The theological centerpiece of the modern Pentecostal movement is the belief that speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, is evidential of the baptism of the Holy Ghost and replicates the experience of the Apostolic Church on the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. While the New Testament is replete with examples of the miracle of speaking in unknown tongues, history includes infrequent accounts of the phenomenon.
Irenaeus, a 2nd century bishop in Gaul, makes clear references to the practice:
When the Apostle says “We speak wisdom among the perfect,” by the “perfect” he means those who had received the Spirit of God, and in all tongues speak through the Spirit of God, as he himself also spake. As also we now hear many brethren in the Church having prophetic gifts, and speaking in all sorts of languages through the Spirit . . . (qtd. Cutten 33)
Irenaeus also went to Rome to defend the Montanist sectarians against excommunication in 177. Montanus spoke in tongues at his baptism and promoted the prophetic gifts and glossolalic utterances of two prophetesses, Prisca and Maximilla (Latourette 128).
Origen (185-254 A.D), a Greek apologist, records the comments of Celsus, an ancient pagan philosopher who opposed Christianity. Celsus describes Christian prophets who utter prophecies to which “are added strange, fanatical, and quite unintelligible words, of which no rational person can find the meaning” (Origen vii. 9).
By the time of Chrysostom (345-407 AD), speaking in tongues seems to have completely disappeared from the nascent Catholic Church. Writing of Paul’s treatment on tongues to the Corinthians, he concludes: “The whole passage is exceedingly obscure; and the obscurity is occasioned by our ignorance of the facts and the cessation of happenings which were common in those days but unexampled in our own” (qtd. in Cutten, 37).
There are numerous descriptions of tongues or similar glossolalic “miracles” throughout the Middle Ages, but they lack apostolic authenticity and are primarily the stuff of ecclesiastical hagiography. In his La Mystique Divine, Naturelle, et Diabolique, Joseph Gorres offers a lengthy catalog of Catholic saints who were apparently gifted with “tongues.” Among these were St. Pachomius (292-348), St. Hildegard (1098-1179), St. Vincent Ferrier (1357-1419) and St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552). It is, in fact, possible that many of the Catholic examples are demonic, as various saints preached to the heathen to bring them into popery. In one case, Jeanne of the Cross ecstatically spoke Arabic to “two Mohammadeans” who demanded baptism. Later, she instructed them “in tongues” concerning the tenets of the Catholic faith (Gorres 451). Undoubtedly, the true Holy Spirit of God would not inspire utterances in any language that would bring the hearers into the bondage of false doctrine, and such outlandish tales can only be considered fiction or lying signs and wonders.
Outside the Roman communion, tongues and other ecstatic speech were attributed to a number of religious sects. Between 1688 and 1701, the Huguenots of Southern France under heavy persecution from Louis XIV began to experience glossalia amongst children, who would prophesy and preach in various languages (Cutten 51). The Jansenists experienced tongues in France in 1731; and during Protestant revivals in Norway and Sweden from 1841-1843, young people experienced what became known as “sermon sickness” in which they uttered unintelligible words and sang hymns in other languages (Cutten 67).
Mormons regularly “spoke in tongues”, and both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young claimed the experience (Bugress & McGee 339). Again, it seems unlikely that Mormonism, which is so theologically antichrist, could produce a manifestation that is authentically Christian.
Perhaps the most complete and convincing documentation of speaking in tongues comes from the Irvingite revivals in England during the 19th Century. Edward Irving was a Presbyterian minister who gained a great and wealthy following in England, opening a church in Regent Square. In October 1831, a lady named Miss Hall began speaking in tongues (Allen 75). Irving had, in fact, encountered the manifestation at a church in Rhu, Scotland where his friend, John Macleod Campbell, served as pastor (Brown). But, Irving, like modern Pentecostals, hailed speaking in tongues as evidential of Spirit baptism: “We shall ere long have lifted up amongst us the full manifestation of the Holy Ghost, which is already present in the speaking with tongues . . . ” (Irving 109).
It was, however, not until Charles Parham and the students at Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas claimed to replicate the Pentecostal experience in Acts 2 by receiving the Holy Ghost with speaking in tongues that the practice became the central tenet of a theological movement. Purportedly, Parham set his students on a “Berean” search for the Bible evidence of Spirit baptism, and they “all had the same story, that while there were different things which occurred when the Pentecostal blessing fell, that the indisputable proof on each occasion was, that they spake with other tongues” (Parham 52). Modern Classical Pentecostalists, universally trace their “initial evidence” perspective on glossolalia to Parham and believe that the outpouring in Topeka marks an important watershed in the restoration of Apostolic truth.
Today, the Pentecostal experience along with its correct soteriological centrality has been fully realized by the contemporary Apostolic Pentecostal Church. Speaking in tongues is no longer an infrequent, undocumented, or abnormal experience but a powerfully recognized source of spiritual renewal for over 400 million Pentecostals worldwide (Gonzales 1). Considering the historical and ancient eminence of the Roman Church and the oppression of those who opposed catholic dogma, it is not surprising that we lack clear documentation of the manifestation of the Holy Ghost, for surely His divine work was alien to the apostate. While history does not offer us a recorded continuum of tongue speaking from the time of Apostles until now, it is certain that the gift of the Spirit was bestowed throughout generations upon those who sought the Lord with sincerity and with careful attention to the enduring promise of God’s Word: “For the promise is unto you and to your children and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39).
Allen, David. “Regent Square Revisited: Edward Irving, Precursor of the Pentecostal Movement.” Evangel. Autumn 2004, 22 (3), pp. 75-80.
Brown, Stewart J. “Irving, Edward (1792-1834″‘, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/14473, accessed 31 Dec 2007].
Cutten, George Barton. Speaking with Tongues, Historically and Psychologically Considered. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927.
Gonzales, David. “A Sliver of a Storefront, a Faith on the Rise.” New York Times. 14 Jan 2007, p. 1.
Gorres, Joseph von. La Mystique Divine, Naturelle, et Diabolique. Paris: Poussilque-Rousand, 1861.
Irving, Edward. The Day of Pentecost, or the Baptism of the Holy Ghost. London: Baldwin and Craddock, 1831.
Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity, Volume I Beginnings to 1500. San
Francisco: Harper, 1975.
Origen. Chadwick, Henry trans. Contra Celsum. Cambridge: University Press, 1980.
Parham, Sarah E. The Life of Charles F. Parham, Founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement. New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1985.