Speaking in Tongues

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Speaking in Tongues (Glossolalia)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Speaking in tongues (glossolalia is the technical term) is a form of religious utterance that to the outsider is meaningless and is often confused with gibberish. To the believer, however, it is a form ofsacred language spoken under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues appears prominently in the New Testament, and it became an integral part of Christian worship in the first century. The practice largely disappeared as a significant part of Christian worship by the second century, though it occasionally reemerged during times of spontaneous religious revivals. Records indicate a number of outbreaks in the English-speaking world in the nineteenth century.

The modern attention to speaking in tongues began in 1900 in a small Bible school in Wichita, Kansas. The founder of the school was a former Methodist heavily influenced by the Holiness Movement, a late-nineteenth century belief that advocated a Second Blessing for Christians that brought them into a holy state and which they identified with the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The school founder thus began to think about the idea of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, an experience that Holiness people valued. He asked his students to investigate the idea in conjunction with their Bible study. The students concluded that the experience of speaking in tongues was intimately connected with the baptism of the Spirit. Thus, the school’s teacher, Charles F. Parham (1873–1929), led his students in prayer for the baptism of the Holy Spirit and its accompanying sign, the experience of speaking in tongues. That experience first came to Agnes Ozman (1870–1937) on January 1, 1901, and soon spread to Parham and the other students.

Parham began to spread the word of the baptism and tongues. Among the people who accepted the message was African American minister William J. Seymour (1870–1922). In 1906, Seymour took his knowledge of the experience with him to Los Angeles, where he was to pastor a church. His ministry resulted in a three-year revival that brought people from across North America to the small mission on Azusa Street. Over the next decade, those who received the baptism of the Holy Spirit at the mission then spread the message around the world.

At Azusa, those who spoke in tongues questioned exactly what was happening to them. One early explanation was that they were speaking a different language. As they saw when they read the account of the first Pentecost (Acts 2), some believed that they had been gifted by God with the ability to speak another language. One of these, Lillian Garr, the wife of Reverend A. G. Garr (1874–1944), believed that she could now speak Chinese. Based upon that belief, she and her husband moved to Hong Kong in 1907, only to be sadly disappointed that no one could understand any words that she spoke. Reverend Garr concluded that speaking in tongues was purely for devotional use, not for communicating information.

Others at Azusa concluded that they were speaking the languages of the angelic world and that speaking in tongues requires the associated gift of interpretation. Thus, although speaking in tongues had a value in itself, especially when exercised in private, in worship, after someone spoke in tongues, it became common to wait for someone to interpret the message in English (or whatever language the congregation used). While this explanation satisfied many, it led to further questions. For example, observers frequently noted the seeming lack of relationship between the length of the tongues message and the interpretation.

In spite of such questions, a variety of new theologies emerged that affirmed speaking in tongues as a normative experience of the Christian life. These theologies were adopted by the different churches of the Pentecostal movement.

In the 1960s, the Pentecostal movement experienced a significant growth when the practice of speaking in tongues spread into older Protestant denominations and to Catholicism. The new Charismatic movement, as it was called, did not happen without significant opposition, though. Church leaders denounced speaking in tongues as a false form of piety, while other equally sophisticated leaders defended the experience. In the 1970s, the interest aroused by the Charismatics also generated a number of significant new studies. For example, Charismatic fellowships were studied to see if, as psychologists of previous generations had charged, experiences such as speaking in tongues were evidence that the speaker was suffering from mental problems. Some prominent psychologists working early in the twentieth century suggested that involvement in Pentecostalism and speaking in tongues were signs of psychological pathology. In the 1970s, studies of Pentecostal/Charismatic groups were conducted that laid the earlier suggestions to rest. Charismatic believers actually scored higher on mental health scales than the general public.

Most important to the understanding of speaking in tongues was the work of linguists who had developed very sophisticated tools for understanding the structure of languages, even those they had never previously heard. Such people as William Samarin quickly disposed of two hypotheses. First, speaking in tongues was not xenoglossy, the speaking of a second language that was not learned in any ordinary manner. Second, speaking in tongues was not simple gibberish or nonsense. The sounds that were articulated by the speakers did indeed have structures and patterns. Speaking in tongues, is something different; it is a proto-language, a means of verbalizing religious experience. It differs from real language by its limited number of vowels (only two or three) and consonants (approximately 12 to 15). There are not enough sounds available to construct a real language. Samarin also noted that the tongues spoken by any individual Pentecostal believer will be based on the language she or he speaks under normal circumstance.

After a number of studies through the 1970s, scientists felt that they had reached a consensus on the nature of glossolalia, and the leadership in the movement came to terms with the work of various social scientists who have researched the phenomenon. The admission of this scientific data has been difficult for the movement to swallow, since speaking in tongues was considered a way in which God interacted directly with His congregations.


Burgess, Stanley M., ed. The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.
Goodman, Felecitas D. Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study in Glossolalia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.
Kildahl, John P. The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Samarin, William J. Tongues of Men and Angels. The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan Company, 1972.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Paul mentions speaking "in tongues of men or of angels," and of the relation of speaking in tongues with prophecy; in the same passage, Paul speaks of using ecstatic utterance in prayer.
Steve Bremner tells the story of his spiritual journey in his book "Nine Lies People Believe About Speaking in Tongues." Steve writes with passion, using an easy going, conversational style, interspersed with humor, open candor, and simplicity.
The 40-member church is among many nationwide that are reducing or cutting out speaking in tongues as they become more popular and move to the mainstream.
Frank Macchia argues that speaking in tongues is a sign that Pentecost is not only the reversal of Babel but also its fulfillment in terms of unity.
"Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition." Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women.