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).

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