Cornwall, the same site on which St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church stands today. This school was the first institution in America, founded to train young people from other countries, as well as Native-Americans, to take the Christian faith to their homelands. Rev. Timothy Stone, who served the Cornwall church from 1804 to 1827, and promoted the founding of the mission school, also organized one of the first Sunday schools in America, and saw many added to the numbers of his Cornwall congregation through several revivals.

A young man from Hawaii, Henry Opukahaia (anglicized “Obookiah”), was being tutored by a Yale College student, Edwin Dwight. It seems that Henry was burdened for the spiritual condition of his people in the Sandwich Islands, and was found weeping one day, on the steps of the college chapel. Yale College president, Timothy Dwight, found the young man and was moved by his tears.

Timothy Dwight in collaboration with Samuel J. Mills of Torrington, Edwin Dwight, and Joseph Harvey of Goshen, sought to establish and fund a school to train young men for missionary service. In cooperation with Timothy Stone of Cornwall, and at Stone’s urging, the school was established in Cornwall Village for the training students of from China, Australasia, the Sandwich Islands, and North America.

It has been suggested that the weeping of Opukahaia was motivated primarily out of a thirst for learning. Indeed it was his curiosity about the outside world that motivated Opukahaia as a fifteen year-old, to seek passage on Captain Brintnall’s sailing vessel, the Triumph. The Triumph brought the lad to New York, and then the ship’s kind captain took the young man into his own home in New Haven.

During that stay, Henry Opukahaia was introduced to students at Yale College. These were students, who were influenced not only by the currents of spiritual awakening that swept the region, but who were being challenged by Samuel Mills, Jr., to take Christianity to the world. The students spoke to Opukahaia of a deeper spiritual need, and introduced him to biblical Christianity.

One of those students, Edwin Dwight, became his tutor, and later became the first principal of the Foreign Mission School of Cornwall. Even a cursory reading of Opukahaia’s Memoirs, reveals that his passion to take the Gospel of Christ to the Sandwich Islands was the driving force beneath his tears and desire to further his education. He not only became a powerful advocate for missions, and for the training and sending of missionaries, but he endeavored to share his faith with anyone who would listen.

Opukahaiah’s passion for sending missionaries was fueled in part by the horrific memories of his childhood. He personally witnessed the brutal deaths of his father, mother, baby brother, and a beloved aunt. They were all victims of tribal warfare on his native island. He was raised for a time in the hut of the very man who killed his father, then for a time in the home of his uncle, his island’s highest ranking pagan priest. His uncle began to prepare Opukahaiah in the rites of that priesthood. Pagan taboos sometimes required human sacrifices. The young man was deeply pained by the losses he had already suffered, losses that brought him to the brink of a high cliff and a suicide attempt. The Christianity of his new friends offered fresh hope and life for him, and for his native people, if only he could take the Gospel to them.

Henry Opukahaiah died in 1818 at the age of twenty-six of typhoid fever, before completing his education in Cornwall. Two of his fellow students, Hawaiians: William Tenoe and Thomas Hopoo, returned to the Sandwich Islands as missionaries, joined by an American student, Hiram Bingham. They brought with them an elementary grammar/dictionary/spelling book of the Hawaiian language, which Opukahiah had composed with help of his mentors at the Foreign Mission School, and portions of the Old Testament, especially the Book of Genesis, which he had translated into his native tongue. The trip was funded by money raised by the sale of the Memoirs of Henry Obookiah, published shortly after his death. Many others followed them to the distant islands of the Pacific, as a result of reading the Memoirs.

Students from the school of foreign missions were among the most active and influential missionaries among Native-American tribal groups, such as the Cherokees, Choctaws, Dakotas, Ojibwas, and Osages. It is regrettable that conflict and prejudice among the people of Cornwall, put an end to the school in 1827. The townsfolk felt scandalized by two marriages involving two Native-American students and the daughters of two prominent village families. It is even more regrettable that the local clergy, who had once stood solidly behind the school, caved in to pressure and closed the school. Nevertheless, the door to foreign missions had been opened, and would not be shut, with the Foreign Mission School of Cornwall playing a critical role. As for Henry Opukahaiah, “[his] labor was not in vain, in the Lord!”

For more information on the Foreign Mission School and Henry Opukahaiah, check the Cornwall Historical Society web site: , or the Molokai Island Times web site: . Both provide excellent information.

Next week we will visit Salisbury and learn about its special place in the history of spiritual renewal and awakening during the 2nd Great Awakening.