Sunday, 9 July 2017

Deaf Church in America: The Beginnings

"Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America" by Jack R. Gannon is a fascinating book, and one I'd recommend. It is available second hand for around £10 for a large hardback edition, which is surely a bargain.

Jack R. Gannon, 81, was born in 1936 in West Plains, Missouri, and became deaf at age 8 due to spinal meningitis. He graduated from the Missouri School for the Deaf in 1954 and from Gallaudet in 1959 with a BSc in education.

In "Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America", Gannon brought together for the first time the story of the Deaf experience in America from a Deaf perspective. Recognizing the need to document the multifaceted history of this unique minority with its distinctive visual culture, he painstakingly gathered as much material as he could on Deaf American life.

This in-depth history of Deaf America begins with an overview of the early years. Each chapter then covers a decade of history, beginning with 1880. The text is supplemented by marvelous pictures, illustrations, vignettes and biographical profiles, as well as poems.

The book is available at:
By way of a sample "taster", here is part of the chapter on deaf priests in America.

Deaf Church in America: The Beginnings
by Jack R. Gannon

It was the Episcopal Church which took the lead in meeting the religious needs of the deaf community in America. Thomas Gallaudet, eldest son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, began a Sunday School class for deaf people at St. Stephens Church in New York City in 1850.

Gallaudet was then an instructor at the New York Institute for the Deaf (now the New York School for the Deaf-Fanwood). Concerned about the lack of religious services for deaf people, he later resigned his teaching position and entered the ministry full time, becoming an ordained priest of the Episcopal Church in 1851. He founded St. Ann's Church for the Deaf in New York City, "the first church exclusively for deaf people in this country." Gallaudet is also considered the originator of the use of sign language in religious services for the deaf.

One day Gallaudet received a letter from a young schoolboy named Henry Syle. Syle wanted to know what the chances were for a deaf boy to become a clergyman. Gallaudet knew of no deaf clergymen then. He responded that he saw possibilities. He was encouraging. Of course, neither knew at that time that one day they would meet again and that Syle would become the first deaf man ordained as a priest in this country.

Except for poor health, Syle was the perfect choice. The son of the Rev. E.H. Syle, a missionary in China, young Henry was born in Shanghai in November, 1846. His mother was the sister of Senator H.W. Davis of Maryland. Young Syle's poor health prompted his parents to send him to America to live with his mother's sister in Alexandria, Virginia. When he was six years old he contracted scarlet fever which left him totally deaf.

He was sent to Mr. Bartlett's Family School for Young Deaf-Mute Children, a private school, located in Fishkill Landing, New York. Syle had learned to read the Bible when he was three years old, and he was intellectually ahead of the other children at the school. When the Bartletts moved their school to Hartford, where they later joined the teaching staff of the American School for the Deaf, Syle enrolled at ASD. Next he entered Trinity College in Hartford, then studied at St. John's College in Cambridge, England, but both times he was forced to suspend his college studies because of poor eyesight.

When he returned to this country, he accepted a teaching position at the New York School where he taught from 1867 to 1874. It was while teaching that he managed to complete work for his Bachelor of Arts degree by correspondence at Yale College. He completed a four-year course in one year. He continued his studies and earned two Master of Arts degrees, one from Yale in 1872 and one from Trinity College in 1875.

When he moved to Philadelphia to accept an assayer's position at the U.S. Mint, he became involved with the deaf congregation at St. Stephen's Church, and his earlier ambition to become a clergyman was once again whetted. He was already a licensed lay-reader, and he began studying for the ministry while conducting services for the deaf members.

To qualify for priesthood Syle not only had to pass an arduous examination which included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, philosophy, history, and church doctrine, but he also had to overcome the strong opposition of those who objected to the ordination of a deaf priest.

Guilbert C. Braddock, in writing about Syle and the obstacles he overcame, said, "Only a deaf man of the highest type of intelligence and scholarship could have succeeded at this crucial moment." Syle's success opened the door for others.

Much of the credit goes to Bishop William Bacon Stevens of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. He was willing to break with tradition and ordain a deaf man in spite of much opposition. The prevailing notion was that only a man in possession of all five senses was qualified to become a priest. Also, Bishop Stevens thought sign language "as much a language as Chinese" and believed that it was "as fully, acceptable to ordain a deaf man to preach in signs, as to ordain an Indian to preach in the Cherokee dialect."

Bishop Stevens realized that the sacraments had to be administered in a language that would be understood by the congregation. Following his ordination, Syle established the All Soul's Church for the Deaf at St. Stephen's and remained there until his premature death from pneumonia in 1890.

Austin W. Mann (1883), Jacob M. Koehler (1887), Job Turner (1891) and James H. Cloud (1893) followed Syle to the priesthood.

Opposition to ordaining deaf men continued and when Charles O. Dantzer, the seventh deaf man to be ordained, approached his bishop for the Holy Orders, his bishop responded, "My son, I dare not lay hands on you, but will ask Bishop Huntingdon to do it for me."

Nevertheless, by 1900 there were seven ordained deaf Episcopalian priests and by 1930 the number had grown to 22. The early popularity of the Episcopal Church in the deaf community can be credited to these deaf priests. Not only did these men provide spiritual leadership for the deaf community but many of them filled prominent leadership roles on the national level.

No comments: