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.

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