Glossolalia – derived from two New Testament Greek words: γλῶσσα ‘glossa’ meaning “tongue” or “language” and λαλέω ‘lalien’, “talking”, is the most neglected of all languages, not least as, to all intents and purposes, it’s completely unique every time it rears its head. Most usually associated with ecstatic outbursts from fevered Christians speaking the language of angels, it actually features in several other religions and shamanic rituals. It differs from xenoglossy which is the phenomenon of fluently speaking a language you have not previously learned – claimed by both spiritualists and those suffering from head injuries to be ‘a thing’, science has not yet managed to verify any examples as anything but gibberish. Which brings us nicely back to speaking in tongues.
The earliest accounts of glossolalia are found in Ancient texts, not just Christianity but also Greco-Roman. The Greek philosopher, Herodotus, wrote about a priest who, in a fit of ecstacy, spoke ‘in a Barbarian language’; in Virgil‘s ‘Aeneid’, a possessed individual is described as speaking in an alien language. The mystic, Alexander of Abonoteichus, was said to speak in tongues whilst delivering his prophecies…though given he was rumbled for starting a cult with a human head sewn onto a snake, he is not the best advert for this skill.
In Ancient Egypt, necromancers cast spells using unfamiliar words and senseless noises, believed to be the voices of deities flowing through them, while mummies have been found with gold-plated tongues, giving the dead the ability to speak directly to the god, Osiris. Examples appear in texts from ancient India and China, with a reference made in texts describing a priest in the Han dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD). The Hebrew Bible references ecstatic speech in the books of Samuel and Kings and in particular, the Testament of Job 46–48, wherein Job gives his three daughters three multicoloured cords from heaven as their inheritance. When they put on the cords, they begin speaking ecstatically, praising God in the languages of the angels, archons, and cherubs respectively.
It is in the Christian Bible, specifically the New Testament, where speaking in tongues is described in more detail and context. There are five places in the New Testament where speaking in tongues is referred to explicitly:
Mark 16:17 (though this is a disputed text), 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.
Acts 2, which describes an occurrence of Jesus’ followers speaking in tongues in Jerusalem at Pentecost.
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.“
Acts 10:46, when the household of Cornelius in Caesarea spoke in tongues, and those present compared it to the speaking in tongues that occurred at Pentecost. The Apostle Paul declared it, “a spiritual gift“.
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. It is implied that converting to Christianity or a reaffirmation of their commitment to the church is a key driver of glossolalia.
1 Cor 12, 13, 14, where Paul discusses “those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them…” as part of his wider discussion of the gifts of the Spirit. Paul also mentions ‘Singing in spirit’, an even more exciting off-shoot – singing in tongues! Although referencing ‘tongues’ regularly, Paul stops short of suggesting it is a means to communicating with each other meaningfully and therefore is not always a sign of wisdom.
Other verses by inference may be considered to refer to “speaking in tongues”, such as Isaiah 28:11, Romans 8:26 and Jude 20. Interestingly, Jesus is never said to have spoken in tongues, indeed quite the opposite:
“When you pray, do not go babbling like the pagans,”
Cessationists – that is to say, most Christians, rejected the more supernatural elements of the Bible at an early stage (as early as the first century), though inevitably, pockets of believers went along with all of it, or even more regularly, those bits which appealed to them.
It was some time before glossolalia reappeared in accounts of any kind. The Camisards, a sect of Huguenots in the 17th Century, were scattered across Southern France as a result of Protestantism being banned by King Louis XIV. The opposition to their faith no doubt galvanised them yet further, accentuating their beliefs and driving them to extremes in their devotion. Pastors ordained prophets whose visions were used as the basis for battle plans. In the midst of their fevered chanting, unknown words were said to come from their lips.
However, those unknown words were quite possibly simply French. The Camisards were an uneducated bunch and spoke only their native tongue – not French but Occitan, a language not unlike Catalan. The rumblings of this new activity were enough for Pope Benedict the XIV to declare that the gift of prophecy was immensely greater than that of speaking in unknown languages.
It was a Scotsman who truly embraced speaking in tongues. Born in 1792, Edward Irving was a minister who, like many of the age, felt the end of days was nigh. This, he understood, would bring forth the mysteries of the heavens, a circus of supernatural events as the holy spirit wandered amongst us. These included ‘speaking in unknown tongues’. Irving was quite the showman. His followers in Scotland numbered in the tens of thousands, and when he relocated to London, tickets had to be issued to attend his sermons at the Caledonian Asylum chapel, such was the demand.
Irving’s prophecies and theatrical performances attracted equal amounts of opposition, perhaps only forcing him to greater acts of aggrandisement. By the 1830s, he was inviting followers speaking in tongues onto the stage, the word of the apostles being key to his teachings. Irving did little to explain the phenomena, he merely requested that people draw their own conclusions, though this was merely another way to draw attention to the fact that he was but the messenger, not the Messiah. The tremendously-named Archibald Mackerrell even attempted to document some of the new words he heard tumbling out of the mouths of the flock:
“The words of the tongue as written down by me are widely scattered, none in the order they were spoken, except those marked within “ ”; and they are as follows:
“Forime Ooring Hoopo Tanto Noostin”——
Sastinootino——Alinoosis——“O Fastos Sungor O Fastos Sungor”
Irving’s friend, Thomas Carlyle (himself a friend of Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Alfred Tennyson), was also witness to these extraordinary outbursts, though wasn’t quite on board with the whole thing:
“A madwoman burst forth a shrieky hysterical, “Lah lall lall !” (little or nothing else but l’s and a’s continued for several minutes), to which Irving, with singular calmness, said only “There, hear you, there are the Tongues !” And we too, except by our looks which probably were eloquent, answered him nothing, but soon came away, full of distress, provocation, and a kind of shame. “Why was there not a bucket of cold water to fling on the lahlalling hysterical madwoman ?” thought we, or said to one another. “Oh, heaven, that it should come to this!”
The Church wasn’t impressed and repeatedly tried to defrock Irving, though they needn’t have put so much effort into it, as he died from tuberculosis in 1834. Across the ocean, the Mormons took up the challenge and regularly spoke in tongues at their gathering, declaring the sounds to be “the language of Adam”. The invitation to receive the Holy Ghost is referenced in the seventh Article of Faith:
“We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.”
Considered a sign of true believers, it marked the true birth of continuationism (as opposed to cessationism). At the 1836 dedication of the Kirtland Temple, the dedicatory prayer asked that God grant them the gift of tongues and at the end of the service, church founder Brigham Young spoke in tongues, another elder interpreted it and then gave his own exhortation in tongues. Not long after this, Young decreed that it might be best if people didn’t speak in tongues in public if they could help it. Glossolalia looked like it once more may take a backseat but this was far from the case. Enter, Pentacostalism.
Pentecostalists and Charismatics took Paul’s examples of speaking in tongues and ran with it. The devout believed in Paul’s advocacy of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, “various kinds of tongues”, and interpretation of tongues as tenets to live by. The Azusa Street Revival was a historic series of revival meetings that took place in Los Angeles, California leading to the birth of the global pentacostal movement. It was led by William J. Seymour, an African-American preacher. In 1906, it was reported that Seymour and seven other men were knocked to the floor as if by a bolt of lightning and immediately began to speak in tongues. As people gathered around to see what was happening, they too were overcome by an invisible force – some were even healed of their ills.
“They shouted three days and three nights. It was Easter season. The people came from everywhere. By the next morning there was no way of getting near the house. As people came in they would fall under God’s power; and the whole city was stirred. They shouted until the foundation of the house gave way, but no one was hurt.”
A derelict flat-roofed building was commandeered for future gatherings, at which those attending would declare astonishing miracles which they had witnessed, working themselves up into extraordinary states of excitement. The services would go on for pretty much 24 hours, with bursts of bellowed song without musical accompaniment which often turned into glossolalia and writhing upon the floor. The outrageous scenes were quickly latched onto by racists who in their politest moments referred to the throng as “Holy Rollers”, “Holy Jumpers”, “Tangled Tonguers” and “Holy Ghosters”.
Not unlike Velvet Underground audiences, comparatively few may have attended, but witnesses to the events at Azusa Street went off to spread the word and, in a manner of speaking, form their own bands. Linking them all were the words of the Pentecost, and over the course of the next 100 years they grew…there are now 500 million Pentecostal and charismatic believers across the globe
Pentecosts believe in ‘praying in spirit’ and ‘the gift of tongues’ both of which unequivocally celebrate speaking in tongues. The language is not one that is learned but is the sound of the spirit moving through them. Those who can interpret the sounds are able to translate for the congregation.
Half a billion people in the world we now live in speak in tongues or at least accept that being able to do so is a sign that God is within the person doing it. Forime Ooring Hoopo Tanto Noostin, indeed.