"Gift of Tongues"

Encyclopaedia Britannica

TONGUES, GIFT OF - A faculty of abnormal and inarticulate vocal utterance, under stress of religious excitement, which was widely developed in the early Christian circles, and has its parallels in other religions. It is also called Glossolalia (Gr.: = tongue, = speak). In the New Testament such experiences are recorded in Caesarea (ACTS 10:46), at Corinth (ACTS 19:6; 1 CORINTHIANS 12,14), Thessalonica (1 THESSALONIANS 5:19), Ephesus (EPHESIANS 5:18), and universally (MARK 16:17). From the epistles of Paul, who thanked God that he spoke with tongues more than all or any of his Corinthian converts, we can gather a just idea of how he regarded this gift and what it really was.

Paul discriminates between the Spirit which during these paroxysms both talks and prays to God and the 'nous' or understanding which informs a believer's psalm, teaching, revelation or prophecy, and renders them intelligible, edifying and profitable to the assembly. Accordingly, Paul lays down rules which he regarded as embodying the Lord's commandment. A man "who speaketh in a tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God; for no man understandeth"; and therefore it is expedient that he keep this gift for his private chamber and there pour out the mysteries. In church it is best that he should confine himself to prophesying, for that brings to others "edification and comfort and consolation". If, however, tongues must be heard in the public assembly, then let not more than three of the saints exhibit the gift, and they only in succession. Nor let them exhibit it at all, unless there is some one present who can interpret the tongues and tell the meeting what it all means. If the whole congregation be talking with tongues all at once, and an unbeliever or one with no experience of pneumatic gifts come in, what will he think, asks Paul - surely that "you are mad". So at Pentecost, on the occasion of the first outpouring of the Spirit, the saints were accused by the bystanders of being drunk (ACTS 2:15). In the church meeting, says Paul, "...I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue."

Paul on the whole discouraged glossolaly. "Desire earnestly the greater gifts," he wrote to the Corinthians. The gift of tongues was suitable rather to children in faith than to the mature. Tongues were, he felt, to cease whenever the perfect should come; and the believer who spoke with the tongues of men and of angels, if he had not love, was no better than the sounding brass and clanging cymbal of the noisy heathen mysteries. It was clearly a gift productive of much disturbance in the Church (1 CORINTHIANS 14:23). He would not, however, entirely forbid and quench it (1 THESSALONIANS 5:19), so long as decency was preserved.

It is not then surprising that we hear little of it after the apostolic age. It faded away in the great Church, and probably Celsus was describing Montanist circles (though Origen assumed that they were ordinary believers) when he wrote (Origen Contra Celsum 7.9) of the many Christians of no repute who at the least provocation, whether within or without their temples, threw themselves about like inspired persons; while others did the same in cities or among armies in order to collect alms.

Tertullian in the 3rd century testifies that glossolaly still went on in the Montanist Church which he had joined; for we must so interpret the following passage in his 'De anima', chap. 9: "There is among us at the present time a sister who is endowed with the charismatic gift of revelations, which she suffers through ecstasy in the Spirit during the Sunday service in church. She converses with angels, sometimes even with the Lord, and both hears and sees mysteries." The magical papyri teem with strings of senseless barbaric words which probably answer to what certain of the Fathers called the language of demons. It has been suggested that we here have recorded the utterances of glossolalists.

The attitude of Paul toward glossolaly among his converts strikingly resembles Plato's opinion as expressed in the Timaeus (p.72), of the enthusiastic ecstasies of the ancient soothsayer (Greek: ). The gift of tongues and of their interpretation was not peculiar to the Christian Church, but was a repetition in it of a phase common in ancient religions. The very phrase "to speak with tongues", was not invented by the New Testament writers, but borrowed from ordinary speech.

Virgil (Aen.6.46,98) draws a life-like picture of the ancient prophetess "speaking with tongues". He depicts her quick changes in colour, her dishevelled hair, her panting breast, her apparent increase of stature as the god draws nigh and fills her with his divine afflatus. Then her voice loses its mortal's ring: "nec mortale sonans". The same morbid and abnormal trance utterances recur in Christian revivals in every age, e.g. among the mendicant friars of the 13th century, among the Jansenists, the early Quakers, the converts of Wesley and Whitefield, the persecuted Protestants of the Cevennes, the Irvingites, and the revivalists of Wales and America.

Oracular possession of the kind above described is also common among savages and people of lower culture; and Dr. Tylor, in his 'Primitive Culture (2.14)' gives examples of ecstatic utterances interpreted by the sane. Thus in the Sandwich Islands the god Oro gave his oracles through a priest who "ceased to act or speak a voluntary agent, but with his limbs convulsed, his features distorted and terrific, his eyes wild and strained, he would roll on the ground foaming at the mouth, and reveal the will of the god in shrill cries and sounds violent and indistinct, which the attending priests duly interpreted to the people."

See E. B. Tylor, 'Primitive Culture'; H. Weinel, 'Die Wirkungen des Geistes und der Geister' (Freiburg, 1899); Shaftesbury's 'Letter on Enthusiasm'; Mrs Oliphant, 'Life of Irving', Vol.2; G. B. Cutten, 'Speaking with Tongues, Historically and Psychologically Considered' (1927) (the most complete existing survey of the subject). See also Thouless, 'Introduction to the Psychology of Religion', chap.11.