President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court may spark discussion over the dubious Christian practice of “speaking in tongues” — or glossolalia.
She’s a fervent Roman Catholic who belongs to a charismatic fringe clique, People of Praise, whose members reportedly babble “the tongues” like Pentecostals. Various researchers say that this kooky practice has spread so much that one-fourth of all Christians around the world are tongue-talkers.
During her Senate confirmation hearings, it will be interesting to see whether any senators or news reporters are brazen enough to ask Barrett bluntly: “Have you spoken in tongues?”
Comedian Bill Maher certainly is brazen enough. During a recent HBO monologue, he blurted: “She’s a f—- nut [about] religion. … I mean really, really Catholic — like speaking in tongues.”
Back when I was a religion reporter for our Appalachian newspaper, I witnessed “the tongues” frequently — especially at remote mountain churches where believers picked up rattlesnakes. A worshiper suddenly would spout gibberish like “shend-a-la-goosh-a-ma-dee-dee-dee,” causing nearby churchgoers to erupt in similar sounds. I took my doctor to a service, and he said the talkers seemed to be in hypnotic trances. Believers themselves said the Holy Ghost took control of them, and they had no power over the outflowing utterances.
A couple of years ago, I wrote the following analysis of this curiosity:
The Book of Acts says the risen Jesus told his apostles “ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” And when they gathered on Pentecost, “suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind… and there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire … and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues.”
Just over a century ago, a little-educated evangelist named William Seymour, a son of ex-slaves, preached that modern Americans could “get the tongues,” just as the apostles did. In a Los Angeles slum, he led followers in ardent prayer, hoping for the “rushing mighty wind” from heaven.
Finally, on April 9, 1906, after five weeks of beseechment, a follower began spouting uncontrollable sounds. Next meeting, six more believers experienced glossolalia. Then the minister himself followed — and word of the “miracle” spread like wildfire. Hundreds, thousands, of believers flocked to the ramshackle church, where many “got the tongues.” Excitement spawned missionaries who carried the mysterious new phenomenon to other cities — and finally to other countries.
The Los Angeles Times heard the buzz and sent a reporter, who wrote:
Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street, and the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal. … The night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshipers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-wracking attitude of prayer and supplication. They claim to have the “gift of tongues” and be able to understand the babble.
Another L.A. newspaper reported:
They cry and make howling noises all day and into the night. They run, jump, shake all over, shout to the top of their voice, spin around in circles, fall out on the sawdust-blanketed floor jerking, kicking and rolling all over it. Some of them pass out and do not move for hours as though they were dead. These people appear to be mad, mentally deranged or under a spell.
Pentecostalism became the name of the practice, and it snowballed into a national, then worldwide, movement. The Assemblies of God was established in 1914, followed by the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World in 1916 and the Pentecostal Church of God in 1919.
For decades, Pentecostals remained a remote fringe, derided as “holy rollers.” But gradually, they inched into the mainstream. Politicians like Sarah Palin and John Ashcroft have been Assemblies of God believers.
As late as 1980, Pentecostals were smallish, comprising a tiny fringe of Christianity. Then a remarkable upsurge occurred. The Atlas of Pentecostalism, maintained by the Pulitzer Center, says: “An estimated 35,000 people join the Pentecostal church each day. Of the world’s 2 billion Christians, a quarter are now Pentecostal — up from 6 percent in 1980.”
As most of Christianity shrinks, Pentecostals are the fastest-growing group. A Wheaton Theology report says: “There were 631 million Pentecostals in 2014, comprising nearly one-fourth of all Christians. There were only 63 million Pentecostals in 1970, and the number is expected to reach 800 million by 2025.”
Will much of Christianity be transformed into jerking, howling, swooning congregations who utter incoherent sounds? If so, that’s one more reason for thinking people to renounce irrational supernaturalism.
Perhaps Amy Coney Barrett can be asked to explain the “babbling in tongues” phenomenon.
Much of this essay was published in the February-March 2018 issue of Free Inquiry.