The minister and teacher: Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet

by Lori Reeve


(Rodney, MI)

As a teacher and Christ-follower myself, I relate well with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851) who was a social reformer, Congregationalist minister and teacher at heart. Since there were no schools for the Deaf in America at that time, Deaf children from wealthy families were often sent away to special schools in Europe to be educated. However, those without wealth had few options. Gallaudet’s life mission started when he saw a need and found a way to fulfill it. God blessed him with determination, dedication and diligence – all of which he would require throughout his life as he sought to demonstrate the value of educating the Deaf in America, a population of individuals who had typically and tragically been very isolated from society. He is quoted as saying, “Deaf people can learn” and so he spent the remainder of his life dedicated to proving that fact. What a wonderful impact Gallaudet’s work has had on so many people since that chance meeting with one little girl, almost 200 years ago.

In 1815, having just graduated from Andover Divinity School, Gallaudet met 9-year-old Alice Cogswell. She was the uneducated, deaf daughter of the physician, Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell of Hartford, Connecticut. Gallaudet saw that she was intelligent and so he diligently worked with and taught Alice as much as he could, but he knew there had to be a better way.

Gallaudet felt a strong desire to further assist Alice and others like her. He observed how her deafness and lack of communication skills had isolated her from the community around her. He wanted to share the love of Christ with her as well as train her and other Deaf children in Biblical values and character through education.

Gallaudet found enough financial support from Dr. Cogswell and the wealthy members of the community of Hartford, CT to enable him to travel to Great Britain to seek out better techniques for educating the Deaf. After realizing that the schools in Great Britain were very protective and secretive of their methods, Gallaudet determined to find another place that would more willingly share their methods of educating Deaf children. He soon traveled across the English Channel to Paris, France and the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes, the 1st public school for the Deaf in the world. Gallaudet learned as much as he could from many of the educators, but particularly from one – the master teacher, Laurent Clerc, who was himself Deaf and had been trained at this school.

Two years after Gallaudet’s meeting of little Alice Cogswell, again with financial backing from Dr. Cogswell and others from Hartford, CT, Gallaudet along with Clerc started the 1st school for the Deaf in America, with Alice Cogswell as their first pupil to enroll.

Just as Gallaudet saw a need and met it, my introduction to ASL, was from a chance meeting with a little Deaf girl while I was a lifeguard at a pool in Toledo, OH almost 30 years ago. In order to facilitate communication with her, I studied every night from the book, “The Joy of Signing” and others which I borrowed from the library. By the end of my second summer as a lifeguard, there were about 15 different Deaf children coming to the pool each week, all with very appreciative parents.

Later in life, I used Baby Signs with our daughter, who is now 16 and wants to learn “real sign language.” As a home schooling family, we can easily accommodate this request and thanks to laws passed “of the people, for the people and by the people,” in 1989, we can count it toward her foreign language requirements.

Thanks to websites like yours, now, those without wealth DO have many options, as opposed to how, in the past, those without wealth had few options. Thank you so much for the possibilities you have opened up. I thank God that He blessed you with determination, dedication and diligence for creating this website. May your legacy live on like that of Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.