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On The Duties And Advantages Of Affording Instruction To The Deaf And Dumb (1824)

On The Duties And Advantages Of Affording Instruction To The Deaf And Dumb

A Sermon by Thomas Gallaudet: 1824

Thomas H. Gallaudet, Painting by George F. Wright in 1851.
Thomas H. Gallaudet
Painting by George F. Wright, 1851
(Public Domain)

Introduction: Thomas Gallaudet, before becoming superintendent of the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, Connecticut, was trained to become a Congregationalist minister at Yale University and at Andover Seminary. As institutional linchpins of the Second Great Awakening, both places instilled in Gallaudet a deep interest in the spiritual welfare of all people. The missionary movement, the worldwide effort to spread evangelical Protestantism, was a major part of the Second Great Awakening, and New England missionaries worked in places like Hawaii, Persia, and China. Thomas Gallaudet stayed closer to home, but his thinking was intimately related to the foreign missionary efforts. The desire to convert souls, for Gallaudet, manifested itself as a life-long interest in deaf education. The following is Gallaudet’s standard sermon lauding sign language and the American Asylum. It was his way of garnering both financial and political support for the institution, and versions of the sermon were repeated in Gallaudet’s frequent trips to demonstrate and popularize his work. Gallaudet saw deaf education in general and sign language in particular as the means by which an evangelical vision could be universalized. At the heart of his argument was the notion that the deaf are “the heathen among us,” a people bereft of access to God but whose spiritual isolation could be broken through education. Gallaudet explicitly equates the goals of foreign missions with those of deaf education. Both ultimately sought to bring about the Second Coming of Christ.

Editor’s Note:  Abridged Text

If we, my brethren, have the spirit of Paul, the heathen of our day will not be neglected by us; and prophecy will become to us, also, an abundant source of encouragement, that we shall not spend our strength among them for naught. These two simple truths form the whole plan of my discourse. [View Annotation – 1 »]

But who are the heathen? My heart sinks within me while giving the reply. Millions, millions of your fellow men. Europe, Asia, African, and America contain a melancholy host of immortal souls who are still enveloped with the midnight gloom of ignorance and superstition.

They who adore the idol which their own hands have formed; who worship the orbs of heaven; who sacrifice their won flesh to a vindictive Deity; who bathe in the stream, or who pass through the fire, to purify themselves from sin; who hope to gain paradise by practising the most cruel bodily austerities; who bid the widow burn on the funeral pile of her deceased husband, while her own offspring lights its flames; who sing their profane incantations, and revel in brutish madness during their nightly orgies, at the instigation of some miserable wretch, claiming the name of wizard or magician; who never heard of that Name, the only one given under heaven by which man can be saved. These are some of the heathen. [View Below – 2 »]

Who are the heathen? I direct your observation nearer home. I point you to thousands within your own country, and villages, and towns, and cities, who have grown up, in this favored land, without any correct knowledge of the God who made them; of the Saviour who died to redeem all who trust in Him; of the Spirit which is given to sanctify the of the Book of Eternal Life, which unfold to us all that can alarm our fears or animate our hopes with regard to a future world. — These are some of the heathen. [View Annotation – 3 »]

But are there still other heathen? Yes, my brethren, and I present them to the eye of your pity, an interesting, an affecting group of your fellow men; — of those who are bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh; who live encircled with all that can render life desirable; in the midst of society, of knowledge, of the arts, of the sciences, of a free and happy government, of a widely-preached gospel; and yet who know nothing of all these blessings; who regard them with amazement and a trembling concern; who are lost in one perpetual gaze of wonder at the thousand mysteries which surround them; who consider many of our most simple customs as perplexing enigmas, who often make the most absurd conjectures respecting the weighty transactions of civil society, or the august and solemn rites and ceremonies of religion; who propose a thousand enquiries which cannot be answered, and pant for a deliverance which has not yet been afforded them. [View Annotation – 4 »]

These are some of the heathen; — long-neglected heathen; — the poor Deaf and Dumb, whose sad necessities have been forgotten, while scarce a corner of the world has not been searched to find those who are yet ignorant of Jesus Christ.

Do you greet with the smile of welcome, and the kindest offices of friendship, the savage islanders whom Providence has cast upon our shores? Do you provide for their wants, and dispel, by the beams of gospel truth, the thick darkness which has, heretofore, shrouded their understandings? Do you make them acquainted with the name of Jesus, and open to them the prospect, through His merits, of a bright and happy immortality?

Far be it from my purpose to divert your charities from so noble an object. Palsied [View Annotation – 5 »] be the hand that attempts to build up one part of the walls of the spiritual Jerusalem by prostrating another in ruins. I would not draw forth your sympathy in behalf of one project of benevolence by decrying others. I will not impeach the sincerity of your exertions to enlarge the extent of the Redeemer’s kingdom throughout the world, by telling you that Charity begins at home; that we have heathen enough in our own land; that we had better give the gospel to our own countrymen, before we exhaust our resources upon those whom an ocean divides from us.

No, my brethren, I hold a very different language. I only put in a claim for one portion of the heathen. I only ask that the same stream of a diffusive benevolence which, fed by a thousand springs of private liberality, is rolling its mighty and fertilizing tide over the dreary deserts of ignorance and superstition and sin that lie in the other hemisphere, may afford one small rivulet to refresh and cheer a little barren spot in our native land, which has hitherto lain forgotten, thirsty, desolate. I only crave a cup of consolation, for the Deaf and Dumb, from the same fountain at which the Hindoo, the African, and the Savage, is beginning to draw the water of eternal life. [View Annotation – 6 »]

Do you enquire if the Deaf and Dumb truly deserve to be ranked among the heathen? With regard to their vices they surely do not; for a kind Providence, who always tempers the wind to the shorn lambs of the flock, has given to the condition of these unfortunates many benefits. Possessing indeed the general traits of our common fallen nature, and subject to the same irregular propensities and desires which mark the depraved character of man, they have, nevertheless, been defended, by the very imprisonment of their minds, against much of the contagion of bad example; against the scandal, the abuse, the falsehood, the profanity, and the blasphemy, which their ears cannot hear nor their tongues utter. Cruel is that hand which would lead them into the paths of sin; base, beyond description, that wretch who would seduce them, by his guileful arts, into the haunts of guilt and ruin. Thus, they have been kept, by the restraining grace of God, from much of the evil that is in the world. [View Annotation – 7 »]

Yet they need the same grace, as all of us need it, to enlighten the dark places of their understandings, and to mould their hearts into a conformity to the Divine Image; they require too an interest in that Saviour who was lifted up, that he might draw all men unto Him.

I tread not upon dangerous ground, when I lay down this position; that if it is our duty to instil diving truth into the minds of children as soon as they are able to receive it; if we are bound by the injunction of Christ to convey the glad news of salvation to every creature under heaven; then we fail to obey this injunction, if we neglect to make His name known to the poor Deaf and Dumb.

I have said that they are heathen. Truly they are so as it regards their knowledge of religious truth. The experience of more than seven years familiar acquaintance with some of the most intelligent among them, has fully satisfied my mind, that, without instruction, they must inevitably remain ignorant of the most simple truths, even of what is termed Natural religion, and of all those doctrines of Revealed religion, which must be the foundation of our hopes with regard to our eternal destiny. [View Annotation – 8 »]

I wish, therefore, my brethren, while pleading the cause of the Deaf and Dumb, to call forth your charity in their behalf from the most exalted and encouraging of all motives; — that in aiding them you are but carrying into effect the will of God; that you are co-operating with Him; and that He is pledged to crown your labour with success, inasmuch as His own prophecy cannot otherwise receive its accomplishment.

And it is already receiving its accomplishment. I do not exaggerate the truth, when I say, that they already begin to see, to whom he was not spoken of; that they somewhat understand, who have not heard. For it is a most singular trait of the language of gestures and signs, that it is sufficiently significant and copious to admit of an application even to the most abstract, intellectual, moral, and religious truth. On this point I was once myself sceptical; but doubt has yielded to actual observation of the fact; and incredulity can no longer urge its scruples among those who have become familiar with the Deaf and Dumb. Were the occasion a proper one, I should not deem it a difficult task to satisfy you, upon the acknowledged principles of the philosophy of the human mind, that there is no more intrinsic or necessary connexion between ideas of whatever kind, and audible or written language, than between the same ideas, and the language of signs and gestures; and that the latter has even one advantage over the former, inasmuch as it possesses a power of analogical and symbolical description which can never belong to any combination of purely arbitrary sounds and letters. But I choose the rather to place it on the more safe and palpable ground of observation, and of fact. — No one who has conversed with the intelligent laborer in this novel department of education, himself born deaf and dumb; no one who has witnessed the almost magical facility with which he conveys, by his own expressive language of signs, truths the most difficult and abstract, to his companions in misfortune; no one who has observed the ingenious, and often subtle inquiries which they are prompt to make on the various subjects which have been communicated to their minds; can withold his assent from the acknowledgement of the position, that all important, intellectual and religious truth may be taught them by the language of signs, and even before they are capable of reading and understanding ours.

And, while we would thus endeavor to prepare the Deaf and Dumb for a better world, we will not neglect the means of making them happy and useful in the present life. [View Annotation – 9 »] How many of their hours are now consumed by a torpid indolence, and vacuity of thought! How cheerless is their perpetual solitude! How are they shorn off from the fellowship of man! How ignorant are they of many of the common transactions of life! How unable are they to rank even with the most illiterate of their fellow men! How inaccessible to them are all the stores of knowledge and comfort which books contain! How great a burthen do they often prove to their parents and friends! How apt are they to be regarded by the passing glance of curiosity as little elevated above the idiot or the beast of the field!

We would soothe and cheer these lonely, forsaken and hapless beings. We would give them the enjoyment which active industry always affords. We would teach their judgment to distinguish, their imagination to pourtray, and their memory to retain, the various objects which the boundless stores of human and divine knowledge present to their view. We would make some of them capable of engaging in useful mechanical employments; others of holding respectable stations in private and public spheres of commercial transactions; and those who discover a genius and taste for such pursuits, of cultivating the fine arts; and all, of thus becoming valuable members of society; of contributing to the common stock of happiness; and of gaining a livelihood by their own personal exertions. We would introduce them to the delights of social intercourse; to a participation of the privileges of freemen; to the dignity of citizens of a flourishing and happy community: we would furnish them with one of the highest solaces of retirement, that which may be drawn from the fountains of Science and Literature; and books should supply them with a perpetual source of instruction and delight; gladdening many an hour of solitude which is now filled up only with indolence or anxiety. We would render them a comfort to their friends; and the prop of the declining years of those who have hitherto only bemoaned the sad continuance of their condition without any hope of relief. We would shield them against contumely; and almost render them no longer the objects even of condolence and pity. Thus they would soon have a common cause of gratitude with us, for all the temporal blessings which Providence sheds down upon this vale of tears.

Yes, the Deaf and Dumb would plead their own cause best. But they cannot do it. Their lip is sealed in eternal silence. They are scattered in lonely solitude throughout our land. They have excited but little compassion; for uncomplaining sorrow, in our cold-hearted world, it apt to be neglected. Now, they seen some dawning of hope. They venture therefore to ask aid from those who extend their generous charities to other objects of compassion; and crave, that they may not be quite overlooked amid the noble exertions that are making, it is to be hoped in the spirit, and with the zeal, of the great Apostle of the Gentiles, to fulfil the animating prophecy; that “to whom he was not spoken of they shall see; and they that have not heard shall understand.”

And can you wish, my brethren, for a sweeter recollection to refresh the slumbers of your nightly pillow, or the declining moments of a short and weary life; — than to think, that you have succoured these children of misfortune, who look to you for the means of being delivered from a bondage more galling than that of the slave; from an ignorance more dreadful than that of the wild and untutored savage!! One tear of gratitude, glistening in the eye of these objects of your pity; one smile of thankfulness, illuminating their countenance, would be a rich recompense for all you should do for them. To think that you had contributed to rescue an intelligent, susceptible, and immortal mind, as it were, from non-existence; that you had imitated that Saviour who went about doing good; that you had solaced the aching bosom of parental love; that you had introduced a fellow-being to those enjoyments of society in which you so richly participate; to the charms of books which had cheered so many of your hours of solitude; and to the contemplation of those sublime and affecting truths of religion, which you profess to make the foundation of your dearest hopes, — will not this be a more grateful theme of remembrance, than to look back upon the wasted delights amid which Pleasure has wantoned; the crumbling possessions for which Avarice has toiled, or the fading honours for which Ambition has struggled! These, fascinating as they may be to the eye of youthful hope; or bewildering as they do the dreams of our too sanguine imagination, soon pass away, like the brilliancy of the morning cloud, or the sparking of the early dew. The other will be as immortal as the mind; it will abide the scrutiny of conscience; it will endure the test of that day of awful retribution, when standing, as we all must, at the bar of our final Judge, He will greet, with the plaudit of his gracious benediction, those who have given even a cup of cold water, in His name, to the meanest of his disciples, to the least of these little ones, whom His mysterious providence has cast upon our care.


1.  Gallaudet wants his listeners to imitate Paul, the original evangelist of Christianity, and thereby bring about the prophesied Millennium, the thousand-year rule of Christ. By “heathen,” Gallaudet means all those unexposed to Christianity.

2. Gallaudet lists the various categories of people evangelical Protestants would have defined as heathen, including Hindus, Buddhists, animists, and the followers of numerous other religions. He refers to the practice of sati, whereby Hindu wives threw themselves on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands.

3. Within the United States, “this favored land,” missionary efforts included the revivals, both urban and rural, of the Second Great Awakening. Social reformers of all sorts, modeling themselves on the evangelists, would seek to “convert” Americans to new ways of think and behaving.

 4. This paragraphs lists all the ways in which, according to Gallaudet, the deaf are isolated from the larger society and its norms. Like “heathens,” assumes Gallaudet, the deaf have no access to the “truths” in which an evangelical Protestant of the nineteenth century would believe.

 5. Trembling or shaking.

6. Gallaudet does not want people to abandon the missionary efforts in foreign land but rather to see deaf education as one part of a larger effort to evangelize the world.

 7. During the Second Great Awakening, people with disabilities were frequently viewed as somehow purer — and often childlike and dependent — through their afflictions.

 8. By “Natural religion,” Gallaudet means a general belief in God. By “Revealed religion,” Galludet means the religious beliefs and practices of the Bible.

9. Gallaudet thus links spiritual improvement with improvements in the daily lives of the deaf.

Source:  Thomas Gallaudet, Pamphlet, 1824. American Antiquarian Society. Disability History Museum.

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