Sunday, June 08, 2014

What is speaking in tongues?

The biblical charism of speaking in various unknown foreign languages (called glossolalia) fell upon the apostles on Pentecost. By praising God this way, the gospel was understood by outsiders and the Church grew. St. Paul records that the gift was still in use in the first century.

This gift was manifested a few times after that, such as in the preaching of St. Anthony of Padua, St. Paul of the Cross, and St. Dominic to audiences that included many foreigners. However, the “speaking in tongues” heard today is different.

The Charismatic/Pentecostal movement began in 1901 with a small group of Wesleyan Bible students in Topeka led by Charles Parham praying for the gift of tongues. One of the students, Agnes Ozman, began to speak and write what was believed to be Chinese. Her experience was soon shared by her teacher and fellow students, supposedly speaking in nearly a dozen languages. But they later found out these were not foreign languages at all.

Figuring this was a new Pentecost, Parham boasted, “The Lord will give us the power of speech to talk to the people of the various nations without having to study them in school.” He insisted that missionaries from his Bethel College demonstrate that. And those students were devastated to find that when they arrived in foreign lands, the natives simply could not understand them.

This, along with several other embarrassing incidents, dealt a severe blow to the early movement. Two of the things that helped it survive were moving beyond Parham’s leadership and reinterpreting the meaning of speaking in tongues. According to the modern view, the gift is not about speaking in a foreign earthly language (as in the book of Acts), but speaking a heavenly or spiritual language. It is sometimes described as a prayer language. And the practice is not confined to Pentecostal denominations or even to Protestantism. The charismatic phenomenon is found in almost all churches today.

St. Paul made it clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that not all believers have been given a gift of tongues. But those who have, must use it (like all spiritual gifts) to the glory of God and the building up of his Church.

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