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American Annals of the Deaf

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Signs and Wonders: Religious Rhetoric and the Preservation of Sign Language
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Although we have no indication that ASDB tested students on religious matters, certain evidence suggests that Protestant theology found a niche in the moral teachings, which still held a primary spot in residential schools for deaf children. Even though specific denominational teachings may not have been presented, ASDB, like other state-funded schools for deaf students, provided religious training that was Protestant and thus emphasized that students may have personal relationships with God.

Even though Weeks clearly states that the laws called for secularization in education, he uses Protestant rhetoric to explain the leadership in Arizona that changed education for the better. Describing Governor Safford, Weeks writes, “The new governor appeared in 1869. He was Anson P. K. Safford, and from California came this new Moses, destined to lead Arizona from darkness to educational light.”55 Echoing the manualists’ frequent metaphor about sign language bringing deaf students out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of reason and knowledge of God, Weeks likens Safford to Moses, who led the Israelites out of the desert and into a closer relationship with God. For Weeks, Safford’s development of the Arizona schools and the organization he applied to the public school system was equally important.

Weeks’s use of this religious metaphor suggests that, despite the aforementioned Arizona law calling for separation between overt denominational theology and education in state-supported schools like ASDB, such statutes may not have been in widespread practice until much later in the twentieth century. As Ignatius Bjorlee points out,

The first schools of our land were religious schools. Pupils were taught to read in order that they might know the Bible. The divergent nature of our religious beliefs has made the pursuance of such course in our public schools impossible, hence the non sectarian. Moral and ethical principles are universal and through precept and example the way is paved and encouragement lent toward denominational teachings in accordance with the dictates of conscience and the word of God, as variously interpreted.56
Although nonsectarian and nondenominational teaching was stressed, Bjorlee points out that ties to Protestant theology and ethical principles closely linked to personal relationships with God still found their way into the state schools for deaf children via moral training.

As evidence of the Protestant footprints in U.S. schools for deaf students, religious references were often found in school writings relevant to deaf lives, even at a state-funded school like ASDB. Protestant themes that emerged in the religious pieces in the Arizona Cactus focused on morality, the comfort of being a creation of God, and coming to knowledge through a relationship with God. Like the arguments of manualists in the nineteenth century, the religious references in the early twentieth-century ASDB publications indicate a connection between knowledge and Protestant theology. Howard Griffin reflects on what schools should inculcate in their students:

Regard for the rights of others, adaptation to the environment in which he must live, order and discipline, simple rules of ethics, fundamental principals [sic] of religion, all these and more are lived daily, and these together with what comes through the mastery of English and a few allied subjects, the child is pretty well balanced.57
Griffin goes on to claim that a background in religion is important for a student to “go forward in life.”58 For many educators in American schools for the deaf, teachings in morality were often synonymous with religious training. Even though some state schools may have practiced nondenominational religious teaching, the ASDB’s Arizona Cactus indicates that belief in a God that could transcend worldly troubles and sorrows was at the core of the institution’s worldview.

Encouraging moral living and a belief in God, the Arizona Cactus published poems with strong Protestant themes. Its first issue offered readers the poem “Just This Minute,” which states, “Just this minute we are going / Toward right or toward wrong; / Just this minute we are sowing / Seeds of sorrow or of song. / Just this minute we are thinking / On the ways that lead to God, / Or in idle dreams are sinking / To the level of the clod.”59 The poem stresses the importance of living a moral life, and in this poem, “moral” is equivalent to thoughts and actions that reflect Christian beliefs. The poem also alludes to what Protestant followers would find familiar: Galatians 6:7. Generally associated with sowing and reaping, the verse reads, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” The sentiment of the verse is echoed in the poem. In Protestant theology, serving God with thoughts and actions that are pleasing would bring rewards in Heaven. By featuring such a poem in the school publication, the ASDB demonstrates a religious influence intertwined with deaf education, one that encouraged deaf students to come to know God personally.

Another theme that emerges in the Arizona Cactus is the comfort that deaf students could find in knowing they were created by God, which is exemplified in the poem “God Made Them All.” Demonstrating the belief that all things come from God, the poem states, “All things bright and beautiful, / All creatures great and small, / All things wise and wonderful, / The Lord God made them all.”60 Students who attended the ASDB lived away from their parents and hearing siblings. Although many stories testify to the comfort deaf students found in coming together and meeting other deaf people at deaf schools, they were frequently reminded that they were unlike hearing people. A poem such as “God Made Them All” reminded the students and students’ families that they were alike in that they shared the same creator— God. For some students, this Protestant belief may have brought comfort; for manualists, it reinforced the belief that deaf students were not only capable of learning but also worthy of religious teaching so they could come to know God.

In contrast, the Tucsonian, initially a weekly publication that later became the annual of Tucson High School, has very few, if any, references to religious teaching or religious practices among the students. Tucson High School was and still is a peer institution of ASDB. Just a few miles southeast of ASDB, it historically served hearing students in the Tucson area. Students worked with faculty to publish the Tucsonian, which the June 1908 issue states is “devoted to high school interests.” The Tucsonian served as the school paper for at least the first ten years of its existence, and in 1920 it became a traditional high school yearbook—with less and less writing and more and more pictures of students. Included in each issue of the earlier weekly periodical are “editorials; a joke department and local items; interscholastic sports are discussed; amusing and entertaining stories are given considerable space, and much advertising matter is printed, just as in a newspaper.”61 Articles in the early editions of the Tucsonian are not unlike items found in school papers of today; however, the Tucsonian provides a stark contrast to ASDB’s Arizona Cactus. Instead of including poems that reflected on Protestant beliefs, editors of the Tucsonian published poems that contemplated the surrounding desert landscape, such as “The Lone Outlaw” and “The Desert.” Leah Hamilton, the Tucson High School sophomore who wrote both poems, describes the “lonely desert’s treeless plain” as “long lines of burning, barren, glittering sand.”62 Other poems such as “To the Sun,” “The Coming of Autumn,” and “Westward Ho” reflect students’ experiences of life in the Southwest. What is more, none of these poems has any biblical or Protestant religious references, unlike those in the Arizona Cactus.


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