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Language by Touch*

by C. H. Spurgeon
From the September 1873 Sword and Trowel


ALL OUR READERS ARE, or ought to be, well acquainted with the wonderful case of Laura Bridgman, the blind, deaf, and dumb girl, whom Dickens saw in America, and so graphically described. She not only learned to sew and knit, but to read, write, and calculate. Although every avenue of communication with her seemed to be closed, she was instructed through the sole medium of touch till she became a highly intelligent girl. The name of Doctor Howe, her patient instructor, deserves to be had in grateful remembrance; he was the pioneer in the difficult task of teaching blind, deaf mutes, and all who have followed him confess their obligations to his example.
    It is not, however, at all generally known that Mr. Patterson, of the Parochial Schools of the Manchester Union, has achieved the same result in other cases. A small shilling book, by George Wallis, of the South Kensington Museum, gives a brief account of the cases of Mary Bradley and Joseph Hague, who were by Mr. Patterson's persevering efforts upraised from a condition of living death into active mental life. The girl Mary Bradley was abandoned by her mother in a damp cellar, while suffering from some virulent disease, and so lost both sight and hearing at three years of age. She was, when first noticed, a motherless and fatherless child, without ear or eye, a most wretched inmate of the infant department of a workhouse, where the other children cruelly made sport of her, hitting and pulling her with their hands, while she screamed and vainly stretched out her hand to seize them. Happy for her was the day when she was admitted to the institution for the deaf and dumb. It was, however, far more easy to take her into the institution than to know what to do with her. "The obvious course for her instructor seemed to be to watch her habits, and to endeavor to adapt his own course and the efforts of those around her to them. With this view she was left for some days to her own resources, in order that the bent of her inclination might be seen and judged of. Finding herself in a new position, she was occupied for a time in becoming acquainted with the locality, and the persons and things by which she was surrounded. She made no attempt to make known her wants by signs, as is usual in the case of the deaf and dumb. If she required help her habit was to shout and scream; and, as her utterances were by no means agreeable, every one was interested in relieving her wants. Since her loss of hearing and sight she had been in no position in which signs could have been understood, had she made any; but it never seemed to occur to her to do so. In fact, she was at this time one of the most uncouth and wild-looking objects it is well possible to conceive. She had recently had her head shaved in consequence of some disease in the skin of the scalp, and with a crouching, groping attitude, she had more the appearance of a scared and timid animal seeking some mode of escape from danger, than of a human being endowed with a rational soul."
    The first step in teaching was to make her acquainted with the names of things around her. Mr. Patterson placed before her objects distinctly differing in shape, such as a pen, a book, a slate. As the visible letters could not be placed before her, the signs used by the deaf and dumb were used instead, but as she could not see them, her fingers were, touched by Mr. Patterson in the proper form. This plan was a complete failure for a long time, for the poor girl failed to connect the pen or the book with the sign appropriate to it. Every day the work had to be commenced anew; the appliances were varied, and great kindness and patience exercised, but no beam of intelligence entered the darkened mind for five weeks. But to the resolute nothing is hopeless, God rewards determination: all at once, as with a sudden burst of sunshine, Mary Bradley's face lit up with full intelligence; she had found the clue, she had connected the sign with the thing signified, and she proceeded to sign upon the fingers of her teacher the names of each of the articles. This was a grand beginning, and was energetically followed up. "Mr. Patterson then cut out the letters of the alphabet in cardboard, and gummed them to a sheet of stiff pasteboard, so that they stood in relief, and could be sharply felt and distinguished from each other by the fingers. By this means she soon became acquainted with all their forms, and mentally associated—say pen—with the signs upon her fingers and the object which these signs represented. Her progress now became daily more and more evident. She took great delight in her work, and with the limited time at Mr. Patterson's disposal, it was difficult to keep pace with her desire for the knowledge of names. From these she was taught the quality of things. When new words of this kind were intended to be taught, the objects were generally placed before her, as an illustration of comparison: for instance—a large book and a small one, a light object and a heavy one, thick and thin, rough and smooth, hard and soft, sweet and sour. Objects possessing opposite qualities were placed within her reach, and she very readily acquired the words to express them. Thus the work went on step by step, every day's lesson being a preparatory one for the next day. Verbs were taught much in the same way, the word being given with the action: standing, sitting, walking; eating, drinking, laughing, crying, &c., &c., generally in the form of the present participle, and in connection with a noun, as being an easy change from the adjectives—as, a boy standing, a girl crying, &c.
    "At length the great inconvenience presented itself of the want of a lesson-book adapted to meet the case. In order to supply this want, a case of type for printing in relief was obtained, and some lessons were printed, which were readily deciphered by the pupil through the sense of touch. It was, however, soon discovered that the operation of composing the type was an exercise which was not only very amusing to her, but also very instructive. A little box was constructed in which she could arrange the type in sentences, etc., which were dictated to her by natural signs, the teacher using her hands in the same way as he would use his own to sign similar sentences to a seeing deaf child, and this became a never-failing source of interest. It made her familiar with the various modes of construction,—the greatest difficulty which the deaf and dumb have to encounter. Every new word was at once applied to its appropriate meaning."
    When she was ten years old, and had been under instruction two or three years, she learned to write, and before long exchanged letters across the Atlantic with her sister in deprivation, Laura Bridgman. With this mental growth the girl's temper improved, and her manner became subdued, though before she had been exceedingly irritable. She lived to the age of twenty-six, suffering with great patience during the later years of her life. The great truths of revelation had been made known to her, and she greatly rejoiced in reading the gospels in the form printed for the use of the blind. Calling together her chief benefactors, site calmly and formally declared how she wished her small possessions to be disposed of, then fell asleep, we trust to wake in the image of Jesus. The little book before us only fails with regard to spiritual experience, of which we should have liked far more; however, as it is sold for the benefit of the deaf and dumb, we have no heart even to hint at a fault. That which is described awakens gratitude in our heart, and leads us to pray that all other poor creatures in a like case may come under similar judicious and generous influences.
    The boy Joseph Hague was the son of a deaf and dumb mother, was born deaf, and became blind before he was two years of age. When he was eight years old he became the fellow pupil of Mary Bradley, who was delighted to communicate all she knew to her young companion. Only imagine one poor blind, deaf, and dumb child teaching another. With the boy much the same process had to be gone through as in the case of the girl, and the two together progressed much more rapidly than could have been anticipated when Mary alone was the pupil. Joseph aspired to do all that other blind boys could do, and soon progressed from making his own bed to the manufacture of baskets, in which he became a clever workman, and left the institution in due time to live with his father and mother.
    Both cases are very wonderful, and read like a reproduction of Laura Bridgman and Oliver Caswall, described in "American Notes." It has even suggested itself to us that God allowed two such unhappy little ones to be upon the stage of life at the same time that they might together feel their way into intelligence. The practical lesson to us all is to be thankful for our senses, educate them to perfection, learn all we can by means of them, and use them for the glory of God. Ye who have eyes, observe the handiwork of your Maker, consider his marvellous works, and read constantly in his word. Eyes are not sent to aid us in regarding vanity, or to flash with the glances of passion, but to weep for sin, and to be lifted in gratitude to the Redeemer God. Ye who have ears, hear the word of God with attention and grateful obedience. Such delicate organs are not intended to pollute the mind with the hearing of lascivious or idle talk, but to edify the soul with holy instruction. Ye who have tongues, sing unto the Lord, and speak well of his name. Let those who are fluent consecrate their utterance unto the Lord, proclaiming to all around them the gospel of Jesus; and let all, whether old or young, endeavor to sing the praises of God, ay, and to sing them well too; let the voice be cultivated, so that public worship in the department of song may be rendered to the Lord in the best and most harmonious manner. Surely it cannot be right that the devil and the flesh should have the best music. No, let us give eye and ear and tongue to him who in his bounty gave to us these precious boons, and in his tenderness has preserved to us the use of them.

C. H. S.


* Language by Touch: A Narrative Illustrating the Instruction of the Blind and Deaf Mute. By George Wallis, South Kensington Museum. London: W. Tweedie, 337, Strand.

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