Part Five: Visualizing the Mission

In a series of blog posts, I have offered a historical examination of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4). As I described previously, the Mission 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] Utilizing the annual reports of the Mission, this project attempted to uncover the scale of these efforts in the first six years of the organization (1873-1879).

CMDM Visualization

Using D3.js, a javascript visualization library, I created an interactive map that visualizes the growth of missionary efforts over time.  Green circles are used to locate the worship services offered by members of the Mission. The radius of these circles corresponds to the frequency of services offered at that facility in the given year. Deaf residential schools are also included on the map (marked by orange circles). Moving the cursor over these circles reveals further information about the location. The data can be further manipulated by moving the slider. The thin grey lines that traverse the map represent the train routes in use by 1870.  For ease of examination, the map also contains a zoom function. D3.js is a tool that joins data together. In order to create my visualization, I first uncovered and recorded the missionary data in the annual reports available at the Gallaudet University Archives. These reports varied greatly in length and description of services. Next, I compiled a second data set that recorded the location of deaf residential schools that would have been operating through this period. This information was drawn from Deaf Heritage, a Narrative History of Deaf America by Jack Gannon. Both the mission and school datasets were tidied and geolocated using RStudio. This process has been published on RPubs. I also obtained a shapefile of the United States from NHGIS. This file included state-level geographic boundary information from 1870. Finally, I located a shape file of historical train routes, from Railroads and the Making of Modern America. This file draws on the geolocated railroad data from 1870. Putting these types of data into conversation has unlocked the activities of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes from the static text and has illuminated the growth of the organization in the first few years, however the concrete conclusions we can draw from this work are limited. In many ways, this project represents the challenges of working with analog primary source materials.

Extracting data from long-form, narrative accounts was not without complications. There are significant gaps in the data; report information for 1876 is unavailable, the frequency of services remains difficult to access as several missionaries did not indicate how often they visited a particular mission in their report, nor do the reports allow us to differentiate between the activities of each missionary. In an effort to access an understanding of the way in which deaf men traversed these spaces and generated a network of deaf communities, I have had to extract meaning from phrases like “monthly Sunday afternoon meetings”, “the third Sunday of November, February, May and August” or “occasional services” from the historical record and develop a means of representing these concepts in a meaningful way. Furthermore, the reports frequently provided overlapping data. When Rev. Thomas Gallaudet and Austin Mann visited a church together, how were responsibilities divided?  These gaps obscure information about how and why clergymen were drawn to a particular region and prevent us from tracing the development of services at a single location. However, even as these findings raise new questions about the scale and scope of the Episcopal deaf ministry, they offer some preliminary insights.

That a greater number of religious services was offered in larger cities, like New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Chicago, does seem to reinforce Rev. Henry W. Syle’s assertion that “It is only in the great cities that the deaf can assemble every Sunday for Divine worship and a sermon by a living preacher… [and] many who are dispersed in places which we can visit only once in one or two months or even longer.”[2] In future work, clarity on this question may be ascertained as the mission reports are correlated with newspaper announcements and diocesan reports. Furthermore, placing the missions alongside residential deaf schools challenged my initial assumption that mission services would likely grow from a relationship with educational institutions. Rather, the map suggests that in the first few years of the organization other factors, like transportation, may have also influenced the locations at which clergymen ministered. That a number of schools, largely those in the West, were not visited by members of the mission is not surprising when we consider that efficient transportation routes were not available at this time.

Given that missionaries did provide weekly services in all of these cities, it is unlikely that they had independent church buildings at each location. Records indicate that in many cases, the Mission developed a relationship with clergymen in various cities and were permitted regular use in their buildings. That mission services continued to be offered at the same location across these years suggests that members of the Mission developed and maintained relationships with the clergy at these facilities. This facet of deaf worship is particularly important when we consider the way in which deaf missionaries and congregants interacted with these negotiated spaces.

Overall, the growth of this organization in this period remains significant. That the Mission was steadily increasing in size in the decade leading up to the founding of the National Association of the Deaf and the Milan Congress suggests that the Mission and its missionaries were firmly in place while these changes occurred. These findings indicate that further investigation may be useful in demonstrating a religious response to these key events.


At the start of this project I developed questions regarding the scale and scope of the Mission. In particular I was curious 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? Though imperfect, this visualization serves as a starting point understanding the function and form of the Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes. As I continue to investigate the influence of this organization and gain greater access to evidence of its activities, this project will be revisited and updated.

[1] Unknown, “The Church Mission to Deaf-Mutes,” undated, c 1910, Box #45, Archives of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
[2] Henry, Winter Syle, “Silent Catholic (Missionary),” Silent Catholic (Missionary), December 1886, 1.

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