Part Four: Exploring the Mission

“The Society has established some twenty-five missions for adult deaf-mutes in different parts of the country, reaching directly upward of one thousand persons. They are influencing the whole community of about 25,000 in the country in favor of the Church which uses the Book of Common Prayer, which they can read after their education.”  – Thomas Gallaudet[1]

As the quote above indicates, the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes acknowledged that their missionary efforts relied on the foundation laid at deaf residential schools which introduced literacy as well as religious ideologies. I have described this relationship in a previous blog post and for more information on this project visit this post on historiography and  the introduction.

The Mission grew out of a twenty-year ministry in New York City.[2] Throughout this period, Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, founder and rector of St. Ann’s Church, engaged in missionary trips to nearby cities. Gallaudet made frequent visits to Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, providing services in sign language and offering assistance to members of the deaf community. He used these opportunities to promote the work of St. Ann’s Church and to encourage the inclusion of deaf people in religious services.[3] By 1871, Gallaudet stated, “this double work had reached its limit.”[4]

On November 29 of that year, a meeting was held at St. Ann’s that resulted in the founding of the Mission. Attendees at the first meeting included hearing and deaf men as well as important figures in the New York community.[5]  They came together in support of forming a larger organization dedicated to establishing an expanded ministry.

The primary goal behind the founding of the organization was to provide services to deaf people beyond the reach of St. Ann’s.  In order to do so, the Mission strove to establish services in “all the larger cities”, to “promote the temporal and spiritual welfare” of deaf people by “encouraging them to make the best use of their education at the various Institutions”, to provide assistance in obtaining employment, and to administer counsel and support “in times of sickness and trouble”.[6]  The organization also committed to the founding of a Home for Aged and Infirm Deaf. [7]

The group reconvened a year later, on November 1, 1872. In the time that had passed committee members had worked to secure an act of incorporation and develop a constitution that defined the parameters of the organization. These required that a board of trustees be appointed and established annual meetings in New York City at at St. Ann’s.  An initial board was elected, composed of both deaf and hearing men.[8] Over the course of the first decade of the organization, the Mission grew in size serving over 30 states by 1883.[9] Between 1873 and 1897, the number of individuals engaged in missionary services under the organization tripled.[10]

As described in the last blog, by midcentury, deaf residential schools had produced a group of educated, elite deaf people. The first members of deaf Episcopal ministry were drawn from this group and the inclusion of deaf people in the priesthood by the Episcopal Church in the United States, disrupted the exclusion of deaf people from full participation of church structures. However, this process was fraught with barriers.

Though deaf men had been frequently licensed as layreaders in the church, it would appear that elevation to the level of deacon was another thing altogether. The ordinations of the first five deaf men were “strenuously opposed” by both clergy and laity.[11] In some cases, they were refused permission to officiate in certain dioceses, or at least to administer sacramental ministrations.”[12] Records suggest that in some cases leaders of the church “had to be convinced that a deaf man was capable of fulfilling such a great responsibility.”[13]

The opposition to the ordination of deaf people in the Episcopal Church focused on several key points. First, there was concern that it was a “a violation of the principle that men who aspired to office in the Church should be physically as well as mentally sound and perfect, and because they believed that the sacraments of the Holy Communion and of baptism would, if administered without the oral accompaniment of the proper words, be invalid and void.”[14] Next, St. Augustine was cited and the suggestion was made that a “deaf man was incapable of faith because he could not hear the word.”[15] When Austin Mann applied for ordination to the diaconate in 1877, he was “flatly refused ordination by his Bishop” in Michigan.[16]

In fact, as late as 1902, missionaries experienced difficulty being recognized as candidates for the priesthood. The ordination of Harry Van Allen proceeded only after he demonstrated particular skill in written English. Upon reading his work, the Bishop reportedly exclaimed, “What, that deaf and dumb man! Well, anyone who can write as good or better poetry than his Bishop, ought to be ordained.”[17]

The first successful deaf applicant to the diaconate, Henry W. Syle, was permitted to submit himself for examination with the explicit support of his Bishop. Rt. Rev. William Bacon Stevens, Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, made an impassioned sermon in support of the ordination of deaf men and asserted that sign language was adequate for administering sacraments.[18] Stevens argued that “the Deacon should show his ability to communicate his Divine message to the intellect and conscience of the people, in such a manner as that the people to whom he ministers shall most readily receive and understand it [emphasis in original].”[19] With Bishop Stevens’ support, Syle completed his canonical examination in writing.[20]

In the first decade of the Mission, three of missionaries were ordained to the diaconate.[21] In 1883, both Syle and Mann would be accepted to the priesthood. They played a considerable role in altering the perception of deaf people within the Church and among the communities they visited. Yet, the importance of these deaf missionaries has not been examined. Susan Burch suggests that “Deaf ministers and supportive hearing ones took leading roles in major social and political organizations.”[22] There is some indication that Burch is correct, as four missionaries would also serve as President of the National Association of the Deaf.[23]

Through their duties as missionaries they provided religious instruction and responded to the social welfare concerns of their congregants. In 1879, Austin Mann visited at least 37 churches at least once. The same year, Job Turner offered sermons at over 50 churches.[24] Despite the breadth of their reach, the scale and scope of this organization has not been discussed by others. To what degree did they influence deaf lives in the communities they entered? As deaf congregants were housed in existing religious facilities, how did they modify temporary religious spaces for their needs? How did deaf members of the ministry travel from place to place? How were locations chosen?

The answers to these questions are obscured in the current record. In my examination of the annual reports of the Mission, complete details as to the frequency of services, division of religious fields, and the nature of their interaction with deaf community members remain unavailable. Despite this barrier, in my next blog post, I will suggest some preliminary conclusions drawn from this project and present the digital visualization that accompanied this work.

[1] The Fifth Annual Report of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes (New York, NY: Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes, 1877), 6, Gallaudet University Deaf Collections and Archives.

[2] St. Ann’s Church for Deaf-Mutes was founded in 1852.

[3] Otto Benjamin Berg and Henry L. Buzzard, Thomas Gallaudet, Apostle to the Deaf (New York: St. Ann’s Church For the Deaf, 1989).

[4] Elsewhere Gallaudet also indicated that the decision to form a separate organization was also encouraged by the fact that St. Ann’s Church had recently satisfied the debt on their building. As the center of missionary efforts for twenty years, St. Ann’s had subsidized his missionary trips and funded assistants. Having announced the elimination the debt on their church buildings, there was some concern that donations to St. Ann’s would cease or be reduced. In this case the Mission enabled them to continue missionary activities while still encouraging financial support from community members. The First Annual Report of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes (New York, NY: Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes, 1873), Gallaudet University Deaf Collections and Archives.

[5] Gallaudet, Rt. Rev. Horatio Potter, Bishop of the Diocese, Dr. I.L. Peet, Principal of the New York Institution for Deaf-Mutes, Rev. Dr. Montgomery, John Carlin, D. Colden Murray, Orlando L. Stewart, Henry J. Haight, and S. R. Comstock were all in attendance. Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] The Home for Aged and Infirm Deaf-Mutes, later renamed the Gallaudet Home, was initially founded in the city in 1876. The facility later moved to a farm on the Hudson River, near Poughkeepsie. In 1936, Rev. Guilbert Braddock  emphasized that  the home “rescued many of them from the cold hearthstone of inhospitality, and from the massed isolation of the city and county poorhouses.” While it was intended to serve those in need broadly, due to limited funds, it was required that those living out of state were charged for their stay. Funded by the Church Mission to Deaf Mutes and updates on the Home were also included in the Annual Reports. Eric Whiting, “A Brief History of St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf And Its Founder, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Gallaudet,” undated (around 1960, 6–7, Papers, Henry L. Buzzard, MSS 59, Gallaudet University Archives; “Miscellaneous- Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes,” American Annals of the Deaf 31, no. 2 (April 1886): 166–67; Alexander L. Pach, “Kinetescope,” Silent Worker, May 1900; “History of the Gallaudet Home for Aged and Infirm Deaf-Mutes in the State of New York; Printed on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Opening of the Home at Wappinger Falls, New York, 1936” (St. Ann’s Church Press, New York, NY, 1936).

[8] Rt. Rev. Horatio Potter served as President with D. Colden Murray, James. M. Austin, M.D. as Vice Presidents. Isaac H. Holmes was named secretary and treasurer. The other members of the board included John T. Hoffman, Orlando L. Stewart, John Carlin, Henry J. Haight, S.R. Comstock, William O. Fitzgerald, Robert Gracie, Isaac Lewis Peet, John H. Pool, James F. Ruggles, James McCarter, Charles S. Newell, F. Campbell, James Lewis, Louis F. Therasson, William Niblo, Frederick DePeyster, Samuel V. Hoffman, Edward M. Curtiss, G. Fersenheim, and P.W. Gallaudet. Gallaudet was named General Manager and Rev. John Chamberlain served as Assistant Manager.The First Annual Report of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes, 1.

[9] Tenth Annual Report of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes (New York, NY: Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes, 1883).

[10] In 1873 five men were associated with the mission (Gallaudet, Rev. John Chamberlain, Rev. F.J. Clerc (Rector of Burlington College, New Jersey) Rev. Thomas B. Berry (pastor of St. Paul’s Mission Chapel, Albany, N.Y.) and Mr. Samuel A. Adams, (Baltimore Maryland). In 1879, seventeen men and one woman are included in the list of missionaries. (Rev. Thomas Gallaudet (Rector, St. Ann’s Church), Rev. F.J. Clerc (Rector of St. Paul’s Church, Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania), Rev. George C. Pennell (Rector, St. John’s Church, Newark, New Jersey), Rev. Thomas B. Berry (Omro, Diocese of Fond du Lac, Wisc), Rev. John Chamberlain (Assistant Manager/ Assistant Minister St. Ann’s Church), Henry Winter Syle (St. Stephen’s Mission to Deaf-Mutes, Philadelphia, PA), Mr. Austin W. Mann (Cleveland, Ohio), Mr. Thomas Roberts, (Grace Church, Allentown, PA), Mr. John C. Acker, (St. Luke’s Church, Rochester, N.Y.), Mr. R. D. Beers (St. Paul’s Church, Bridgeport Connecticut), Mr James Lewis, Mr. James S. Wells, Mr. Job Turner (St. Paul’s Church, Boston, South), Mr. R.P. McGregor (St. John’s Church, Cincinatti OH), Mr. E. P. Holmes (Nebraska City), Mr. William Bailey (Boston, Salem and Beverly, Mass), Mr. Delos A. Simpson (Christ Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes, St. Louis, and Mrs. Gould (bible study, St. Paul’s Church, Troy, NY). The First Annual Report of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes; The Seventh Annual Report of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes (New York, NY: Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes, 1879), Gallaudet University Deaf Collections and Archives.

[11] Jacob Mitchell Koehler, “Ordinations of Deaf Men,” Silent Worker 40, no. 2 (November 1927): 51.

[12] 390 AAD

[13] Sara Lee Jackson, A Voice in the Wilderness: A Brief History of Work Among the Deaf in Alabama by the Episcopal Church, 1961, 3.

[14] Berg and Buzzard, Thomas Gallaudet, Apostle to the Deaf, 151.

[15] Alexander M. Manson, “The Work of the Protestant Churches for the Deaf in North America 1815-1949, II,” American Annals of the Deaf 95, no. 4 (September 1950): 390.

[16] Koehler, “Ordinations of Deaf Men.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] William B. Stevens, “A Sermon Preached in St. Stephen’s Church, Philadelphia, Sunday, October, 8, 1876. On Occassion of the Ordination of Henry Winter Syle, M.A., (A Deaf Mute,) as Deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church by the Rt. Rev. WM. Bacon Stevens, D.D., LL.D., Bishop of Pennsylvania” (Sermon, Philadelphia, PA, October 8, 1876),; Manson, “The Work of the Protestant Churches for the Deaf in North America 1815-1949, II,” 390; Otto Benjamin Berg and Henry L. Buzzard, A Missionary Chronicle: Being a History of the Ministry to the Deaf in the Episcopal Church, 1850-1980 (Hollywood, Maryland: St. Mary’s Press, 1984), xxiii.

[19] Stevens, “A Sermon Preached in St. Stephen’s Church, Philadelphia, Sunday, October, 8, 1876. On Occassion of the Ordination of Henry Winter Syle, M.A., (A Deaf Mute,) as Deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church by the Rt. Rev. WM. Bacon Stevens, D.D., LL.D., Bishop of Pennsylvania,” 19.

[20] Steve L. Mathis, “The Church Ministry to the Deaf in the United States” (Lecture presented at the National Council of Missioners and Welfare Officers to the Deaf, Cambridge, England, 1954), 3.

[21] Syle (diaconate, 1876, priesthood, 1883), Mann (diaconate, 1877, priesthood, 1883), Job Turner (diaconate 1880, priesthood, 1891), Jacob M. Koehler (diaconate, 1886, priesthood, 1887).Berg and Buzzard, A Missionary Chronicle, 261.

[22] Susan Burch, Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to World War II (New York: NYU Press, 2004), 51.

[23] Robert P. McGregor, Jacob Koeher, James Cloud, and Franklin C. Smielau. Lawrence R. Newman, Sands of Time: NAD Presidents 1880-2003 (Silver Spring, Maryland: National Association of the Deaf, 2006).

[24] The Seventh Annual Report of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes.

Part Three: Education and Religion

“Christian ministry often began in the schools that were established to teach. The priests, clergymen, and laymen who were first motivated toward this ministry saw no serious separation between the spiritual and secular education of deaf students. This concern arose later. However, the church’s ministry to deaf people began in the context of the school.” – Dr. Harold Noe, History of Religion Among the Deaf[1]


The Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes came into existence in the second half of the nineteenth century. In reviewing the historiography of deaf religious history in the previous post, I suggested that deaf educational practices had an important impact on the lives of deaf people throughout this period (the first post in this series is also available). How do we characterize the relationship between religion and education and why is it particularly important in the second half of the nineteenth century for members of the Mission? Dr. Harold Noe’s History of Religion Among the Deaf provides some insight.

Noe - History of Religion


In this brief text, Noe describes key features in the development of a deaf ministry.[2] Included in this work is an image entitled “History of Religion Among the Deaf”. The image expresses the deaf religious of history as a winding road and the destinations that Noe has included are quite telling. Unsurprisingly, religious scripture lay at the start of the journey. These passages mark each mention of deaf people in the bible and are commonly understood to have shaped the perception and treatment of deaf men and women.  At the end of the road Noe notes the creation of different forms of religious service for deaf people. From scripture to practice, Noe suggests that deaf religious history has travelled a chronological path. Included in this history are the great ‘firsts’ of deaf education; Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Benedictine monk that taught deaf children housed at his monastery in Spain; Abbe Charles-Michel de l’Epee, founder of the National School for the Deaf in France; and Thomas H. Gallaudet, founder of the American School for the Deaf founded at Hartford, Connecticut.


The assertion made in Noe’s picture, and the prevailing narrative of deaf religious history, is that education and religion are deeply intertwined. In many ways, these subjects are impossible to separate. The Second Great Awakening is frequently understood to be the impetus behind the growth of deaf education in the United States.[3] From the founding of the American School for the Deaf in 1817, the character and direction of residential deaf schools in the United States reflected the cultural and philosophical concerns of Americans.[4] In the first half of the nineteenth century, these concerns centered on the spiritual and moral lives of uneducated deaf people.  Collins Stone, Superintendent of the Ohio Institution for the Deaf summarized these attitudes toward education clearly in 1848.

“We regard congenital deafness as one of the sorest calamities that can befall a human being… He knows nothing of the existence of God, of his own spirit, or of a future life… If he dies unblessed by education, he dies in this utter moral darkness, though he has lived in a Christian land; though from his youth he has frequented the temple of the true God, or daily bowed around the altar of family worship. To open the doors of his prison, and let in upon him the light of truth and the consolations of religion, is a work in which every benevolent mind must feel a deep interest.”[5]

Stone was not alone in expressing these concerns. Douglas Baynton has clearly and concisely described the prevalence of these attitudes in his text Forbidden Signs. “At mid-century, the calamity of deafness still was ‘not that his ear is closed to the cheerful tones of the human voice’ but that the deaf person might be denied the ‘light of divine truth.’”[6] It was these beliefs that enabled the spread of deaf education and it is unsurprising that religious leaders featured prominently in the establishment of new institutions. Between 1817 and 1850, eighteen deaf residential schools were founded, eight of these under the direction of ministers.[7] At least three schools were established at the urging of members of the Mission.[8]

Religion also shaped instruction at deaf residential schools. In 1873, Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, rector of St. Ann’s and General Manager of the Mission recalled that religious instruction figured prominently at his father’s school. “The pupils were brought together in the chapel, twice every Sunday, for divine worship and religious instruction, conducted in the sign language. They also had morning and evening prayers, daily, during the week.”[9] The American School for the Deaf was the first to incorporate these practices, but the feature was soon pattered in the institutions that followed.[10] The overlap between residential deaf schools and religious organizations was so complete that Alexander Manson’s research on Protestant Churches for the Deaf suggested “all of the Episcopalian clergy for the deaf had some teaching experience in the schools for the deaf.”[11]

Though deaf education was thoroughly linked to religious organizations in the nineteenth century, the adoption of worship services in sign language, outside of the school was not widespread. In fact, St. Ann’s Church, founded in 1852, is believed to have been the first attempt to form a separate church mission for deaf men and women. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the members of the Mission promoted the belief that the unique features of the Episcopal Church best prepared them to bridge the gap between residential religious services and community worship.

They believed that the use of the Book of Common Prayer and a common church calendar enabled missionaries and deaf community members to maintain their worship practices even as members of the Mission traveled between communities.[12] The written liturgy would enable the growing population of literate deaf adherents to practice privately or to take part in services with hearing people. Gallaudet stated, “A common sign language and a common manual alphabet are used throughout the whole country. These are instrumental in conveying and receiving ideas with great rapidity. Deaf-mutes enjoy signs as those who hear enjoy sounds. But, as deaf-mutes are led by their education to understand the English language, they can also derive great profit by using Prayer Books and Bibles at the services of any Episcopal Church in the land.”[13] Missionaries sought to ensure that deaf adherents would be able to understand the lessons contained in the Book of Common Prayer and discussed at great length the importance of conveying religious concepts appropriately so that congregants would be able to understand the ideas in written English.[14]

The importance of deaf education in the lives of deaf people cannot be overstated. Attending deaf residential schools introduced deaf people to community, language and culture. These institutions prepared deaf people for employment, provided literacy skills, and introduced many deaf people to signed languages. However, deaf historical study has yet to examine the way in which these spaces also provided an introduction to religion.  In many ways deaf residential schools prepared deaf people to be congregants of the Mission. It also prepared students to become missionaries. In the next blog post I will examine the emergence of the Mission and the ordination of deaf men to the ministry. To what degree did education and the Mission influence each other? In what communities were mission services provided? What relationships were developed between deaf residential schools and missionaries traveling through these spaces? What answers can be located in the annual reports of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes?

[1] Harold Noe, The History of Religion Among the Deaf (Book Two), First (Council Bluffs, Iowa: Deaf Missions, 1985), 24.

[2] Noe, The History of Religion Among the Deaf (Book Two).

[3] Douglas C. Baynton, Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 15.

[4] Baynton, Forbidden Signs.

[5] Collins Stone, “On the Religious State, and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb,” American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb, April 1848, 133.

[6] Baynton, Forbidden Signs, 33.

[7] Elaine Costello Ph.D, Religious Signing: A Comprehensive Guide for All Faiths, Rev Upd edition (New York: Bantam, 2009), xiv.

[8] Gallaudet was directly involved in the founding of deaf schools in Rome (1875), Rochester (1876) and Malone (1884) New York. Otto Benjamin Berg and Henry L. Buzzard, Thomas Gallaudet, Apostle to the Deaf (New York: St. Ann’s Church For the Deaf, 1989), 62.

[9] The First Annual Report of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes (New York, NY: Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes, 1873), 11, Gallaudet University Deaf Collections and Archives.

[10] It warrants mentioning that students spent years at residential deaf schools, living in dorms and separated from families. Whatever the religious affiliation of their families, they participated in the services offered at school. Douglas C Baynton, Jack R Gannon, and Jean Lindquist Bergey, Through Deaf Eyes: A Photographic History of an American Community (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2007), 32; Susan Burch, Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to World War II (New York: NYU Press, 2004), 46–52.

[11] Alexander M. Manson, “The Work of the Protestant Churches for the Deaf in North America 1815-1949, II,” American Annals of the Deaf 95, no. 4 (September 1950): 389.

[12] The Fifth Annual Report of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes (New York, NY: Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes, 1877), 6, Gallaudet University Deaf Collections and Archives.

[13] Proceedings of the First Conference on Church Work Among the Deaf, Held at New York, October 4-5, 1881, Conference Proceedings (Philadelphia, PA, n.d.), 7.

[14] Ibid., 12–14.

Part Two: Historiography

In his dissertation, Religion and the American Deaf Community, Kent Olney asserted, “…there is actually an abundance of available materials describing the relationship of religion to the early deaf community. Silence can no longer be attributed to a lack of reliable resources.”[1]

A critical assessment of the historiography suggests that deaf religious histories can be found both everywhere and nowhere in deaf historical study. As I described in the previous blog post, the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes has yet to be critically examined. Nor has the complex relationship between religion and the American deaf community received sufficient attention. However, as this project indicates, rich deaf religious histories can be found in abundance across this field of study. In fact, secondary sources that describe deaf religious histories may be divided into three groups. The first group includes works regarding the contemporary deaf ministry. These texts offer brief summaries of early religious efforts, however they are frequently fraught with errors, poorly sourced, and include uncritical narratives that were shaped by contemporary aims.[2]

Alternatively, the second group, into which the majority of Deaf History texts fall, relegates the subject of religion to the periphery. Upon examination, however, religion can be found in the majority of the books examined. Several of the works highlight the way in which religious beliefs regarding deafness and disability were rooted in Judeo-Christian theology and link these beliefs to broader systems of benevolence.[3] Others, Douglas Baynton’s work for instance, emphasize the role of religion in the development of deaf education in the United States and examine the religious arguments used in defense of sign language.[4] Though frequently profound in his assessment of religious rhetoric, Baynton’s book is not a text about deaf religion. Rather, the text focuses on hearing evangelical protestant reformers and the ideologies that drove their efforts.

In another example, Signs of Resistance by Susan Burch argues for the importance of signed church services in preserving the use of signed languages in deaf schools.[5] However the importance of religion in the lives of deaf people does not receive consideration, nor are religious institutions assessed outside of the social services they provided. Further still, while works like Jack Gannon’s Deaf Heritage and the more recent, Baltimore’s Deaf Heritage by Kathleen Brockway, include key figures in deaf religious history, they do not meaningfully investigate the role of religion in deaf lives.[6] Though religious figures, spaces, and ideologies are featured across this grouping of texts, these are not made central to the argument. Religion in these cases is largely viewed as a precursor to social organization, rather than a catalyst.

The works that directly describe the emergence of religious services for deaf people are found in the final group of texts. These pieces sketch the shape of deaf religious worship by examining key figures, exploring worship practices, studying spaces of worship, and questioning the role of religion in the deaf community. Below, I will highlight key works relating to the Episcopal ministry to the deaf, though there are a number of texts that deal with other forms of worship.[7]

Between 1950-1951, Rev. Alexander Manson produced a series of articles penned for the American Annals of the Deaf.[8] The work attempted to craft a coherent narrative of The Work of the Protestant Churches for the Deaf in North America, 1815-1949. In just over 100 pages, Manson described the development of seven Protestant deaf religious organizations over a period spanning 134 years. His work is significant as it provided one of the most comprehensive examinations of Protestant efforts in the deaf community, however due to the scale of his effort, his analysis is thin. Despite this, critique, the second installment of his work, which describes the Episcopal Church ministry, is nuanced and important. In very little space, Manson unpacks a number of the key themes in the history of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes, examines issues relating to the ordination of deaf men, and identifies the importance of understanding the role of religion in the lives of deaf people into the twentieth century.

The next major work, A Missionary Chronicle, remains the fullest account of this church organization despite its limitations. In this work, Otto Berg traces the history of the deaf Episcopal ministry from its roots in European deaf education to the centennial celebration of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf in 1981. Covering such a broad time period, the author relies heavily on reprinted primary source materials. Berg uses summary passages to position the historical evidence and to provide an overall narrative to the work. This provides an invaluable opportunity to locate historical documentation about the organization and aids in compiling biographical information on the members of the ministry, particularly the deaf men and women who served as layreaders.

However, Berg does not offer a nuanced or critical reading of the ministry to the deaf in the Episcopal Church. The work focuses on church leaders and offers very little insight into the lives of congregants. Furthermore, he does not adequately investigate episodes of tension or strife in this history.[9] Finally, the text draws, in large part, from church reports and from articles in the deaf press but offers very little insight into the relationship this organization had with the Episcopal Church. Religious debates and shifts in theory or practice between 1850-1980 did not appear in the text.

In a companion text, Thomas Gallaudet, Apostle to the Deaf, by Berg and Henry Buzzard reproduced these oversights and are subject to the same critique.[10] Though an important step toward recognizing and uncovering deaf religious histories, the authors are uncritical of Gallaudet and throughout the text citations are sparse and unvaried. The work contains important information about the role of the church in providing services to members of the deaf community and highlights the influence of the clergy, but is unable to adequately place this history in a larger context.


While religion is featured across deaf historical texts, there are few examples of historians critically engaging with religion in deaf history. How do we account for this gap despite an abundance of material? Olney suggests that researchers have not prioritized the study of religion.[11] While I agree with his assessment, we must also consider the way in which deaf lives from this period are mediated through the lens of a written record.

This project utilizes church reports, church materials, newspapers and journal articles to reconstruct the activities of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes. Not only should these sources be critically assessed as institutional documents produced for public consumption and unlikely to contain unvarnished opinions of authors, they must also be considered in terms of their representation of the lives of deaf people themselves. Accessing the experiences, particularly deeply held religious beliefs, is difficult undertaking for any scholar. The process is further complicated by the study of a cultural and linguistic community for whom signed languages (without a written form) were the primary languages. Given barriers to literacy and the slow growth of educational opportunities for deaf people throughout the nineteenth century, we must remember that the lives of the majority of deaf people are not recorded in written English As a result of these factors, deaf historical research must be viewed as mediated through a lens and a language that was not wholly their own.[12] In the next blog post this discussion will continue, as the complex relationship between religion and education will be further explored.

[1] Kent Robert Olney, “Religion and the American Deaf Community: A Sociological Analysis of the Chicago Mission for the Deaf, 1890-1941” (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, 1999), 56.

[2] Harold Noe, The History of Religion Among the Deaf (Book Two), First (Council Bluffs, Iowa: Deaf Missions, 1985); Bob Ayres, Deaf Diaspora: The Third Wave of Deaf Ministry (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2004); Peggy A Johnson and Robert L Walker, Deaf Ministry: Make a Joyful Silence (Charleston, S.C.: BookSurge, LLC, 2007); Elaine Costello Ph.D, Religious Signing: A Comprehensive Guide for All Faiths, Rev Upd edition (New York: Bantam, 2009).

[3] John V. Van Cleve and Barry A. Crouch, A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1989), 1–6; Robert M. Buchanan, Illusions of Equality: Deaf Americans in School and Factory, 1850-1950 (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1999), 2–3; Jan Branson and Don Miller, Damned for Their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2002), 13–16, 130–132; Melvia M. Nomeland, Ronald E. Nomeland, and Trudy Suggs, The Deaf Community in America: History in the Making (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011), 67–68, 78–79.

[4] Douglas C. Baynton, Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); R. A. R. Edwards, Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2012).

[5] Susan Burch, Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to World War II (New York: NYU Press, 2004), 46–52. R.A.R. Edwards takes a similar position in, Edwards, Words Made Flesh.

[6] Jack R. Gannon, Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America, ed. Jane Butler and Laura-Jean Gilbert (Silver Spring, Maryland: National Association of the Deaf, 1981); Kathleen Brockway, Baltimore’s Deaf Heritage (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014).

[7] For example, Anthony Russo’s work provides a study of Catholic religious activities among the deaf, see: Anthony Russo, In Silent Prayer: A History of Ministry With the Deaf Community in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (Garden City Park, NY: Square One, 2008). For close examination of Methodist religious efforts, see; Olney, “Religion and the American Deaf Community”; Kent R. Olney, “The Chicago Mission for the Deaf,” in The Deaf History Reader, ed. John Vickrey Van Cleve (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2007), 174–208. For information about Jewish deaf people, see: Jerome Daniel Schein, The Deaf Jew in the Modern World (New York: Ktav Pub. House for New York Society for the Deaf, 1986).

[8] Alexander M. Manson, “The Work of the Protestant Churches for the Deaf in North America 1815-1949, I,” American Annals of the Deaf 95, no. 3 (May 1950): 265–79; Alexander M. Manson, “The Work of the Protestant Churches for the Deaf in North America 1815-1949, II,” American Annals of the Deaf 95, no. 4 (September 1950): 387–433; Alexander M. Manson, “The Work of the Protestant Churches for the Deaf in North America 1815-1949, III,” American Annals of the Deaf 95, no. 5 (November 1950): 461–85; Alexander M. Manson, “The Work of the Protestant Churches for the Deaf in North America 1815-1949, IV,” American Annals of the Deaf 96, no. 3 (May 1951): 363–81.

[9] Recently, my work has been critical of the Church’s handling of the merger between St. Ann’s Church and St. Matthew’s Church in New York City in 1897. These matters received minimal consideration in this text. Jannelle Legg, “‘Not Consolidation but Absorption’; A Historical Examination of the Controversy at St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf” (Masters Thesis, Gallaudet University, 2011); Jannelle Legg, “Writing Resistance: Edwin A. Hodgson and the Controversy at St. Ann’s Church,” in Telling Deaf Lives, ed. Kristin Snoddon (Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2014).

[10] Otto Benjamin Berg and Henry L. Buzzard, Thomas Gallaudet, Apostle to the Deaf (New York: St. Ann’s Church For the Deaf, 1989).

[11] Olney, “Religion and the American Deaf Community,” 56–57.

[12] For greater discussion of these features, Christopher Krentz’s work explores these features at length.  On the camera as printing press, see: Christopher Krentz, “Camera as Printing Press,” in Signing the Body Poetic; Essays on American Sign Language Literature, ed. H-Dirksen L Bauman, Jennifer L. Nelson, and Heidi Rose (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006). For information on deaf writers, see: Christopher Krentz, Writing Deafness: The Hearing Line in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

Part One: An Introduction to the Mission

CMDM LogoThe Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes was founded in 1872 at St. Ann’s Church for Deaf-Mutes in New York City. The organization sought to combine the religious efforts of deaf and hearing clergymen and to expand the “ministry to the deaf of other cities.”[1] These aims were not revolutionary, particularly to the men present at that meeting. Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, for instance, had provided religious services to deaf men and women in neighboring cities since he was ordained in 1852.[2]  Nor should the Mission be remembered solely for the unique form of worship it promoted. Though news articles from this period frequently marveled at the novelty of ‘silent sermons’, the use of sign language in church services was not an innovation of this group.[3] Rather, the importance of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes (and the Conference for Church-Work Among the Deaf it would later become) was the way in which missionary efforts connected disparate deaf communities and created leadership opportunities for deaf clergymen.

These missionaries worked with a stated ambition: “… to increase the number of religious services for the deaf and dumb throughout the country; to relieve deaf-mutes who are in sickness or trouble; to find work for those who are out of employment, and especially to provide a home for the aged and infirm.”[4] Toward these aims, in the first decade of the organization the Mission grew in size significantly. In 1873, the activities of the centered in New York and the neighboring states. [5] By 1879 the Mission field expanded to include thirty-two states and portions of Canada.[6] As the Mission spread into adjacent cities and fell under new dioceses, the work of missionaries had influence on the physical and religious lives of deaf people “scattered in the wilds”.[7]

Despite the importance of the Mission there has been no comprehensive effort to examine this rich history. Further still, efforts to catalog and recognize the role of deaf clergymen have been limited.[8] In a series of linked blog posts, I’ve undertaken a project that moves toward addressing this historical oversight. In this examination, I’ve incorporated digital methodologies (as part of the course Clio 3: Programming in History/New Media as well as American Religious History after 1865) to examine these sources. Which cities and communities were visited by missionaries? How often were services offered, and to what degree can we estimate the impact missionaries had on the lives of deaf people in these contexts? What relationship did the Mission have to deaf residential schools? What information can it share about other locations with a high population of deaf people? Because this project is intended to be a part of a much larger investigation of the religious work of the Episcopal Church, the questions it considers are broad and the conclusions I will draw will be preliminary.


This project will address the subject of deafness and disability from a cultural perspective rather than applying a medical model. A medical model emphasizes pathology, identifies deafness as a problem, and marks deaf bodies as different. In this project deaf people are defined as members of a unique cultural and linguistic community. [9]

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of phrases were utilized to describe members of the Mission and other members of the American deaf community. Terms such as “deaf-mute”, “deaf and dumb”, “semi-mute”, and “silent people” were applied to individuals with varying hearing and/or speaking abilities as well as varying linguistic skill in sign language and/or English.[10] As a result they occupied ambiguous and shifting identity categories throughout this period.

In an effort to capture the fluidity of these experiences and given the lack of materials that indicate their self-identification, “deaf” as an inclusive term is used throughout this project to refer to members of the nineteenth-century American deaf community across a spectrum of hearing and language abilities. In proper names and direct quotes I will utilize the language provided by primary source documents.

[1] Unknown, “The Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes,” undated, c 1910, Box #45, Archives of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

[2] While employed as an instructor at the New York Institution for Deaf-Mutes Gallaudet also provided religious instruction to students. Thomas Gallaudet, “A Sketch of My Life,” Unpublished Autobiographical Manuscript (Washington, D.C., n.d.), Thomas Gallaudet Papers, unprocessed manuscript, Gallaudet University Archives; “Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes,” Deaf Mutes’ Journal, August 12, 1875.

[3] “A Deaf and Dumb Service,” Fraser’s Magazine, 1869; “Prof Job Turner in Canada,” Staunton Spectator, December 3, 1878, Library of Congress, Chronicling America; “Deaf Mutes at Church; Interesting Services at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church,” New York Times, September 16, 1878, New York Times Archive 1851-1980,; “A Sermon in Sign Language,” Edgefield Advertiser, November 8, 1883, Library of Congress, Chronicling America; “An Unspoken Sermon,” Evening Gazette, February 23, 1896, Deaf Biographical Files, Gallaudet University.

[4] “Miscellaneous; Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes,” American Annals of the Deaf 18, no. 2 (April 1873): 129.

[5] Mission services were offered in nine states. The First Annual Report of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes (New York, NY: Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes, 1873), 7, Gallaudet University Deaf Collections and Archives.

[6] The Seventh Annual Report of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes (New York, NY: Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes, 1879), Gallaudet University Deaf Collections and Archives.

[7] Deaf missionary, Jacob Koehler used this phrase to describe the deaf people living in small, diverse communities. The phrase highlighted concern for both the spiritual and social lives of deaf people that frequently lived without access to church and community. Jacob Mitchell Koehler, “Untitled History,” n.d., 2, Papers, Henry L. Buzzard, MSS 59, Gallaudet University Archives.

[8] A Missionary Chronicle remains the only major work that characterizes the efforts of the Episcopal ministry in this era. Produced by members of the Conference on Church Work Among the Deaf, the work is an introductory effort, uncritical of the Mission or its members and provides a chronological collection of primary materials. Otto Benjamin Berg and Henry L. Buzzard, A Missionary Chronicle: Being a History of the Ministry to the Deaf in the Episcopal Church, 1850-1980 (Hollywood, Maryland: St. Mary’s Press, 1984).

[9] Beginning with James Woodward, scholars in the field of Deaf Studies adopted a naming convention that makes this distinction clear; “deaf” (with a lowercase “d” was used to denote the auditory condition of deafness, while “Deaf” (with a capital “D”) was used to refer to individuals who share a cultural and linguistic affiliation. Throughout this work, this convention is not utilized. This decision was made as part of a effort to recognize and unpack the” D/d” model as a twentieth century convention that refers to a particular configuration of identity categories and experiences. For more information on the “D/d” model, see: Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, “Learning to Be Deaf,” in Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988) 2.

[10] In fact, the audiometer, a device used to qualify and quantify hearing abilities was not commonly used to investigate the relationship between hearing and language until the 1920s. For more information, see Susan Burch, Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to World War II (New York: NYU Press, 2004), 33.For an example of how the deaf community characterized differences in hearing and speaking abilities, see: Edward Allen Fay, “Deaf-Mutes–II,” American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb, October 1888, 242.

Reflections on the Fall Semester

It has been a busy and beneficial fall semester as a second-year fellow at CHNM. The time rolled along quickly and throughout I’ve had a number of new opportunities and experiences that have built on the work that we did last year as first-year fellows.

As a second-year fellow in the center, our roles at the center changed considerably. The first year of the fellowship focused on circulating us through each division at the center – a six-week process that exposed us to the various projects and enabled us to work with faculty and staff throughout CHNM. The second year of the fellowship has been much more concentrated. My work in the Education division has afforded me more time on a project and allowed me to work more directly with members of that division. In turn I’ve been able to understand the facets of the project to which I have contributed and have enjoyed greater integration into the division.

Getting Started with Phase 1 of 100 Leaders:

In this case, the majority of the fall semester was spent working on the 100 Leaders in World History project. The site, which I have reviewed here, allows for interaction with historical figures on the subject of leadership and encourages teachers and students to extend these subjects further by rating these figures on particular leadership traits. CHNM was selected by National History Day to develop and design the site last Spring. At the start of the semester the site was still in the first phase of development. I worked to add the content from National History Day to each of the pages and familiarized myself with the back-end structure of Drupal. Throughout this period I had a number of interesting conversations with Jennifer Rosenfeld about the complexities and challenges of creating interactive and educational materials for the web. I learned a good deal about the importance of collaboration on a project of this scale. With over 100 distinct pages on the site, minor edits, like the addition of italicization, called for discussion, notation, and a division of labor to ensure that each page was updated appropriately.

Mentoring and moving into Phase 2:

As the semester rolled on, the first-year fellows circulated into the Education department for a four-week accelerated rotation. StephanieJordan, and Alyssa each completed a blog post that described their experiences. During this period I took on a larger role in mentoring them and organized each of the activities we would undertake. We began with user testing across browsers and devices. At this stage, the 100 Leaders in World History project had entered the second phase of development and this user testing aided in the development and design of the current voting interface and served to test and validate that the underlying voting algorithm was capturing and recording appropriately. We consistently tried our best to break everything and shared our findings with Jennifer and James McCartney for improvement. (Anyone viewing the site on a smartphone will appreciate our feedback as the larger slider buttons were a direct result of these tests!)

Next, we worked to gather image content and citation information for videos on the site. At first, our discussions focused on digital images and copyright, but soon we turned our attention to issues of diversity and representation in terms of time period, geographic region, gender, race, ethnicity, and type of leadership. We tried to be thoughtful in our selections, considering the ability of a single image to convey particular types of information about a leader or juxtaposing images to create alternate or additional meaning about a figure or figures. The final activity undertaken with the help of the first year fellows was the creation of a guidebook that will aid National History Day in modifying and maintaining the 100 Leaders in World History site.

Each of these activities was useful in demonstrating the different complications that accompany large-scale, collaborative, educational websites. User testing encouraged us to deal with the user experience and to gain insight into the processes required to build a site of this size. Contributing images moved us back into our comfort zones as historians doing research on particular subjects- but the added complication of copyright was useful in expanding the Fellows’ thinking about what digital historical research entails. While we each campaigned for our favorite images or leaders, we also took seriously the importance of crafting a meaningful visual narrative that supported the dialogue of each video. Finally, the guidebook allowed an introduction to the back-end of a Drupal site and encouraged us to think through questions about making navigation easier and more efficient to those without experience programming.

Working on 100 Leaders after the launch:

After the first-year fellows completed their rotation in the Education division, my work continued to focus on the completion of the Guidebook as well as video transcription, user testing, data manipulation and a website review. On November 3rd, the voting interface on the 100 Leaders in World History site went live. To aid in marketing the site and to inform teachers about how it could be used in the classroom, I wrote a summary of the site’s features for This website review encouraged me to revisit my earlier discussions with Jennifer about online learning and to view the 100 Leaders in World History site with fresh eyes. Since then, interest in the site has exploded and we have recorded over 200,000 votes in just over a month. It has been a busy but useful semester for me in Education and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to a project like 100 Leaders.

CHNM Anniversary:

In November, CHNM celebrated its 20th anniversary with a conference held here at George Mason. As I described here, the second-year fellows spent a portion of last spring engaged in a discussion about the history of the center. From that seminar with Dr. Robertson, each of us researched a foundational project in the center’s history and created an archive in Omeka to organize and display our findings. Over the summer I worked to expand our efforts to include the broader range of projects using grant materials, oral histories, and internal communications to trace the development and growth of important projects. As a relative newcomer to the field, this process was particularly meaningful. This work culminated this fall in the release of the RRCHNM20 Collection which made these materials public and invited others to contribute. The RRCHNM20 Collection is an important step toward creating a unified narrative of CHNM’s role through recording and preserving the hidden processes and persons at each phase of CHNM’s history. In fact, a group of us used a portion of our time at the conference to mine the RRCHNM collection and create a visualization that represents some of the connections between projects and people across 20 years.  Furthermore, the conference events brought former and current employees together in a productive and meaningful dialogue about the past, present and future of work at DH centers like CHNM (I live-tweeted these experiences throughout the conference.)

Additional Fellowship Responsibilities and final thoughts:

The additional responsibilities of a second-year fellow include producing a podcast, serving as a mentor to first-year fellows and the operation of the Digital Support Space. It was interesting to be on the other side of the mentorship process this year. Last year, Ben Hurwitz, Spencer Roberts, and Amanda Morton served as mentors to the incoming fellows. They were each very helpful to us and I was excited to provide the same assistance for the new group. Across the semester I’ve made myself available to each of them for support, but my interaction during their rotation in the Education division was particularly significant. During that period I was able to provide direct support and work with each of them individually on a project. Not only do I feel that I got to know them better, but we had a number of useful conversations about the fellowship and the PhD program broadly. I also worked this semester with my mentee, Jordan, to research and produce episode 108 for the Digital Campus podcast. Finally, I also extended time and resources to individuals in Clio I, Clio 3, and Digital Storytelling classes through the Support Space.

Overall, has been a fast and busy semester but a successful one. I’ve learned a good deal about project management and collaboration through my experiences on the 100 Leaders in World History project and I’m pleased to have had the chance to work more closely in the Education division.


Shuffling and restructuring

As of late, this blog has served a primarily academic purpose – I’ve blogged for class and written about assignments – but I’ve not been describing my scholarly processes or documenting my activities.

I’m hoping to remedy this significant gap in the coming weeks and include a bit more about what is going on behind the scenes and to highlight the direction of my research. The back end of the site is getting an overhaul as well, so expect exciting (or at least functional) changes to occur soon.

First-Year Review

Our spring semester as Fellows at the Center passed remarkably quickly (not solely a result of the frequent snow days but cancellations definitely contributed to the rapid approach of summer). We were kept very busy with projects for the Research division and an intensive DH Seminar this semester. Below I’ll briefly describe some of the activities we undertook throughout this period and reflect on my first year fellowship at CHNM.

The semester started with six weeks in the Research division – by far the most intimidating to someone that is new to DH. Quickly, however, we were put to work on several engaging projects and I found that I acclimated without feeling overwhelmed. We learned about PressForward by doing some user testing and improving the documentation for the plugin. We also were able to learn about the grant-writing process by doing some research for an upcoming project and we got a clearer idea of how plugins and tools are developed at the center. The majority of our time in this division was spent on the challenging task of using digital tools to uncover information about THATCamp. We blogged about the process of being set loose on the contents of THATCamp and the scraping and topic modeling we performed (those posts are available here). We shared these results in a center-wide presentation and received a lot of support and feedback for the project.

Across the semester the Fellows also focused time on providing support and assistance to other students. As many of us were also enrolled in Clio 2, we were visited many of our classmates and our table was often filled with students collaborating on skills and resources. With assignments that required significant use of digital tools, we handled questions regarding Photoshop and Dreamweaver, sought new resources and tools, and helped find errors in HTML or CSS. I saw a huge benefit in working through problems and took a lot of inspiration from the advice and suggestions of everyone at the table.

Finally, our semester came to a close as we spent the last six weeks in a seminar with Dr. Stephen Robertson. The seminar built on the experiences within each department at the Center and, with this base of knowledge, asked us to turn our gaze outward at the digital humanities as a field and DH centers as centers of production. This discussion was also a timely one, as this fall CHNM will celebrate its 20th anniversary and the Center has begun to reflect on this period. We used Diane Zorich’s work on DH centers with readings by Mark Sample, Stephen Ramsay, Bethany Nowviskie, Neil Fraistat, Elijah Meeks and Trevor Owens, to frame our discussions and answer questions about where, when and how DH work has been done.

Using centerNet as a starting place, we tried to unpack a larger history of digital humanities labs and centers. This process raised interesting questions for us about the differences between a resource center, library service desk, institutional organization and brick-and-mortar DH center. Projects, staff, infrastructure, institutional support and audience were among the issues we considered, but we were also curious about how these locations are linked through shared resources, staff and projects.

Next we dug into the history of CHNM. Oral histories have been collected from participants at the center- but we soon realized that the overview these interviews provided would be only part of the picture of CHNM. In order to further unpack this history, we would need to dive into the projects themselves. Each of us examined a pivotal project. For me this was ECHO, a web portal for the history of science and technology. Working through grant materials enabled me to make connections between this early project and current/recent projects like Hurricane Digital Memory BankZotero, and Omeka. Using ECHO as a vantage point, I gained greater insight into the transitions the Center has seen – from an emphasis on CD-ROMs and single-subject websites to building tools that enable us to organize, analyze, present, and use content in new ways. Understanding and unpacking this trajectory was very useful for me and a meaningful part of my semester.

Looking across my year at CHNM, I’m very happy with the time we spent in each division. Walking into the center can be an intimidating process. One has the immediate sense that you are entering a place where things happen, where goals are made, met, and exceeded. It was very hard to imagine my place in the midst of such an accomplished group of people. With a limited digital background – this was a year of learning, asking questions and digging up online tutorials. The Center has been a remarkable resource toward that goal. Cycling through each division exposed us to a variety of projects and workflows and I’ve learned a great deal through this process. Though each division responds to their own set of concerns and audiences, there is a definite cohesion to the work that is done. It has been remarkably informative to have played a small part in that process.

DH – 804 – Networks and Crowds

Our final set of readings focused on the subject of crowds. It was less so about networks as we’d imagined it – in terms of network analysis- and instead about how networks of people can work together to transform action in the digital environment.

This week the readings emphasized how networked crowds (like we’ve discussed elsewhere) handle scale differently. Though the phrase “many hands make light work” – seems to hold true here, the difference is, as Clay Shirkey writes, “In the words of physicist Philip Anderson, ‘More is different.’ When you aggregate a lot of something, it behaves in new ways, and our new communications tools are aggregating our individual ability to create and share, at unprecedented levels of more.” (Cognitive Surplus, 25). Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Cass Sustein, Max Evans, Guy Marieke and Emma Tonklin agree that an important and transformative feature of the Web 2.0 world is that scale changes everything.

But also as Sustein emphasizes, do we need to increase our concern and critical assessment of the process itself- be suspicious about the negative impact of the voices of the many drowning out the voices of the few. In terms of my own interests I was drawn to the way in which the web makes it possible for engagement and participation from minority voices – and for me this has to do with the way in which digital media has transformed the ways in which (and spaces in which) members of the deaf community interact, share ideas and engage with hearing individuals. Shirky was particularly meaningful in his (hopeful) assessment of how the internet can grow groups and organizations.  In Here Comes Everybody,  he writes, “We now have communications tools – and increasingly, social patterns that make use of those tools – that are a better fit for our native desires and talents for group effort.” (48) While we’ve focused much of our discussions in this minor field reading on our own dissertation work, in a much larger way- this has been the draw for me in engaging in the digital humanities – for the productive way in which DH has made it easier to effect change, achieve access, and connect with peers – particularly in the community in which I am engaged. 

Stepping back from my own interests – the readings were useful in conceptualizing and imagining the way in which networks and crowds enable us to get at data differently and more efficiently than previously possible. I can’t read about the Flickr Commons project and Folksonomies or Max Evans’ piece about archival digitization without thinking immediately of the Papers of the War Department and the Scripto tool used at CHNM – or the New York City Public Library Building Inspector project that is learning to machine read insurance maps, or many other user-driven attempts to harness the “power of the crowd”. While these approaches won’t aid me in my dissertation work – they are useful for me to consider in future projects and will continue to play a big role in finding and obtaining access to information/resources I need for my research.

DH – 804 – Topic Modeling and Visualization

Having worked on two topic modeling projects this year (a final project for Clio I and a topic modeling of the THATCamp proceedings undertaken by the Digital History Fellows at CHNM), I walked into this grouping of readings with relative confidence.

A confidence that was quickly deflated when confronted with how little I truly understood when I completed those projects. This week, Ted Underwood, Lauren F. Klein, David M. Blei, Andrew Goldstone, Elijah Meeks, Lisa Rhody  and Ben Schmidt exposed me to the possibilities and pitfalls of using LDA topic modeling. Given what I learned, I’ve a real inclination to revisit those projects at another time.

There were a few areas in particular that drew my attention and raised interesting questions for me regarding the analysis and interpretation of the results that topic modeling produces.

A fundamental concern relates to the fact that topic modeling analyzes texts by counting and grouping tokens into models. This word-based analysis should be subject to a good deal of consideration. Rhody, and the others, emphasize the value of  LDA topic modeling as “revealing patterns and relationships that might otherwise have remained hidden.” A great benefit indeed for historians interested in considering new approaches. However, a considerable barrier in the application of digital tools is, and will continue to be, a lack of understanding regarding the results.

How effective is this process if the conclusions you draw “will be limited to those who understand how topic modeling works” (Schmidt) ? How do non-digital scholars make sense of topic modeling? Furthermore, as researchers, what other pitfalls are hidden in the data, overlooked because we don’t know what we don’t know?

This week Amanda shared with us a link to Goldstone and Underwood’s PMLA research data (available here) and what struck me as I looked through it was two thoughts: one, this looks beautiful, and two, what does any of this mean? For me this highlights the difficulty in communicating the work of digital tools like topic modeling to non-digital historians. I think it is an impressive feat, to distantly read a large corpus of documents, but I’m not convinced of the efficacy in the face of concerns raised across the readings about whether or not we even understand the “topics” we produce.

Topic modeling is not without the interpretation and close-reading associated with traditional historical research, but machine reading still causes some discomfort for me. The privileging of the text and the stripping of context make me nervous and I echo the concerns we read about word meanings and changing terminologies.

In her explanation of the process of topic modeling, Rhody  uses the analogy of a farmers’ market to describe the computational processes that occur within the program. The machine simply reads the contents of the baskets and identifies patterns. The process seems simple when you describe how “a pear is put in the basket with other pears”, but I found myself wondering about instances when the fruit looks like a pear but is decidedly different; a pear-apple, or a green apple, or a watermelon.

Any researcher knows that information can be categorized in different ways with different meanings. Information about a single deaf church (if you share my research interests) involves a relationship to a constellation of things; the founding reverend, members of the clergy, members of the congregation, the religious beliefs, local churches, deaf organizations, the wider city deaf community and its members. I am able to glean a great deal about these things through their relationship with one another. One would hope that a machine reading of historical documents would produce topics that could highlight these relationships, or at least reproduce them in a meaningful way.

The problem I face, however, is that the term “deaf” is not a static phrase. It is not one that is only used to refer to deaf people, nor is it the only phrase that has historically referred to deaf people.


Seeking this information involves wading through countless instances where the phrase is used metaphorically (“deaf to their pleas”). It also involves using terms like “deaf-and-dumb”, “deaf-mute”, “speechless” and “mute” with an awareness of the time period and context. In the graph above I’ve used the Chronicle (a tool that examines language use in New York Times  reporting from 1850) to demonstrate how these terms have changed in popularity over time and to demonstrate how the term “deaf” appears much more frequently.

These types of problems led Underwood to focus on topics rather than words – in this sense, words are given context. Schmidt remained critical of topics as well and demonstrated how clustered terms may be combined in a single topic – operating in separate directions.

Still, despite the skepticism I sometimes feel, there is something meaningful in the findings that topic modeling and text mining projects produce. And I can’t overlook the way in which topic modeling enables us to interrogate a corpus with informed questions.

In our meeting, Stephen emphasized that a potential strength of the digital is that we do have to make transparent what we did to arrive at these conclusions. Our processes and practices are made much more obvious and are under greater scrutiny because they involve new and complex techniques. The need to “open the black box” comes not just to explain these processes, but also makes it possible to begin to discuss methodology in the context of making an argument. Traditional historians don’t always describe their work in this manner, despite the fact that (as we read two weeks ago) the majority of historians have changed these processes to include computational processes like “search”.

As historians we are meant to be questioning, and aware of, our own assumptions. Topic modeling is another way of highlighting what those assumptions may be.

DH- 804 – Space

This grouping of readings aligned more strongly with my concerns and interests for my dissertation project. Mapping elements will likely feature prominently in my work and it was really helpful to see some real worked examples of mapping devices and tools.

I picked up Monmonier’s How to Lie with Maps first. I actually found his writing to be very useful in that it framed the subsequent readings. For me, his work was a useful reminder that all maps are constructed. We often attribute a great deal of legitimacy to maps, we take them to be accurate representations of physical space without engaging the same level of critical reading we apply to other texts (a point he makes, repeatedly). Looking ahead to my own project aims, I anticipate the need to defend the maps I produce and address the choices I made in including or excluding content. Monmonier is a good reminder that all cartographers contend with these types of decision. All maps are constructed with intent and reflect the biases and perspectives of their maker.

Though I think that maps make sense to historians, as historical objects, we don’t see ourselves as doing the same work as cartographers. However, I appreciated Hitchcock’s thinking as he emphasized that our fields are not mutually exclusive. We share a number of concerns and questions and can benefit from an overlapping of theory and techniques. He wrote “The habits of mind and analytical tools of geographers need to inform our understanding of the past; while the mental ticks of the historian, and the authority of history as a literary genre, are necessary tools for communicating all kinds of memory to a wider audience.”

So where do we see this overlap occurring. If we read only Bodenhamer, et al, and Gregory and Geddes, we might think that GIS, (or HGIS) represented the overlapping of fields and concerns. A GIS perspective, however, is rooted in the notion of “place” while spatial historians seem to be more interested in the notion of “space”. Bodenhamer, Corrigan and Harris suggest that the “Representation of the past… is a kind of mapping where the past is a landscape and history is the way we fashion it… mapping is not cartographic but conceptual.” (xi) This notion is harder to work into a georeferenced map because it involves thinking about maps in a different manner.

Lock, in the same text, gets at the point a bit more fully as he envisions, “landscape as a metaphor for social and cultural complexity of being human – both in the way it can be used to represent the past but also, and perhaps more forcibly, the present where any representation is located.” (105) In this sense historical mapping projects seek to map not only objects like buildings and roads, but ephemeral relationships and networks- all of which is linked to space and time. Schwartz and Thevenin (in Toward Spatial Humanities) echo this sentiment (and critique of a strictly GIS approach to historical presentation. “Spatial history ought to do more than examine questions about geographic distributions over time. To go further, spatial history should concern the study of spatial relationships and of spatial interconnectivity over time, that is the degree to which change is one part of an interrelated system alters other parts in turn.” (104) Coupling these ideas with Monmonier and Hitchcock, I started to envision mapping projects that are more metaphorical in their representation of space.

Hitchcock included an interesting critique of maps that resonated with me – He described Mackay and wrote “some people stand in the same place longer than many buildings; and have a greater right to appear on a map, than many landmarks.” What things/people are missing from the maps we make/read? What is taken to be transient but is actually permanent in the lived experience of that space? These questions resonated with me because a great deal of my historical research involves lives and stories that exist in the gaps.

It accesses something that I brought up in class – the idea of maps that serve as metaphors. While mapping is about making a visual representation of geographical space, mapping is also used to reference the allocation of social space as well (I referenced The Ugly Laws by Susan Schweik in this case). What form would a map take if it involved the mapping of deaf residential school newspapers? One that examined communities? The missionary efforts of the Church Mission to Deaf Mutes? Imagined in a GIS environment, these would operate similarly, but imagining them in a conceptual manner becomes much more interesting to me.

Stephen suggested in our discussion that thick mapping/deep mapping is, perhaps, a middle ground between abstracted and geographical maps. I agree with his thinking here- dynamic maps are less about linking objects in place and more about the relationships between objects and places. It entails thinking about the relationships between space, temporally as well as physical distance. It also enables us to access the scalability of a digital environment. It redefines, for me, Monmonier’s argument about cartographers making choices about what to include and what to exclude in traditional mapping. Digital mapping enables us to operate both macro and micro, embedding content and context in meaningful ways.

The question that bounces around my head, however is – Can maps ever convey the amount of information necessary to make arguments? If maps can be used to answer questions, can mapping projects present scholarly arguments?  Some of the obvious arguments against this idea are that reading maps requires extensive contextual knowledge to understand or appreciate the argument (Then again, so do texts), or that maps omit content or context to privilege other content or contexts (so do texts).  Perhaps one could argue that maps don’t make a single argument, but rather make several arguments simultaneously – in which case, the concern is that it is a nonlinear (or multilinear) argument (in which case, I’d address concerns by directing them to our second week of reading.). A reasonable critique may be that that maps can’t always demonstrate change over time- but thick/deep mapping projects challenge this thinking.

I don’t know that I am convinced that ONLY maps can do this, but maps combined with other forms of scholarship, as presented in a number of the projects we looked at this week, are doing so capably.

Maybe the argument we should be making is more aligned with What Scheinfeld wrote in the Gold text, sometimes tools are built to answer questions and sometimes tools produce questions. “maybe we need more time to articulate our digital apparatus, to produce new phenomena that we can neither anticipate nor explain immediately… We need time to experiment and even… to play.” [Scheinfeld]

The projects we examined were more meaningful to me in this light. Test cases and experimentations in what data and tools can tell us about the past. Torget, for instance, provides more a critique of the digitization of historical newspapers than a discussion of the content of the texts. Presner and the Hypercities project are interesting in that they work to  “publish… geo-temporal arguments”, but it is difficult to see how this work can be understood to produce a single, cohesive argument or how it operates as something more than a mapped repository. This is not meant to disparage their work (I was really inspired by Meeks and the ORBIS project in particular), but rather to point out how these are useful exercises in expanding our ideas of what maps can do, how data can be used and how scholarship can be created.