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  • Deafness and Holiness:Home Missions, Deaf Congregations, and Natural Language 1860-1890
  • Neil Pemberton (bio)

In 1889, a royal commissioner enquiring into the use of signed languages in deaf education and the wider deaf community asked the following question:

You say your sermons are conducted partly by the manual alphabet and partly by signs, according to the intelligence of the congregation have you the means of knowing how far you are thoroughly understood?

(Report 277)

The missionary, who spoke on behalf of the deaf community, replied that he instinctively knew when his sermons reached his intended audience. Not satisfied by such a short answer, and unconvinced by the utility of signed religious sermons, the commissioner asked the witness to elaborate his answer. The missionary explained that he judged the efficacy of his sermons by surveying the congregation and paying particular attention to "the play of countenances on their faces" (Report 277).

The British Royal Commission on the Blind and the Deaf and Dumb—a parliamentary committee set up in 1886 to inquire into extending state support to deaf education—was the arena for this interchange on the intelligibility of signed services conducted to deaf adults; it was part of a power struggle over the use (and status) of signed languages in deaf education in particular, and in Victorian culture in general. After a three-year-long investigation, the final report was published in 1889. The content was primarily shaped by oralist reformers, who, from the late 1860s, had led a prolific campaign to exclude signed languages from the classroom and replace them entirely with speech training and lip-reading, a devastating blow to signing deaf people (see Lane). The report—which was coloured by the views of the Scottish inventor and eugenicist Alexander Graham Bell, who, earlier that decade, had warned of the prospect of a "deaf variety of the human race"—characterized missions as a form of reckless philanthropy that prompted deaf people to dissociate themselves from mainstream society. This essay focuses, however, not on the report's result but on one aspect that has generally gone unnoticed by historians of deafness and the deaf community: the perceptions and beliefs of missionaries [End Page 65] who testified to the lives and communities of signing deaf adults in late-Victorian England. The architects of the final report buried this evidence on the lives of deaf people given by such missionaries in four voluminous Blue Books. As I will show, however, this previously overlooked material sheds important light on deaf consciousness in Victorian England.

Missionaries had been called by the commission to comment on the lives of signing adult deaf people, to find out how they communicated and what problems they encountered. These religious workers offered descriptions of deaf people as a hospitable and carefully managed collective—their reports provide glimpses of what could be called "deaf culture," as well as educational provision. As reflected in the main body of the report, their descriptions contrasted with those of most commissioners and witnesses, to whom the notion of a self-autonomous deaf community apart from the nation was impossible to imagine. It did not seem to have occurred to the commissioners to visit missions or to consult the views of deaf people themselves, an oversight indicating that the establishment saw missions as part of the problem. This position tacitly recognized, perhaps, that missions had provided a place where deaf people could not only worship exclusively in sign language but also had created a crucial cultural and communal space through which deaf people acted out a common purpose. Missions, I suggest, were dynamic socio-cultural spaces through which adult deaf people could "congregate" as a community in a place that consolidated a shared language and culture. It is important to emphasize the novelty of this new social space within Victorian society. Residential schools for deaf children had been established since the end of the eighteenth century, and unlike similar institutions in the United States, were charitable and run for the poor (Branson and Miller 121-147). However, since the majority of children only stayed for up to four years, these schools created little sense of a "community" in the formal sense. In contrast...


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