Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet:
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet: A Product of His Time
During the first
half of the nineteenth century, romantic social reform movements swept
through the Northeastern United States. “Romantic reform in America traced
its origins to a religious impulse that was both politically and socially
The “Second Great Awakening,” an Evangelical conservative religious movement
which traces its beginnings in the United States (U.S.) to the former New
England colonies sought to “strengthen the Christian character of Americans
and save the country from infidelity and ruin,” by the “irreligious
The reform movements of the first few decades of the nineteenth century were
organized and lead by wealthy and middle-class Protestants, who emphasized
moral regeneration and salvation for those less fortunate than themselves.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787–1851) was a social reformer of this era, who
dedicated his adult life to bringing the word “of God and the promise of
to Deaf people through education.
Gallaudet was born on December 10, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and
in 1811, at the age of twenty-seven, graduated from the Andover Seminary.
His education at the Andover Seminary, founded by conservative Boston
Congregationalists in 1809 as a center for ministerial training, exposed
Gallaudet to the plight of “people who were not functioning as free moral
agents: slaves, criminals, the insane, alcoholics, and children.”
The theology among Evangelicals during this era demonstrated an abandonment
of determinism, a belief that all people were destined for either heaven or
eternal damnation at birth, regardless of how they lived their lives on
earth. Replacing determinism was the ideology of free will, where
“salvation…lay open to everyone. Sin was voluntary: men were not helpless
and depraved by nature but free agents.”
In addition to the belief that humans controlled their own destiny, early
nineteenth century Evangelical theology embraced millennialism.
Historians note millennialism, an early nineteenth century Evangelical
phenomenon, as a golden age of the Church.
The popularity of millennialism in early nineteenth century is attributed to
American society’s perpetual state of flux. Economic changes were removing
manufacturing out of the home and into impersonal factories, disrupting
household structure; the economically driven War of 1812, between the U.S.
and Britain, had disrupted the newly emerging market economy; and
egalitarian republican ideals, fostered during and following the American
War for Independence, all contributed to the perceived instability of
American society. Millennialists believed that through individual
self-improvement and through the selfless work of the reformer, America
could achieve social perfection and prompt the return of Christ for a
thousand years, a millennium. A self professed millennialist, Gallaudet, in
his writings, expressed his concerns regarding a universal method of
communication and the coming of the millennium in A Reverie,
“[when]the millennium arrives will one language prevail and swallow
up the rest, or will mankind agree to form a universal language?”
Evidence suggests that Gallaudet’s initial focus in reform was not Deaf
education, but in finding a universal language suitable to communicate with
indigenous people of North America. Andover Seminary missionaries were
deeply concerned about the souls of the heathens (Native Americans), and
during this era significant energies were directed at converting Native
Americans to Christianity.
It was a chance meeting with the Deaf girl, Alice Cogswell, while home on
vacation, in Hartford, Connecticut, which set Gallaudet’s life work in
Why educate the Deaf? Like Native Americans, alcoholics, and the insane,
the Deaf in America were suffering from “an affliction that isolated the
individual from the Christian community.”
Gallaudet envisioned bringing the word of God to the Deaf, thereby
including Deaf people among the saved, and hastening the arrival of the
millennium. In order to make this vision a reality, he would need a method
of communication and considerable financial backing. The mode of
communication would present itself in France in the form of a signed
language, and ironically, the financing would come from wealthy community
leaders of Hartford, which he had earlier scorned as secular and
Historians argue that the early nineteenth century reformers were a product
of the “Second Great Awakening.” Typically of the newly emerging
middle-class or wealthy, effective social reformers of the era were usually
educated urban residents with sufficient leisure time to ponder the ills
afflicting American society. Armed with moral conviction and financially
supported by like-minded capitalists, refromers endeavored to perfect
American society and bring the word of God to the worthy. Thomas Hopkins
Gallaudet, founder of the first school for the Deaf in the U.S., was a
product of his time.
Banner, Lois W. “Religion and Reform in the Early
Republic: The Role of Youth.” American Quarterly 23, no. 5 (1971)
Baynton, Douglas C. “‘A Silent Exile on this Earth’:
The Metaphorical Construction of Deafness in the Nineteenth Century.” American
Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1992) : 216-243.
Gallaudet, Edward Minor. Life of Thomas Hopkins
Gallaudet. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1888. <http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/lib/docs/1739card.htm>
John L. “Romantic Reform in America, 1815-1865.” American Quarterly
17, no. 4 (1965) : 656-681.
John L. Thomas, “Romantic Reform in
America, 1815-1865,” American Quarterly 17, no. 4, (1965) : 657.
Douglas C. Baynton, “‘A Silent Exile on
this Earth’: The Metaphorical Construction of Deafness in the
Nineteenth Century,” American Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1992) : 221.
Edward Minor Gallaudet, Life of
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet,
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1888, 37.
Lois W. Banner, “Religion and Reform in the Early Republic: The Role of
Youth,” American Quarterly 23, no.5 (1971) : 683.