1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tongues, Gift of

TONGUES, GIFT OF, or Glossolalia (γλώσσα, tongue, λαλείν, speak), 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. In the New Testament such experiences are recorded in Caesarea (Acts x. 46), at Corinth (Acts xix. 6; 1 Cor. xii., xiv.), Thessalonica (1 Thess. v. 19), Ephesus (Eph. v. 18), and universally (Mark xvi. 17). From the epistles of Paul, who thanked God that he spake with tongues more than all or any of his Corinthian converts, we can gather a just idea of how he regarded this gift and of what it really was.

Firstly, then, it was a grace (charisma) of the spirit, yet not of the holy or pure spirit only, but of evil spirits also who on occasions had been known to take possession of the larynx of a saint and exclaim, " Jesus is Anathema." As no one could curse Jesus except under the influence of a devilish afflatus, so none could say " Jesus is Lord " except he was inspired by the Holy Spirit. But, secondly, the pneumatic utterances techni- cally known as speaking with tongues failed to reach this level of intelligibility; for Paul compares " a tongue " to a material object which should merely make a noise, to a pipe or harp twanged or blown at random without tune or time, to a trumpet blaring idly and not according to a code of signal notes. Unless, therefore, he that has the gift of tongues also possess the gift of interpreting his exclamations, or unless some one present can do so for him, he had not better exercise it in church. He is a barbarian to others and they to him, since they cannot under- stand what is spoken by him. 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 prophesy, 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 " that 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 by the bystanders accused of being drunk (Acts ii. 15). In the church meeting, says Paul, " I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue."

The writer of Acts ii., anxious to prove that Providence from the first included the Gentiles in the Messianic Kingdom, assumes that the gift of tongues was a miraculous faculty of talking strange, languages without having previously learned them. Augustine accordingly held that each of the disciples talked all languages miraculously; Chrysostom that each talked one other than his own. The Pentecostal inspiration has been construed as a providential antithesis to the confusion of tongues — an idea which Grotius expressed in the words: " Poena linguarum dispersit homines; donum linguarum dispersos in unum populum collegit." Competent critics to-day recognize that such a view is impossible; and it has been suggested with much probability that in the second chapter of Acts the words in v. 5: " Now there were dwelling . . . under heaven " as well as vv. 6-1 1 : " because that every man . . . mighty works of God " were interpolated by Luke in the document he transcribed.[1] The faithful talking with tongues were taken by bystanders for drunken men, but intoxicated men do not talk in languages of which they are normally ignorant.[2]

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 the 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 Cor. xiv. 23). He would not, however, entirely forbid and quench it (1 Thess. v. 19), so long as decency and order were 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[3] 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, roaming about cities or camps. They were wont to cry out, each of himself, "I am God; I am the Son of God; or I am the divine Spirit." They would indulge in prophecies of the last judgment, and back their threats with a string of strange, half-frantic and utterly unmeaning sounds, the sense of which no one with any intelligence could discover; for they were obscure gibberish, and merely furnished any fool or impostor with an occasion to twist the utterances as he chose to his own purposes.

In the above we get a glimpse both of the glossalist and of his interpreter as they appeared to the outside world; and the impression made on them is not unlike that which Paul appre- hended would be left on outsiders by an indiscriminate use of the gift. Tertullian early 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, cap. ix.: " 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 see mysteries'." The magical papyri teem with strings of senseless and 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 μάντις (soothsayer). "God," he writes, " has given the art of divination not to the wisdom, but to the foolishness of man; for no man, when in his wits, attains prophetic truth and inspiration; but when he receives the inspired word either his intelligence is enthralled by sleep, or he is demented by some distemper or possession. And he who would understand what he remembers to have been said, whether in a dream or when he was awake, by the prophetic and enthusiastic nature, or what he has seen, must first recover his wits; and then he will be able to explain rationally what all such words and apparitions mean, and what indications they afford to this man or that, of past, present or future good and evil. ' But, while he continues demented, he cannot judge of the visions which he sees or the words which he utters. . . . And for this reason it is customary to appoint diviners or interpreters to be judges of the true inspiration." 1 From such passages as the above we infer that the gift of tongues and of their inter- pretation was not peculiar to the Christian Church, but was a repetition in it of a phase common in ancient religions. The very phrase 7Xa)<7ffcus XaXelv, " to speak with tongues," was not invented by the New Testament writers, but borrowed from ordinary speech.

Virgil (Aen. vi. 46, 98) draws a life-like picture of the ancient prophetess " speaking with tongues." He depicts her quick changes of 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: " nee 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.

Oracular possession of the kind above described is also common among savages and people of lower culture; and Dr Tylor, in his Primitive Culture, ii. 14, gives examples of ecstatic utterance interpreted by the sane. Thus in the Sandwich Islands the god Oro gave his oracles through a priest who " ceased to act or speak as 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 indis- tinct, 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. ii.

  1. This misunderstanding of Acts ii. has influenced the official Roman doctrine of demoniacal possession. The Sacerdotale indicates as one of the symptoms of possession the ability of the possessed to talk other tongues than his own. Cf. the Fustis daemonum, cap. xi. Venetus (1606): " Aligui sermonem alienum a patria sua loguuntur etsi nunquam e laribus paternis recesserint."
  2. It is noteworthy that in Eph. v. 18 Paul contrasts the being filled with the Spirit with the foolishness of intoxication with wine, and remarks that those filled with the Spirit speak to themselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and give thanks always for all things.
  3. Origen, Contra Celsum, vii. 9.