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American Annals of the Deaf

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Signs and Wonders: Religious Rhetoric and the Preservation of Sign Language

Tracy Ann Morse

Protestant Ideology and the Arguments for Sign Language in Late Nineteenth-Century Schools for Deaf Children

I am proud to be a Deaf man, am very delighted with the divine gift of ASL, and, indeed, enjoy reading texts in English.
                              —Patrick A. Graybill, “Another New Birth” (emphasis added)

Deaf people often used biblical language to emphasize how the schools converted them from ignorance to knowledge, from isolation to community, from no language to ASL and English, and from heathenism to Christian redemption.
                                                                —Christopher Krentz, A Mighty Change

The American School for the Deaf opened in 1817 with the initial mission to provide deaf students with a language and knowledge of God so they could be saved. As the previous chapter shows, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet argued that teaching sign language to students and delivering the school’s curriculum in sign language was the most effective way to achieve this goal. Appealing to audiences who held mainly Protestant beliefs, Gallaudet’s speeches supporting sign language were often filled with biblical references and metaphors. His successes at the American School for the Deaf helped garner backing for deaf education nationally and influenced many other area schools not only to open but also to use sign language to teach deaf students. This method, known as manualism, was the primary means of teaching deaf students in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the latter half of the eighteen hundreds, the manualists’ teaching practices, like those of Gallaudet, were challenged by educators who argued that deaf American students should learn to speak and read speech only, a practice known as oralism. In late nineteenth-century America, pure oralists did not want sign language to be used in schools for deaf students, which would have had the effect of eradicating the use of sign language completely. As the number of schools for deaf people in the United States increased to serve an ever-growing population, the use of the oral method of instruction gained in popularity. Discussions on language use crept into debates on deaf education, causing some deaf community leaders to argue for the protection and continued use of what they called “the natural language of the deaf”—sign language. The arguments of late nineteenth-century manualists, who by this point were combinists,1 continued to reflect the use of religious themes and references, much as Gallaudet’s arguments had done in the early half of the nineteenth century.

Such arguments show that both practitioners and supporters of sign language used Protestant ideology. “Pure manualism” was the use of sign language only, without any instruction borrowed from oral approaches. However, by the latter half of the nineteenth century, many schools that were traditionally manual were incorporating oral approaches to instruction for some students who would benefit from them—especially those students who had recently become deaf and still had some or all of their ability to speak. This practice of using both the manual and the oral approach was known as the “combined method.” Educators’ arguments in favor of the combined method or the preservation of sign language were often evident in the American Annals of the Deaf, which was first published in 1847 and focused on deaf education. Both oralists and manualists, as well as those who became combinists, subscribed to and published in the Annals. I focus here on publications by the son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Edward Miner Gallaudet, who argued in the Annals for a combined system of instruction that employed the best practices of both oralism and manualism. Like his father, Edward Gallaudet made use of religious themes and references in his advocacy. He is also one of the most recognized leaders of the deaf community in the latter half of the nineteenth century because of his assistance to it and his endorsement of the use of sign language. His efforts culminated in the opening of the Collegiate Department of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, later named after his father, in 1864.

The biblical language used in the arguments for sign language by deaf community leaders such as E. M. Gallaudet and Philip J. Hasenstab, an instructor at the Illinois Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, reflects the worldview of those who valued the use of sign language, a perspective that continued to find its way into deaf education. Thus, the Protestant ideology that began with T. H. Gallaudet’s curriculum and pedagogy in the first permanent school for deaf students in the United States continued to surface in late nineteenth-century arguments for sign language use and even emerged in early twentieth-century school publications.

Edward Miner Gallaudet.
(Gallaudet University Archives, Washington, DC)

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