The Legend of Francis Xavier speaking in tongues

The connection between the sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, and speaking in tongues.

St. Francis Xavier depicted at the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. A monument celebrating the Portuguese age of exploration.
St. Francis Xavier depicted at the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. A monument celebrating the Portuguese age of exploration.

The story of Francis Xavier speaking in tongues is a complex one that straddles between the real and mythical person. Though a celebrated pioneer, great organizer, highly adaptive educator, and a prolific networker, his legend is even better. This is a study of Francis Xavier, how he became connected with and the controversy surrounding his speaking in tongues. In the end, the reader will understand how the christian doctrine of tongues was understood and practiced in this era.

The controversies that surround Xavier speaking in tongues put him into the top five narratives of the christian doctrine of tongues throughout the centuries.

Research was a lengthly process. This is a summary of the findings. For the actual source texts, extended quotes, and translations, see Technical Notes on Francis Xavier Speaking in Tongues

Who was Francis Xavier?

Francis Xavier lived from 1506 to 1552 and originally hailed from Sanguesa, in a country state called Navarre. The kingdom of Navarre is long gone, but the city of Sangüesa continues to exist in the northernmost reaches of Spain. This city borders on France and is a short distance from Portugal. Xavier studied in Paris, and after finishing his education, made his way to Venice where he passionately worked among the sick. King John the III of Portugal had solicited Ignatius of Loyola and his newly formed Society of Jesus to evangelize the West Indies, especially the regions controlled by Portugal. Ignatius had already selected a number of individuals which excluded Xavier, but due to sickness of one of the original members, he was called in as a replacement. Thus began the story of one of the greatest foreign missionaries of all time.

A background to the legend of Francis Xavier Speaking in tongues

In order to better comprehend this controversy, it is necessary to delve into Portuguese history, catholic religion and its internal politics, national and international politics, European, Indian and Japanese culture and languages, geography, Protestantism, Rationalism, war, and plagues. They all mix together to weave a very complex narrative.

His story corresponds with Portugal’s zenith of international enterprise in the early 1500s, their collapse later on in that century, and attempts to revive their lost stature. Portugal was at the forefront of international exploration when the sixteenth-century began. Their success was forced by the Ottoman Turks who had blocked the land routes between Europe and the eastern continent. Trade was then forced to expand through discovering new sea routes – an area where the Portuguese excelled. Their discoveries gave Portugal long stretches of economic control from Brazil in South America, to the bottom of Africa and all the way to Japan. They had a commercial juggernaut that no other rival was initially able to reproduce.

This nation’s desire to go to the ends of the earth was beyond any expectation within the European world and captured the catholic imagination. The seventeenth-century French Jesuit writer and Xavier Biographer, Dominique Bouhours, explained the missionary reach into the West Indies, China and Japan, as a foray into the New World. This presents the idea that Francis Xavier along with his fellow Society of Jesus missionaries generated the same level of excitement as Buzz Aldrin going to the moon.

But there was a serious weakness in the control of their Indian empire. Portugal had laid claim to parts of India and secured it through converting the inhabitants to Christianity. Their conversion was a tenuous one because it was hardly altruistic. The Indian followers did so because it created a positive military alliance with the Portuguese. This freed them from the marauding and powerful Arab forces that surrounded their communities. The Portuguese authorities were well aware this relationship could easily disintegrate and needed to reinforce the catholic faith in order to maintain submission. This was a major political factor that pushed the Portuguese monarchy into sending the Jesuit missionaries.

This era was marked by Martin Luther and the Protestant movement successfully separating from Rome. Religious wars immediately ensued that took significant bloodshed. This along with severe outbreaks of the plague continued to decimate populations and destabilized countries, continents and political systems.

Shortly after Xavier’s death, the Dutch and British were slowly overtaking and contesting against Portuguese foreign interests.

Europe was in need of stories of overcomers, achievement, glory and pride that quelled the bad news that constantly surrounded them. Sainthood provided these stories. The modern American equivalent is giving celebrity status to people such as Elvis Presley – whose veneration is a pilgrimage for many. Consequently, Presley’s legend has become a substantial contributor to the Tennessee State economy and has given the city of Memphis a worldwide reputation. His icon is also a symbol for many to press on and believe that things will get better even if the reality is grim. Xavier’s legacy parallels such a phenomenon. Indeed, the financial profits from cult veneration became a serious problem that had to be curbed. In the ninth-century the Council of Mainz (813 AD) issued a decree limiting the financial activities surrounding the bodies and relics of saints.(1)R.J. Barro, R.M. McCleary, A. McQuoid. Economics of Sainthood (a preliminary investigation). Feb. 2010. Pg. 4

Francis Xavier symbolized the aspirations of Catholics throughout the world and was a source of Portuguese pride. Thus, the push for his sainthood became a priority.

Franco Mormando, an associate professor of Italian studies, Boston College understood the value of Xavier’s sainthood and gave two additional reasons for this push:

The first one was political motivations within the Society of Jesus. Francis Xavier was part of this newly created order in the Catholic Church. This order still exists today, and those who belong to this group are individually called Jesuits. Dr. Mormando believes the call for their elevated status would give this order credibility and respect that other older established ones had already achieved. To do this, according to Mormando, “takes enormous time, money, and concerted effort, as well as, in early modern Europe, the support of powerful people in high places, both ecclesiastical and political.”(2) Francis Xavier and the Jesuit Missions in the Far East. An Anniversary Exhibition of Early Printed Works. Franco Mormando and Jill G. Thomas ed. Massachusetts: The Jesuit Institute of Boston College. 2006. Pg. 9

Secondly, his reputation was greatly enhanced when three Japanese feudal lords presented themselves at the Papal court in Rome in 1585. The “first diplomatic expedition ever from Japan to Europe.”(3) Francis Xavier and the Jesuit Missions in the Far East. An Anniversary Exhibition of Early Printed Works. Franco Mormando and Jill G. Thomas ed. Massachusetts: The Jesuit Institute of Boston College. 2006. Pg. 10 The Japanese connection initially began with Xavier’s sojourn in Japan and symbolized further commercial and expansionist Portuguese ideals.

The account of Xavier speaking in tongues is rooted in the Biblical narrative of Pentecost found in the Book of Acts where the Apostles miraculously preached in multiple languages to an international audience. Pentecostal speaking in tongues is a recurring theme in christian history – whether Catholic or Protestant. For example, the catholic religious orders, l’abbaye Saint-Clément and l’abbaye Saint-Arnould, had a strong competition between each other during the tenth and fourteenth centuries about whom was the superior order. L’abbaye Saint-Arnould positioned themselves as the better one because their founder spoke in tongues.(4)See St. Patiens Speaking in Tongues for more info. The early eighteenth-century Protestant based Camisards in south-east France also heavily stressed tongues in their spiritual expressions. They believed their speaking in tongues was a divine sign against Catholic oppression.(5)See The Camisards, Tongues and Prophecy St. Anthony of Padua, Vincent Ferrer, and many other Medieval Catholic leaders were also credited with this gift. Francis Xavier was not unique to this phenomenon, but may be the last in a long line of catholic saints who was recognized for speaking in tongues.

Xavier’s alleged speaking in tongues along with his miracles was a serious flashpoint between Protestants and Catholics. To the Protestants, the coverage of him speaking in tongues along with his many other miracles was the smoking gun by which they could demonstrate that the Catholic Church had lost her way. They declared the growing legend of St. Francis to be representative of the corruption within this church; a clear demonstration that God had long ago turned His back on them. Consequently, they argued that the catholic leadership lost the ability to produce any legitimate miracle, and anything they claimed of such nature, was an illusion.

The debate was also a catalyst that evolved into what is today called cessationism — the idea that all providential miracles ceased somewhere between the first and sixth-centuries of the church. The goals of the Gift of Tongues Project is not to trace this history, but it sure is tempting. The general topic of miracles will lightly be touched upon when it overlaps with the subject of speaking in tongues throughout this investigation.

Did he exercise the miraculous gift of tongues?

According to Xavier’s own letters and modern historians revisiting the data, the answer is a clear no.

The first evidence is from Francis Xavier himself. There is a comprehensive work available with the letters of Francis Xavier and others relating to his enterprise, called Monumenta Xaveriana, ex autographis vel ex antiquioribus exemplis collecta(6) The following letters, witnesses, and the Papal bull are drawn from this book.

Francis Xavier’s letter

The most prominent and controversial evidence is from a November 5th, 1549 letter written by Xavier while living in Japan. A writing which showed his particular frustration with the Japanese language:

God grant that we may acquire such a thing first as the Japanese language in order to explain the divine doctrine. Then finally we will do with zeal the certain work of the matters of Christianity. We indeed move about now among them something like mute statues. For these people are all talking and occupied about us, in fact we are silent, unaccustomed to their native speech. In the present time, we have become a child again in the process of learning the elements of this language. If only we could imitate the simplicity and candor of children. We are certainly following the likeness of infants while in the process of acquiring the native tongue, but also for sure in the children’s rudimentary task of practising.(7)My translation from Horatio Tursellinus. De Vita Francisci Xaverii: Qui primus e Societate IESV in Indiam & Japoniam Euangelium inuexit. Libre Sex. Rome: NP. 1596. Pg. 105 See also this reference contained in Pope Benedict XIV’s dissertation Pope Benedict XIV on Tongues

Just from this letter alone, it appears that Xavier did not have the gift of tongues. Neither does Xavier refer to his having the gift of tongues in any of his other letters.

The Canonization investigation on his speaking in tongues

If Xavier personally struggled with learning a foreign language, then why all the fuss? This is the fundamental question that has to be looked at from many perspectives. His name symbolized the cause of Catholicism, the Jesuits, Portugal, exploration, expansion, and discovery of new worlds. These all combined to put his name into consideration for sainthood — a process that requires the validation of a miraculous life. In Francis Xavier’s case, his own letters did not advance this cause and so further investigation was required from third parties. Almost seventy-years after St. Francis’ death, high-level meetings were held for his canonization and testimonies of a miraculous life were front and center. The gift of tongues being one of the examples.

The results documented two witnesses that stated he had the gift of tongues, a third one that is debatable, and Pope Urban’s positive declaration. The first witness was Emanuel Fernandez. His actual testimony was not recorded, but the inquiry’s understanding of his claims were published.

There are more testimonies outside of Monumenta Xaveriana but I haven’t been able to locate those sources yet. However, the amount found in this book is sufficient to build a case.

Emanuel Fernandez

The first testimony found was one by Emanuel Fernandez. He was a Parava convert likely given a Portugese or Spanish name after his conversion to Christianity. Parava was a Tamil speaking lower-caste group in the southern-coast regions of India who were fishermen, seamen, traders, and pearl harvesters. This group still exists today in the same area. Emanuel’s testimony was given in 1622 when he was 80 years old. This would make him roughly around 8 to 16 years old when the alleged miraculous tongues-speech occurred. The description vacillated on the definition on speaking in tongues; one being miraculously speaking in foreign languages, and the other a miracle of hearing. The miracle of speaking is more prominent in his testimony. It is not a firsthand dictation either. It is the summary of the interview from the perspective of the interviewers. Mr. Fernandez does not mention specific dates, exact locations, or the names of anyone else who heard Francis speak. There is little substantiation to this assertion.(8)Monumenta Xaveriana, ex autographis vel ex antiquioribus exemplis collecta. Vol. 2. Matriti : typis Augustini Avrial. 1912. Pg. 546

Thomas Vaz

Thomas was a Parava christian. He was born in 1549 — therefore much too young to give a firsthand account. His testimony is a general summary with little substantiation. Here the emphasis is on the miracle of hearing, and then later a small emphasis on the miracle of speaking. Once again it is written from the perspective of the interviewers and doesn’t contain any direct speech from Vaz himself. (9)Monumenta Xaveriana, ex autographis vel ex antiquioribus exemplis collecta. Vol. 2. Matriti : typis Augustini Avrial. 1912. Pg. 554

Antonio Pereira

Antonio Pereira was a Portuguese ship captain whom Xavier traveled with.(10)Georg Schurhammer. Francis Xavier: His life, His times. India. Rome: The Jesuit Historical Institute. 1977. Pg. 448 His testimony given to the canonization inquiry in 1556 is unclear about the claim of Xavier speaking in tongues. He claimed to have personally known and spoken all the foreign languages Xavier demonstrated and believed that Xavier had the incredible ability to learn a foreign language in a few days. His citation did not directly cite this ability as miraculous but highly unusual for a normal person to achieve.(11)Monumenta Xaveriana, ex autographis vel ex antiquioribus exemplis collecta. Vol. 2. Matriti : typis Augustini Avrial. 1912. Pg. 436

Pope Urban VIII

Pope Urban VIII reigned from 1623 to 1644. This Pope, whose childhood education was through a Jesuit school, was known for his militaristic and expansionist ideals. He had recently replaced the deceased Pope Gregory XV who had presided over the canonization of Xavier, and under whose leadership the sainthood ceremony took place in March, 1622. However, Pope Gregory XV died before issuing the Papal Bull. The Papal Bull was left for Urban VIII to complete, which he did on August 6, 1623. In reference to speaking in tongues he wrote:

Truly signs and wonders, to which the Lord confirmed the speech of his apostles in the beginnings of the Church’s rising for the growth of new offspring, He likewise mercifully restored by the hand of his servant Francis. Indeed, he was suddenly speaking by God languages of diverse and unknown nations which he did not know, he had been taught most eloquently, as if he been brought up in these same countries. And whenever it occurred about his giving an address to persons of the diverse of nations, each one heard his own language at the very same time in which he was born, that he was hearing this one speaking the great things of God with wonder and awe and the multitude having been greatly moved with this great miracle received the word of God.(12)My translation. For the Latin see Monumenta Xaveriana, ex autographis vel ex antiquioribus exemplis collecta. Vol. 2. Matriti : typis Augustini Avrial. 1912. Pg. 709

It is interesting that the witnesses and Pope Urban VIII refer to Xavier’s gift of tongues as being both a miracle of speaking or hearing. This is a later addition to the christian doctrine of tongues that developed after the time of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth-century. It is not known when exactly this change in doctrine occurred but it appears to be the normative interpretation by this time.(13)For Thomas Aquinas on the christian doctrine of tongues see: Thomas Aquinas on the Doctrine of Tongues: Conclusion

The vote for Sainthood hardly referenced tongues

Xavier’s application for sainthood along with the requisite testimonies were reviewed by twenty-eight Cardinals and approved in 1622. In the concluding remarks, only four had made any mention of his miracles, Cardinals A. Monte, Peretti, Ginnasii and Gherardi. Only one referenced the gift of tongues – Cardinal Ginasii. He described it as both a miracle of hearing and speaking.(14)“ad uitam reuocabat, linguis loquebatur uariis, ita ut unusquisque lingua sua illum loquentem audiret, intelligeret, perciperet.” Monumenta Xaveriana, ex autographis vel ex antiquioribus exemplis collecta. Vol. 2. Matriti : typis Augustini Avrial. 1912. Pg. 688

The majority of the Cardinals, a high authoritative position in the Catholic Church, did not elevate Xavier on account of his miracles but because of his other greater virtues. This vote demonstrates that miracles were a necessary afterthought only done in order to complete the process. They were never considered as the primary agents that defined the life of Francis Xavier.

The early historian Horatius Tursellinus does not include this claim

If one is to give some credence to the biography written by Horatius Tursellinus in 1596, Francis Xavier particularly paid attention to bringing interpreters to any region he went.(15)The admirable life of S. Francis Xavier Deuided into VI. bookes written in Latin by Fa. Horatius Tursellinus of the Society of Iesus and translated into English. Transl. Thomas Fitzherbert. Paris. 1632. Pages: 126, 255, 263, 424, 429

The dependency on translators became apparent in Japan, where he discovered his leading Portuguese to Japanese translator was from a lower class of Japanese people: not fully skilled in the difficult art of Japanese writing or in the technical aspects that a linguist would possess. This situation caused serious problems.(16)James Brodrick, S.J. Saint Francis, (1506-1552). London: Burns and Oates. 1958. Pgs. 385 & 390. // Georg Schurhammer, S.J. Francis Xavier: His Life, his Times. Vol. 4. Italy: The Jesuit Historical Institute. 1970. Pg. 109

Later Jesuit historians deny he spoke in tongues

Georg Schurhammer wrote an acclaimed critical and comprehensive biography of Francis Xavier that is unrivaled in depth and analysis from any other work within this genre. Schurhammer was a Jesuit historian from the mid-1900s. He drew this portrait from reading Xavier’s personal letters and reviewed historical accounts from Xavier’s fellow workers. He adamantly concluded that that Xavier did not have the gift of tongues:

Master Francis wrote down in Latin characters the prayers and Commandments that had been translated, for he could not even think of learning the difficult Tamil alphabet with its numerous characters and combinations. He then memorized the foreign text. Latin characters could, it is true, only represent very imperfectly sounds that were frequently much different from European sounds. His pronunciation of the different l-, r-, n-, and d-sounds, for example, must have frequently appeared to his hearers as strange, unintelligible, and amusing, especially since every change of a long for a short vowel completely altered the meaning of a word. But none of this terrified the zealous priest. To be better understood, he had his words repeated and explained by one of his seminarians. As soon as he had everything memorized, he went through the whole village with his bell and gathered together all the mean and boys he could. Twice a day he taught them their prayers, the Creed, and the Commandments. For a whole month he continued this instruction, and his hearers had to repeat what they had learned at home to their parents and other members of the household and to their neighbors.(17)Georg Schurhammer. Francis Xavier: his life, his times. India. Translated by M. Joseph Costelloe, S.J. Vol. IV. Rome: The Jesuit Historical Institute. 1977. Pg. 308ff

Fellow Jesuit James Brodrick believed that Xavier’s gift of tongues was a thing of legend, but was open to the possibility that Xavier marginally had this gift in his 1952 publication, Saint Francis, (1506-1552). If it did exist he thought it a hypothesis of telepathy.(18)(19)James Brodrick, S.J. Saint Francis, (1506-1552). London: Burns and Oates: 1958 (original printed in 1952). Pg. 132 In fact, Brodrick believed that Xavier was never a great linguist.(20)James Brodrick, S.J. Saint Francis, (1506-1552). London: Burns and Oates: 1958 (original printed in 1952). Pg. 15

How did the legend of Xavier speaking in tongues start?

After reviewing and comparing the majority pieces of literature on the subject, there are no obvious references to Francis Xavier speaking in tongues before the canonization process. This process, culminating with Pope Urban VIII’s bull of canonization in 1623, appears to be the catalyst for the addition of this trait to Xavier’s legacy. However, there is more to this story. Later biographers picked up the information from the canonization process and expanded the stories. When it comes to exaggerating miracles about Xavier, this started with Pedro de Ribadeneira (1526–1611). He was a Jesuit scholar, teacher, and writer. He was best known for his Spanish work, Vita Del P. Ignatio Loiola (The Life of Loyola) (1572) which included an account of Francis Xavier. He did not refer to Xavier having the gift of tongues but threw in numerous other miracles. Xavier’s gift of tongues was credited almost eighty-years later by an Italian author named Daniello Bartoli.

Daniello Bartoli

The first biographer to officially add this trait to Xavier’s resume was Daniello Bartoli’s 1653 work, L’Asia. Bartoli was an established Jesuit historian and high ranking Italian writer. He is a confusing read. First, he altered the interpretation of Xavier’s language struggles. Whereas in Xavier’s letters which indicate he had difficulty with the Japanese language and writing systems, Bartoli believed there were spontaneous moments that God temporarily gifted him with the ability to speak and comprehend the language. This uncertainty forced Xavier to study the local language for those moments the inspiration did not occur.(21)D. Bartoli, J. P. Maffei. St. Francis Xavier: Apostle of the Indies and Japan. Translator name not given. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co. 5th ed. 1868. Pg. 340

Humility forbade him ever to expect this miraculous accessory, and he therefor made himself at once a scholar, availing himself of interpreters to transfer the mysteries of religion to the dialect of the country; and then, after committing them to memory, he went forth to announce them in public.(22)D. Bartoli, J. P. Maffei. St. Francis Xavier: Apostle of the Indies and Japan. Translator name not given. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co. 5th ed. 1868. Pg. 340

Afterwards, Bartoli approaches the tongues speaking sequences differently. In one instance he wrote that Xavier publicly spoke on occasion in a combination of Portuguese, Spanish, Latin, Indian, or “whatever words crossed his mind” and the people understood him.(23)D. Bartoli, J. P. Maffei. St. Francis Xavier: Apostle of the Indies and Japan. Translator name not given. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co. 5th ed. 1868. Pg. 344ff It was then a miracle of hearing. Then he posits on one occasion that Xavier miraculously spoke in pure Malaysian and described Xavier having incredibly learned to speak in thirty languages. All of these a miracle of speaking(24)D. Bartoli, J. P. Maffei. St. Francis Xavier: Apostle of the Indies and Japan. Translator name not given. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co. 5th ed. 1868. Pg. 345 Bartoli merged the different definitions of the christian doctrine of tongues into one cohesive form. There is no contention by any other author, theologian or church leader disputing this theology.

Dominique Bouhours

Dominique Bouhours, (1628–1702) was another Jesuit scholar, writer, and historian who held the life and times of Francis Xavier very dearly. He is also one of the most controversial figures on the subject. His French work, first published in 1682, Vie de Saint François Xavier, apotre des Indes et du Japon is credited by protestant scholars as the source of exaggeration. It is unclear whether the blame should he wholly be put on Bouhours. His accusations can be traced to the writing style of the time where most authors did not clearly cite their sources. Bouhours is one of the offenders. His work cited earlier sources such as the Italian Jesuit historian Giovanni Pietro Maffei’s Historium Indicarum Libri XVI, and the French Jesuit Pierre Poussines who wrote in 1667, des Lettres de François Xavier.(25)Dominique Bouhours. Vie de Saint François Xavier, apotre des Indes et du Japon. Augmentée du Précis de la Vie du P. Charles Spinola. Paris: Chez Jacques Lecoffre et Cie, Libraires. 1849. Pg. 8. For information on Pierre Poussines see the Pierre Poussine article on Wikipedia Neither one has any reference to the gift of tongues. He falls silent on the rest of the sources that he used to broaden his stories on tongues but it appears that he amplified his biography from the proceedings of the canonization process and expanded on Daniello Bartoli’s work. If he did a better job of citation, his name may be held in better respect on this issue.

Bouhours is an odd read and is hard to figure out. He vacillated on the definition and is very inconsistent on what he believed constituted the gift of tongues.

For example Bouhours initially was unsure whether Xavier was endowed with the gift of tongues or had the extraordinary ability to easily master a language in a short period.(26)Dominique Bouhours. The Life of Francis Xavier. Translated by John Dryden. London: NP. 1688. Pg. 110 A few pages later, he amplifies on the canonization testimony of Thomas Vaz. Bouhours added that Vaz saw Xavier climbing in a tree to better speak to over 5000 persons while speaking in their language. He also did not reflect the canon summary that Vaz believed it to be both a miracle of hearing and speaking. Bouhours pushed it into the limitation of it being solely a miracle of speaking in the local language in this instance.(27)]Dominique Bouhours. The Life of Francis Xavier. Translated by John Dryden. London: NP. 1688. Pg. 143 Then he proceeded to describe Xavier having successfully labored to learn Malaysian. However, he contradicts this by writing in the same paragraph when he stated Xavier accomplished converting Malaysian Jews and Muslims because of the assistance of interpreters.(28)Pg. 205 Later on, Bouhours narrated that while Xavier was on a ship, he spoke in one language, and the passengers heard him speak in their own language.(29)Dominique Bouhours. The Life of Francis Xavier. Translated by John Dryden. London: NP. 1688. Pg. 216

This leads us to Xavier’s letter about his personal struggle with the Japanese language. Bouhours takes a slightly different but yet similar approach to Bartoli. Xavier was granted assistance by the Holy Spirit to accelerate language acquisition. His spirit-enhanced study technique was equivalent to being divinely gifted:

We ought not to be astonished in this passage last quoted, that a man to whom God had many times communicated the gift of tongues, should not speak that of Japan, and that he should be put to the pains of studying it. Those favours were transient, and Xavier never expected them; insomuch, that being to make abode in a country, he studied the language of it as if he could not have arrived to the knowledge of it but by his own industry. But the Holy Spirit assisted him after an extraordinary manner, on those occasions, as we have formerly observed. And we may say, that the easiness wherewith he learnt so many tongues, was almost equivalent to the lasting gift of them.(30)]Dominique Bouhours. The Life of Francis Xavier. Translated by John Dryden. London: NP. 1688. Pg. 416

Bouhours then follows-up with a grand event with no details or reference whatsoever. He described a time where the transient gift of tongues came upon Xavier while he lived in Japan:

At this time God restored to Father Xavier the gift of tongues, which had been given him in the Indies on divers occasions; for, without having ever learned the Chinese language, he preached every day to the Chinese merchants, who traded at Amanguchi, in their mother-tongue, there being great numbers of them. He preached in the afternoon to the Japonians in their language; but so naturally and with so much ease, that he could not be taken for a foreigner.(31)]Dominique Bouhours. The Life of Francis Xavier. Translated by John Dryden. London: NP. 1688. Pg. 458ff

What can be learned from all of this? Bouhours biography demonstrates that the legend of Francis Xavier speaking in tongues had accelerated into greater details since Xavier’s canonization in 1622. One must keep in mind that his understanding of the christian doctrine of tongues is not entirely clear as he mixes up various viewpoints.

The Protestant Invective

The narrative originally given by Bartoli and expanded by Bouhours was material evidence for the Protestant claim of Catholic decline.

John Douglas, Anglican Bishop of Salisbury, wrote in 1752 a book entitled, The Criterion; or, Rules by which the True Miracles Recorded in the New Testament are Distinguished from the Spurious Miracles of the Pagans and Papists. This is one of the first diatribes connecting Xavier to the protestant invective against catholicism. The title itself demonstrates that he did not like the Catholic Church at all and would go to great lengths to discredit them. He argues the use of miracles in Xavier’s biographies as an illustration of his treatise. He does not touch on the gift of tongues directly, but this is inclusive of the realm of miracles in the Catholic Church. He believed that Tursellinus and especially Bouhours fabricated stories about Xavier “posterior to his time.”(32)John Douglas. The Criterion; or, Rules by which the True Miracles Recorded in the New Testament are Distinguished from the Spurious Miracles of the Pagans and Papists. Oxford: University Press. 1832. Pg. 43 The Bishop of Salisbury then produced copious examples.

This Anglican Bishop was the first of many to claim that the miracles produced by the Catholic Church were illusory. Added to this list is the Dissenter Hugh Farmer (1714–1787).(33)Hugh Farmer. A Dissertation on Miracles Assigned to Show that they Arguments of a Divine Interposition and Absolute Proofs of the Mission and Doctrine of a Prophet. Edinburgh: Printed for J. Dickson, J. Fairbairn, and J. Ogle. 1798. Dissenters were a movement that did not conform to the Church of England and opposed state intervention in religion. They founded their own churches and educational institutions. These people were composed of a variety of alternative Protestant groups.

Xavier’s alleged speaking in tongues was a debated subject that reached its zenith in 1891 when Andrew Dickson White, the co-founder and first president of Cornell University, and U.S. Diplomat, published two articles in the Popular Science Monthly. He then added the same thoughts in his book, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom in 1896. He wrote that the Catholic tendency to exaggerate or create stories of miracles in mythical proportions is characteristic of an illiterate and untaught society in the natural laws of the world.(34)Andrew Dickson White. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Volume II. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1896. Pg. 21

White points out that the personal letter of Xavier struggling to learn Japanese, limited language skills, and pattern of using interpreters all point to the idea of him speaking in tongues being entirely wrong. He continued by illustrating the exaggeration of Bouhours and a later writer named Reverend F. W. Coleridge. He especially singled out Pope Urban VIII, the issuer of the Papal Bull. Mr. White demonstrated that this was the same Pope who was responsible for the punishment of Galileo, against science and human intellectual inquiry.(35)Andrew Dickson White. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Volume II. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1896. Pg. 19

The Catholic response

As noted previously, the Catholic Church had its own internal doubts about Francis Xavier speaking in tongues. This circumstance may have been one of the factors that caused Pope Benedict XIV (1675–1758) to refine the beatification and canonization process. This Pope was one of the foremost thinkers of his time; clearly Catholic in doctrine but open to science or other forms of learning. His work, De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione outlined a better process including the proper assessment regarding the gift of tongues in the beatification and canonization processes. De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione is a well written treatise and stands out as one of the best developed frameworks for the christian doctrine of tongues throughout any epoch. Within his reference to the gift of tongues, he brought up the problem of Francis Xavier. Did he or did he not speak in tongues?

Instead of asserting his own opinion he framed the argument between two parties. He began by quoting Xavier’s letter describing difficulty in learning the Japanese language. Then he proceeded to describe how two compatriots were divided over the issue. Jacobus Piceninus (1654–1714) believed that this was concrete evidence that Xavier never spoke in tongues. Cardinal Vincenzo Ludovico Gotti (1664–1742), well known for his keen intellect and knowledge, argued that this simply displayed the fact that the gift was an unpredictable divine infusion that came and went with no regular pattern. This forced Xavier to study the language in those times where the divine power would not be present.(36)See Pope Benedict XIV on the Gift of Tongues Point 9 Neither did this Pope reference Bartoli or Bouhours at all. Instead, he opted for more trusted sources.

Henry James Coleridge (1822–1893) was another Jesuit writer, but this time an Anglican convert to Catholicism. He lived in an era where England was in great tension between Anglican, Evangelical, Catholic communities along with a wave of Rationalism in the English intellectual circles. In 1881 he produced the book, The Life and Letters of Saint Francis Xavier. He dedicated a portion of the book to defend Xavier’s gift of tongues against both the Protestants and Rationalists. He justified Xavier through the lives of previous saints who allegedly spoke in tongues: from the Apostles to St. Bernard, Anthony of Padua, and Vincent Ferrer. Coleridge argued that the evidence was overwhelming. Xavier was witnessed to have spoken to thirty different nations. His gift of tongues was a well known fact and marked “by the natives as a mission from God.”(37)Henry James Coleridge. The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier. London: Burns and Oates. 1881. Pg. 173

Not only this, but he defined the gift of tongues as a twofold miracle of both speaking and hearing.(38)Henry James Coleridge. The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier. London: Burns and Oates. 1881. Pg. 172 Coleridge’s arguments are well written and cohesive but his sources are weak.

This takes the reader now to the official Catholic response to Andrew Dickson White. The reply was published in the volume 16, 1897 publication called Analecta Bollandiana. Analecta Bollandiana is a periodic publication started in 1882 by the Society of Jesus for reviews of critical hagiography. It is still being produced today. The Bollandists realized that medieval writers had an active imagination but one must be careful not to generalize all catholic medieval literature as being spurious. Some are good and some bad – each piece of literature has to be credited on its own merit. They also defended Bouhours; not in name but by their level of argument insisting Bouhours had more information available by his time than the earlier biographers did. He did not expand the story, but rather clarified with better documentation. They also riled against White’s objection of belittling the rigorous process of canonization. The Bollandists felt the investigation and witnesses are far greater than his objections can discount.[ref]Analecta Bollandiana. Carolus de Smedt and many more editors. Vol. XVI. Bruxelles: Société des Bollandistes. 1897. See the digitized version A Bollandist Rebuttle in the Francis Xavier Debate The arguments presented here by the Bollandists are weak, but given the tension between the Catholics and Protestants, it was part of a protracted battle where truth was an inevitable sacrifice.

As demonstrated above with the twentieth-century Jesuits such as Brodrick and Schurhammer, they no longer skirt around the issue and admit that this was a later legend.

How the doctrine of tongues has evolved

In the first Pentecost, the manifestation was imbued upon the Apostles which caused them to spontaneously and miraculously speak in different languages. By the fourth-century, there was some thought that it was either a miracle of hearing or speaking. Gregory Nazianzus posited these two theories together and preferred the miracle of speaking. However, a Latin translation by Tyrannius Rufinus misunderstood Nazianzus’ Greek text, and gave equal footing to both in his translation. This caused a thousand-years of debate in the Latin speaking christian world. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth-century seemed to settle it back as a miracle of speaking. Apparently, this was never established. The testimonies given at Xavier’s canonization process all point to an expanded definition. Speaking in tongues can be speaking in a foreign language, or it can be a miracle of hearing with the speaker speaking one, two, three, or a combination of languages. It could be both a miracle of hearing and speaking at the same time. Nowhere is the definition offered as a heavenly, angelic or prayer language. That is still centuries away.

The remarks by the witnesses recorded in the canonization process about speaking in tongues is puzzling. They appear to be espousing the theological jargon of the day. They reflected their current teachings of the christian doctrine and do not deviate from it. None of them steadfastly held the more ancient position of miraculously speaking only in a foreign language.

For more information



Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.

Latest posts by charlesasullivan (see all)

References   [ + ]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *