John Sherratt: The First Latter-day Saint Deaf Missionary

John Sherratt (1828–1899) was the Church's first Deaf missionary, called in 1854. Deaf missionaries would have to wait 113 years before they would called again to full-time service in 1967 (Canada) and 1968 (California).
Sherratt's testimony "Reflections by a Deaf and Dumb Young Man,' printed in 1848 in the Millennial Star. John understand his relationship to God — "I love only best, God" — and his deafness was not a mistake or a disability: "...God made me deaf..."

We’ve learned a lot about early Deaf Latter-day Saints in the past ten or fifteen years. Deaf upstate New York converts joined the Church as early as 1832; Deaf pioneer wagon drivers and early Deaf Utah homesteaders have all been active in the faith alongside hearing church members ever since. This is the story of John Sherratt, the first Deaf Latter-day Saint missionary, called to serve in 1854, nearly 170 years ago.

“I wish all people would obey God. I am sure I am for Mormonism; God knows, I must never be cut off from the church.” John Sherratt, the reluctant pioneer, was born to Sara Godwin and Smith Sherratt at Scholargreen, Cheshire, England on 23 January 1828 and christened at Astbury, Cheshire, England on 1 Mar 1828. The young Sherratt family was wealthy and spent summers and extended vacations on estates and at large county homes. 

As a young child, John contracted scarlet fever which caused his deafness. John was educated at home and became a proficient communicator, an excellent writer, and was “adept in using sign language.” John’s sister Sara described him as “more like Mama in temperament than any of her children — good, patient, gentle, self-sacrificing.... He made much happiness for us when we were children.... He is among the happiest memories of my childhood.” 

John proudly taught his children and grandchildren sign language, “danc[ing them] on his knees, tenderly guid[ing] their small hands in forming the letters of his language.”

Childhood and Family Conversion

John’s father died when he was a child and his mother Sara remarried local schoolteacher and company cashier Thomas Dunlop Brown. Thomas joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1845 and, when John was eighteen years old, he, his older brother William, and his mother Sara were also baptized into the Church on 6 Dec 1848 by Elder Orson Hyde. John wrote of his conversion and baptism experience in the British Latter-day Saint newspaper, Millennial Star, where it was published under the headline “Reflections of a Deaf and Dumb Young Man.” John shared personal experiences which lead him to an understanding of the Church — “I was dreaming about being baptized, and an angel led me out. I wish to be good and obey God and my parents, and love the Mormons and the Bible, and to have care to be good”—and of an understanding of his deafness — ”The Bible says that God can give to hear and speak, even the deaf and dumb. God made me deaf and dumb....I am glad I was baptized.”

Dramatization of John Sherratt's testimony (BSL + CC)

The Sherratts Come to America

Sometime in 1849 or 1850, the Sherratt family and their stepfather left England to travel to Salt Lake City. John, his wife Sarah Burton, and his one-year-old daughter Sarah appear in the September 1850 federal census in Pottawattamie, IA (Winter Quarters). (Interestingly enough, in the same census district as another Deaf Latter-day Saint, six-year-old Sarah Eckersley [Crompton]). He was twenty-four years old when the family traveled with the Robert Wimmer Pioneer Company; about 230 individuals and 130 wagons were in the company when it left the outfitting post at Kanesville, Iowa in July 1852. Although John is not recorded as travelling with his family, the Wimmer Company arrived in Salt Lake City on 15 September 1852. For unknown reasons, John and his young wife separated and divorced shortly after they arrived in Salt Lake City.

John Serves a Mission

In April 1854, John and his stepfather Thomas D. Brown were called on missions by President Brigham Young. Elder Sherratt was the first Deaf person to serve a full-time proselyting mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. President Young though that “John, able and adept with sign language, would make a good missionary to send to the Indians.” In October 1854, they traveled to and established themselves in Old Fort Harmony in southern Utah. John was released from his mission a year later and moved to Fort Cedar City in 1855. John was also likely the first of the many Deaf Latter-day Saints to settle in Iron County (Cedar City) and Southern Utah. 

John Begins a Family

John taught the manual alphabet to his new community and quickly made friends with residents of the fort. One particular girl, seventeen-year-old Christina Bulloch, was quickly attracted to John’s “fine appearance and courtly manners....She felt protective and quickly learned to communicate with him.” Despite the eleven-year age difference and her father’s protests to their relationship, John and Christina were quietly married at Hamilton Fort in February 1856. (They were later sealed in the Endowment House in October 1868.) They lived in her father’s home for several years as Christina continued to care for her younger siblings.

Despite a privileged and educated upbringing, John worked hard to pioneer, build, farm, raise livestock, and homestead (he is listed in the 1870 federal Iron County census as a farmer), some years less successful than others. John was more successful at the part-time and odd-job bookkeeping and accounting jobs he was asked to do, most because of his penmanship and the tutoring he had received at a young age. John and Christina had nine children (one was stillborn, one died at five months) between 1856 and 1881.

 ”The Bible says that God can give to hear and speak, even the deaf and dumb. God made me deaf and dumb....I am glad I was baptized.”

A Deaf Latter-day Saint Legacy

John died 18 January 1899 in Cedar City, leaving a pioneer’s legacy to his family and Deaf Latter-day Saints of faith, self-confidence, and a love for his God-given station in life. John loved to dress in his Sunday best and attend church in his Cedar City ward, doing his best to understand each speaker. It is said that John regularly demonstrated his faithfulness and bore “his testimony quite often, standing tall and proud, his expressive hands carrying his message of humble gratitude to a congregation who understood and admired him.” John proudly taught his children and grandchildren sign language, “danc[ing them] on his knees, tenderly guid[ing] their small hands in forming the letters of his language.”