The phenomenon of speaking in tongues during ecstatic religious experiences is also known as glossolalia, and began among the first Christians.
Described in Acts 2:1–18, the Holy Spirit granted to the apostles the ability to speak in the languages of the foreigners who had assembled in Jerusalem for the observance of Pentecost. The visitors were amazed they could speak with them in their native language.
While Holy Spirit allowed the apostles to converse suddenly in a foreign language, later references implied that glossolalia was a kind of religious ecstasy or unintelligible babbling. In I Corinthians, Paul lists the variety of spiritual gifts that might be received by Christians; he writes that one such blessing is the ability to interpret what another speaking in tongues might be saying. Paul states that those who speak in a tongue that only God can understand might well be pleasing themselves, but they deliver no edification to others in the church. He concludes that, if one speaks in unknown tongues and no one can interpret the speech, then "let him keep silence in the church and speak to himself and to God."
Paul's denigration of the act of speaking in tongues set the standard for Christians down through the centuries. Various church fathers advised against the practice, and St. John of Chrysostom (c. 347–407) believed that the usefulness of glossolalia for the Christian ended in the first century. St. Augustine (354–430) denied that any special ability, such as speaking in tongues, prophesy, and so forth, proved one's faith. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, leaders such as Martin Luther (1483–1546) dismissed glossolalia as unnecessary to the Christian faith.
In the eighteenth century, however, certain new visionary sects, such as the Shakers and the Catholic Apostolic Church, began to consider speaking in tongues as one of the special gifts given to true believers. Then, in the early 1900s, Pentecostalism declared that "Spirit-baptism" brought with its indwelling power the ability to speak in tongues. In the 1960s, glossolalia became suddenly popular even among the more mainstream churches.
While the movement spread in the 1970s, the position largely taken by the mainstream church bodies was that, while it may be legitimate gift from the Holy Spirit, glossolalia was hardly the normative expression for Christians and did not denote a superiority over those who did not practice it. However, today's approximately 500,000 practicing Pentecostals continue to believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about a baptism of the spirit like that received by the apostles that enabled them to speak in tongues.
Dyer, Luther B. Tongues. Jefferson City, Mo.: Le Roi, 1971.
Rosten, Leo. Religions of America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975.
Sherrill, John L. They Speak with Other Tongues. New York: Pyramid Books, 1965.