Breaking Down the Mystery of Speaking in Tongues

Guideposts Executive Editor Rick Hamlin shares what he learned about the practice that dates back to over a hundred years.

Posted in , Apr 8, 2019

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The controversial practice of speaking in tongues—glossolalia—is a puzzle to me. Not just that I don’t do it. But I also wonder how on earth others do. My preferred way of praying is to sit silently on the New York subway in the morning, my eyes closed.

I remember walking by a storefront church once with a friend and hearing what sounded like cacophony. “They’re praying in tongues,” my friend told me. Really? 

I can accept talking in tongues in its historical context. Back in the first century, the disciples gathered in Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection and the Holy Spirit descended on them—veritable “flames of fire.” The apostles began to speak in different tongues, languages they had no knowledge of. More importantly, they were heard in the languages they spoke. 

The great poet W.H. Auden once observed that what happened at Pentecost was more a gift of hearing than of speaking. That settled it for me. Under the right circumstances, believers could call on heavenly power to communicate. But what I heard coming out of that storefront church? That was something else. Ecstatic utterances, people raising their hands, eyes closed. Fervent requests voiced in what frankly sounded like utter gibberish. I was tempted to react more like some of the bystanders did that first Pentecost—they figured the disciples were drunk. The Holy Spirit? More like liquid spirits! 

And yet, the phenomenon is well-documented and has persisted since the early days of the church. In America, its widespread practice dates back to the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906. The Holy Spirit descended, miracles occurred and Pentecostalism began its worldwide spread. Still, I never really knew anyone who actually spoke in tongues. It just seemed so outlandish. Imagine my surprise, then, when in the offices of Guideposts, my first boss and much beloved editor Van Varner said, “You know John speaks in tongues.” John? John Sherrill? John and his wife, Elizabeth – Tibby, as she’s known – were hallowed editors at Guideposts. The journalistic talent behind such classics as David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade and Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place.

John was a World War II veteran and a wise, gregarious, generous man. He and Tibby met in college in Switzerland after the war. For years, he and Tibby had been members in the famously staid Episcopal Church, the same faith tradition my wife and I followed. I considered them dear colleagues and friends. But speaking in tongues? John? I labeled it as a quirk of his and paid it no more attention. Until recently. A year ago, John died at the age of 94. I attended his funeral. Much was said about his passion for prayer but nothing about…praying in tongues. As if it was some kind of family secret.

Then, a few months after the funeral, I was at work and noticed a book of John’s sitting on my shelf, They Speak in Other Tongues. A best-seller since its release in 1964. But I had never opened it. The one book of John’s I’d never read. Maybe the topic embarrassed me. Maybe I was just resistant. But, then, I’ve learned that resistance can be a sign that I’m avoiding something that needs my attention—now. With some trepidation, I turned to the book. John certainly did his research. He presented case after case of eyewitness accounts. Like the scholar of ancient Arabic who recognized someone speaking an esoteric language. A language she knew well but the speaker had no knowledge of. Or a Jewish man at a religious service.

He looked over his shoulder to see who was praying for him in Hebrew, only to find an Irishman who had never spoken a word of Hebrew in his life. These are instances of what some scholars call xenoglossy. John also made recordings of people speaking in unknown tongues and asked a few linguists to listen to them. The experts didn’t recognize any specific language. But, at the same time, they could tell a recording of Tibby pretending to talk in tongues was a fake, mere gibberish. (So much for my dismissal of talking in tongues as gibberish!)

John even invited a woman who had the gift of tongues to come to his office at Guideposts. She asked if he had any special concerns. He mentioned how Tibby had been fretting over a story she was writing, near tears, the deadline looming. The woman placed her hands on John’s head and prayed for Tibby, first in English and then in tongues. John didn’t understand a word of it. But, as the woman spoke, he claimed he felt a wave of warmth pass from her hands into his head and swiftly down through his arms and chest. Later at home, he asked Tibby, innocently enough, how the manuscript was going. Done, she said with relief. She’d just mailed it in. The story seemed to write itself. 

And then John had his own personal experience over 50 years ago in an Atlantic City hotel, at a religious convention he’d attended to investigate the phenomenon. A small group of ministers and social workers had gathered in one of the guest rooms to speak about their needs and concerns. Someone suggested they pray. John bowed his head. He listened to the voices around him and heard them dissolve into tongues. In all other instances he’d been the reporter, looking in from the outside. But now his defenses came down. A man’s voice said, “I believe John wants the baptism in the Spirit.” And then the group formed a circle around him. “Now the tongues swelled to a crescendo,” John recalled in his book. “I opened my mouth, wondering if I too could join in, but nothing happened.”

He sensed that he needed to look up. More than that, he needed to lift his hands and cry out. It was just the sort of gesture he’d always rejected as showy, but now felt compelled to do. He raised his hands and heard himself say, “Praise the Lord.” Soon he too was talking and praying in tongues. As he would on occasion for the rest of his life. The key to his turnaround—this is what really hit me—was that he acknowledged that journalistic objectivity could only take you so far. Only when John lifted his head and raised his hands heavenward did he experience something new and powerful. I closed John’s book. I’d heard him once say that praying in tongues was a way to say what was sometimes beyond words. And now I understood.

That loosening up, getting in touch, being “a fool for Christ.” Or, to quote Paul again, “We don’t know what we should pray but the Spirit itself prays for us with unexpressed groans.” I still don’t pray in tongues. But I am certainly more understanding of the phenomenon. What I am sure about prayer is that there are times when we don’t know what words to say—what we could possibly ask for, what we could possibly want. What a gift to have the prayer provided in words beyond understanding, knowing that they are heard by the One who understands all.

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