A Personal Encounter
by Joel Bjorling*
I was at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa,
Oklahoma, attending a Sunday evening vesper service being held in the
large rotunda of the student cafeteria. The room was full. Musicians
with guitars were leading students in spirited songs. After about a
half hour, the guitars ceased and spontaneous singing emerged from the
crowd, a few at first, then en masse. The spontaneous singing increased
to a voluminous crescendo, reaching a peak. When it stopped, a girl
began singing with the most crystal clear, ethereal, coloratura
imaginable. I had never heard this kind of singing before and asked a
fellow student what it was. She said, "They're speaking in tongues."
Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, is a major component of the
Pentecostal religious movement as well as of the omnidenominational
"charismatic movement." The word "Pentecostal" is taken from festival
of Pentecost which is found in the Old and New Testaments. In the New
Testament Book of Acts, Jesus' disciples were gathered to celebrate
Pentecost in an upper room in Jerusalem. Suddenly, there was a sound
like a "violent wind" that "filled the whole house where they were
sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and
came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy
Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them
(Acts 2: 1-4, New English Version)."
Curiously, the practice of speaking in tongues virtually vanished from
the church until the dawn of the twentieth century. The reason for the
"silence" of tongues is a matter of conjecture, of metaphysical or
theological speculation. It was rumored that Martin Luther spoke in
tongues, but that reference is likely spurious. Tongues does not seem
to be a part of the Reformation. In 1831, Henry Irving was minister of
the Regents Square Presbyterian Church in London. He preached about the
restoration of spiritual gifts in the modern church, and tongues and
prophecies were said to be manifest in his church. However, the major
thrust of Pentecostalism occurred in the United States in Topeka,
Kansas when followers of Charles Parnham "waited" for the Spirit in
1901. Parnham was a former Methodist minister who left the church to
become an itinerant holiness preacher.
Speaking in tongues is linked with a spiritual experience called "the
baptism of the Holy Spirit." Pentecostals believe that it is a "second
experience of grace" which gives the faithful power for Christian
living. The concept of a "second experience" came from John Wesley, the
founder of Methodism, teaching on "sanctification." It was called
"entire sanctification," "perfect love," "Christian perfection," or
"heart purity," and provided the power for holy living. Wesley's
follower John Fletcher was the first to call this second blessing "the
baptism of the Holy Spirit" (though, in this case, it did not involve
tongues). The first experience of grace, Christians assert, occurs when
a believer accepts Christ as Savior, or personally accepts the
Christian faith. Asserting the need for a second act of grace is
controversial because it alleges that merely accepting the Christian
faith is not enough to lead a fully Christian life.
The "baptism," according to Pentecostals, is evidenced by speaking in
tongues. However, they differ over the meaning of tongues. Mainstream
Pentecostals encourage tongues, though they do not believe that it is
"essential for salvation." The United Pentecostal Church, on the other
hand, believes that tongues is a sign of salvation; thus, without it,
one is not saved and does not have the Spirit.
Tongues is paramount in Pentecostal worship. It is common during prayer
and is usually accompanied by music (i.e., the organ and/or piano is
vigorously played through much of a Penteocostal service).
Tongue-speaking is spontaneous, and worshipers speak either as a
congregation, singly, or both. The individual "tongue" message is
interpreted, and the interpretation is generally in King James English
(with "thees," "thous," and "thys").
If you have not spoken in tongues, it's easy to feel out of place in
Penteocostal worship. My neighbor, a Lutheran, attended a service at
the Open Bible Church, and reported that it was "eerie." I attended
services at the Assemblies of God, Open Bible, and even the United
Pentecostal Church, and you get the feeling that you have not "arrived"
spiritually unless you speak in tongues. On countless occasions, I have
gone to the altar, even had hands laid on me, to be able to speak in
tongues. It's getting "more" of God, who wouldn't want that? I thought
that tongues was something that "came to you", without effort, via the
Spirit, as if you open your mouth and the tongues appear. On one
occasion, a man, who was praying for me, said, "Why don't you speak?"
Well, what do you say? (It's tongues, after all).
At Oral Roberts University, I was prayed over to speak in tongues, and
this girl instructed, "Praise God, but donít speak English. Let
God have your tongue." So, what comes out? Something like
"coom-di-a-sa-me-da-sa." Monosyllables. Whatever flows though your
mind. The girl exclaimed, "Praise God! He's speaking in tongues!!"
But was I? For several years, when I was feeling especially intense, I
prayed in words (or whatever) like the afore-mentioned monosyllables.
Did it make me feel stronger, more inspired? Well, it was quite
dramatic. It did have punch to it.
I eventually abandoned fundamentalism and Pentecostalism and ended up a
Unitarian. After my "conversion," I talked to a lady in Tulsa who was a
psychic and told her of my supposed "tongues" experience. She said,
"You should have taped your speaking in tongues. It might have a
There are various ideas about what speaking in tongues means (i.e.,
reincarnation, Christian experience). I have a personal theory that
tongues might be similar to spirit possession cults such as Voodoo,
Santeria, or Macumba, which are common in Africa and Latin America. The
account of Pentecost, in which the spirit "came upon" Jesus' disciples,
does seem somewhat similar to the experience of the Loa "riding" a
devotee. Passers-by observing the New Testament disciples remarked
that, under the Spirit's control, they appeared to be drunk (Acts
2:13). Similar behavior, including dancing and gyrating, is also common
in Voodoo worship (as well as in Pentecostal churches).
Of course, this is my opinion.
Among Christians, tongues is intensely controversial. There is the
discussion of whether tongues are a valid spiritual gift today, or if
it ceased at some prior time. The Greek word "glossae," from which
"glossolalia" comes, referred to an actual language (i.e., in Acts,
visitors to Jerusalem for Pentecost heard the disciples praising God in
their own languages, those which the disciples hadn't learned). Modern
"tongues" do not fit any linguistic patterns; hence, they are not
William T. Samarin, professor of anthropology and linguistics at the
University of Toronto, states that "glossolalia consists of strings of
meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to
the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly. [It is]
language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be
language-like. Yet in spite of superficial characteristics, glossolalia
fundamentally is not language."
Because tongues is not an actual language, it differs, Christian
critics say, from the tongues of the New Testament. The practice of
tongues among mainline churches--Southern Baptist, Methodist, or
Presbyterian--has split churches and caused ministers to resign. Such
churches will not permit the speaking in tongues in their worship, nor
do they agree on the contemporary theological validity of tongues.
Tongue speakers in mainline churches either have to keep their peace or
find another church (or even start a new one). I have known
tongue-speakers to feel persecuted. "No one listens to me. No one
understands me." (I recall a Unitarian friend whose neighbor told him,
"They say I'm going to hell because I speak in tongues." My friend
replied, "Join the club!")
Whether or not tongues is a language is likely of little concern to
Pentecostals. To them, tongues are from God; hence, it transcends human
wisdom. Commonly, there is no "interpretation" of tongues in worship
services, even though that was part of the New Testament pattern (1
Corinthians 14:28: "If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep
quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.") However, there is
no substantial evidence--aside from faith and conjecture--of the
validity of the tongue or any interpretation.
Tongues are not the only favorites of Pentecostals--thereís also
being "slain" in the Spirit and even "Holy laughing." When being
"slain" in the Spirit, somebody lays hands on you, and you fall
backwards. (It's so inspiring!) In one service, an evangelist insisted
on praying for everyone, including me. When I went forward, two men
stood behind me to catch me (when I was "slain"). To their
consternation, I stayed on my feet. "Holy laughter" is a fairly new
phenomenon, and it is having a spaz under the "guidance" of the Spirit.
What will the Spirit think of next?
Why this tongue stuff, anyway? (I am no longer a practitioner, by the
way). One possible explanation is operant conditioning. In other words,
if you believe that speaking gibberish will help you, it will. The
Skepticís Dictionary says, "All (tongue-speakers) believe
they are possessed by the Holy Spirit and the gibberish they utter is
Believers and skeptics are bound to give different views of the
significance of tongues. In retrospect, I am one of the skeptics. I
don't think that speaking in an exotic language, even from heaven, is
essential for spiritual well-being. God, Who/Whatever He/She may be,
certainly, understands plain English.
Tongues is a very faddish thing. For many Christians, especially those
from dull, drab churches, which have lost their zest and enthusiasm,
tongues (and experiences like being slain in the Spirit) are new,
exciting, and different. Those who speak in tongues tend to smile and
be happy, so others want to join the excitement. (Marilyn Hickey, a
famous charismatic evangelist, was a pastor of "The Happy Church.") If
for no other reason, maybe speaking in tongues helps believers let off
steam. The faithful may argue that tongues are a "tool" for spiritual
growth; however, I am not convinced. There is a certain immaturity in
an a religious persuasion that utilizes showy, attention-getting
gimmicks (like speaking in "unknown" tongues or being "slain" in the
spirit) for spiritual growth. Do we really need such to develop an
empowered spiritual life?
The path will take care of itself. Good ol' English syntax is fine.
The "charismatics," whose name comes from the word "charismata"
referring to spiritual gifts, differ from Pentecostals. While the
charismatics practice things as speaking in tongues, they retain
membership in mainline churches--Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, or
Baptist. "Pentecostal" is the parent name of various denominations,
including the Assemblies of God, Open Bible churches, Foursquare
Gospel, Church of God in Christ, and the United Pentecostal Church.
1. Vinson Synan, "The Origins of the Pentecostal Movement."
2. Ibid., p.1.
3. Dr. William T. Samarin, quoted in The
*JOEL BJORLING is a specialist in
the field of new and alternative religions. His books include Consulting
Spirits, Reincarnation: A Bibliography, and Channeling: A
Copyright 2000 The Anomalist