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Speaking In Tongues: A Sociocultural Analysis

Updated on August 23, 2015
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Missing Link is originally from rural Ohio. He currently lives in Hillsboro, OR. with his Wife and two Sons.


I wrote the following many years ago when I was in college---I have edited it only slightly since.

Speaking in tongues is an age-old practice usually occurring in some type of religious ceremony. Speaking in tongues, or practicing glossolalia, is when a person mysteriously utters "a language" which is foreign to that person's usual vocabulary. Within certain branches of Christianity, especially within Pentecostalism, glossolalia occurs quite frequently. The Christian practice of glossolalia stems from several chapters in the Bible, especially "I Corinthians" and "Acts."

I have witnessed glossolalia several times and have seen examples of what seemed to be a false act or emotional outlet. At other times, I was intrigued by its seeming authenticity. Could the "gift of speaking in tongues" be divine, or is it merely a customary practice? This is one among many questions concerning glossolalia that have puzzled people for generations.

Some say glossolalia is one way to release frustration, while others claim that those who speak in tongues in church are seeking attention. Many people think peer pressure plays a part while others feel glossolalia is a gift/sign from God to let His followers know that He does exist. Many people are not sure what glossolalia means or how it should be defined. Glossolalia has been widely defined as "a form of unintelligible vocalization which has non‑semantic meaning to the speaker, and is interpreted in the Bible as a divinely inspired spiritual gift" (Hine 1969:211).

If one wants to understand how the phenomenon of glossolalia originated within Christianity, it is imperative that one delve into the Bible. Shortly after Jesus' resurrection, He ascended into Heaven where He was to reside until His second coming. Jesus knew that without His physical presence on this planet there would be a void in many people's lives. In other words, people would miss Jesus' physical presence. Jesus realized this and proclaimed, "I will pray [to] the Father, and He shall give you another comforter, that He may abide with you for ever" (John 14:16). This new comforter was the Holy Ghost, the character which represents the third part of the trinity; the first two positions being held by God and Jesus. Don McClean refers to this in "American Pie" when he sings, "The three men I admire most, the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost."

The Holy Ghost, according to the Bible, is a powerful spiritual force which dwells in many Christians as long as they have been saved and baptized. Getting saved means that a person undergoes a conversion to Christianity in which the convert believes in his/her heart and confesses with his/her mouth that Jesus is the Son of God and that God is the creator of all that exists. It is a time when the convert repents of all past sins. From that point onward, the convert attempts to live a sinless life. Baptism is the symbolic washing away of one's sins. It is also a display to the public letting them know the intentions of the convert to live a Christian life. As mentioned in the Bible, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will speak in new tongues..." (Mark 16:17).

Throughout the Bible, references to glossolalia can be found, and in every case, the event signifies something special. The basic belief of Pentecostals is that, "One who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the spirit" (I Corinthians 14:2). Tongues are encountered in the Bible in relationship to a day in which many devout worshipers of God simultaneously received the Holy Ghost. This day was called the day of Pentecost. The term Pentecostal originates from this day.

"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the spirit gave them utterance. Now they were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered because each one heard them speaking in his own language" (Acts 2:1‑6).

This gift of glossolalia the Holy Ghost provides is looked upon as a way of distinguishing Christians (usually Pentecostals) from non‑Christians. "Even the spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you" (John 14:17). This is because "It is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost" (Mark 13:11). Pentecostals believe that "Making pronouncements is sometimes called the 'gift of tongues', because a speaker is 'gifted' or selected by God on his own initiative to give a message to the assembled body" (b/Samarin 1972:125).

There has been much debate concerning the purpose of glossolalia. The speaker sees him/herself as an instrument through which the Holy Spirit manifests itself by means of an utterance. Glossolalists are convinced that they are listening to a living or dead language that could be understood if only there were someone around who knew it. The tongue utterance, usually unintelligible to onlookers, is viewed as praying in the spirit unto God. Glossolalia is seen as a way of praying that is more palatable to God because it is a prayer of gift from the Holy Spirit, whereas regular prayer in one's own language is not. Also, the Bible tells us that "He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself" (I Corinthians 14:4). This means that one who speaks in tongues morally improves him/herself. A love for God and other people should reside in the glossolalist and permeate his/her worship, for the Bible says "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (I Corinthians 13:1).

"Within Christianity, glossolalia has occurred since Biblical times, but sparsely until the mid‑1800's and early 1900's. This was the epoch when the revivalism of glossolalia took place and when the Pentecostal church became firmly entrenched in the Christian community. Traditional religion had become too uneventful for many people. Many people were losing faith in religious beliefs largely because of the growing confidence in science.

It seems In the eighteenth century dissatisfaction with the sterility of the rational approach in religion led pietists to seek more direct contact with God and this resulted in various manifestations of 'enthusiasm' including glossolalia" (Williams 1981:38).

The glossolalia phenomenon especially caught fire with the Charles Parham movement in the early 1900's. Parham

"founded his Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas [in 1900]. From scriptural studies he and his students became convinced that in Apostolic times a baptism by the Holy Spirit was always accompanied by the outward manifestation of speaking in tongues, and they wondered whether the same should not also be true in the modern age" (Goodman 1988:52).

Agnes Ozman, a member of Parham's college, received the gift of the Holy Spirit one day at one of Parham's meetings, and began to speak in tongues. The students and their preacher were so overwhelmed by it all, they dropped everything they were doing to learn more about this gift. From that day forward, everyone in the group sought to emulate Agnes Ozman's experience. Most of them succeeded. Since in the scriptures such events were said to signal the imminent end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ, the "Parhamites embarked on a dedicated missionary effort trying to convert the world before it was too late" (Goodman 1988:55). The Parhamites thought that with their alleged spiritual power they would be able to save millions of people.

The Holy Ghost purportedly has the capability to assist a person in the acquisition of a morally sound, Christian existence. I can better illustrate this point through a quote I obtained from Why Tongues?, a pamphlet condoning the practice of glossolalia.

"Continuing to pray and worship God in tongues helps us to be ever conscious of His indwelling presence of the Holy Ghost everyday, it is bound to affect the way I live.

A minister's twelve‑year old daughter once lost her temper and was talking rudely and hatefully to her mother. A visiting evangelist overheard the scene. When the girl looked up and saw him, knowing he had witnessed her tantrum, she was embarrassed and broke into tears.

I'm so sorry you saw me act this way and heard what I said, she cried.

Honey, he said, there is One greater then I am who saw you and heard you. You are a Christian, aren't you?


And filled with the Spirit? he asked.


Well then, the Holy Ghost is in you. He knows what you said, and how you acted. But if you repent, the Lord will forgive you.

They prayed together. She repented and in a little while began to worship God in tongues.

Then he said to her, Here is a secret that will help you curb your temper. If you will pray and worship God every day in tongues, it will help you to be conscious of the indwelling presence of the Holy Ghost. If you will remember that He is in you, you won't act that way" (Hagin 1975:16‑17)

Up to this point, I have concentrated on glossolalia with respect to its Biblical origination and have briefly outlined its history. Also, as is shown above, I have demonstrated how a young person is taught about the Holy Ghost, however, I have not discussed the actual meaning of the manifestations of the Holy Ghost.

According to Pentecostals, "speaking in tongues is an experience which most people believe to be confined to apostolic times and bestowed as a special favor on a few followers of the crucified Jesus" (Goodman 1972:xvi). "The experience is interpreted by Pentecostals as control of the speech organs by the Holy Spirit who is praying through the believer in 'a heavenly language'" (Hine 1969:212). However, not everyone believes as the Pentecostals.

In "Language in Society", Laffal, a psychologist, accounts for glossolalia in terms of repression. This view is based upon his experiences with one schizophrenic patient. Another psychologist, Oates, explains glossolalia as the result of emotional deprivation whereby religious feelings, aspirations, and ideas are expressed in a sudden unexpected utterance. Another view is that "glossolalia is repressive in the sense that it serves as a means of 'restoring infantile megalomania' and of expression, feelings of omnipotence or egocentricity and also frustration over unfulfilled desires" (b/Samarin 1972:123). Socioculturalists and sociolinguists believe "tongues is learned behavior in the sense that it is something everyone is capable of doing, is a 'natural' ability, and the person uses the phonetic material already in his linguistic treasury" (McDonnell 1976:84).

E. Mansell Pattison, a prominent psychiatrist, says "any of us could 'speak in tongues' if we adopted a passive attitude about controlling our body and speech and had an emotional tension pressing for expression" (McDonnell 1976:14). Anthropologists who have been to many different cultural settings and who have witnessed many types of religious phenomena and ecstasy say "speaking in tongues is part of a general group of phenomena appearing in cultural groups during periods of stress or change" (a/Samarin 1972:101). Cutten, an early researcher of tongues, matter of factly states "The speaking in tongues is an end in itself, its very unintelligibility satisfying the psychological craving for extraordinary expression and the religious craving for proof of inspiration and the direct action of God" (Cutten 1927:182). Despite all these differing opinions, there are several characteristics concerning tongues that seem to be universally encountered. One of these characteristics is the occurrence of a physical reaction within the glossolalist.

Of the many possible manifestations of the Holy Spirit, glossolalia commands the most attention. "There is something incredibly, brutally elemental about such an outbreak of vocalization, and at the same time something eerily, frightening unreal" (Goodman 1972:15). Usually, the glossolalist doesn't realize what he/she is saying. Some describe the glossolalic state as a trance, and Pentecostals call it "drowned in the spirit." Many times, the glossolalist will convulsively wander around the church with hands upstretched whilst wildly uttering glossolalia. A person under trance often lays hands (another spiritual gift) on another person and transfers the Holy Ghost into that person. The person that receives the transference of the spirit will start acting as the transferrer.

The phenomenon of glossolalia can be described from two differing vantage points: that of the observer and that of the glossolalist. Some glossolalists are aware of having cried while others feel as if their veins are bursting open. The glossolalist often describes his/her tongue as being locked in place or swollen. Many feel like they are being lifted upward; they feel hot, pressure on the chest, cheeks ballooning, head swelling then shrinking, etc.. Many feel as if a gentle rain is coming down on their neck and shoulders, penetrating their chest and spreading throughout their body. This is called the raining down of the spirit. To the observer, the glossolalist's eyes appear to be tightly closed. Rapid breathing, goose pimples, twitching of face and body, a twisted face, salivation, perspiration, a rigid body, trembling, spasms, and unusual convulsive movements are also witnessed.

There have been many attempts to properly classify glossolalia but no universal agreement has been reached. Researchers have used such words as ecstasy, frenzy, trance, delirium and hypnotic state to describe glossolalia. From these various descriptions, it is obvious that there are some differences of opinions as to how glossolalia should be classified. However, all the researchers I studied agreed that glossolalics remove themselves from awareness of the reality surrounding them. In other words, glossolalics are in a state of dissociation.

The use of drugs and fasting has been said to induce glossolalia. Researchers admit that "[They] We know nothing at all, for example, about changes in pulse rate or brain wave patterns during the various phases of this mental state" (Goodman 1972:76). Although this quote gives a reader no valid information, the effects of fasting in relationship to glossolalia has clearly been researched. "Fasting has important biochemical consequences, among others a lowering of the blood‑sugar level, which in turn can affect consciousness" (Goodman 1972:77). One does not know how much of an effect fasting has on glossolalia, but there are those who think the effect is significant. For example, "When a person has fasted too much and denied himself too much sleep, strange things can happen. One goes into a service which lasts too long, and then the nerves begin to get feverish, and then comes dreams and all possible things" (a/Samarin 1972:146).

Many think the creation of certain tempos or rhythms causes glossolalia to occur more often than if such creations were not present. Driving, as these rhythms are called, can be the tempo at which the minister delivers his/her sermon, the clapping of hands, drumming, chanting, etc. "A gifted orator may drive his audience into a high state of excitement, [just as] the shouts of the crowd are intended to drive a football team to greater exertion" (Goodman 1972:60). Usually, the tempos pick up when people sing hymns. The song leader usually starts with a relatively slow‑paced song and eventually builds up to a song that involves a rapid tempo and one in which the lyrics represent the core of the beliefs of the participants involved. These faster paced songs are accompanied by a rapid drum beat and/or clapping of the hands. These activities almost always match the rhythm of the song being sung or played. The effect is enhanced by the amplified musical instruments accompanying the singing.

When the tempo reaches its peak, the song leader usually halts the singing. This is often the time when the altar call is utilized. The altar call is more effective at this point because the excitement from the singing carries over. The altar call is the part of the service where people get saved, baptized and speak to the minister about their problems. It is usually at this time that the worshiper is prayed for by other members of the congregation and the minister. Also, the minister often shouts religious instructions to the worshipers at this time. The pressure to conform and the leftover excitement from the previous singing often triggers the occurrence of glossolalia. The cause of glossolalia is still highly speculated upon, but linguistical studies have made strides toward understanding the phenomenon.

Past linguistical studies indicate that glossolalia is a learned phenomenon. According to many linguistical studies, it seems that "Glossolalia is a 'derived form of speech'; its creation depends on the speaker's ability to abstract from what he hears or knows, the units and the tactics‑the rules‑of a marginal and simplified form of speech" (a/Samarin 1972:133). This suggests that it is possible for a person speaking in tongues to have learned a certain style or phonetic pattern from the person who has guided him or her into a glossolalic utterance. It has been said that "The phonological output is a largely random one, drawing upon the speaker's stored resources of natural‑language phonological shapes, in the way musical scanning is" (b/Samarin 1972:124). The understanding that linguistical studies have brought to the field of glossolalia is a blessing indeed, a blessing that not all generations have enjoyed.

Past research on glossolalia has not been as stringent as it could have been. Too many times, a researcher has been perplexed or confused by what he/she has witnessed. Often, a conclusion concerning the hows and whys of glossolalia has been too rapidly drawn. In the past, before research was practiced at a professional and technical level, the conclusion many people reached about glossolalics was that they were insane, diseased or mentally deficient. In the past, I believe the mental conditions of glossolalics were exaggerated to a negative extreme. This type of negativity can be seen in the following quote concerning Mormonism. This quote was written at a time when glossolalia was beginning to be practiced in the Mormon church.

"The gift of tongues and interpretation were not prominent from the beginning of Mormonism, but after Joseph Smith had claimed power after power, which he purported to have received direct from Heaven, and those revelations were accepted by the people, he brought forth in January 1833, the 'Gift of Tongues'. This allowed the ignorant and illiterate to utter any jargon or nonsense with the belief that it was a spiritual manifestation. He had a unique way of displaying this power. It would be advertised that at a certain meeting someone would speak with tongues. When that meeting was well under way, Father Smith or Father Rigdon would call upon some illiterate brother to rise and speak in tongues in the name of Jesus Christ. The order given was: 'Arise upon your feet, speak or make some sound, continue to make sounds of some kind, and the Lord will make a tongue or language of it.' Then after the jargon would cease, some other brother would arise and professedly interpret what was said, in reality repeating the first religious thing that came to his mind" (Cutten 1927:71).

Through this quote, Cutten makes it sound like all glossolalics are crazy or illiterate. In fact, he says "one other factor is likely to be present in those who speak in tongues, and that is illiteracy" (1927:6). Cutten knew of no other way to explain the practice of speaking in tongues except that it "has been vouchsafed almost always, if not entirely, to those of low mental ability. Persons of high ability, whose nervous energy would more easily flow into channels of thought, have sought the gift in vain" (Cutten 1927:6). This type of explanation sounds exactly like something a sociobiologist would say.

Cutten thought glossolalia was an act performed by stupid church members as a means to get attention. In fact, he said, "Where the 'gift' is not pure fraud, it is undoubtedly the result of suggestion which the subconsciousness receives and acts upon" (Cutten 1927:181). T. E. Clark, another early researcher of tongues, once said that people who speak in tongues "are nearly always the ignorant, in whom the lower brain centres and spinal ganglia are relatively strong and the rational and volitional powers, residing in the higher centres of the cortex are relatively weak" (Williams 1981:126).

just watch the first 10 minutes:

Perhaps as Cutten thought, some glossolalics are illiterate, but I'm sure there are other variables involved. Present researchers admit that it is possible, nay probable, that the combination of many variables can effect glossolalia. Unfortunately for Cutten, he was one of the earliest researchers of glossolalia and had virtually no sources to refer to in his attempt to understand glossolalia. Cutten's work laid the foundation upon which the modern studies of glossolalia are based. Biological explanations for glossolalia later proved insufficient because new studies were constantly uncovering more about glossolalia.

Instead of citing biology as the sole cause, later researchers cited biology as a necessary part of the cause. People began to make biological comparisons with other bodily defects such as epilepsy. One such researcher was Felicitas Goodman. Referring to epilepsy in her comparison to glossolalia, she proposed that a person loses cortical control.

"Then with considerable effort, at least initially, he establishes a connection between his speech center and some subcortical structure, which then proceeds to drive the former. Thereupon the vocalization behavior becomes an audible manifestation of the rhythmical discharges of this subcortical structure, resulting in the described pattern (Goodman 1972:124)

Another biological proposal is given by William Sargant. He

"suggests that experiences such as revivalistic conversions, snake handling and glossolalia can produce an effect similar to that of electro‑shock therapy‑temporary cortical inhibition that breaks up previous mental and emotional patterns and frees the individual to develop new ones" (Hine 1969:223).

One must wonder if glossolalia is healthy for an individual, especially when it is compared to an electrical shock. We know an excess of electrical shocks will damage the brain and can thus infer that repeated glossolalia might do the same. If a church gets to the point where glossolalia is effecting the health of the glossolalics involved, then perhaps the church is overemphasizing the importance of glossolalia.

It seems apparent that too many churches get wrapped up in the gifts of the spirit. In the Bible, there is a list of the gifts of the spirit and there are at least a couple of them (such as interpretation of tongues and prophecy) that are said to be more desirable than glossolalia. If this revelation is true (and it is), then why do so many people become obsessed with tongues? The answer is probably because it is the most noticeable and attention getting manifestation of the spirit.

Pentecostals often emphasize the importance of believing in tongues as the most crucial step toward experiencing glossolalia. "The moment you believe His promises, you dare to speak, and the spirit gives utterance. The moment you doubt, it stops, and for those who only doubt and never believe, this manifestation of the spirit never begins" (du Plessis 1967:72). However, speaking too much glossolalia in a church might not be a good idea. "An excessive concentration on spiritual phenomena such as glossolalia to the neglect of the centrality of the once‑for‑all revelation of God in Jesus Christ is a false spirituality" (McDonnell 1976:57). If a church constantly practices glossolalia, they might forget the true reason they are at church; to worship God.

Many people seem to think that anybody can speak in tongues if they get excited enough. There is "no reason to suppose that forms of utterance voiced at the prompting of the spirit cannot be initiated or cultivated by persons variously motivated" (McDonnell 1976:57). Linguistical studies of tape recorded glossolalia indicate that the stereotypical utterances mirrors that of the person who guided the glossolalist into the behavior. Other people say the glossolalic utterance becomes more pronounced as a person gains experience in glossolalia. Worshipers have often said that like anything else, "the more you speak in tongues, the better you become at it. This would suggest that worshipers are comparing glossolalia to a skill, like walking or playing golf" (a/Samarin 1972:69).

While other branches of Christianity have lost much of their appeal, the Pentecostal movement continues to offer excitement and novel experiences. At a time when many churches are being threatened by "scientifical advancments and advanced forms of logic and reason", the Pentecostal churches have held fast. Many religious people had been trained as children to accept the authority of the scriptures but had come to doubt them as adults. The Pentecostal experience has brought many people back to the acceptance of Biblical authority. Many believe this is because of the manifestations of the spirit (such as glossolalia) that were practiced in Pentecostal churches. Pentecostals would be shocked if they were to learn that the phenomenon of glossolalia is not unique to them.

Usually, Pentecostals are not aware of the small bands of "primitive" people throughout the world who speak in tongues. These "primitive" people have never even heard of the Bible and yet they can speak in tongues. The Pentecostals have an answer to this. "That there are men who have these gifts who are not Christians and may have no religious faith at all suggests to some of these Pentecostals and Charismatics that the gift in these cases have a demonic origin" (McDonnell 1976:84). This excuse or reason is commonly used within Pentecostalism. Pentecostals who have spoken in tongues but who have then withdrew from the church, or those who do not exhibit Christian behavior, are many times believed to be possessed by Satan.

Sociologists, especially socioculturalists, believe religion is a human made institution which was created to make society more functional. Perhaps long ago, the ruler of a great nation was distraught at the miserable and horrid conditions in which his subjects lived. Perhaps thousands of people were starving or thirsting to death and this ruler wanted to help them. It is possible that this ruler gathered all the greatest scholars of his kingdom and commissioned them to write a document which would soothe the masses and provide them with explanations concerning their miserable existence. Maybe this is how religion, or at least Christianity, was started. This way of looking at religion is probably why socioculturalists think that

"Glossolalia is made of common human stuff. It is, in itself, profane. But this should come as no surprise. All religion is incarnated in man. Its dimensions are those of homo sapiens. (Although the believer adds another dimension, the supernatural, he cannot escape the fact that even that is mediated through the carnal. The supernatural is perceived and manifested through a physically‑and culturally‑bound creature).

The material of religion is human: bread and buildings, wine and water, crosses and colors, liturgy and language. They all figure in man's being religious and experiencing religion. They constitute the monuments to and the edifice of religion" (a/Samarin 1972:229).

As time went on, perhaps some people became dissatisfied with the original dogma and decided to interpret or even alter the original document to fit their own beliefs or needs. This could be how so many different branches of Christianity originated, including Pentecostalism. The alterations that have occurred in religion probably started with the ideas of one person. Then, this individual's ideas gradually came to be embraced by many people. Remember, Agnes Ozman, an individual, is credited with the revivalism of glossolalia in America.

According to many people, glossolalia is not productive because once someone has internalized the glossolalic utterances of someone else, the utterance becomes stereotyped. That is, glossolalia of a learner often sounds like the glossolalia of the teacher. Supposedly, when the worshiper first starts to speak in tongues, the utterance mirrors that of the person who guided the glossolalist into the behavior. This is usually because the teacher offers the only glossolalia the learner has ever heard. The person who speaks in tongues and the listener do not share a linguistic code or a language. In other words, the people in the congregation don't understand what the glossolalist is saying. So what does tongues communicate?

Many believe glossolalia communicates commitment to the Pentecostal group and a sharing of its ritual behavior, personality and social functions. "To speak with tongues is an expression of a person's commitment to the beliefs, way of life and value of the group and one might add that it inevitably has certain elitist overtones. It can also be an open declaration of a person's abandonment of previous groups‑of his identification with the new" (Williams 1981:160).

In many Pentecostal churches, glossolalia is taught as the most important part of the service, and therefore, achieving glossolalia is of the utmost religious importance. Glossolalia, along with baptism and being saved, is considered by many Pentecostals to constitute the entrance ticket to Heaven. If speaking in tongues is taught as a prerequisite for being one of God's "gifted people" or perhaps as a ticket to Heaven, then it is no wonder that glossolalia is deemed of paramount importance. To speak in tongues,

"the regenerated believer must seek baptism in the Holy Ghost, and, where the conditions have been fulfilled, it is inconceivable to most of them that God would withhold the blessing. This simplistic logic has led to poignant heart‑searching on the part of unsuccessful aspirants, who, in the face of continuing disappointment, either redouble their effort to seek in earnest and sincere expectation, or become disillusioned and sometimes bitter. It is also not uncommon for a kind of spiritual discrimination to develop within the Pentecostal community as between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' in terms of Charismatic gifts in spite of exhortations to exercise charity" (Williams 1981:88).

Those who cannot speak in tongues sometimes think of themselves as not special in God's eyes and often become extremely depressed or despondent. The discrimination that arises between the haves and have nots of the Holy Spirit often separates the members of a church instead of uniting them.

The "spiritual discrimination" that often takes place is unfortunate, but one can understand why it happens when one realizes that not only does glossolalia identify membership within a church, "glossolalia also makes explicit where one belongs within the charismatic society" (a/Samarin 1972:225). Often, "the use of glossolalia says something about the social structure of a group and a person's place in it" (a/Samarin 1972:225). In other words, those who most often speak in tongues are often looked upon by the rest of the congregation as the most highly gifted and special people of the church. Therefore, the glossolalist's position in church is often higher than the position of the non‑glossolalist. Usually, "as the size of the group increases, its membership becomes less uniform and a kind of political structure emerges to govern its activities. The result is that the use of glossolalia is largely monopolized by its leaders" (a/Samarin 1972:217).

From my own experiences and my studies in Sociology/Anthropology, I believe that glossolalia is brought about by cultural expectation. In most cases, tongues is expected, is looked upon with approval, and is rewarded by the esteem of the group. McDonnell has said that "There may or may not be onlookers present who are urging the initiate to glossolalic utterances" (1976:84). This kind of expectation or pressure could also drive some away from Pentecostalism, or from Christianity in general.

"In an era in which the Christian church finds the search for a proper language to express its faith a difficult one, a preoccupation with ecstasy in which the intelligibility of the gospel is obscured can be an escape. The urgent need of the church today is not for glossolalia in which the church talks only to itself or to God, but for a relevant language in which it can communicate with the world" (McDonnell 1976:57).

Will the churches of the world ever find a language in which they can effectively communicate to the public? As times continue to change, will they continue to adapt or will they die? These are questions which may be answered in the future. As for right now, glossolalia still remains an important, fascinating topic and one which deserves more attention.

Is speaking in tongues a divine gift from the Holy Spirit or a learned behavior?

See results

Cutten, George

1927 Speaking With Tongues. Yale University Press: London.

du Plessis, David

1967 The Spirit Bade Me Go. David J. du Plessis: California.

Goodman, Felicitas

1969 "Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia In Four Cultural Settings." JOURNAL FOR THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF RELIGION 8:227‑239.

Goodman, Felicitas

1972 Speaking In Tongues. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.

Goodman, Felicitas

1988 How About Demons? Indiana University Press: Bloomington.

Hagin, Kenneth

1975 Why Tongues? Faith Library Publications: Tulsa.

Hine, Virginia

1969 "Pentecostal Glossolalia: Toward a Functional Interpretation." JOURNAL FOR THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF RELIGION 8:211‑226.

McDonnell, Kilian

1976 Charismatic Renewal And The Churches. The Seabury Press: New York.

Samarin, William (a)

1972 Tongues of Men and Angels. The Macmillan Company: New York.

Samarin, William (b)

1972 "Variation and variables in religious glossolalia." LANGUAGE IN SOCIETY 1:121‑129.

The Holy Bible

1981 Faith Publications: New York.

Williams, Cyril

1981 Tongues of the Spirit. University of Wales Press: Cardiff.


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    • Missing Link profile image

      Missing Link 2 years ago from Oregon

      Thanks Larry! I am interested in stuff like this---not only in America but globally.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Interesting analysis.