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For more on Thomas H. Gallaudet, also see: 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet:

Heim, Katherine

December 2003


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 conservative."[1]  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 democrats."[2]  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 salvation,"[3] 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."[4]  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."[5]  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.[6]  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?"[7]  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.[8] 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 motion.

            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."[9]  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 irreligious.[10]  

            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) : 677-695. 

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. <>

 Thomas, John L. "Romantic Reform in America, 1815-1865."  American Quarterly 17, no. 4  (1965) : 656-681.

[1] John L. Thomas, "Romantic Reform in America, 1815-1865," American Quarterly 17, no. 4, (1965) : 657.

[2] Ibid.

[3] 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.


[4] Baynton, 223.

[5] Thomas, 658.

[6] See specifically, Thomas and Banner's articles for an in-depth explanation of how millennialism influenced early nineteenth century reform. 

[7] Edward Minor Gallaudet,  Life of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet,  New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1888, 37.

[8] For a detailed history of Native American assimilation campaigns conducted by various religious sects, see Frederick E Hoxie's A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate Indians, 1880-1920  (1984), and Parading Through History: The Making of the Crow Nation in America, 1805-1935 (1995).

[9] Baynton, 216.

[10] Lois W. Banner, "Religion and Reform in the Early Republic: The Role of Youth," American Quarterly 23, no.5 (1971) : 683.




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