It is not hard to imagine the perceptions (or misperceptions) that the outside world has concerning speaking in tongues. Unfortunately, in this case, the outside world would not only include non-Christians but would also include Christians who consider tongues “not for today.” The world sees tongues as holy-roller territory, mixed up with snake-handlers or those ‘slain in the spirit.’ It is not regarded highly, if at all. When it is considered, it is probably viewed suspiciously with a certain amount of embarrassment or amusement. Is it epileptic babbling? Is it the equivalent of someone with Tourette's?
Let's start with a short, side-by-side history of ‘holy rollers’ and recent ‘speaking in tongues’ activity.
First the Quakers.
According to George Fox in his journal,
his fellow religious worshippers were first called Quakers in 1650 by one of the justices he was confronting
because, Fox said, “I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord.”
But Rufus Jones notes that the term ‘Quaker’ was already in use at the time in England as a pejorative name for another, earlier,
sect from Europe.
Jones then writes,
“It is, further, evident that the Friends themselves were sometimes given to trembling, and that the name came into general use because it fitted.”
Not really rollers yet, just tremblers, but Quakers pointed the way.
Speaking in tongues was also part of the early Quaker experience. As Edward Burroughs describes in his Memoir sometime before 1662 —
Whilst waiting upon the Lord in silence, as we often did for many hours together, with our hearts towards him, being stayed in the light of Christ from all fleshly motions and desires, we often received the pouring down of his Spirit upon us, and our hearts were made glad, and our tongues loosened, and our mouths opened, and we spake with new tongues, as the Lord gave us utterance, and his Spirit led us.
Shakers, originally called ‘Shaking Quakers,’ were an offshoot of the Friends, forming in England in 1747. Their services were characterized by dancing and ecstatic worship. And, amid their stomping and shouting, some of them spoke in tongues. Always small in numbers, though, the Shakers didn't have the influence that another religious group did: the Methodists.
The Methodists, also forming in the 18th century in England, put an emphasis on a personal experience with Jesus Christ, with fiery preaching and revivals bringing that about. In particular, camp meetings in the United States became more and more enthusiastic in their worship, with clapping and singing. The term ‘holy roller’ first appeared in 1841 and was used to describe Methodist church services. There was no speaking in tongues in these services yet, but the ‘Holiness Movement,’ emerging from Methodist doctrine, set the stage for it.
Charles Parham was a former Methodist preacher who began to follow the Holiness teachings. (Parham's wife Sarah, incidentally, was raised as a Quaker.) In 1900, Parham opened the Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas, and, by 1901, Parham and several of his students were speaking in tongues. One of his students, another Holiness preacher named William Seymour, took Parham's teaching and opened up a church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California, in 1906. A ‘Holy Ghost Revival,’ evidenced by speaking in tongues, continued on Azusa Street until 1915. The modern Pentecostal movement is widely regarded as having started from these events.
Following in the tradition of the Methodists and the Holiness Churches, the worshippers at Azusa Street were enthusiastic in their services. The Los Angeles Times described it this way —
Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street, and the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal. Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve racking attitude of prayer and supplication. They claim to have the ‘gift of tongues’ and be able to understand the babel.
The 20th century saw a veritable explosion of speaking in tongues among Christians. Many new churches were formed from the older denominations. Along with the growth, ‘holy roller’ came along too, coming into its own as a derisive, derogatory term for expressive Christian worship involving speaking in tongues.
By the 1960's, though, a new term came along to replace ‘holy roller’ as a description of spirit-filled Christians. Derived from the Greek word for gift, charisma, the term ‘charismatic’ began to be used for the continued spread of speaking in tongues among Christians. Baptists were speaking in tongues. Lutherans were speaking in tongues. Catholics were speaking in tongues. As I understand it, once again, even Quakers were speaking in tongues.
Today Pentecostal or charismatic Christian groups are the fastest growing of all Christian denominations, growing all across the world. Let the holiness roll!
The Bible itself identifies the reactions of others as they hear speaking in tongues for the first time. When tongues were first spoken in Acts 2, some of the hearers understood the words and were amazed and in wonderment, while others simply mocked —
|Act 2:11-13 : ... we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine.|
Answering the mockers, Peter assured them that the speakers were not drunk —
|Act 2:14-15 : But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words: For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.|
Peter went on to give the first ‘Believe in Jesus’ sermon of the Church Age.
The other common reaction is to regard the speakers as insane —
|1Co 14:23 : If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?|
The Bible recommends moderation when it comes to speaking in tongues in public and says that an interpretation, or understandable prophetic words of encouragement, should always accompany them.
One of the most puzzling arguments against tongues, among Christians at least, is that tongues are “not for today.” I suppose, back in the 19th century, a Christian might have looked around and said, “I don't see or hear anyone else speaking in tongues. I guess tongues are not for today.” As time goes on, though, and more and more Christians speak in tongues, the “not for today” argument has become weaker and weaker. Unfortunately some Christians, stuck in their old denominational doctrines with their heads stuck in the sand, still believe this.
Of course I'm being a little unfair when I characterize the Not-For-Today point of view as simply being a matter of “I don't see it, so it can't be true.” There are theological arguments that have been created to support it. One of them says that tongues (and miracles) stopped when the last apostle died. Another says that tongues would cease “when that which is perfect is come,” citing I Corinthians 13:8-10. What was the perfect thing? The argument says ‘the Bible.’ I agree the Bible is perfect, but I think the context points to something (or someone) else. Who is it that we will meet face to face (I Corinthians 13:12) when he returns? I'm pretty sure that would be Jesus Christ, the living Word of God.
The extreme position on Not-For-Today says that, not only have tongues and miracles ceased, but God himself hasn't spoken audibly to anyone since the apostles died. Goodness. How is God going to move his program forward if he doesn't speak up every now and then? Even worse is that, for those who take this extreme view, they then say anyone who has heard from God, or spoken in tongues, or performed a miracle, has done it through the working of a devil. Not only do they limit God, they dishonor him! They've tied God's hands and gagged him, then given credit for all wonders to his enemy. Breathtaking.
Simmering just under the surface of public discourse are some very negative opinions about speaking in tongues.
Every now and then, those opinions boil up for all to see. Just such a situation happened in 2008 during the
presidential campaign between Obama and McCain.
McCain selected Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential running mate in late August 2008, and soon negative reports were coming out about her. She said she opposed the Bridge to Nowhere, but she originally supported it. She didn't know the difference between North Korea and South Korea. She supported aerial wolf hunts in Alaska. She went to a church that believed in healings and the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Oh, and she spoke in tongues. What a scandal! Respectable people do not speak in tongues! Only fringe, snake-handling, trailer trash would do that.
Now it may be, at the time, that Sarah Palin was not qualified to be Vice President. But speaking in tongues shouldn't have been one of those strikes against her. Of course I do understand that, when you are vetting a possible Vice Presidential candidate, you are not just looking at presidential qualifications. You are also looking for potential embarrassments (and, as the public reaction to Sarah Palin speaking in tongues demonstrated, that was the case here).
And I also get the joke. In some of her interviews, Sarah Palin was so incoherent, so silly with some of her answers, she might as well have been speaking in tongues. Ha ha.
For me, I came away feeling much more compassion and sympathy towards Sarah (and not just because she was like a deer caught in the head lights). She was more like me than I wanted to admit. She believed in Jesus Christ. She spoke in tongues. Though I still do have a hard time forgiving her for the wolf-hunting thing.
On the other hand, snake handling: there is an embarrassing,
fringe worship activity promoted by a few misguided Christians.
In the early 20th century, with the explosion of Pentecostalism, a couple of Pentecostals read Mark 16:17-18 and came up with a new interpretation. Based on the phrase “They shall take up serpents,” these few individuals decided that God was telling them to incorporate snake handling into their church services. God would protect them, they reasoned, as he had protected the apostle Paul with his snake encounter (Acts 28:1-6). Jesus had said his followers would tread on serpents (Luke 10:19), hadn't he? They would prove their faith in God when he kept them from harm.
But a closer look at the verses in Mark reveals some problems —
|Mar 16:17-18 : And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.|
In Mark 16:18, most Bible commentators associate the word ‘if’ with the serpent phrase, tieing it to being protected, along with ‘any deadly thing’ the believers might drink. The comments of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, are typical: “God never calls us to try any such experiments.” But that one little ‘if’ in the Bible didn't stop the snake handlers. In fact, they did the snakes one better and began to drink poisons in their services, too.
Unfortunately, for tongues, it has been guilt by association, both because it is Pentecostals doing the handling and drinking, and because of those pesky verses at the end of Mark, where tongues are mentioned right alongside the serpents. The Bible says tongues are a form of worship of God (see I Corinthians 14:17). It doesn't say that about snake-handling or poison-drinking. And if the few snake/poison practitioners who still remain wish to argue, they should study further. If they do, they will discover that the earliest manuscript evidence shows that these verses are missing from Mark altogether. There, no more snakes or poison, but you still have tongues.
I would never want to question the sincerity of the handlers, though. In looking closely at the photo of the snake handlers, there is much detail to observe. These are coal miners and the wives of coal miners. You can see the coal dirt in their finger nails. You can see and smell their fear and dread. You can hear the cymbals clapping and the shouts and screams. In the center of the photograph, one of the two men handling the snake could be the preacher, but understand that this snake is going to make the rounds. It will be offered to every member of the congregation. Each will have their turn to shout, “You have no power over me, Mr. Snake!” If they refuse, their salvation will be questioned. If they accept and live through the experience, the adrenaline rush will only be matched by the realization, “Hey, maybe I am saved after all!”
Sincere or not, and as exciting as it might be, it wouldn't be a joyful experience. Not the kind of gospel message you could easily share. “Hey, come to my church and handle a snake and maybe drink some poison.” No thanks. Maybe it's time for you to find a new church home. A church based on more sound Biblical teachings. A church that wasn't so dangerous.
Speaking in Tongues — Two recent encounters with bad tongue doctrine.
Back to — Tongues: Biblical View — A list of Bible verses related to speaking in tongues.
Next up — Tongues: My Own History — My own experiences with speaking in tongues.
Tongues: Final Thoughts — Some conclusions on speaking in tongues.
Glossolalia — Wikipedia article on speaking in tongues.
Journal of George Fox — His autobiography with notes by Rufus Jones.
Memoir of Edward Burroughs — A faithful servant of Christ and minister of the Gospel.
Charles Fox Parham — Wikipedia article on one of the first Pentecostalists.
William J. Seymour — Wikipedia article on the leader of the Azusa Street revival.
Snake Handling — Wikipedia article on snake handling as a religious ritual.
Harlan County Photos — Further details on the Harlan County snake handlers.