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The psychic phenomenon of speaking in foreign tongues. The phenomenon has been a part of ecstatic speech in religious practices for centuries, it presently designates the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal and charismatic Christian worship.
The term glossolalia is derived from the Greek glossa, "tongue" and lalia, "to talk." The phenomenon is not just a single utterance of strange words but a recurrence of such utterances as in a series. The first occurrence of the apostles speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, is Biblically recorded in the Book of Acts 2:4, as happening on Pentecost. It is recorder "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." The phenomenon may also be called possession by the Spirit.
It is recorded that another miracle seemed to have occurred as well. As miraculous as it was that the apostles spoke in tongues, the multitude of people surrounding them began understanding the apostles, each in their native language. The people were astounded that such an event happened.
However, whenever glossolalia occurs it is not always understandable, some times it sounds more like nonsensical gibberish. The early Corinth Christians frequently practiced speaking in tongues in worship services, but few knew what their strange utterances meant. St. Paul issued instructions for the private and public use of tongues. A worshiper might employ the practice in private prayer when he was praising or beseeching God for something. The practice could be used whenever the worshiper was in doubt as to what to ask for.
Whenever the practice was employed in public worship St. Paul warned the Corinthians that it should not be done so over zealously and some congregational members should be able to interpret the divine message being given since speaking in tongues was considered to be a gift as well as a means of direct communication between God and the worshipers. The ability to interpret the contents of the divine message was considered a gift as well.
Currently it is thought when this phenomena of the gift of tongues or glossolalia occurs "tongues is expressed as language-like, and according to some, contains individual characteristics of language; in the strict sense, including syllables and diction, having similar patterns and structures, but not identical with human linguistics." Related to the term glossolalia is xenolalia.
Speaking in tongues took a decline, by the medieval period most church authorities declared that the miracle of the practice was no longer possible. They said the miracle only existed in the times of the apostles. However, various groups continued believing in the practice such as the French Camisards, Montanists, Jansenists and Waldensians. Some even tried to revive the practice only to find themselves branded as heretics.
At present several religious denominations still believe in the speaking in tongues. The Pentecostal and Assembly of God Churches still see the practice as a sign of the persons being baptized by the Holy Spirit. Many say that it is a direct communication with God which Satan cannot interfere with, however, many of these same persons cannot give an interpretation of their speaking in tongues.
The denomination of the Shakers which were dominant from 1837- 1847 with spiritual manifestations containing hymns and prayers delivered by spirits in tongues. Since most were uttered in unintelligible languages they were taught phonetically.
The Quakers, Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, and the early Methodists spoke in tongues. So did some Presbyterians during the 1830s.
Currently a Charismatic Renewal is occurring within the Catholic Church. This renewal emerged following Pope John XXIII's calling for a "New Pentecost" to revive the Church during the Second Vatican Council in 1964. Those within the Charismatic Renewal movement say that what appears to be a inauguration of a new, refreshing spirituality really is not, it is a renewal of a very ancient expression of Christian prayer and practice. There are many recorded incidents throughout church history where the saints received and spoke with the gifts of tongues.
The modern charismatics say their members may or may not speak in tongues after conversion. Like other divine gifts such as healing, wisdom, prophecy, miracles and spirit divination, the gift of speaking in tongues is not given to everyone.
From tests conducted in many incidences evidence seems to indicate the possibility that these unknown languages have ancient origins. A.G.H.
Sources: 2, 29, 67.