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Speaking in tongues

Biblical overview and personal experience and observation

According to their statement of fundamental truths, Assemblies of God in Great Britain and Ireland, the largest Pentecostal grouping in the British Isles, "believe… in the Baptism in the Spirit with the Initial Evidence of Speaking with Other Tongues". Assemblies of God insist on speaking in tongues as evidence of one's having being filled with the Holy Spirit because of the record of such events in the Acts of the Apostles:
  • in the upper room in Jerusalem, with the Apostles (Acts 2:4 NIV): "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them";
  • in Joppa, with Cornelius and the Gentiles (Acts 10:44–46 NIV): "While Peter was still speaking… the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God";
  • in Ephesus, with some believers Paul found (Acts 19:6 NIV): "When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied."
In one place where Acts does not explicitly mention speaking in tongues, it is clear that something evident to the senses was happening (8:18 NIV): "When Simon SAW that the Spirit was given…" In the case of Saul/Paul, nothing is mentioned about speaking in tongues (Acts 9:17 NIV): "Brother Saul, the Lord — Jesus… — has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." But Paul, writing later in 1 Corinthians, our only other source for information about speaking in tongues, says (14:18 NIV): "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you."

1 Corinthians evinces a continuing rôle of speaking in tongues, after the initial filling with the Holy Spirit: for self-edification (1 Cor. 14:4); and, when someone with the gift of interpretation is present (1 Cor. 14:27,28), as a gift for the church (1 Cor. 12:10).

It is clear that in Acts 2:6–8 NIV the tongues, or languages, were intelligible to their hearers (though, presumably, not to their speakers): "When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: 'Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?…'" It is equally clear that in 1 Corinthians the tongues are unintelligible to their hearers: Paul speaks of the gift of "interpretation" of tongues (12:10), and says further (14:2,19 NIV): "…Anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no-one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. …In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue."

As to the languages used when one speaks in tongues, Paul mentions, in the well known chapter on love (1 Cor. 13:1 NIV), "the tongues of men and of angels…"

I would take issue with the New English Bible translation "strange tongues" in Mark 16:17, where the original means "new tongues", and also with its translations "ecstatic utterance", "tongues of ecstasy", "language of ecstasy", "ecstatic speech", "ecstatic language" (and for that matter, "strange tongues") in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 where the original means simply "tongues" or "tongue". The use of the word ecstatic, to my mind, implies the loss of control associated with some forms of religious mysticism.

I cannot remember the first time I heard someone speak in tongues, but my first acquaintance with Pentecostal churches was in early 1965. My friend Chris's recollection is clearer (in conversation on 15 January 1977):
…One meeting we went to at Sharon soon afterwards [Sharon Full Gospel Church, Manchester, shortly after his miraculous healing from epilepsy in January 1965]…, somebody actually spoke in tongues and spoke in "human"; a girl spoke in German and French, and it was quite distinguishable. I've never heard it since, actually… It's always been an unrecognisable tongue, which you presume to be an angel's tongue… But I remember hearing this girl stand up and start speaking — oh, it was definitely German — and then, again, she spoke in French.
In August 1978, while describing our very first attendance at a meeting in Sharon, a youth meeting one Saturday night early in 1965, Chris told the same story:
I remember there being two messages in tongues… one distinctly in German, the other distinctly in French… There was… what I could recognise as fluent French, and also fluent German, which made me think, "Oh!… God's here!"
I don't recall the above incident; my first memories of hearing speaking in tongues are after we started going to Fleetwood Full Gospel Church. There was a lot of it going on when I stayed behind after church on perhaps 23 May 1965 for what they called a "waiting meeting"; see The “waiting meeting”. I didn't speak in tongues myself on that occasion, though.

Strangely, I have very little recollection of Whit (or Pentecost) Sunday, 6 June 1965, when I did actually speak in tongues. I wrote the following account in October 1990, based on the conversation with Chris in August 1978 that I quoted from above:
On the Whit Sunday, at Sharon, Chris remembers that Pastor Williams got those seeking the Baptism in the Holy Spirit to go into the back room during the evening meeting.

We went through the left door at the far end, Chris, I, and a number of others, into a sort of schoolroom. Despite my experience of a couple of weeks previously, I must have been aware that according to the Assemblies of God teaching, the Baptism is accompanied by speaking in tongues, which I had not done. What I received had possibly been explained to me as "an anointing" and not "the Baptism" fully. We sat in a line, on chairs, in the middle of the room: one long line of people sitting there. Chris was a bit confused as to what would happen and what he should do — a similar experience to that of mine beforehand: saying, "Praise the Lord!", praying and such like. Not really knowing what to do, he sat there and closed his eyes; and it was Pastor Williams himself who came along the line, and prayed individually for each person, laying his hands on him.

When he came to Chris, he put his hands on his head. Chris felt a terrific power — not like the pins-and-needles experience which I have described, but more as a "power" — which made him start to praise God very loudly. He could not remain in silent prayer and praise any more; and eventually he started speaking in tongues…

[I can] remember [our going out] from the main meeting through the left door [into the back room], but I do not remember much else, apart from what Chris's recollections have brought back to me. I remember repeating a phrase that came to me, over and over; I think this happened after it was my turn for Pastor Williams to lay hands on me.

Pastor Williams probably encouraged those who had "received" to keep on speaking in tongues, to speak in tongues every day; and as we did, the gift would become stronger or more words would start to come.

Then I remember going back, being led up to the platform at the forward part of the church. Pastor Williams was evidently pleased by what had taken place, and he said, "How does it feel, boys?"

And all I could say was, "Oh, it's great, it's great!"
I remember that the words I kept on repeating were
or something similar.

I remember hearing Mrs. Smith (the Pastor's wife) speaking in tongues at Fleetwood Full Gospel Church in the mid- to late 1960's on a number of occasions, giving messages in tongues (i.e. the "gift" of tongues as in 1 Cor. 12:10), which were usually interpreted by someone else in the meeting. Her "tongue" used to sound very "bubbly", something like this:
/ɪn-ˌgaɪ-ra-la-ma-soː-aɪ-an-ˈdiː-ra-la-ma-gaɪ — ɪn-ˌgaɪ-ra-la-ma-soː-aɪ-an-ˌdiː/.

Mrs. Winifred Smith
Pastor Smith's tongue on the other hand, although audible, was spoken "to himself and God" (1 Cor. 14:28), i.e. was not the "gift" of tongues and was not interpreted; it sounded very relaxed — and relaxing. It sounded almost as if uttered from great weariness but with the assurance of eternal rest coming:

Pastor Stanley Smith
When I was going out with Audrey, in 1966, I underwent a spiritual decline and became quite critical and sceptical, and the sound of Audrey's oft repeated
— usually topped off with
— would annoy me a great deal.

Audrey in 1966
In late 1975 my credence was stretched just about to breaking point when I attended for a while a Pentecostal church in Grimsby, and I heard the young woman who played the organ say, "Shagga lagga, shagga lagga, shagga lagga":
/ˌʃa-ga-ˈla-ga — ˌʃa-ga-ˈla-ga — ˌʃa-ga-ˈla-ga/.
In British parlance, it sounded like a command to have sexual intercourse with a thermal insulation engineer: "Shag a lagger"!

It disturbed me, after I started to speak Esperanto regularly in the late 1980's, that Esperanto diphthongs, e.g. /uj/, started to creep into my tongues-speaking. I remember stopping abruptly, consternated, on one occasion, thinking: "No! It's not real. I'm making it up."

In the 1990's, hearing Keith Robinson saying
/ˈʃa-da-ˌba-da-ˈgan-da — ra-ˌba-ri-ˈjan-da/

Keith in 1986
or Pam Stockton saying
produced anxious doubts in me.

Pam in 1992
May God grant that I be able to turn this negative tone around, and write a glowing report of tongues-speaking and its effects in the heavenly realms!

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