The Nature of Tongues | A Historical Analysis

Apologetics | Theology

Published on January 21, 2022

You can listen to an audio version of this article here:

In our first article in this series, we explored theology behind the nature of tongues. That is, “what is the content of the spiritual gift of tongues in the Bible?” We argued from Scripture that tongues, Biblically defined, is the miraculous ability to speak a previously unknown human language. We made two important definitions:

  • Glossolalia – a phenomenon of ecstatic utterances of unintelligible, language-like sounds which have no discernable linguistic meaning nor is in any known human language.
  • Xenolalia – the miraculous phenomenon of being able to speak in an actual human language not previously learned to the speaker.

In this article, we will be looking at a brief historical analysis of tongues throughout church history. The goal is to see from church history what the view of tongues has been, and briefly survey some of the historical claims to the gift. This will obviously not be extensive due to the length of this article, but I hope that from this short consideration, we can all think a bit more deeply on the topic and draw some helpful conclusions for ourselves and others.

We’ll begin firstly by taking a look at the modern phenomenon of tongues (glossalalia) in comparison to other similar occurrences.

Comparative studies of modern tongues

In-depth studies of modern tongues (glossalalia) have shown that they have no discernable linguistic characteristics. Furthermore, it is acknowledged that even unsaved people and various cultic groups have similar glossolalic experiences such as the Eskimos of Greenland, Kundalini yoga in Hinduism (there are some interesting videos on YouTube on the spirit of Kundalini in charismatic phenomena—though I’d be hesitant to use this too heavily as a credible source—others have written about it), pagan religions of Tibet and China and the Sufi of Islam.[43] (Refer to bibliography for recommendations on in depth scientific and psychological studies on glossolalia)

These are not mere superficially similar examples but rather closely resemble linguistically in the nature, pattern and content of the glossolalic expressions to that of modern charismatic tongues. When analysed from a verbal standpoint, they are virtually indistinguishable from one another in the sounds, rhythm and pattern of ‘speech’. We must note though, that this does not mean one may absolutely equate them to modern instances of glossolalia in charismatics and say therefore all instances of glossolalia are demonic. However, it does show that the nature of the modern expression among charismatics is not unique to Christianity. As Kelsey notes:

“But there is something unique about speaking complete and meaningful sentences and discourses in a knowable language to which one has never been exposed. This is what the real New Testament gift of tongues entailed.”[44]

Some try to draw on glossolalic experiences of ancient religions to make a precedence for modern tongues as something similar to the Christian belief. Though there may be some superficial similarities between glossolalic experiences of the ancient pagan world and the modern tongues movement, a direct comparison with the historical Christian experience of miraculous real languages in the Bible cannot be made. “[It] was quite different both in kind and in quality from other contemporary experiences to which it has been compared…” and this miraculous quality of the biblical tongues is what sets it apart from these other non-Christian experiences.[45]

For some charismatics today, they claim that tongues are necessary and the sign of the Spirit’s empowerment for ministry. Some even connect the gift of tongues to salvation. However, there is disagreement over this within charismatic circles. But, the claim that tongues are a necessary and important part of Christian ministry is not one to take lightly. If true, then those who are without this gift lack some special empowerment for ministry. If false, then there is no hierarchy of Christians – the “haves” and the “have-nots” – but all are called to be fruitful and faithful in ministry.

The Gift of Tongues in Church History

Turning briefly to the history of the church, as we go farther back, tracing the antecedents of modern glossolalia becomes increasingly difficult as references to the phenomenon become more vague and scarce. “Overzealous apologists for glossolalia, therefore, err in trying to trace a direct line from the present to the Biblical period.”[46] We’ll take a look at a few examples from history.

Montanism is often cited by Pentecostal writers as an example of glossolalia from the second century. However, Montanus was judged to be heretical by the early church. “Montanus and his followers were excluded from the church because the claim to have received revelations superior to the Bible was judged to be contrary to the finality of Scripture.”[47] This hardly makes for a strong recommendation for an early basis for the modern tongues experience. Tertullian (ca. 160-220 AD), mentions tongues in his book Against Marcion. However, it must be noted that at the time, Tertullian was also a Montanist. Also, nowhere does he mention glossolalia.[48] Furthermore, later he is reported by Augustine to have left the Montanists, possibly having become disenchanted with the excesses of the group.[49]

The testimony we do have from the early Patristic period with regards to the nature of tongues is that it was the miraculous empowerment to speak an unlearned human language. From very early in Church history, Irenaeus (c. 130-202 AD) in Against Heresies attests to this. However, it must be noted that this is a second-hand account from Irenaeus of the phenomenon, and he doesn’t say that he spoke in tongues.[50] Also, he was a direct pupil from John the Apostle, which makes him an excellent early source and it is quite reasonable to assume he was a witness to the apostolic age and gifts. [51] Thus, what he is attesting to may be the operation of the gift of tongues during that Apostolic Age.

In reading much of the early Church Patristic Fathers, the understanding of tongues as the miraculous ability to speak authentic languages becomes clear. To cite three from the 4th century who clearly understood tongues as real languages:

Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329–390 AD)

“They spoke with foreign tongues, and not those of their native land; and the wonder was great, a language spoken by those who had not learned it. And the sign is to them that believe not, and not to them that believe, that it may be an accusation of the unbelievers, as it is written, ‘“With other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people, and not even so will they listen to Me” says the Lord’” (The Oration on Pentecost, 15–17, emphasis added).

John Chrysostom (c. 344-407 AD), commenting on 1 Cor. 14:1–2:

“And as in the time of building the tower [of Babel] the one tongue was divided into many; so then the many tongues frequently met in one man, and the same person used to discourse both in the Persian, and the Roman, and the Indian, and many other tongues, the Spirit sounding within him: and the gift was called the gift of tongues because he could all at once speak divers languages” (Homilies on First Corinthians, 35.1, emphasis added).

Augustine (354-430 AD) likewise also understood tongues as languages. In his Homilies and Tractates on the Gospel of John he explicitly refers to them as human languages. He says:

“In the earliest times, the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spoke with tongues, which they had not learned, as the Spirit gave them utterance. These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to show that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away.” [52]

Augustine testifies that tongues were languages that they had not learned and that they had since “passed away” by his time.

Historical examples of genuine tongues

From the period at the close of the Apostolic Age all the way to the 19th century there are very few sporadic accounts of various saints speaking in tongues. However, all claimed that they were xenolalia not glossolalia.[53] However, there is some scepticism over the trustworthiness of these accounts. Even Morton Kelsey, a supporter of modern tongues writes, “It is said that St. Pachomius, St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Louis Bertrand all had such an ability, although careful historical study suggests caution in claiming the gift for them.”[54] Charles Alexander gives a few personal reported experiences of xenolalia in his book. However, confirmed reports of xenolalia are few and far between, even as Alexander himself admits.[55] One would think that if this gift is supposed to be normative for the church throughout time, we would find a lot more credible examples from history!

For those who have tried to verify or look for well documented cases of xenolalia, it would seem it is extremely difficult to find. Dr. John P. Kildahl in his paper, “Psychological Observations” in “Speaking in Tongues: A Guide to Research” writes:

There are no reported instances of a glossolalist speaking a language which was then literally translated by an expert in that language. Of the hundreds of thousands of occasions on which glossolalia has been uttered, there is no tape recording that can be translated from a language spoken somewhere in the world. My point is this: If glossolalic utterances were somehow real languages, it would seem that there would exist somewhere in the world evidence that the speaking in tongues was in fact in such a foreign language.”[56] (emphasis added)

You would think that somewhere, sometime had a voice recorder or iPhone handy. Likewise, University of Toronto linguistics professor Dr. William J. Samarin writes:

“It is extremely doubtful that the alleged cases of xenoglossia (miraculous speech in real languages) are real. Anytime one attempts to verify them, he finds that the stories have been greatly distorted or that the ‘witness’ turns out to be incompetent or unreliable from a linguistic point of view”[57]

It would seem that the occurrence of glossolalia has been only occasional in the years prior to rise of the charismatic revival in the 1900s and mainly among minority and fringe groups. Some of these were definitely heretical and according to Kildahl, with no recorded evidence of real languages.[58] Historically, the mainstream understanding of the Biblical gift of tongues has always been as languages. It wasn’t until the arrival of the modern charismatic movement traced back to the turn of the 20th century that it was reinterpreted otherwise.[59] So this new interpretation of the nature of tongues seems to be a quite recent one not well attested to by any earlier history.

Godly men such as Whitefield, Wesley, Spurgeon, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and many more never spoke in tongues but brought about historic transformation of society under Spirit-anointed preaching. It is a strange if one were to claim that modern charismatics have achieved a higher spiritual plane than these purely on the basis of tongues. [60] So, if so many godly Christians who have been used to greatly impact the world for Christ have never had this gift, then how can some claim that it is needed for empowerment for effective ministry? (I will address more thoroughly the testimony of history in the rise of the Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement in the next article.)

Modern tongues

So what are we to make of the modern glossolalic version of tongues?

Some describe it as “the release of strong emotion which cannot find satisfying expression in more normal ways…”[61] and can be seen as a harmless way of letting off excess spiritual steam. Some have postulated more sinister explanations of modern tongues comparing it to demonic cultic expressions that exhibit similar behaviour.[62] However, while this may be a possibility, this sort of broad spectrum vilifying of modern tongues must be avoided as each case presents its own unique circumstances with numerous other viable explanations.

So why do some genuine believers experience this phenomenon?

Some psychological studies have linked glossolalia with various psychological phenomena and altered states of consciousness. Further studies have shown how the effects of peer pressure, the influence of leaders, the power of suggestion or community expectations can produce such phenomena unconsciously or even that they may be easily feigned.[63] Dr. Samarin has concluded:

“Glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly. The speaker controls the rhythm, volume, speed and inflection of his speech so that the sounds emerge as pseudolanguage—in the form of words and sentences. Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia fundamentally is not language.”[64]

Many testify to experiencing more power and answer to prayer with the use of glossolalia.[65] However, it must be asked if this experience of increase efficacy of prayer is due to the practice of glossolalia itself or as a result of the disciplines exercised in seeking it – such as the increased regularity of prayer and seeking God through “normal” means? Could tongues have had a sort of spiritual placebo effect? Even if this is the case, if we are seeking to have an authentic experience of true faith, should one continue in error just because the ends justify the means? Experience is not bad and has its place, but a truly deeper experience of faith will always come in accordance with truth not in opposition to it.

Concluding thoughts

While there have been significant studies by charismatic scholars, perhaps on an individual level, some charismatics need to take some time to carefully re-examine their understanding of the nature of tongues as revealed in the Bible and testified to in history. We should as a principle “not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6) in developing our theology. If the modern version of tongues cannot be substantiated by Scripture nor the witness of the early church and history, then on what basis can charismatics maintain their views on glossolalia? This is not putting the Spirit “in a box”, but rather it is an attempt to understand our experiences according to the Truth of God and stay faithful to that.[66]

Charismatics often see themselves as redressing the marginalization of the Spirit’s work, however “the Pentecostal practice of seeing the primary work of the Spirit as an experience of spiritual ecstasy and ministry empowerment supplementary to the salvation already provided by Christ extends the subordination of the Spirit.”[67] Furthermore, we must keep things in proper perspective. Only a relatively small percentage of the NT deals with the gift of tongues yet there tends to be an inordinate amount of emphasis placed on this gift in some charismatic circles. On the cessationist’s side, it is all too easy to depreciate the genuine work of the Spirit among charismatic brothers and sisters—losing sight of our common bond in Christ.

Rhetoric and interactions between cessationists and charismatics can at times tend to be mean-spirited, cold or harsh. Our correction must always be done in a spirit of love and gentleness with the goal of admonishing fellow brothers-in-Christ in sound doctrine and belief. Furthermore, Theology that ceases being swept up more or less spontaneously in doxology, like that of Romans 11:33-36, needs to re-examine itself. That sort of ‘cessationism’ the church needs to avoid like the plague.”[68] Charismatics have challenged the church as a whole to expect more from God in ways that perhaps challenge our traditional moulds and to reassess a theology which only allows for the miraculous in regeneration without sufficient exegetical warrant.[69]

We must always refocus “on Christ, on loving discipleship, on self-sacrificing service and obedience, on God himself—and not on the phenomena themselves. . .”[70] Ultimately, as was the point of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, the church’s manifestation of the glories of God, what binds us together and what we should pursue the most is not tongues, but Christian love.[71] One day in glory, charismatics and non-charismatics will have nothing to fight over as tongues and the rest of the charismata will be done away with. Then as 1 Corinthians 13:13 says, only “these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

I hope that the first two parts of this series on the nature of tongues has been informative and edifying. In the final article in this series, we will look at the history of the rise of Pentecostalism and consider what led to the birth of this movement.


  1. The Nature of Tongues | A Theological Analysis
  2. The Nature of Tongues | A Historical Analysis
  3. The History of Pentecostalism | How was this movement birthed?


  • Alexander, Charles. Power to Serve: Glossolalia and Church Renewal. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1986.
  • Busenitz, Nathan. The Tongues of Angels. No pages. Online: http://thecripplegate.com/the- tongues-of-angels/
  • Carson, D.A. Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987.
  • Christie-Murray, David. Voices From the Gods: Speaking With Tongues. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1978.
  • Congar, Yves M.J. I Believe in the Holy Spirit. Translated by David Smith. Volume II. New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1983.
  • Criswell, W. A. “Facts Concerning Modern Glossolalia,” in The Holy Spirit in Today’s Church. Edited by Erling Jornstad. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1973.
  • Edgar, Thomas. Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1996.
  • Gaffin, Richard B., Jr. “A Cessationist View.” In Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?: 4 Views. Edited by Wayne A. Grudem and Stanley N. Gundry, 23-64. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
  • Geisler, Norman. Signs and Wonders. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Press, 1998.
  • Gromacki, Robert Glenn. The Modern Tongues Movement. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1967.
  • Hoekema, Anthony A. What About Tongue-Speaking? Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966.
  • Johnson, Bruce and United Church of Canada. Perpetual Pentecost?: A Study on the Charismatic Renewal. Toronto, ON: United Church of Canada, 1981.
  • Johnson, Jesse. Carson and the gift of tongues, or something. No pages. Online: http://thecripplegate.com/carson-and-the-gift-of-tongues-or-something/
  • Kelsey, Morton T. Tongue Speaking: An Experiment in Spiritual Experience. 1st Ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.
  • Kildahl, John P. “Psychological Observations.” In Speaking in Tongues: A Guide to Research. Edited by Watson E. Mills. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986.
  • MacArthur, John. Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2013.
  • Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions & Healing Cures. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999.
  • Packer, J.I. Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God. 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012.
  • Piper, John. The Spirit Helps Us in Our Weakness, Part 2. Series: Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written. No pages. Online: http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/the-spirit- helps-us-in-our-weakness-part-2
  • Samarin, William J. Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
  • Saucy, Robert L. “An Open But Cautious Response.” In Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?: 4 Views, Edited by Wayne A. Grudem and Stanley N. Gundry, 65-71. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
  • Storms, C. Samuel. “A Third Wave View. ” In Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?: 4 Views. Edited by Wayne A. Grudem and Stanley N. Gundry, 173-223. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
  • Studebaker, Steven M. Defining Issues in Pentecostalism: Classical and Emergent. Vol. 1. Theological Studies Series. Hamilton, ON: McMaster Divinity College Press, 2008.
  • Williams, Cyril G. Tongues of the Spirit: A Study of Pentecostal Glossolalia and Related Phenomena. Cardiff: University of Wales, 1981.


  • [43] Kelsey, Tongue Speaking, 143; Gromacki, The Modern Tongues Movement, 9; Also see Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels for an in depth linguistic examination of modern tongues.
  • [44] Geisler, Signs and Wonders,167
  • [45] Kelsey, Tongue Speaking, 143
  • [46] Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels, 12; for example see chapter 1 of Samarin, Power to Serve
  • [47] Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 10-11
  • [48] Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 15-16
  • [49] Gromacki, The Modern Tongues Movement, 14
  • [50] Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 14-15; Gromacki, The Modern Tongues Movement, 13
  • [51] Gromacki, The Modern Tongues Movement, 13
  • [52]Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, VI, 10
  • [53] Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 18-19
  • [54] Kelsey, Tongue Speaking, 152
  • [55] Alexander, Power to Serve, 31-32; see also William J. Samarin’s book Tongues of Men and Angels
  • [56] Kildahl, Psychological Observations, 363
  • [57] Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels
  • [58] Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 23; Kildahl, Psychological Observations, 363
  • [59] Criswell, Facts Concerning Modern Glossolalia, 90-91; Thorough histories of the emergence of the modern charistmatic movement can be read in detail from Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, MacArthur, Strange Fire and Gromacki, The Modern Tongues Movement.
  • [60] Carson, Showing the Spirit, 166-167
  • [61] Kelsey, Tongue Speaking, 139
  • [62] See Kelsey, Tongue Speaking, 148-150; for further in depth exploration of the various explanations for modern glossolalia see David Christie-Murray, Voices from the Gods: Speaking with Tongues.
  • [63]See Malony and Lovekin, Glossolalia: Behavioral Science Persepctives on Speaking in Tongues for some studies on modern tongues.
  • [64] Nickell, Looking for a Miracle, 108
  • [65] Alexander, Power to Serve, 36
  • [66] Saucy, An Open But Cautious Response, 67
  • [67] Studebaker, Defining Issues in Pentecostalism, 8
  • [68] Gaffin, A Cessationist View, 63
  • [69] Carson, Showing the Spirit, 180
  • [70] Carson, Showing the Spirit, 179
  • [71] Carson, Showing the Spirit, 76

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