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Glossolalia is commonly called "speaking in tongues". For other uses of "speaking in tongues", see Speaking in Tongues (disambiguation).
"Tongues" redirects here. For the body part, see Tongue, for other uses, see Tongue (disambiguation).
Some uses of 'Glossolalia' (including here) refer to Xenoglossy, speaking in a natural language that was previously unknown to the speaker.

Glossolalia or speaking in tongues is the fluid vocalizing (or, less commonly, the writing) of speech-like syllables, often as part of religious practice. Though some consider these utterances to be meaningless, others consider them to be a holy language.


'Glossolalia' is constructed from the Greek word γλωσσολαλιά, itself a compound of the words γλῶσσα (glossa, meaning "tongue" or "language") and λαλεῖν (lalein, "to talk"). The term 'speaking in tongues' is a translation of these two components of the same word. The Greek expression (in various forms) appears in the New Testament in the books of Acts and 1 Corinthians.

'Speaking in tongues' has been used at least since the translation of the New Testament into Middle English in the Wycliffe Bible in the 14th century.[1] Frederic William Farrar first used the word glossolalia in 1879.[2]


Glossolalia is a material phenomenon which has physical and psychological patterns that can be described. Substantial scientific studies have been published that provide an objective description of the linguistics of glossolalic speech and the neural behaviour of the speakers.

Linguistics of Pentecostal glossolalia

William J. Samarin, a linguist from the University of Toronto, published a thorough assessment of Pentecostal glossolalia that became a classic work on its linguistic characteristics.[3] His assessment was based on a large sample of glossolalia recorded in public and private Christian meetings in Italy, Holland, Jamaica, Canada and the USA over the course of five years; his wide range included the Puerto Ricans of the Bronx, the Snake Handlers of the Appalachians, and Russian Molokan in Los Angeles.

Samarin found that glossolalic speech does resemble human language in some respects. The speaker uses accent, rhythm, intonation and pauses to break up the speech into distinct units. Each unit is itself made up of syllables, the syllables being formed from consonants and vowels taken from a language known to the speaker.

It is verbal behavior that consists of using a certain number of consonants and vowels[...]in a limited number of syllables that in turn are organized into larger units that are taken apart and rearranged pseudogrammatically[...]with variations in pitch, volume, speed and intensity.[4]

[Glossolalia] consists of strings of syllables, made up of sounds taken from all those that the speaker knows, put together more or less haphazardly but emerging nevertheless as word-like and sentence-like units because of realistic, language-like rhythm and melody.[5]

That the sounds are taken from the set of sounds already known to the speaker is confirmed by others: Felicitas Goodman found that the speech of glossolalists reflected the patterns of speech of the speaker's native language.[6]

Samarin found that the resemblance to human language was merely on the surface, and so concluded that glossolalia is "only a facade of language".[7] He reached this conclusion because the syllable string did not form words, the stream of speech was not internally organised, and– most importantly of all– there was no systematic relationship between units of speech and concepts. Humans use language to communicate, but glossolalia does not. Therefore, he concluded that glossolalia is not "a specimen of human language because it is neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives".[7]

On the basis of his linguistic analysis, Samarin defined Pentecostal glossolalia as "meaningless but phonologically structured human utterance, believed by the speaker to be a real language but bearing no systematic resemblance to any natural language, living or dead".[8]

Practitioners of glossolalia may disagree with linguistic researchers and claim that they are speaking human languages (xenoglossia). For example, Ralph Harris, in the work Spoken By the Spirit published by Radiant Life/GPH in 1973, describes seventy five occasions when glossolalic speech was understood by others. (Scientific research into such claims is documented in the article on xenoglossia.)

Comparative linguistics

Felicitas Goodman, a psychological anthropologist and linguist, studied a number of Pentecostal communities in the United States, Caribbean and Mexico; these included English, Spanish and Mayan speaking groups. She compared what she found with recordings of non-Christian rituals from Africa, Borneo, Indonesia and Japan. She took into account both the segmental structure (such as sounds, syllables, phrases) and the supra-segmental elements (rhythm, accent, intonation), and concluded that there was no distinction between what was practiced by the Pentecostal Protestants and the followers of other religions.[9]


In 2006, the brains of a group of individuals were scanned while they were speaking in tongues. Activity in the language centers of the brain decreased, while activity in the emotional centers of the brain increased. Activity in the area of control decreased, which corresponds with the reported experience of loss of control. There were no changes in any language areas, suggesting that glossolalia is not associated with usual language function.[10][11][12] Other brain wave studies have also found that brain activity alters in glossolalia.[13]

Material explanation

Attempts to explain these physical and psychological patterns are made at two levels: material and spiritual. The spiritual explanation is discussed further below. A number of material explanations have been suggested, including mental illness, hypnosis, and learned behaviour.

Mental illness

As Pentecostalism expanded in the 20th century and attracted the attention of the wider world, psychologists initially thought of glossolalia in pathological terms, thinking that it was caused by mental illness. In 1927 George Cutten described tongues-speakers as people of low mental abilities.[14]

This explanation was effectively refuted in 1969 by a team from the University of Minnesota, who conducted an extensive study covering the United States, Mexico, Haiti and Colombia; they reached practitioners among Pentecostals, other Protestant groups, and Roman Catholics.

Cutten's contentions concerning psychopathology, quoted and re-quoted through the years, have taken on an aura of fact among non-Pentecostal churchmen who are critical of the movement. His assumption that glossolalia is linked to schizophrenia and hysteria has not been supported by any empirical evidence.[15]

Subsequently, a 2003 statistical study in the religious journal Pastoral Psychology concluded that, among the 991 male evangelical clergy sampled, glossolalia was associated with stable extroversion, and contrary to some theories, completely unrelated to psychopathology.[16]


Some kind of hypnosis or trance has often been suggested as the explanation for glossolalia. Much glossolalia takes place in heightened states, whether in Pentecostal Christian or non-Christian contexts.[9] But glossolalia does not require a state of hypnosis or trance. An experiment was conducted in which 12 experienced glossolalists performed with eyes open and without accompanying kinetic activity (such as trembling or shaking) or any residual disorientation.[17] Moreover, glossolalia is not only displayed in group situations. The Minnesotan study found that "after the initial experience of glossolalia, most Pentecostals speak with tongues as frequently, if not more frequently, alone in private prayer", including some for the first time.[15] These findings rule out hypnosis by another, although self-hypnosis may play a part.

A New Zealand researcher, Heather Kavan,[18] found that whether a person experienced trance or hypnosis depended on the type of group with which they were affiliated. Kavan found that most New Zealand Pentecostals and Charismatics did not experience trance except during the baptism of the spirit. However, meditators in a yoga-based purification group experienced frequent intense trances, of which glossolalia was an occasional manifestation. Kavan suggested that there are two types of glossolalia– spontaneous and context-dependent– and the former is more likely to occur in groups that are radical, experiential and charismatically led.

Learned behaviour

The material explanation arrived at by a number of studies is that glossolalia is "learned behavior".[15][19] What is taught is the ability to produce language-like speech. This is only a partial explanation, but it is a part that has withstood much testing. It is possible to train novices to produce glossolalic speech. One experiment with 60 undergraduates found that 20% succeeded after merely listening to a 60-second sample, and 70% succeeded after training:

Our findings that glossolalia can be easily learned through direct instruction, along with demonstrations that tongue speakers can initiate and terminate glossolalia upon request and can exhibit glossolalia in the absence of any indexes of trance[…] support the hypothesis that glossolalia utterances are goal-directed actions rather than involuntary happenings.[20]

That glossolalia can be learned is also seen in the traces left behind by teachers. An investigation by the Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn showed that the influence of a particular leader can shape a group's glossolalia: where certain prominent glossolalists had visited, whole groups of glossolalists would speak in his style of speech.[21]

However, certain sounds have been found to predominate throughout the world, irrespective of teachers. The word ‘shunda’ and its variations ‘shunder’, ‘shonder’ and ‘shindir’ are prominent in samples through the United States, Wales and New Zealand.[18]

Glossolalia in Christianity

In addition to the suggested material explanations, some Christians believe that there can be a supernatural explanation of glossolalia: some (cessationists) limit this to the first century, others (glossolalists) apply this explanation today.

  • Glossolalists could, apart from those practicing glossolalia, also mean all those who believe that the Pentecostal/Charismatic glossolalia practiced today is the 'speaking in tongues' described in the New Testament. They believe that it is a miraculous gift of the Spirit. While some Charismatics claim that these tongues are a real, unlearned language (i.e., xenoglossia),[22][23] others - Pentecostals in particular, explain the activity as a 'language of the spirit', or a 'heavenly language', perhaps the language of angels.[24]
  • Cessationists believe that all the charismatic gifts of The Holy Spirit ceased to be early in the Christian history, and therefore that the speaking in tongues practised today is simply the utterance of meaningless syllables. It is neither xenoglossia nor miraculous, but rather learned behavior, possibly self-induced. However, they believe that what the New Testament describes is xenoglossia, a miraculous gift of the Spirit through which the speaker could communicate in languages not previously studied.

Biblical practice

Glossolalia is believed by many Christians to have come into the Christian experience in the first century on the day of Pentecost after the Crucifixion of Jesus when "... there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire,.." divided unto all of the individuals in the "upper room". They were said to speak in "other tongues as the spirit gave them utterance" (according to Acts, Ch. 2) (The book of Acts is found in the New Testament immediately after the Gospel of John and is considered to be the story of the very early church). Many, though certainly not all that consider themselves Christians, believe that this was a miraculous gift of the Spirit. Some Charismatics claim that these tongues are a real, unlearned, language (i.e., xenoglossia).[22][23] Others - Pentecostals in particular, explain the activity as a 'language of the spirit', or a 'heavenly language', perhaps the language of angels.[24] These views are both drawn from the writings of St. Paul. Some believe that individuals speak different languages at different times, some believed to be human languages and others "angelic or heavenly languages."[25] Glossolalia came to prominence again in modern times in the Azusa Street Revival of 1906 and in the subsequent growth of the Pentecostal movement. "Since then there have been a number of attempts to describe glossolalia in a systematic way. However, practitioners of glossolalia consider it a spiritual experience and tend to doubt the likelihood that it can be classified or proven by the scientific method."[25] In recent years some research has taken place to make closer investigation of this phenomenon, of which perhaps the most well known, is scientific research that was performed in Pennsylvania.

New Testament

There are five places in the New Testament where speaking in tongues is referred to explicitly:

  • Mark 16:17, which records the instructions of Christ to the apostles, including his description that "they will speak with new tongues" as a sign that would follow "them that believe" in him. Many scholars take Mk 16:8 as the original ending and believe the ending (Mk 16:9-20) was written later. (see Mark 16)
  • Acts 2, which describes tongues-speaking occurring in Jerusalem at Pentecost.
  • Acts 10:46, when the household of Cornelius in Caesarea spoke in tongues, and those present compared it to the tongues-speaking that occurred at Pentecost.
  • Acts 19:6, when a group of approximately a dozen men spoke in tongues in Ephesus as they received the Holy Spirit while the apostle Paul laid his hands upon them.
  • 1 Cor 12,13,14, where Paul discusses speaking in "various kinds of tongues" as part of his wider discussion of the gifts of the Spirit; his remarks shed some light on his own speaking in tongues as well as how the gift of speaking in tongues was to be used in the church.

Other verses by inference may be considered to refer to 'speaking in tongues', such as Romans 8:26 and Jude 20.

The biblical account of Pentecost in the second chapter of the book of Acts describes the sound of a mighty rushing wind and "divided tongues like fire" coming to rest on the apostles. The text further describes that "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in unknown languages."

Glossolalists and cessationists both recognize this as xenoglossia, a miraculous ability that marked their baptism in the Holy Spirit. Something similar (although perhaps not xenoglossia) took place on at least two subsequent occasions, in Caesarea and Ephesus.

The Apostle Paul instructed the church in Corinth about speaking in tongues in his discussion of the gifts of the Spirit in a letter to them. His purpose was to encourage them to value the gift, but not too highly; to practice it, but not abuse it. In the letter, Paul commands church brethren, "Do not forbid to speak in tongues" (1 Cor 14:39), while warning them that "all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner" He further expresses his wishes that those to whom he wrote "all spoke with tongues" (1 Cor 14:5) and claims himself to speak with tongues more than all of the church at Corinth combined ("I thank God I speak with tongues more than you all" 1 Cor 14:18). At the same time he argues that not everyone can speak in tongues (1 Cor 12:29) and discourages simultaneous speaking in tongues directed at people rather than God, lest unbelievers should think that the assembled believers were "mad" (1 Cor 14:23, 27). Tongues, says Paul, is speaking to God, rather than men ("in the Spirit he speaks mysteries" (1 Cor 14:2)). Paul claims that tongues-speaking edifies the person speaking in tongues (1 Cor 14:4), that it is the action of a praying tongues-speaker's spirit (as opposed his or her understanding, see 1 Cor 14:14), and that praying in tongues serves both to bless God as well as to give thanks (1 Cor 14:16-17). However, he also expressed a preference for prophecy over tongues-speaking, unless [a tongues-speaker] interprets, so that the church may be edified(1 Cor 14:5). Paul also gave instructions that unless there was an interpreter of tongues present, the tongue-speaker should "keep quiet in the church", and instead speak only to himself and to God (1 Cor 14:27-28).

Glossolalists and cessationists generally agree that the primary purpose of the gift of speaking in tongues was to mark the Holy Spirit being poured out. At Pentecost the Apostle Peter declared that this gift, which was making some in the audience ridicule the disciples as drunks, was the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel which described that God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17).[23]

Despite these commonalities, there are significant variations in interpretation.

  • Universal. The traditional Pentecostal view is that every Christian should expect to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, the distinctive mark of which is glossolalia.[26] While most Protestants agree that baptism in the Holy Spirit is integral to being a Christian, others believe that it is not separable from conversion and no longer marked by glossolalia. Pentecostals appeal to the declaration of the Apostle Peter at Pentecost, that "the gift of the Holy Spirit" was "for you and for your children and for all who are far off" (Acts 2:38-39). Cessationists reply that the gift of speaking in tongues was never for all (1 Cor 12:30). In response to those who say that the Baptism in the Holy Spirit is not a separate experience from conversion, Pentecostals appeal to the question asked by the Apostle Paul to the Ephesian believers "Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?" (Acts 19:2).
  • One gift. Different aspects of speaking in tongues appear in Acts and 1 Corinthians, such that the Assemblies of God declare that the gift in Acts "is the same in essence as the gift of tongues" in 1 Corinthians "but different in purpose and use".[26] They distinguish between (private) speech in tongues when receiving the gift of the Spirit, and (public) speech in tongues for the benefit of the church. Others assert that the gift in Acts was "not a different phenomenon" but the same gift being displayed under varying circumstances.[27] The same description - 'speaking in tongues' - is used in both Acts and 1 Corinthians, and in both cases the speech is in an unlearned language.
  • Direction. The New Testament describes tongues largely as speech addressed to God, but also as something that can potentially be interpreted into human language, thereby "edifying the hearers" (1 Cor 14:5,13). At Pentecost and Caesarea the speakers were praising God (Acts 2:11; 10:46). Paul referred to praying, singing praise, and giving thanks in tongues (1 Cor 14:14-17), as well as to the interpretation of tongues(1 Cor 14:5), and instructed those speaking in tongues to pray for the ability to interpret their tongues so others could understand them (1 Cor 14:13). While some limit speaking in tongues to speech addressed to God - "prayer or praise",[22] others claim that speech in tongues is revelation from God to the church, and when interpreted into human language by those embued with the gift of interpretation of tongues for the benefit of others present, may be considered equivalent to prophecy.[28]
  • Music. Musical interludes of glossolalia are sometimes described as singing in the Spirit. Some hold that singing in the Spirit is identified with singing in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:13-19,[29] which they hold to be "spiritual or spirited singing", as opposed to "communicative or impactive singing" which Paul refers to as "singing with the understanding".[30]
  • Sign for unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22). Some assume that tongues are "a sign for unbelievers that they might believe",[31] and so advocate it as a means of evangelism. Others point out that Paul quotes Isaiah to show that "when God speaks to people in language they cannot understand, it is quite evidently a sign of God's judgment"; so if unbelievers are baffled by a church service they cannot understand because tongues are spoken without being interpreted, that is a "sign of God's attitude", "a sign of judgment".[32]
  • Comprehension. Some say that speech in tongues was "not understood by the speaker"[22] Others assert that "the tongues-speaker normally understood his own foreign-language message".[33] This last comment seems to have been made by someone confusing the "gift of tongues" with the "gift of the interpretation of tongues, which is specified as a different gift in the New Testament, but one that can be given to a person who also has the gift of tongues. In that case, a person understands a message in tongues that he has previously spoken in an unknown language."[cite this quote] This is considered "not an uncommon phenomenon in charismatic churches."[25]

Church practice

A.D. 100 to 400

Twentieth-century Pentecostalism was not the earliest instance of "speaking in tongues" in church history, but earlier examples are few; in church history and writing after the New Testament, it had never been regarded as orthodox until the rise of Pentecostalism.

References to speaking in tongues by the Church fathers are rare. Except for Irenaeus' 2nd-century reference to many in the church speaking all kinds of languages 'through the Spirit', and Tertullian's reference in 207 AD to the spiritual gift of interpretation of tongues being encountered in his day, there are no other known first-hand accounts of glossolalia, and very few second-hand accounts among their writings.[34]

What we do have are general remarks that Christ had given the gifts of the Spirit to the church, and that the gifts in general remained in the church.

For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to this present time. (Justin Martyr, c.150)[35]

Now, it is possible to see amongst us women and men who possess gifts of the Spirit of God. (Justin Martyr, c.150)[36]

The Fathers also recount the lists of gifts of the Spirit recorded in the New Testament.

This is He who places prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, directs tongues, gives powers and healings, does wonderful works, often discrimination of spirits, affords powers of government, suggests counsels, and orders and arranges whatever other gifts there are of charismata; and thus make the Lord’s Church everywhere, and in all, perfected and completed. (Novatian, c.200-c.258)[37]

For God hath set same in the Church, first apostles…secondly prophets…thirdly teachers…next mighty works, among which are the healing of diseases… and gifts of either speaking or interpreting divers kinds of tongues. Clearly these are the Church’s agents of ministry and work of whom the body of Christ consists; and God has ordained them. (Hilary of Poitiers, 360)[38]

There is one instance of a Father apparently recording that he had heard some in the church speaking all kinds of languages through the Spirit:

In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God. (Irenaeus, c.180)[39]

Tertullian in an anti-heretical apologetic alludes to instances of the 'interpretation of tongues' as one among several examples of 'spiritual gifts' common enough in his day to be easily encountered and provide evidence that God was at work in the church:

Let Marcion then exhibit, as gifts of his god, some prophets, such as have not spoken by human sense, but with the Spirit of God, such as have both predicted things to come, and have made manifest the secrets of the heart; let him produce a psalm, a vision, a prayer -- only let it be by the Spirit, in an ecstasy, that is, in a rapture, whenever an interpretation of tongues has occurred to him; let him show to me also, that any woman of boastful tongue in his community has ever prophesied from amongst those specially holy sisters of his. Now all these signs (of spiritual gifts) are forthcoming from my side without any difficulty, and they agree, too, with the rules, and the dispensations, and the instructions of the Creator; therefore without doubt the Christ, and the Spirit, and the apostle, belong severally to my God. Here, then, is my frank avowal for any one who cares to require it. (Tertullian, c.207)[40]

There were unorthodox movements that may have engaged in glossolalia. For example, Montanus was accused (by his opponents) of ecstatic speech that some have equated to glossolalia:

He became possessed of a spirit, and suddenly began to rave in a kind of ecstatic trance, and to babble in a jargon, prophesying in a manner contrary to the custom of the Church which had been handed down by tradition from the earliest times. (Eusebius, d.c.339)[41]

Their hostility to such a practice demonstrates that the mainstream (the anti-Montanists) regarded it as false, and would never have practised it. Indeed, "after the first or perhaps the second century, there is not record of it in any Orthodox source, and it is not recorded as occurring even among the great Fathers of the Egyptian desert, who were so filled with the Spirit of God they performed numerous astonishing miracles, including raising the dead".[42]

Chrysostom regarded the whole phenomenon of 'speaking in tongues' as not only something that was not practised in his own day, but was even obscure.

This whole phenomenon [of speaking in tongues] is very obscure, but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such then as used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity hath produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more? (Chrysostom, 344-407)[43]

Augustine of Hippo regarded speaking in tongues (that is, xenoglossia) as a gift for the apostolic church alone, and argued that this was evident from the fact that his contemporaries did not see people receiving that gift in their own day.

In the earliest times, "the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues", which they had not learned, "as the Spirit gave them utterance". These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away. In the laying on of hands now, that persons may receive the Holy Ghost, do we look that they should speak with tongues? Or when he laid the hand on infants, did each one of you look to see whether they would speak with tongues, and, when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so strong-minded as to say, These have not received the Holy Ghost; for, had they received, they would speak with tongues as was the case in those times? If then the witness of the presence of the Holy Ghost be not given through these miracles, by what is it given, by what does one get to know that he has received the Holy Ghost? Let him question his own heart. If he love his brother, the Spirit of God dwelleth in him. (Augustine of Hippo, 354-430)[44]

A.D. 400 to 1900

  • 400s St. Patrick of Ireland (c. 387–493) in his "Confessio" called "The Confession of St. Patrick," records hearing a strange language being prayed by the Holy Spirit in a dream"

St. Patrick says in his book: "And another night– God knows, I do not, whether within me or beside me– most words which I heard and could not understand, except at the end of the speech it was represented thus: 'He who gave his life for you, he it is who speaks within you.' And thus I awoke, joyful."[45] (Compare this to what Saint Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:4.).[25]

'And on a second occasion I saw Him praying within me, and I was as it were, inside my own body, and I heard Him above me—that is, above my inner self. He was praying powerfully with sighs. And in the course of this I was astonished and wondering, and I pondered who it could be who was praying within me. But at the end of the prayer it was revealed to me that it was the Spirit. And so I awoke and remembered the Apostle's words: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we know not how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for utterance [Romans 8:26]." And again: "The Lord our advocate intercedes for us [Romans 8:27]."[45] Some Charismatic Christians consider this a dream concerning the experience of speaking in tongues.[25]

  • 1100s– Bernard of Clairvaux, commenting on Mark 16:17 ("they will speak in new tongues"), asked: "For who is there that seems to have these signs of the faith, without which no one, according to this Scripture, shall be saved?"[46] He explained that these signs were no longer present because there were greater miracles– the transformed lives of believers.
  • 1100s– Hildegard of Bingen is reputed to have spoken and sung in tongues. Her spiritual songs were referred to by contemporaries as "concerts in the Spirit."
  • 1265– Thomas Aquinas wrote about the gift of tongues in the New Testament, which he understood to be an ability to speak every language, given for the purposes of missionary work. He explained that Christ did not have this gift because his mission was to the Jews, "nor does each one of the faithful now speak save in one tongue"; for "no one speaks in the tongues of all nations, because the Church herself already speaks the languages of all nations".[47]
  • 1300s– The Moravians are referred to by detractors as having spoken in tongues. John Roche, a contemporary critic, claimed that the Moravians "commonly broke into some disconnected Jargon, which they often passed upon the vulgar, 'as the exuberant and resistless Evacuations of the Spirit'".[48]
  • 1600s– The French Prophets: The Camisards also spoke sometimes in languages that were unknown: "Several persons of both Sexes," James Du Bois of Montpellier recalled, "I have heard in their Extasies pronounce certain words, which seem'd to the Standers-by, to be some Foreign Language." These utterances were sometimes accompanied by the gift of interpretation exercised, in Du Bois' experience, by the same person who had spoken in tongues.[49][50]
  • 1600s– Early Quakers, such as Edward Burrough, make mention of tongues speaking in their meetings: "We spoke with new tongues, as the Lord gave us utterance, and His Spirit led us".[51]
  • 1817– In Germany, Gustav von Below, an aristocratic officer of the Prussian Guard, and his brothers, founded a charismatic movement based on their estates in Pomerania, which may have included speaking in tongues.
  • 1800s– Edward Irving and the Catholic Apostolic Church. Edward Irving, a minister in the Church of Scotland, writes of a woman who would "speak at great length, and with superhuman strength, in an unknown tongue, to the great astonishment of all who heard, and to her own great edification and enjoyment in God".[52] Irving further stated that "tongues are a great instrument for personal edification, however mysterious it may seem to us."[cite this quote]
  • 1800s– The history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as Mormon Church, contains extensive references to the phenomenon of speaking in tongues by Brigham Young, Joseph Smith and many others.[53][54] Sidney Rigdon will have disagreements with Alexander Campbell regarding speaking in tongues, and latter joins the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Latter Day Saints embrace speaking in Tongues and the Interpretation of tongues. At the 1836 dedication of the Kirtland Temple the dedicatory prayer asks that God grant them the gift of tongues and at the end of the service Brigham Young speaks in tongues, another elder interprets it and then gives his own exhortation in tongues. Many other worship experiences in the Kirtland Temple prior to and after the dedication included references to people speaking and interpreting tongues. In describing the beliefs of the church in the Wentworth letter, Joseph Smith will identify a belief of the "gift of tongues" and "interpretation of tongues".

1901 to 1906

The modern Pentecostal Christian practice of glossolalia is often said to have originated around the beginning of the twentieth century in the United States. The city of Topeka, Kansas is often cited as the center of the Pentecostal movement and the resurgence of glossolalia in the Church. Charles Fox Parham, a holiness preacher and founder of Bethel Bible College in 1900, is given credit for being the one who influenced modern Pentecostalism. During what has been called a sermon by Parham, a bold student named Agnes Ozman asked him for prayer and the laying on of hands to specifically ask God to fill her with the Holy Spirit. This was the night of New Year's Eve, 1900. She became the first of many students to experience glossolalia, coincidentally in the first hours of the twentieth century. Parham followed within the next few days, and before the end of January 1901, glossolalia was being discussed in newspapers as a sign of the second advent of Pentecost.

Parham now found himself as the leader of the movement and traveled to church meetings around the country to preach [in the terminology of that era] about holiness, divine healing, healing by faith, the laying on of hands and prayer, sanctification by faith, and the signs of baptism of the Holy Ghost and Fire, the most prominent being speaking in tongues.[55][56][57]

Word of the outpouring of the Spirit spread to other Holiness congregations. Parham wrote, studied, traveled, preached, and taught about glossolalia for the next few years. Parham and others who believed in or manifested tongues were persecuted from both inside and outside of the church. In 1905, he opened a Bible school in Houston. It was there that William J. Seymour became indoctrinated. It is notable that Seymour was black, and Parham was white. It is further notable that Seymour did not speak in tongues while in Houston.

When Seymour was invited to speak in Los Angeles about the baptism of the Holy Spirit in February 1906, he accepted. His first speaking engagement was met with dispute, primarily because he preached about "tongues" being a primary indication of the baptism of the Spirit, yet he did not himself speak in tongues. It was not until April that his preaching and teaching about glossolalia paid dividends, first to a man named Edward Lee, and later to Seymour. Similar to the experience of Parham in 1901, Seymour's students received the ability to speak in tongues a few days before he did.

Headline about the "Weird babel of tongues" and other behavior at Azusa Street, from a 1906 Los Angeles Times newspaper.

By May 1906, indeed only one month after the Great San Francisco Earthquake which was seen as an "act of God", Seymour was leading a major movement of the Spirit known as the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. It has been characterized as an inter-denominational, inter-racial, inter-sex Pentecostal revival during a time in the United States in which women and non-whites were not afforded the same civil rights as white men. People from many denominations and races gathered daily to see and hear, to preach and pray, to sing and shout, and to speak in new tongues. Newspapers, clearly biased against the movement, reported the happenings as a wild and weird group of mostly "colored" people acting as if they were pretty disturbed, exhibiting behavior unheard of in most Protestant churches of the time: intense shouting, vigorous jerking, dancing, passing out, crying, howling, emotional outbursts, and speaking gibberish. Many religious leaders in Los Angeles and other places were quick to disparage the goings on at Azusa Street, informing their flocks that the new Pentecostal movement was (at worst) sensational, Satanic, Spiritualism, and (at best) too overly focused on the Holy Spirit instead of Jesus Christ. The matter of glossolalia was then (as it is now) hotly debated within the Church as being either heresy or exemplary and necessary for a spiritual rebirth in Jesus Christ.

Witnesses at the Azusa Street Revival wrote of seeing fire resting on the heads of participants, miraculous healings in the meetings, and incidents of speaking in tongues being understood by native speakers of the language. According to the first issue of William Seymore's newsletter, "The Apostolic Faith," from 1906:

A Mohammedan, a Soudanese by birth, a [m]an who is an interpreter and speaks six[t]een languages, came into the meetings at Azusa Street and the Lord gave him messages which none but himself could understand. He identified, interpreted and wrote [a] number of the languages.[58]

Parham and his early followers believed that speaking in tongues was xenoglossia, and some followers traveled to foreign countries and tried to use the gift to share the Gospel with non-English-speaking people. These attempts consistently resulted in failure and many of Parham's followers rejected his teachings after being disillusioned with their attempts to speak unlearned foreign languages. Despite these setbacks, belief in xenoglossia persisted into the latter half of the twentieth century among Pentecostal groups.[59]

1906 to present

The revival at Azusa Street lasted until around 1915. But from it grew many new Protestant splinter groups and denominations, as people visited the services in Los Angeles and took their new found beliefs to communities around the US and abroad. Many denominations rejected the doctrines of Parham and Seymour, while some denominations adopted them in one form or another. Baptism of the Holy Spirit was a doctrine that was embraced by the Assemblies of God (est. 1914) and Pentecostal Church of God (est. 1919) and others. Glossolalia became entrenched into the doctrines of many Protestant sects and denominations in the twentieth century. The later Charismatic movement was heavily influenced by the Azusa Street Revival and Pentecostalism's glossolalia.

Some Christians practice glossolalia as a part of their private devotions; some accept and sometimes promote the use of glossolalia within corporate worship. This is particularly true within the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions. Both Pentecostals and Charismatics believe that the ability to speak in tongues, and sometimes the utterance itself, is a supernatural gift from God.

On singing in the Spirit, Donald Hustad describes a pattern observed in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches in which, during worship, someone begins to utter musical sounds, which may or may not have recognizable words. Other members of the congregation join in and, although there is no particular effort to match the pitch or the words, the overall effect is harmonious. "It is as if the strings of a huge Aeolian harp have been set in motion by the wind of the Holy Spirit. The strangely-beautiful sound rises in volume, lasts for a longer or shorter period, and then gradually dies away."[60]

Three different manifestations or forms of glossolalia can be identified in Charismatic / Pentecostal belief. The "sign of tongues" refers to xenoglossia, wherein one speaks a foreign language he has never learned. The "gift of tongues" or "giving a tongue" refers to a glossolalic utterance by an individual and addressed to a congregation of, typically, other believers. This utterance is believed to be inspired directly by the Holy Spirit and requires a natural language interpretation, made by the speaker or another person if it is to be understood by others present. Lastly "praying in the spirit" is typically used to refer to glossolalia as part of personal prayer.

The discussion regarding tongues has permeated many branches of the Protestantism, particularly since the widespread Charismatic Movement in the 1960s. Many books have been published either defending[61] or attacking[62] the practice. The issue has sometimes been a contributing factor in splits within local churches and in larger denominations. The controversy over tongues is part of the wider debate between conservative, evangelical Christians whose approach to the Christian Scriptures requires addressing the texts that endorse glossolalia. Within that debate are continuationists who believe that glossolalia has a role to play in contemporary Christian practice and cessationalists and dispensationalists who believe that all miraculous gifts, including glossolalia, were featured only in the time of the early Church.

Non-Christian practice

Other religious groups been observed to practice some form of theopneustic glossolalia. It is perhaps most commonly in Paganism, Shamanism, and other mediumistic religious practices.[63] In Japan, the God Light Association used to practice glossolalia to cause adherents to recall past lives.[64]

Glossolalia has even been postulated as an explanation for the Voynich manuscript.[65]

There are some[who?] who consider the following in Judaism to be some form of glossolalia:

Various rituals and references exist about prayer of people not familiar with the holy language, and the importance of prayers said by people who only know how to mumble the words without understanding them. In the 17th century it was said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov upon hearing the prayer of someone who instead of praising God who blesses the years (HaShanim) praised God who blesses the women (HaNashim). He said that this person's prayers are the highest and holiest. The texts to be recited during the Shavuot celebrations (original ceremony of Pentecost) must be read in the original Hebrew directly from the Bible, even if the person reading it does not understand the meaning.[66]

Certain Gnostic magical texts from the Roman period have written on them unintelligible syllables such as "t t t t n n n n d d d d d..." etc. It is conjectured that these may be transliterations of the sorts of sounds made during glossolalia. The Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians also features a hymn of (mostly) unintelligible syllables which is thought to be an early example of Christian glossolalia.

In the nineteenth century, Spiritism was developed by the work of Allan Kardec, and the phenomenon was seen as one of the self-evident manifestations of spirits. Spiritists argued that some cases were actually cases of xenoglossia (from Greek,xenos, stranger; and glossa, language. When one speaks in a language unknown to him).

Glossolalia has also been observed in the Voodoo religion of Haiti,[67] as well as in the Hindu Gurus and Fakirs of India.[68][69]

See also


  1. Mark 16:17 in Wyclif's Bible
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed, 1989
  3. Samarin, William J. (1972). Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan. OCLC 308527. 
  4. Samarin, William J. (1972). Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan. p. 120. OCLC 308527. 
  5. Samarin, William J. (1972). "Sociolinguistic vs. Neurophysiological Explanations for Glossolalia: Comment on Goodman’s Paper". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 11 (3): 293–296. doi:10.2307/1384556. 
  6. Goodman, Felicitas D. (1969). "Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in Four Cultural Settings". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 8 (2): 227–235. doi:10.2307/1384336. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Samarin, William J. (1972). Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan. p. 128. OCLC 308527. 
  8. Samarin, William J. (1972). Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan. p. 2. OCLC 308527. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Goodman, Felicitas D. (1972). Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study in Glossolalia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-30324-6. OCLC 393056. 
  10. Newberg, Andrew B.; Wintering, Nancy A.; Morgan, Donna; Waldman, Mark R. (1 May 2006). "Cerebral blood flow during the complex vocalization task of glossolalia". The Journal of Nuclear Medicine Meeting Abstracts 47 (Supplement 1): 316P. Retrieved 9 January 2009. 
  11. Carey, Benedict (7 November 2006). "A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 January 2009. 
  12. Newberg, ndrew B.; Wintering, Nancy A.; Morgan, Donna; Waldman, Mark R. (22 November 2006). "The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during glossolalia: A preliminary SPECT study". Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 148 (1): 67–71. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2006.07.001. Retrieved 9 January 2009. 
  13. Jones, Timothy Arthur (November 1981). Electroencephalographic Correlates Of Glossolalic Christian Prayer. OCLC 41680497. 
  14. Cutten, George Barton (1927). Speaking with Tongues Historically and Psychologically Considered. Yale University Press. OCLC 674422. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Hine, Virginia H. (1969). "Pentecostal Glossolalia toward a Functional Interpretation". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 8 (2): 211–226. doi:10.2307/1384335. 
  16. Francis L.J. and Robbins M. (May 2003). "Personality and Glossolalia: A Study Among Male Evangelical Clergy". Pastoral Psychology 51 (5): 391–396. doi:10.1023/A:1023618715407. 
  17. Spanos, Nicholas P.; Hewitt, Erin C. (August 1979). "Glossolalia: 'A test of the 'trance' and psychopathology hypotheses". Journal of Abnormal Psychology 88 (4): 427–434. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.88.4.427. 
  18. 18.0 18.1 Kavan, Heather (2004). "Glossolalia and Altered States of Consciousness in two New Zealand Religious Movements". Journal of Contemporary Religion 19 (2): 171–184. doi:10.1080/1353790042000207692. 
  19. Samarin, William J. (1972). Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan. p. 73. OCLC 308527. 
  20. Spanos, Nicholas P.; Cross, Wendy P.; Lepage, Mark; Coristine, Marjorie (February 1986). "Glossolalia as learned behavior: An experimental demonstration". Journal of Abnormal Psychology 95 (1): 21–23. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.95.1.21. PMID 3700843. 
  21. Kildahl, John; Paul Qualben (1971). Glossolalia and Mental Health: Final Progress Report. National Institute of Mental Health. OCLC 5136439. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 Grudem, Wayne A. (1994). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press. p. 1070. ISBN 978-0-85110-652-6. OCLC 29952151. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 General Presbytery of the Assemblies of God (11 August 2000). "The Baptism in the Holy Spirit: The Initial Experience and Continuing Evidences of the Spirit-Filled Life". General Council of the Assemblies of God of the United States. Retrieved 9 June 2009. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 Grudem, Wayne A. (1994). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press. p. 1072. ISBN 978-0-85110-652-6. OCLC 29952151. 
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 Personal Interview with Deborah Cox. Professor of Writing about the Bible as Literature. 4 May 2009. Lonestar College Library. Conroe, Texas, 77384[verification needed]
  26. 26.0 26.1 Assemblies of God (1961). "Statement of Fundamental Truths". General Council of the Assemblies of God of the United States. Retrieved 9 June 2009. 
  27. Grudem, Wayne A. (1994). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press. p. 1073. ISBN 978-0-85110-652-6. OCLC 29952151. 
  28. Masters, Peter; John C. Whitcomb (1988). The Charismatic Phenomenon. London: Wakeman Trust. p. 49. ISBN 978-1-870855-01-3. OCLC 20720229. 
  29. Johns, Donald A. (1988). Stanley M. Burgess, Gary B. McGee and Patrick H. Alexander. ed. Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. p. 788. ISBN 978-0-310-44100-7. OCLC 18496801.  Cited by Riss, Richard M. (28 July 1995). "Singing in the Spirit in the Holiness, Pentecostal, Latter Rain, and Charismatic Movements". Retrieved 9 June 2009. 
  30. Alford, Delton L. (1988). Stanley M. Burgess, Gary B. McGee and Patrick H. Alexander. ed. Dictionary of Pentecostal and charismatic movements. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. p. 690. ISBN 978-0-310-44100-7. OCLC 18496801.  Cited by Riss, Richard M. (28 July 1995). "Singing in the Spirit in the Holiness, Pentecostal, Latter Rain, and Charismatic Movements". Retrieved 9 June 2009. 
  31. "Questions about Tongues". General Council of the Assemblies of God of the United States. 2009. Retrieved 10 June 2009. 
  32. Grudem, Wayne A. (1994). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press. p. 1075. ISBN 978-0-85110-652-6. OCLC 29952151. 
  33. Masters, Peter; John C. Whitcomb (1988). The Charismatic Phenomenon. London: Wakeman Trust. p. 106. ISBN 978-1-870855-01-3. OCLC 20720229. 
  34. Warfield, Benjamin B. (1918). Counterfeit Miracles. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 10. OCLC 3977281. "The writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers contain no clear and certain allusions to miracle working or to the exercise of the charismatic gifts, contemporaneously with themselves." 
  35. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 82.
  36. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 88.
  37. Novatian, Treatise Concerning the Trinity, Chapter 29.
  38. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Vol 8 Chap 33
  39. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter VI.
  40. Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book V, Chapter VIII, [1].
  41. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V,17,3
  42. Fr. Seraphim Rose, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, p.125.
  43. Chrystostom, Homilies on First Corinthians, xxix, 1
  44. Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John 6:10, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [7:497-98]
  45. 45.0 45.1 Saint Patrick. Confessio, sections 24 and 25
  46. Bernard, Serm. i. de Ascens., 2
  47. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 176.
  48. Burgess, Stanley M. (1991). "Medieval and Modern Western Churches". in Gary B. McGee. Initial evidence: historical and biblical perspectives on the Pentecostal doctrine of spirit baptism. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-943575-41-4. OCLC 24380326. 
  49. Lacy, John (1707). A Cry from the Desert. p. 32. OCLC 81008302. 
  50. Hamilton, Michael Pollock (1975). The charismatic movement. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-8028-3453-9. OCLC 1008209. 
  51. Burrough, Edward (1831) [1659]. "Epistle to the Reader" in Fox, George. The great mystery of the great whore unfolded; and Antichrist's kingdom revealed unto destruction. The Works of George Fox. 3. p. 13. OCLC 12877488.
  52. Irving, Edward (January 1832). "Facts Connected With Recent Manifestations of Spiritual Gifts". Fraser's Magazine 4 (24): 754–761. Retrieved 9 June 2009. 
  53.[unreliable source?]
  54.[unreliable source?]
  55. The Apostolic Faith, Volume 2, No. 3, 1 January 1900.
  56. Our History
  57. God's Generals | Christian History
  58. Square brackets indicate faded parts that are no longer readable.
  60. Donald Hustad, "The Historical Roots of Music in the Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal Movements", The Hymn: A Journal Of Congregational Song 38 (January 1987), p7. Cited by Richard M. Riss in "Singing in the Spirit in the Holiness, Pentecostal, Latter Rain, and Charismatic Movements", paper delivered at a conference sponsored by the North American Renewal Service Committee, Orlando, 28 July 1995.
  61. Example: Christenson, Laurence, Speaking in tongues : and its significance for the church, Minneapolis, MN : Dimension Books, 1968.
  62. Example: Gromacki, Robert Glenn, The modern tongues movement, Nutley, N.J. : Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973, ISBN 0875523048 (Originally published 1967)
  63. Fr. Seraphim Rose: Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, St Herman Press
  65. Gerry Kennedy, Rob Churchill (2004). The Voynich Manuscript. London: Orion. ISBN 0-7528-5996-X. 
  66. Bikurim in Hebrew only Daf Hayomi outline
  67. Tongue Speaking
  68. Sri Sri Anandamoyi Ma's Spiritual Heritage
  69. Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future

Further reading

External links