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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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Protestant references surfaced throughout the early editions of the Arizona Cactus. Seasonal greetings often included quotes of Bible verses, and one historical piece recounting the role of deaf people in history starts with the story of Jesus performing a miracle: “One day while Jesus was preaching to a crowd of people on the shore of Galilee, some one [sic] brought to Him a man who was a deaf-mute. Jesus [felt] sorry for him and said: ‘Ephphatha’ and his ear[s] were opened and he could speak again.”63 This story from Mark 7:32–35 is often cited in deaf narratives. Many members of the deaf community of the day often associated the command “be opened” (ephphatha) with the minds of deaf people, thus the need to utilize the best method of education. This selection is also a reminder that deaf students were responsible for printing the Arizona Cactus. Although the quote contains some errors, it is possible that they were in the original manuscript submitted by the author, who is not acknowledged but in all likelihood was a student.

“The Deaf in History” is a short article that recounts part of Jesus’s life, beginning with the healing of the deaf man, and later mentions the opening of a college for deaf students in the late nineteenth century. It ends in 1936, which would have been the current time for the author, a period when many such schools had opened all over the world.64 It is a familiar account of the history of deaf people in the United States because the author cites the influence of T. H. Gallaudet on deaf education. Evident in this article are the influence of religious teachings in schools for deaf students and the story of T. H. Gallaudet as the father of deaf education in the United States. “The Deaf in History” demonstrates the ability of deaf students to acquire knowledge and to use written English while attending a school that values the use of sign language among deaf students.


The teaching methods advocated by Edward Gallaudet and Bell at the end of the nineteenth century had lasting impacts on the deaf community. Today, many have adapted Bell’s arguments to pursue scientific means to eliminate deafness. We see this with the advancement of technology and cochlear implants and with genetic testing to isolate the hereditary cause of hearing loss. This view of deafness as a deficit is contrasted by deaf community members who cite deaf people’s productivity in society and life in general as evidence they are not lacking. Edward Gallaudet would not completely agree with this current viewpoint in the deaf community; however, he did support the use of sign language, especially to train deaf students in religion. For Edward Gallaudet, nondenominational religious training favoring Protestantism was important for the American schools for the deaf to maintain, and he argued that this training needed to be conducted in sign language. What emerged from this practice was the site of the sanctuary in advocacy for sign language. Because many oralists and manualists agreed that chapel services in the schools for the deaf should be conducted in sign language for all students, sign language persevered. This meant that the sanctuary became a location where, despite oralists’ motives to eliminate sign language, it flourished and was transmitted throughout the American deaf community.

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