‘Pantomimic Sign’ as Universal Language: Approaching the Question of How Peoples will Converse in the Redeemer’s Millennial Kingdom in Early Nineteenth-century Connecticut

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Nineteenth-century American Congregationalism was dominated by postmillennial ideas, its world being viewed as steadily progressing towards its fulfilment in a global “empire” of Christ. Powered by the First and Second Great Awakenings (c. 1730-60 and c.1790-1830 respectively), Congregationalists demonstrated their conviction that mission was essential to the spreading of Christianity to all parts of the world by creating societies such as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810). The experiences of their foreign missions led to a recognition of the daunting language barriers faced; missionaries had a lot of hard work to do before they could even begin to preach the gospel. Two centuries before, the concept of a universal language had appeared in the works of John Wilkins (1614-76) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), albeit with little success beyond establishing a long-standing cultural trope. The Babel story of Genesis 11 also told of language’s disintegration into myriad tongues, hinting that a single ‘Adamic’ language uniting humanity had once existed. The value of a universal language for world-wide mission was obvious, but what it might be was much less so.

Ordained by the Congregationalist Church in 1814 and a dedicated postmillennialist, Thomas H. Gallaudet, of Hartford, Connecticut, was soon introduced to Alice, the deaf nine-year old daughter of a renowned surgeon, Dr Marion Cogswell. Gallaudet discovered that he could communicate with her through ‘pantomime signs’, i.e., signs visually linked to actions. In 1815, he was commissioned to travel to Europe and to bring back a method for teaching language to deaf people. He returned with the deaf Frenchman, Laurent Clerc a year later, founding American deaf education and instigating an American Sign Language (ASL), achievements for which he is celebrated today. In a sermon on Isaiah 35.5–“the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped” (KJV)—delivered while opening the American School for the Deaf in 1817, Gallaudet declared that educated deaf people would become an essential component of Christ’s earthly millennial empire.

Despite American deaf education’s focus on ASL, Gallaudet’s early exchanges with Alice had convinced him that in “pantomime sign” a universal language existed that was suitable for all of humanity, both in the contemporary mission fields and in the Millennium to come. This conviction was strengthened by encounters with American Indians, a Chinese visitor to Hartford, and by Clerc’s similar ability to converse easily with Alice. Significantly, however, while Gallaudet stressed the accessibility and simplicity of “pantomime sign”, he also argued that it was capable of rendering the conceptual God-talk of the missionaries and of Christ’s millennial reign. Ironically, the deaf would not need to physically hear as they lived in glory because the universal language in common use would be expressed in ‘pantomime signs’ that they already understood.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2019
EventThe Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements: Critical and Interdisciplinary Approaches. - Bedford, United Kingdom
Duration: 27 Jun 201928 Jun 2019


ConferenceThe Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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