North American Mission Board Honors Carter Bearden, Pioneer Missionary to the Deaf

North American Mission Board (NAMB) president Kevin Ezell presented Carter Bearden with an appreciation award Dec. 5 in recognition of his pioneering ministry to the deaf during his nearly 50 years of ministry with the Home Mission Board (predecessor to NAMB). Photo by Alexandra Toy/NAMB

ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Twelve-year-old Robert Moore couldn’t take his eyes off the dynamic preacher in front of him at his deaf school in St. Augustine, Fla. As Carter Bearden preached the Bible in the spring of 1971, young Moore listened intently.

“It was really fascinating because he was a very dramatic, charismatic preacher,” said Moore, who himself later became a pastor to the deaf and currently serves as a board member of the Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf (SBCD). “He moved around. You didn’t lose eye contact with him because he was very fluid and interesting to watch. That really made an impression on me.”

Yet despite the powerful preaching that everyone who ever heard him remembers, Bearden never verbalized a word — nor has he done so in more than seven decades of preaching and teaching the Bible. Often referred to as “the deaf Billy Graham,” Bearden served Southern Baptists through the Home Mission Board (HMB) and later the North American Mission Board (NAMB) for nearly 50 years before his 2004 retirement.

On Dec. 5, NAMB honored Bearden and his wife Wanda for their decades of ministry to Southern Baptists at a special staff meeting celebrating service milestones of several NAMB staff.

When Bearden began serving with the HMB in 1956, Elvis Presley reigned on the top of the Billboard 100 music chart, and Dwight Eisenhower was finishing up his first term as president.

Much changed in the United States in the next 48 years before his retirement, but this had not: Bearden’s unwavering commitment to communicating the Gospel to North America’s deaf community. In fact, even at age 91, Bearden regularly teaches Bible study courses at two nearby Southern Baptist churches.

“We stand on the shoulders of the people who have come before us. That’s decades upon decades of people who have sacrificed,” NAMB president Kevin Ezell told staff at the gathering. “Much of the way church ministry to the deaf is done today was influenced or invented by Carter Bearden. In fact, he wrote the actual manual for how to use sign language for many of the most common religious words and phrases. Not only does he have a heart for ministry to the deaf, but he has a great heart for evangelism.”

In those 48 years of service, Bearden helped transform Southern Baptist ministry to the deaf as a mentor to deaf pastors, a trainer of American Sign Language (ASL) translators and a dynamic evangelist to the deaf community. He was the Southern Baptist Convention’s first national missionary to the deaf.

Asked to describe what was most meaningful about his time at the Home Mission Board, Bearden said: “Working with the deaf became a blessing to many of the deaf because the Home Mission Board and NAMB had a place in their heart for missions to the deaf people through the years. I’m very grateful to the Lord that He gave Baptists that work.”

Bearden came to faith in Christ as a boy at First Baptist Church of Dallas. The residential deaf school he attended asked parents to give the name of a church for students to attend on Sunday. Although Bearden’s mother was a Presbyterian, their church stopped having classes for the deaf. First Baptist Dallas did have a ministry to the deaf, and she wanted her son to continue to get religious education.

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Source: Baptist Press