Religion and the American Deaf Community: A Sociological Analysis of the Chicago Mission for the Deaf, 1890-1941

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The Chicago Mission for the Deaf, led by Methodism's first ordained deaf clergyman, Rev. Philip Hasenstab, had a profound influence on the deaf community between 1890 and 1941. This historical case study utilizes written correspondence, journals, church newsletters, and various other documents to examine the work of Hasenstab and his assistants at the Chicago Mission. The historical data indicate that the influence of the Chicago Mission for the Deaf extended far beyond the boundaries of Chicago itself. Deaf people throughout the midwest, the nation, and even other parts of the world benefited from the labors of Hasenstab and his associates. The establishment and ongoing ministry of this deaf religious group are presented within the context of wider social trends that characterized both deaf life and religious life in late-nineteenth-and-early-twentieth-century America. Of particular significance is the fact that Hasenstab and the Chicago Mission for the Deaf flourished in the developing deaf community during the very period that oralism and eugenics threatened to destroy the community. Hasenstab and his deaf assistants, all of whom were proficient users of sign language and products of deaf residential schools, were undeterred by the wave of opposition to their language and community. In fact, the collective persistence of these religious leaders within the early deaf community helped sustain deaf people and gave them hope and encouragement. The work of the Chicago Mission for the Deaf provided meaning, community, and legitimation to members of the American deaf community at a time when they were severely attacked by outside forces. Religion was a critical factor in the maintenance of sign language and the early American deaf community; deaf people believed God was on their side. Though details of the influence of religion on the deaf community have been noticeably absent in deaf literature, this sociological analysis concludes that religion played a major role in deaf history in that it legitimated the deaf community during its important formative years.


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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.