Celebrating Bible Milestones This Deaf History Month

Sign language Bible translation is moving us closer to the day when everyone can experience God’s Word

This Deaf History Month, we reflect on the legacy of Bible ministry among Deaf communities around the world and praise God for the way Scripture is transforming hearts and lives today. Right now, an estimated 98 percent of Deaf people have never been introduced to the gospel in their own language. We’re committed to working with our global partners and faithful supporters to bring God’s Word to the 68 million people and 400 unique sign languages still waiting for the Bible.

In 1982, American Bible Society received a handwritten letter from the small town of Citronelle, Alabama. The author was a woman named Mrs. Henson. She was seeking Bible resources for her two-year-old granddaughter, who had near-total hearing loss. Despite this physical challenge, Mrs. Henson wanted to find a way to help her little granddaughter learn about Jesus through sign language.

At the time, there were limited Scripture resources available for Deaf people. In order to reach this underserved community with God’s Word, American Bible Society had published two sign language Scripture guides. These guides showed the hand signs for stories like the birth of Jesus, allowing people like Mrs. Henson to communicate the truths of God’s Word to her granddaughter.

In his response to the letter, American Bible Society employee Jon Meek recommended these guides to Mrs. Henson. He also referred her to a partner organization called Deaf Missions—which, 38 years later, would complete the first full Bible in sign language: the American Sign Language Version (ASLV).

A Mission to Serve Deaf Communities

Deaf Missions was founded in 1970 by Duane King, a minister in the Independent Christian Church. While King himself was not Deaf, his life changed when a Deaf woman told him, “We can’t get anything out of church.” For the first time, he realized that the spoken and written versions of God’s Word used in church services did not communicate Scripture in the language many Deaf people used every day: American Sign Language.

King told the woman that, if she came to church, he would learn sign language so that he could share God’s Word in her heart language. He kept his promise and, just a few years later, he launched Deaf Missions and planted Christ’s Church for the Deaf. Then, in 1981, Deaf Missions began the process to translate the Bible into American Sign Language.

Experiencing God’s Love in Sign Language

There are an estimated 400 unique sign languages in the world today. For 70 million people, sign language is the language in which they communicate, think, dream, and pray.

These languages are comprised of hand signs, facial expressions, and body movements that work together to communicate meaning. Because of the full-body nature of these languages, sign language Scripture translation must be captured on video. Then, Deaf people can “read” God’s Word by watching the Bible come to life on a smartphone, laptop, or tablet.

Over nearly four decades, a team of 53 sign language speakers worked on the ASLV project, which was supported by other Bible translation agencies like the Deaf Bible Society, Deaf Harbor, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and American Bible Society. Twenty-three years after the translation process began, the ASLV New Testament was completed. And in the fall of 2020, the Old Testament was completed—providing 3.5 million ASL speakers with the full Bible in their heart language!

Now, Deaf people like Edgar can experience the Bible through sign language. “Without the American Sign Language Bible, it would be very hard for me to learn God’s Word,” he told Deaf Missions. “Growing up, I didn’t receive a good education. . . . Even though I went to church growing up, I struggled to read the Bible.”

Through the ASLV, Edgar finds personal encouragement in God’s Word and has grown in his faith. He is also helping other Deaf community members experience the ASLV through a Bible study. “I love the American Sign Language Version of the Bible!” he says.

A Vision for the Future: God’s Word in Every Sign Language

Today, American Bible Society and our global partners are committed to translating God’s Word into every waiting sign language.

This critical work is already underway around the world. In Peru, a project is underway to translate Scripture into Peruvian Sign Language, which is the heart language for 167,000 people. These video translations are reaching the Deaf community on social media, as well as through local churches. And in Ecuador, 150 stories from Jesus’s life are being translated into Ecuadorian Sign Language. This project will connect more than 200,000 people to the gospel via YouTube and other video formats.

As we celebrate the history of Deaf Bible translation and look forward to the future, it can be easy to lose sight of just how far we’ve come. Just 40 years ago, there was no ASLV Bible for people like Mrs. Henson and her granddaughter. Today, this translation is paving the way for dozens of sign language translation projects like it around the world. Through the work of our Bible translation partners and the generosity of our faithful supporters, we’re moving closer to the day when every language—including sign language—has God’s Word.

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Elisabeth Trefsgar
Elisabeth Trefsgar

Elisabeth Trefsgar is a content specialist for American Bible Society. She has made a home in New Jersey and Sofia, Bulgaria, and is always on the lookout for the next adventure. She is passionate about seeing communities around the world flourish through the power of God's Word and the efforts of the local church. When she isn't writing, you can find her reading good stories, photographing local sights, and spending time with friends.

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