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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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Like his father, Edward Gallaudet subscribed to a Protestant theology that placed a high priority on learning and teaching the gospels. If all educators of deaf students—whether manualists, oralists, or combinists—viewed sign language as the best method for teaching religion to deaf students, then the early manualists’ arguments that sign language was a gift from God would be sustained. Early manualists were Protestants who believed that sign language was “a language closer to God and nature than speech, uncorrupted and pure, more honest because more direct as a means of emotional expression.”37 For Edward Gallaudet, sign language was quite useful in religious services in order to convey “clear, vivid, and often eloquent expression, incomparably superior to anything the pure oral method can furnish.”38 For him, sign language provided deaf Americans with a natural and easy means of communicating. As mentioned earlier, sign language was referred to as “a gift to the deaf” and intertwined with religious references by Edward Gallaudet throughout “The Combined Systems of Instruction.” This view of sign language epitomized his view of education, which was more than simply preparing for a vocation. Based on his alignment of sign language with morality, religious training, and even salvation, Edward Gallaudet’s perception of education included a higher cause: the shaping of students’ character. If pure oral schools were to persist, deaf students would not learn sign language and, as a result, would have neither a strong grasp of practical knowledge nor a foundation in religious teachings. In addition, purely oral schools would produce deaf individuals who would be unable to participate in either American society at large or a deaf community. He claimed that “[t]he most serious criticism which may justly be brought against the pure oral method is that it cannot be successfully applied to all the deaf.”39 As mentioned earlier, not all deaf students are capable of speaking and lipreading. These are skills that come easier to some than to others. For this reason, Edward Gallaudet opposed pure oralism but saw value in it when it was combined with manualism.

Maintaining that the best elements of both oralism and manualism could be combined, Edward Gallaudet argued, in “The Combined System of Instruction,” for pure oral schools (of which there were many in the late nineteenth century) to include the use of sign language. However, his article was just as much for pure manualists as it was for pure oralists. Persuaded by his counterparts in Europe and cases in the United States, he acknowledged that those deaf students who were capable of learning speech in fact benefited from doing so. At the core of the combined system, he claimed, was the desire to provide an education that best met the needs and capabilities of the individual student. The use of both methods, he asserted, would demonstrate that educators of deaf children were following the example of Christ in the gospels. Edward Gallaudet concluded his thoughts by reflecting on the service of educating deaf children in Protestant religious terms:

Following his benign examples, let us in his spirit go forward in the work we have to do, striving with singleness of purpose, and with every means coming to our hands, so to train those whom “the finger of God hath touched” that they may at length, with ears indeed unstopped, hear the welcome, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and with tongues made musical for the melody of Heaven join in the harmonies of the life that knows no imperfection and no end.40
Like his father, Edward Gallaudet emphasized that it was imperative to teach deaf people in sign language so that they, too, could know God. At the heart of this idea was also his concern for their religious state (salvation, in Protestant terms). In Protestant theology, in order for deaf people to experience their ears becoming “unstopped” and to be able to anticipate life in Heaven, they would need to know God and repent of their sins. According to Edward Gallaudet’s emotional and ethical appeal, to deny the deaf students sign language would be analogous to denying them entrance to Heaven and the miracle of hearing and speaking.

Like Edward Gallaudet, other educators also expressed their own concern for the religious training of deaf students. For example, in 1892 the Reverend Philip J. Hasenstab argued for all teachers of deaf students to be knowledgeable about religion in order to foster the students’ spiritual development: “It is not sufficient merely to teach a child to read and write, but he must be educated, i.e., led forth out of the darkness into light. . . . This means to secure him the blessing of becoming an intelligent human creature in all possible ways, physical, mental, moral, and spiritual.”41 Hasenstab argued that it is the instructor’s duty to teach students the “truth as taught in the Bible.”42 He thus represented the views of many deaf educators who were also ministers. His personal religious beliefs, like those of Thomas and Edward Gallaudet, influenced his particular emphasis in deaf education: religious training. Hasenstab wanted to ensure that deaf students would know right from wrong and become followers of Christ’s teachings. As an advocate of the combined system, Hasenstab insisted that instructors use whatever method was necessary for deaf students to receive religious training: “By all means find some proper channel through which to pour new ideas into his soul. He should be so prepared that he will minister as well as be ministered to.”43 The spiritual state of the deaf students was so important to him that he supported whatever method—oral or manual—would help them learn the gospels and become practitioners of them. Like Edward Gallaudet, Hasenstab advocated religious training for deaf students; however, unlike Hasenstab, Edward Gallaudet supported sign language as the most sufficient conveyor of religious training for all deaf students.

Philip J. Hasenstab.
(Gallaudet University Archives, Washington, DC)

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