"With Eloquent Fingers He Preached" The Protestant Episcopal Mission to the Deaf

Jannelle Legg

Advisor: Lincoln A. Mullen, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Michael O'Malley, Sun-Young Park, Sharon Leon, Susan Burch

Online Location,
April 09, 2021, 02:00 PM to 04:00 PM


This dissertation traces the development of the Protestant Episcopal Ministry to the deaf in the United States between 1850 and World War I. From the classroom to the church-house, members of this organization transformed the practices of worship to suit deaf linguistic and sensory ways of being.

During this period the forces of normalization, strengthened by nativism and eugenics, exerted considerable pressure on deaf people to conform to linguistic and cultural forms which diminished the outward appearance of difference and encouraged assimilation. Religious spaces, as with other places of social, political, and legal import, were similarly imbued with these ideas about bodies and language. The auditory delivery of prayers, lessons, and hymns was central to public worship within the Protestant Episcopal Church, as it was with many other religious groups. The formation of the deaf ministry disrupted these practices. From the administration of services and sacraments in sign language, to the elevation of deaf men to the ministry, and the rearrangement or construction of deaf church spaces, deaf community members reordered the spaces and practices of worship to suit their sensory and social worlds. Over time, a growing network of church workers and community members navigated these systems of institutional power to negotiate for autonomy in expression and spatial organization. They formed missions and churches in major cities across the country, serving as essential gathering sites within broader deaf geographies.

In exploring the ways in which deaf people made sense of their lives and their worlds in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I draw on multiple fields of inquiry including histories of sense, space, religion, deaf people, disabled people, and the digital humanities to interpret and visualize the spread and influence of this ministry.