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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Signs and Wonders: Religious Rhetoric and the Preservation of Sign Language
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James Denison.
(Gallaudet University Archives, Washington, DC)

Speaking in front of a large assembly of educators of deaf students in Great Britain and Ireland, Edward Gallaudet, like his father before him, acted as an ambassador for the American deaf community. It is also important to note the impetus for Edward Gallaudetís invitation to speak at the conference. In his biographical account of Gallaudet College he notes that

I made the address on the combined system of educating the deaf before a large assemblage on the evening of August 7th. My invitation to address the Congress was suggested by Mrs. Francis Maginn of Belfast who was a student in our college a few years earlier and, at the time of my visit to Glasgow, a missionary to the deaf-mutes of Belfast and vicinity.30
Once again the intertwining of Protestant theology and deaf education is evident in this student who went on to become a missionary to other deaf people, continuing T. H. Gallaudetís work of saving the ďdeaf heathens.Ē Edward Gallaudetís speech was published in both the Annals and the Silent World, where it reached an even wider audience. Readers of these periodicals were involved in the American deaf community and were thus particularly interested in the education of deaf children.

As mentioned earlier, Edward Gallaudet explored the benefits of both the manual and the oral methods of instruction, stressing that the manual method alone afforded more opportunities to deaf people both in education and religion than the oral method alone. He claimed that ďby the practice of the manual method alone, with no aid from the oral, the entire body of the deaf can be so trained and educated as to become intelligent, happy, selfrespecting, self-supporting, God-fearing members of society.Ē31 He also addressed the oralistsí concerns that sign language would separate deaf individuals from a unified national identity. For Edward Gallaudet, the deaf studentsí religious beliefs and practices demonstrated their membership in an American society that still valued Protestant theology even with the advancement of evolutionary thinking. In addition, he wrote that ďthe gift to the deaf of the language of signs and the manual alphabet is of far greater value and comfortĒ than speech and lipreading.32 Early manualists like T. H. Gallaudet referred to sign language as a gift that God gave deaf people. His son Edward also spoke of sign language in terms of a gift, as did many manualists of his time because, for them, sign language was a manifestation of divine providence. Weighing the benefits of signs against speech and lipreading, Edward Gallaudet continued to use religious references as his father had done several decades earlier.

For example, a central theme in Edward Gallaudetís argument for the combined method is the importance of the moral life of deaf students and the role that religious training plays in this. In support of his emphasis on manualism, he quotes oralists who claim that, without sign language, deaf studentsí moral states would be challenged. For Edward Gallaudet, then, part of the value of sign language is its significance in religious teaching and moral training. Appealing to the oralists in the audience, he cites the work of ďa disciple of [Samuel] Heinicke, the founder of the oral methodĒ and a name that would be familiar to the audienceóMoritz Hill.33 After a long career spent instructing deaf students in Germany, Hill compiled his reflections and views on the various methods used to teach deaf students. Edward Gallaudet quotes Hill in order to show the important advantages of the use of sign language, that is, the manual method. In this quotation, Hill, who was traditionally associated with the oral method, points out that it is important that sign language be used in the religious training of deaf students:

[I]t is particularly in the teaching of religion that the language of pantomime plays an important part, especially when it is not only necessary to instruct, but to operate on sentiment and will, either because here this language is indispensable to express the moral state of man, his thoughts, and his actions, or that the word alone makes too little impression on the eyes of the mute to produce, without the aid of pantomime, the desired effect in a manner sure and sufficient.34
Hill recognizes that, in order to reach the souls of the deaf students in his care, sign language would have to be used because the spoken word is ineffective in religious teaching. His concession with regard to the effects of sign language compromises Hillís purely oralist standing. Hill expresses what many supporters of sign language maintained, that the true invocation of pathos for deaf individuals is through their natural language, sign language. Although Hillís explanation of the use of sign language in religious training is similar to Thomas Gallaudetís early nineteenth-century mission to teach sign language to deaf American students, Hill did not view sign language in the same way as manualists in the United States. To illustrate Hillís stance on sign language, Edward Gallaudet quotes Hillís more complete opinion of sign language:
[I]t must be remembered that in his school, as in other oral schools where his views prevail, the language of signs is nothing more, to quote his own words, than ďa very imperfect natural production, because it remains for the most part abandoned to a limited sphere of haphazard culture.Ē35
Expressing disagreement with Hill on this latter view of sign language, Edward Gallaudet reminds his audience that sign language has been carefully developed for many generations. He also disagrees with Hillís claim that sign language is needed to teach deaf students religion and maintains that Hillís opinion of the use of sign language is similar to that of oralists who align deafness and sign language use with less evolved species like apes.36 Edward Gallaudet presents evidence from oralists to demonstrate his thorough knowledge of the oral method and to indicate that he does not dismiss the oral method entirely. He appeals to them by citing a leading oralist whose teachings many oralists are familiar with. This strategy demonstrates his attempt to persuade pure oralists in the audience that it is in the best interest of all deaf students for religious training to be conducted in sign language, thus ensuring the preservation of sign language among deaf students at oral schools.
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