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Glossolalia or speaking in tongues is the fluid vocalizing (or less commonly the writing) of speech-like syllables that lack any readily comprehended meaning, in some cases as part of religious practice. The significance of glossolalia has varied in context, with some adherents considering it as a part of a sacred language. It is most prominently practised within Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity but it is also practised in non-Christian religions.
"Glossolalia" is constructed from the Greek word γλωσσολαλία, itself a compound of the words γλῶσσα (glossa), meaning "tongue" or "language" and λαλέω (laleō), "to speak, talk, chat, prattle, or to make a sound". The Greek expression (in various forms) appears in the New Testament in the books of Acts and First Corinthians.
The exact phrase "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. Frederic William Farrar first used the word "glossolalia" in 1879.
In 1972, 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. His assessment was based on a large sample of glossolalia recorded in public and private Christian meetings in Italy, The Netherlands, 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 the 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 behaviour 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.
[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.
That the sounds are taken from the set of sounds already known to the speaker is confirmed by others. Felicitas Goodman, a psychological anthropologist and linguist, also found that the speech of glossolalists reflected the patterns of speech of the speaker's native language.
Samarin found that the resemblance to human language was merely on the surface and so concluded that glossolalia is "only a facade of language". He reached this conclusion because the syllable string did not form words, the stream of speech was not internally organized, 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". 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".
Practitioners of glossolalia may disagree with linguistic researchers and claim that they are speaking human languages (xenoglossia). Felicitas Goodman studied a number of Pentecostal communities in the United States, the 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 practised by the Pentecostal Protestants and the followers of other religions.
In Christianity, a supernatural explanation for glossolalia is advocated by some and rejected by others.
Proponents of each viewpoint use the biblical writings and historical arguments to support their positions.
There are five places in the New Testament where speaking in tongues is referred to explicitly:
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 other languages". It goes on to say in verses 5-11 that when the Apostles spoke, each person in attendance "heard their own language being spoken". Therefore, the gift of speaking in tongues refers to the Apostles' ability to speak in their native language while the people listening heard "them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God". 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 any in the church at Corinth ("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 speaking in tongues edifies the person speaking (1 Cor 14:4), that it is the action of a praying speaker's spirit (as opposed to 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 speaking in tongues, "unless [a speaker in tongues] interprets, so that the church may be edified" (1 Cor 14:5). Paul also gave instructions that, unless there was an interpreter present, the speaker should "keep quiet in the church", and 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).
Despite these commonalities, there are significant variations in interpretation.
20th 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 rarely been recorded by 'formal church authority' as orthodox until the rise of 'Pentecostal Church.'
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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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".
However, Eusebius' words demonstrate that he still regards the gift of prophesying as being a normal part of church life, so he is clearly not a cessationist.
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)
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)
Augustine did, however, recognise a phenomenon he called jubilation – sounds of exaltation without words; commentators such as Richard Hogue speculate that the practice of singing in the spirit persisted in Augustine's era, although xenoglossia was no longer extant among Christians:
Behold, he giveth as it were the tune of thy song; seek not words as if thou couldest explain whereby God is pleased. Sing with jubilation: for this is to sing skilfully unto God, to sing with jubilation. What is it to sing with jubilation ? To be unable to understand, to express in words, what is sung in the heart. For singers, either in the harvest, or in the vineyard, or in any other busy work, after they have begun in the words of their hymns to exult and rejoice, being as it were filled with so great joy, that they cannot express it in words, then turn from actual words, and proceed to sounds of jubilation. The jubilee is a sound signifying that the heart laboureth with that which it cannot utter. And whom beseemeth that jubilation, but the Ineffable God? For He is Ineffable, Whom thou canst not speak; and if thou canst not speak Him, and oughtest not to keep Him silent, what remaineth to thee but jubilation ; that the heart may rejoice without words, and the boundless extent of joy may have no limits of syllables? Sing skilfully unto Him with jubilation.—Augustine of Hippo on the 33 Psalm
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.
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].
During the 20th century, glossolalia would primarily become associated with Pentecostalism and the later charismatic movement. The holiness preachers Charles Parham and William Seymour are credited as co-founders of the movement. It was Parham who formulated the doctrine of "initial evidence". After studying the Bible, Parham came to the conclusion that speaking in tongues was the Bible evidence that one had received the baptism with the Holy Spirit.
In 1900, Parham opened Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas, where he taught initial evidence. During a service on 1 January 1901, a student named Agnes Ozman asked for prayer and the laying on of hands to specifically ask God to fill her with the Holy Spirit. She became the first of many students to experience glossolalia, coincidentally in the first hours of the 20th century. Parham followed within the next few days. Parham called his new movement the Apostolic Faith. In 1905, he moved to Houston and opened a Bible school there. One of his students was William Seymour, an African-American preacher. In 1906, Seymour traveled to Los Angeles where his preaching ignited the Azusa Street Revival. This revival is considered the birth of the global Pentecostal movement. 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.
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 20th century among Pentecostal groups.
The revival at Azusa Street lasted until around 1915. From it grew many new Pentecostal churches as people visited the services in Los Angeles and took their newfound beliefs to communities around the United States and abroad. During the 20th century, glossolalia became an important part of the identity of these religious groups. During the 1960s, the charismatic movement within the mainline Protestant churches and among charismatic Roman Catholics would adopt some Pentecostal beliefs, and the practice of glossolalia would spread to other Christian denominations. 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 or attacking the practice.
Because Pentecostal and charismatic beliefs are not monolithic, there is not complete theological agreement on speaking in tongues. Generally, however, it is agreed that speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift that can be manifested as either a human language or a heavenly supernatural language in three ways . The "sign of tongues" refers to xenoglossia, wherein one speaks an actual language he has never learned. The "gift of tongues" refers to a glossolalic utterance spoken by an individual and addressed to a congregation of, typically, other believers. Lastly, "praying in the spirit" is typically used to refer to glossolalia as part of personal prayer. Many Pentecostals and charismatics adhere to Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 14 which established guidelines on the public use of glossolalia in the church at Corinth.
The gift of tongues is often referred to as a "message in tongues". This use of glossolalia requires an interpretation so that the gathered congregation can understand the message. This is accomplished by the interpretation of tongues, another spiritual gift. There are two schools of thoughts concerning the nature of a message in tongues. One school of thought believes it is always directed to God as prayer, praise, or thanksgiving but is spoken in for the hearing and edification of the congregation. The other school of thought believes that a message in tongues can be a prophetic utterance inspired by the Holy Spirit. In this case, the speaker delivers a message to the congregation on behalf of God.
In addition to praying in the Spirit, many Pentecostal and charismatic churches practice what is known as singing in the Spirit.
Other religious groups have been observed to practice some form of theopneustic glossolalia. It is perhaps most commonly in Paganism, Shamanism, and other mediumistic religious practices. In Japan, the God Light Association used to practice glossolalia to cause adherents to recall past lives.
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 19th 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.
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