Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet:

Friend to the Deaf

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851) and student Alice Mason Cogswell, statue at Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.

A few years ago, Hollywood released a movie about the deaf, describing them as “Children of a Lesser god.” Fortunately, Thomas H. Gallaudet (Yale, 1805), the man who started education for deaf-mutes in this country, would not have agreed with this characterization. His pupils were to him “immortal souls,” created by the same God who made the hearing. He longed to give them knowledge of Jesus the Savior.

In 1810, while a tutor at Yale, Gallaudet gave his life to Christ, and went on to prepare for Gospel ministry. But then he befriended Alice Mason Cogswell, a deaf-mute girl who lived next door to his parents’ home in Hartford, Connecticut. His success in teaching Alice her name and a few other words prompted her parents to ask if he would go to Europe to learn instruction for the deaf. Believing this was the Lord’s calling for him, Gallaudet went and by 1817, was able to open what became the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

As the school’s principal, Gallaudet helped develop the American sign language, and travelled around the nation, speaking to state legislatures and in many large cities, advocating that education for the deaf become part of public policy. His son, Edward M. Gallaudet, founded the world’s first college for the deaf, now known as Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

To Gallaudet, the Hartford school was not just a place where the deaf would be socialized and educated, but a “gate to heaven,” a place where spiritual darkness could be dispelled. The master passion of Gallaudet’s life was to see barriers to the Gospel broken down around the world, and he proposed that the sign language of the deaf might be used to quickly overcome the language problems faced by missionaries in the field. When his poor health forced retirement from teaching, Gallaudet wrote simple Bible primers which were translated and used in mission stations around the world. One of these books fell into the hands of the famous King of Siam (of Anna & the King fame), and he wrote Gallaudet to ask for more.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet spent his last years as a gentle and effective chaplain to prisoners and the insane. Many healthy people would be glad to accomplish half so much in life as did this weak and sickly man.

Marena Fisher, Graduate ’92
© 2001 The Yale Standard Committee