Deaf Ministry Pioneer
Arthur Griffith Dies
Was first ordained Deaf Adventist minister; had wide-ranging ministry
BY ANSEL OLIVER, assistant director for news, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
rthur Griffith once created Bible study movies for Deaf people by setting up a movie camera he could operate with a makeshift foot pedal.
In the 1960s a sheet covering the window turned a room in his Portland, Oregon, home into a movie set where Griffith would stand in front of projected slides to minister to other members of his often-neglected subculture and language group—the Deaf.
Griffith, who died January 16 at age 89, was ordained as the Adventist Church’s first Deaf minister in 1969, following a request for him to serve as the leader of a Deaf Bible study group. A former machinist who lacked formal theology training, he founded much of the church’s Deaf outreach and served as a minister to Deaf church members around the country.
MINISTER AND MENTOR: Griffith, a former machinist who lacked formal theological training, nevertheless led hundreds of Deaf people to Christ and mentored Deaf leaders for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
He studied with, converted, and mentored most of the Deaf Adventist leaders currently serving the church.
“Many people’s lives have been touched by this great man of God,” said David Trexler, speaker/director of Arizona-based Adventist Deaf Ministries, a supporting ministry.
In North America there are some 300 Deaf Adventist Church members and five all-Deaf congregations, said Esther Doss, a ministry spokeswoman. Only 2 to 4 percent of the 2 million Deaf population in the United States attend a church of any kind, she said.
“Deaf people are a subculture and isolated in some ways,” said Griffith’s son Alfred, a pastor of two Deaf groups in Central California. He laments that other denominations are ahead of the Adventist Church in reaching out to that community.
Some denominations feature multiple Deaf congregations in one city, while others offer DVDs for the Deaf in multiple sign languages. One even has plans for a Deaf seminary. The Adventist church in North America has two full-time ministers and one part-time minister to the Deaf, as well as five Deaf camp meetings throughout the United States.
Though some Adventist congregations offer sign language interpreters, it can be difficult for the Deaf to follow proceedings, and many phrases are lost in translation. In North America speakers of American Sign Language must learn English grammar to read.
Some rituals at all-Deaf congregations are noticeably different—heads are not bowed during prayer, hymns aren’t sung but signed, and applause is replaced by a waving of hands.
Adventist world church undersecretary Larry Evans and Debra Brill, a North American Division vice president, have formed a task force to coordinate Deaf outreach, which has limited work globally. Evans first met Griffith while serving as a ministries coordinator for the church in Oregon.
DEAF PIONEER: Arthur W. Griffith, who died January 16, is shown filming
a Bible study for the Deaf. Griffith’s work helped establish and grow Deaf
ministry for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States.
“Arthur, like so many of our pioneers, could see only the beginnings of the fruition of his dreams during his lifetime,” Evans told Adventist Review in an e-mail message. “The Deaf work is still largely unrecognized, but a new interest is now sweeping over many parts of the world and much of this has to do with the foundation [he] laid.”
Arthur W. Griffith was born in 1920 to Minnesota farmers who soon moved to Alberta, Canada. Still a child, he and his brother contracted spinal meningitis. His brother did not survive, and Griffith lost his hearing.
After seeing Griffith’s homemade Bible study movies for the Deaf, Adventist Church leadership sponsored a set of 12 professionally produced programs.
In 1944 Griffith married Alyce Grove, whom he had met at a Deaf camp meeting in Portland. In 1956 their 7-year-old daughter Linda died after being struck by a car. From then on, his desire to see her again at the Second Coming drove him to passionately share the message of the gospel and the resurrection, his son said.
Griffith later published a newsletter, drawing 500 subscribers, which allowed the Deaf community to better network with one another. He served as Deaf ministry leader throughout the United States, and retired near Manteca, California. His wife, Alyce, and four children survive.
--With reporting by Esther M. Doss and Adventist Review staff.