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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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To show how ingrained this idea of sign language use is to the saving of deaf souls as expressed by Edward Gallaudet in the conclusion of “The Combined System of Instruction,” I offer a look back at snapshots from the American School for the Deaf reunion in 1850. More than two hundred former students gathered on September 26, 1850, to recognize and celebrate the work of Laurent Clerc and T. H. Gallaudet to teach sign language to deaf students in the United States. In expressing their gratitude, the former students and their teachers stood up and signed their appreciation for the efforts of these men in teaching them about the gospels:
Thirty-three years ago, the deaf mutes in this country were in darkness of the grossest ignorance. They knew not God. They knew nothing of the maker of heaven and earth. They knew nothing of the mission of Jesus Christ into the world to pardon sin. They knew not that, after this life, God would reward the virtuous and punish the vicious. They knew no distinction between right and wrong. They were all in ignorance and poverty, with no means of conveying their ideas to others, waiting for instruction, as the sick for a physician to heal them.44
Attributing the manual instruction that Clerc and T. H. Gallaudet brought to those deaf students in the Hartford area with the aim of saving of their souls, alumni in their presentations at the reunion overwhelmingly mentioned the instruction of and in sign language with their journeys from “darkness” to “light.” In his remarks to T. H. Gallaudet, former student and teacher George H. Loring signed the following:
It is fortunate and it was also by a kind dispensation of Divine Providence, that you adopted the best method of instruction of the deaf and dumb. By this method we have been instructed in the principles of language, morality and religion, and this education has qualified us to be useful members of society.45
Citing many of the manualists’ arguments, Loring acknowledged that the use of sign language in the schools was a key element of the deaf students’ religious training. At the same time he expressed a common manual viewpoint that sign language use and advocacy are intertwined with the Protestant perspective that sign language is a gift from God.

Many years later, Edward Gallaudet would argue that looking back at the first permanent school for deaf children, which his father led and so many of the alumni at the 1850 reunion admired, was a good starting point for determining the necessary criteria for a model school for deaf students. In 1892 he repeated many of his earlier arguments for the combined system of instruction and continued to emphasize the importance of education. Listing what the Hartford School had done right, Edward Gallaudet mentioned the “careful undenominational training in religion, with interesting Sabbath services.”46 He also acknowledged that the Hartford School’s success was evident in its continued service to deaf students. It had helped to educate many deaf Americans and preserve sign language in difficult times and maintained religious training as part of its curriculum.

Edward Gallaudet also indicated what he believed was necessary for a model school for deaf children in the late nineteenth century. Three of the twelve items he listed include references to religion. He argued that the school’s leader should have religious convictions and be “prepared to inspire and develop veneration for God and the highest moral aims.”47 He also stated that, in a true combined system, students who are taught orally should have the benefit of religious services in sign language.48 In addition, he reiterated the importance of religious teachings in this model school:

Religious instruction of an undenominational character should occupy a prominent and honored place, and this instruction should be given in the language through which alone the mind and heart of the deaf can be moved and impressed as the mind and heart of the hearing are through audible speech.49
Edward Gallaudet’s argument for a model school for deaf children continued to link sign language use to religious teaching and training. Specifically, sign language advocacy by manualists reflected the worldview they imparted to the deaf students in their schools. Even though Edward Gallaudet makes references to nondenominational religious instruction, the God he hoped deaf students would come to fear was a personal God based on Protestant theology.

Epistemology and Deaf Education: Arizona Cactus

As we have already seen, oralists and manualists differed ideologically with regard to deaf education. In late nineteenth-century arguments for oralism, speech was indicative of intellect. According to the oralists, deaf students exhibited a halted intellect or even a lack of intellect if they were unable to speak. Despite the oralists’ grounding in new scientific thinking, deaf individuals were prospering as a result of their educations at manual and combined-method schools. One reason for this was the training they received in a trade while there. These vocational classes grew in number after the Civil War, as many schools began emphasizing industrial education and expanding the number of trades they taught.50 At the turn of the century, more focused vocational training enabled deaf students to learn how to use the printing presses that were turning out school publications. These publications often reflected the continued connection between the American deaf community and Protestant theology even after an increase in nonsectarian and secularist practices in education. To illustrate this, I examine one such publication titled the Arizona Cactus, from the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind (ASDB).

The ASDB opened in 1912 in Tucson. Initially this state school was a department of the University of Arizona, and its first location was a converted residence on campus.51 The major artifact of the ASDB is its quarterly publication, the Arizona Cactus. In 1918 the ASDB moved to fifty acres donated by the City of Tucson and purchased eighteen additional acres before the Arizona Cactus was first published in 1926. The publication served many purposes. Vocationally, it gave students experience in printing and training in the trade. It also served as a newsletter with announcements for school faculty and parents who sent their children to live at the residential school. Often included in each issue were serialized historical pieces and works by students. Significantly for this study is the fact that these publications frequently included poems or writings that contained religious references and themes. Before examining the examples from the Arizona Cactus, I provide some historical context to better illustrate the significance of ASDB’s religious writings in a time of more secularization in public education.

The first shift away from specific religious-focused instruction in schools was to nondenominational teachings, which often focused on Protestant theology as opposed to Catholic. Specific denominational tracts or teachings were forbidden at state schools at the turn of the century. In 1918 Stephen Beauregard Weeks cited an 1879 law that declared that state schools should not reflect any denominational qualities:

Another section of this law—an echo of the struggle in 1877 against the proposed union of the church and state—was the thirty-eighth, which declares:

“No books, tracts, or papers of a sectarian or denominational character shall be used or introduced in any school established under the provisions of this act; nor shall sectarian or denominational doctrine be taught therein; nor shall any school whatever receive any of the public school funds which has not been taught in accordance with provisions of this act.”52

The ASDB was established after the law of 1879 was enacted and thus was subject to the law, which denied state support to any school whose publications contained religious references pertinent to a specific denominational persuasion. And after Arizona was admitted to the Union on February 14, 1912, federal grants awarded one hundred thousand acres “for schools and asylums for the deaf, dumb, and the blind,” further solidifying the relationship between ASDB and the state.53 To stress the separation of church and state, Weeks stated the following:
The new constitution provided that no sectarian instruction should ever be imparted in any school or state educational institution, and that no religious or political test of qualifications should be required as condition of admission to any public educational institution as teacher, student, or pupil.54

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