Jansenism and Christian Tongues

A detailed look at the Jansenist connection to the Christian doctrine of tongues.

Any reader who has familiarity with the Christian doctrine of tongues will eventually come to the topic of this 18th-century French movement. They are only a small notation in the debate, but like all others, needs a critical look. Many historical claims of groups or persons speaking glossolalia, tongues, xenolalia, or similar are typically under-investigated.

Previous research and articles categorized under the Gift of Tongues Project has revealed many inaccuracies and dispelled large generalizations on many movements. The Jansenists also fit within the framework of unsubstantiated claims.

This article aims to uncover the source(s) regarding the Jansenists with an analysis of various third-party commentaries on the subject.

Before proceeding, one ought to remember that this research seeks to find perceptions of events by those who were eyewitnesses. Perceptions are not necessarily reality. It is up to the reader to decide the veracity of the claims.

Who Were the Jansenists?

The Jansenites were a Catholic movement started by the Dutch Catholic Bishop, Cornelius Jansen, in the 1600s. Jansen saw the need for reforms within the Catholic Church, and instead of choosing Calvin and the Protestant revolt as an agent of change, he looked back to Augustine and this ancient leader’s principles as the source.

Cornelius Jansen, the source of the Jansenist Movement

Jansen, unfortunately, did not survive long enough to establish these ideals but his writings spawned a movement.

The small Jansenist campaign was embattled with the powerful and established Jesuits over the definitions of grace and personal salvation.1 The volleys between the two were harsh and severe. One must read the histories between the two with caution when building a proper understanding of the Jansenists.

Theologically, the movement asserted a framework set by their perception of Augustine. Some argue there were influences by the ideas of the French Protestant Reformer Jean Calvin. It also featured instruction in the common language of the community rather than exclusively in Latin.

The Jansenist story is mixed with stories of oppression and persecution. The movement came into the crosshairs with the King of France, a fractured Catholic leadership, and growing public resentment. These entities combined with a purpose to destroy the Jansenist institutions, leaders, and followers.

The Christian doctrine of tongues was certainly not within the context of the Jansenist earliest iterations. The movement had evolved since the time of its founder. Cornelius Jansen did not write about speaking in tongues. If anything, Jansen would have frowned on such a practice or interpretation. As noted before, he based his religious system around an Augustinian framework. The writings of Augustine were critical of the doctrine of tongues. Augustine believed the gift of tongues (the miraculous speaking or hearing in foreign languages) transferred from a personal ennoblement to the corporate duty of the church.2

Consequently, this study focuses on the later iteration of the Jansenists; the late 1600s and up to the 1730s in France.

One must keep in mind too, David Hume, a Scottish intellectual and philosophical genius, who lived during the Jansenist controversy. He devoted a piece in his, Essays on Miracles found in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He noted their distinction about, “. . .curing of the sick, giving hearing of the deaf, and sight to the blind. . .”3 He argued that the Jansenists were extremists who promoted their miracles equal to the Savior.4

Nowhere does he provide information about the miracle of tongues. This omission indicates the practice of tongues was not central to their narrative.

The Convulsionists

The critical part of the narrative is a particular Jansenist sect called the Convulsionists. A controversial group that at least one historian claims there were tense relations between the two camps. It is difficult to know how small or great their contribution was to the Jansenist mainstream.5 The Convulsionist later practices were odd, some that ventured into a brutal and exhibitionist form of flagellation which makes the connection with the Jansinest mainstream tenuous.6

The beginning of the Convulsionists was related to a woman named Aimée Pivert, who came to the tomb of François de Pâris. François was a revered Jansenist follower. While Aimée visited the tomb, she went into convulsions. Afterward, more people came to de Pâris’s grave and falling into convulsions. Soon, it became a common feature, and other miracles began to occur.7

Knowledge of epilepsy and diabetes, among other conditions that can cause seizures, was non-existent at the time. The ignorance left people to superstition, spiritual, and juvenile remedies. Alternatively, these demonstrations may have nothing to do with any medical condition. Convulsions in this context was a religious experience similar, if not, equal to the present charismatic practice of being slain-in-the-spirit.

The research uncovers a small Jansenist snippet that gives an important clue about their belief of Christian tongues. They connected the experience to the miracle of understanding foreign languages, and perhaps speaking them too. This understanding was demonstrated by a Convulsionist by the name of Sister Catherine. The second instance does not specify the individual’s name, but it may refer to Sister Catherine. This tongues miracle was perceived evidence that God had sided with the Jansenists in their cause.

The Source Text:

Perusal through the documents found so far concludes that there is one, maybe two, references to the Christian doctrine of tongues. Perhaps, there are more, but these two are the only definitive ones located. If the discovery of more data occurs, it may change the conclusion.

The source texts are critical for the understanding of the Convulsionists. As per the mandate of the Gift of Tongues Project, the translation includes the source text. The reader can skip the French and move directly to the English translation.

The text is found in Lettre d’un ecclésiastique de Province à un de ses amis, où il donne une idée abrégée de l’oeuvre des convulsions. This French work was written in 1733. Some of the word usage is archaic and difficult to translate. The text is choppy. The writer did not entirely understand the tongues expression and wrote in loose, almost contradictory sentences.

A Jansenist historian, Catherine-Laurence Mair, believes the author was Abbé de Saint-Jean. Other writers believe the author is anonymous. There is no information on Abbé de Saint-Jean except in the book’s introduction, where he appears sympathetic to the Jansenist cause.

French Original

Voici un fait plus détaillé touchant les Convulsions qu’a regulierement tous le jours Soeur Catherine depuis plusieurs mois. Ses Convulsions qui durent plus de deux heures, commencent par des mouvemens extraordinaires dans la bouche & dans toutes les machoires, comme s’il faloit leur donner une nouvelle conformation pour les mettre en état de prononcer une langue inconnuë qu’elle va parler. Après que ces mouvemens sont cessez, elle dit les paroles de la Liturgie qu’elle commence à l’Offertoire, & elle represente toutes les actions avec les mains. Elle attend qu’on lui réponde àl’Orare fratres, à laPreface & au Pater.Quand elle represente l’action d’avaler le precieux Sang, on entend dans ses boyaux un remuëment si extraordinaire, qu’un Chirurgien qui était present la premiere fois que je la vis, nous fit remarquer qu’il était impossible de le contrefaire, ou de l’imiter. Elle prononce toutes les paroles, & fait toutes les actions avec une ferveur & une pieté qui charme : elle est couchée par terre. C’est ordinaire (Pg. 10) au Mementoqu’on lui parle toutes sortes de langues et quand elle est hors de ses Convulsions, elle rend raison de ce qu’on lui a dit. Je Sçai un Ecclesiastique qui sçait au moins douze langues, & qui après lui avoir parlé dans la plûpart de ces langues, a laissé par écrit de qu’il lui avait dit en chaque langue & le compte qu’elle lui en avait rendu au sortir de ses Convulsions. Après cette action, elle represente la dégradation d’un Prêtre, & elle s’arrache beaucoup de cheveux, ensorte qu’elle aura bien-tôt une Tonsure entiere, par la quantité qu’elle en a déja arrachez.8

—The second instance. Three pages later in the book—

Il y a une Convulsionaire qui a l’intelligence de toutes Langues sans les pouvoir parler, sans sçavoir même dans quelle Langue on l’interroge, quoiqu’elle l’entende & qu’elle réponde. La même parle une Langue inconnuë, & l’entend sans pouvoir l’expliquer, ni en François, ni dans ancune autre Langue. Il a paru qu’une Convulsionaire entendoit cette Langue au milieu de ses Convulsions ; car la premiere demandant quelque chose dans son langage, celle-ci disoit elle demande telle & telle chose ; effectivement quand on le lui avoit donné, elle ne disoit plus rien.9

English Translation

Here is a more detailed account about the Convulsions that Sister Catherine has regularly each day for several months. Her convulsions, which last more than two hours, begins by extraordinary movements in the mouth and in her jaws, as if it needed a new structure in order to be able to articulate an unknown language she is about to speak. After these moves have ceased, she says the words of the Liturgy that she begins at the offertory and she begins to signs all the actions with her hands. She waits that we reply to her at the Orare Fratres, to the Preface and to the a Pater. When she signs the action to swallow the precious Blood,10 one can hear in her guts a so extraordinary move, that a surgeon who was present the first time I saw her, made the remark that it was impossible to imitate or counterfeit. She says all the words and does all the actions with zeal and a touching piety: she is laid on the ground. It’s usually at the Memento that we speak to her all sorts of languages and when she is outside of her Convulsions, she makes sense of that which we spoke to her. I know a clergyman who knows at least twelve languages, and after having spoken to her in most of these languages, had left by writing of what he had spoken in each language and the account which she had rendered after her convulsions. After this act, she represents the Degradation of the Priest, and she pulls out a lot of hair, so that she has a nearly total tonsure, by the quantity already plucked.

—The second instance. Three pages later in the book—

“There is a Convulsionist which has the understanding of all languages without the ability to speak, without even knowing which language is spoken to her, even if she listens and answers. The same speak an unknown language and hear it without the ability to explain it, neither in French, nor another language. It seemed that a Convulsionist understood this language in the middle of her convulsions; for the first was asking something in her language, the second said: “she is asking this and that;” and as a matter of fact, as soon we gave to her what was asked, she said nothing anymore.11

Analysis of the Text

Soeur Catherine is the principal-agent in this narrative. The English translation is Sister Catherine. Her full name was Catherine Danconi, a daughter of a cloth merchant and niece to Souer Françoise.12 Souer Françoise was an early leader, and her fame was voluntarily imitating the crucifixion experience, nails and all.13 The assumption is that both these women were Cistercian nuns in the Jansenist influenced Abbey of Point-Royal.

Abbé de Saint-Jean is sure that the miracle of speaking in tongues by Sister Catherine, and perhaps another person, was about foreign languages. He played between whether it was a miracle of hearing or speaking and overlapped them. In his view, the miracle of hearing held greater emphasis. There is no indication of a person speaking in a non-human, angelic, or heavenly language in the text. Neither was the miracle perceived as glossolalia. Readers may suggest that the concept of an unknown language (langue inconnuë) found in the source suggests glossolalia. Initial reading from a modern perspective points that way. History and the French language indicate a different interpretation. Jean Calvin utilized a similar term during the 1500s to mean foreign languages,14 and the term has slightly evolved to langue inconnue in modern French. A term that refers to someone unable to communicate with another person because they do not know the foreign language.

Various Viewpoints

Almost all references to the Jansensists will inevitably lead to B. Robert Kreiser’s book, Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris.

Kreiser spends little time on their practice of speaking in tongues, setting aside only a paragraph to dwell on this aspect.

Suddenly “overcome by the spirit,” often in the very midst of a convulsive seizure or even during the administration of the secours,the inspired one gave out a variety of vocal utterances. Some of this “speech,” serving perhaps as a form of prayer, consisted of little more than unintelligible mutterings and a steady stream of incomprehensible exclamations. In other cases it involved equally incoherent screaming and roaring, howling and yelling. Still other convulsionaries spent these periods of “inspiration” making utterly obscure pronouncements that were without any particular logic, sequence, or theme. The phenomenon of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, in a strange, new “language” of words, syllables and sounds they had never learned and did not comprehend, was also quite common and gave many convulsionaries both a feeling that the Holy Spirit was present within them and a sense of direct communication with God—experiences which served in a way to validate their commitment to the oeuvre.15

His appraisal of the Convulsionist tongues is well written and convincing. Unfortunately, he does not cite any Jansenist source for his comments. He attempts to trace the Christian doctrine of tongues through the prism of glossolalia which is the default modern mode. In this framework, one has to trace the ritual of glossolalia passed down through the centuries, first with the Delphic Priestesses, then past the Jansenists etc. In this particular situation, the Jansenists did not believe what they were doing was glossolalia or a similar rite. The eyewitness of the Convulsionist experience and his readers understood it as a new iteration of the first Pentecost. There is no connection with a perceived legacy of glossolalia being passed down to them. Kreiser’s connection to glossolalia as a ritualistic practice is a weak proposition.

The Encyclopedia Brittannica gives an indirect reference through the Montantists—a connection which traces tongues as glossolalia throughout the centuries. The Encyclopedia surveyed the Montanists and Jansenists as two of four examples throughout history to demonstrate the evolution. Yet, they did not substantiate any of the four, including the Jansenists.16 Nor did they consider the record of the institutional church through the centuries. There are many more records of Christian tongues’ manifestations, which posits a different trajectory on the discussion.

The radical and unorthodox Church of Scotland minister, Gordon Strachan, stated a very similar indirect sentiment. He, too failed to substantiate such a claim.17

Donald Gee, an important figure for homogenizing the Pentecostal message into a coherent narrative, also laid claim to the Jansenists. However, he left out the concept of tongues entirely. He cited them as an example for the perpetuation of miracles.18 Though, once again, there is no source reference to support his case.


The Jansensist story is not a big one in the Christian doctrine of tongues. Still, the appropriate footnote should only contain a short reference to the perceived miracle of speaking or hearing a foreign language.

Perhaps, this may be too strong an assertion, but this stance remains unless there is more source material uncovered.

  1. Richard Yodel provides some insight about this tension in his article, When a Pope Writes and the Church Rebels
  2. See Augustine on the Tongues of Pentecost for more information.
  3. David Hume. Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. Book II. New Edition. London: T. Cadell; C. Elliot, T. Kay, and Co. 1788. Pg. 129
  4. David Hume. Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. Book II. New Edition. London: T. Cadell; C. Elliot, T. Kay, and Co. 1788. Pg. 128 and see his two-plus page footnote beginning on Page 552, which has his polemic of the Jansenists believing their miracles were equal to that of the Savior.
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convulsionnaires_of_Saint-M%C3%A9dard
  6. See Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard for more information.
  7. The Jansenist Miracles of Enlightenment France, Part Two: The Convulsionnaires August 29, 2020. And The Jansenist Miracles of Enlightenment France, Part One: The Thaumaturges July 14, 2020. The links are by Nathaniel Lloyd, a blogger who likes to delve into subjects of hoaxes and mass hysteria, baffling mysteries and unreliable historiography. He is one of the few English writers that has built a comprehensive narrative arc. Unfortunately, Lloyd does not delve into the area of the miracle of tongues or glossolalia. Other accounts of the development of the rise of Convulsionism I find too technical or brief for introductory purposes.
  8. Abbé de Saint-Jean. Lettre d’un ecclésiastique de Province à un de ses amis, où il donne une idée abrégée de l’oeuvre des convulsions. No publisher or location given. 1733. Pg. 9
  9. IBID. Lettre d’un ecclésiastique de Province. . . Pg. 12. Catherine-Laurence Maire also has the text, though with improved stylization, in her book, Les convulsionnaires de Saint-Médard : miracles, convulsions et prophéties à Paris au XVIIIe siècle. Gallimard : Julliard. 1985. Pg. 121ff
  10. Protestants call this rite ‘communion.’
  11. Translations given by Omnes Etienne, adapted by Charles A. Sullivan.
  12. Catherine-Laurence Maire. Les convulsionnaires de Saint-Médard : miracles, convulsions et prophéties à Paris au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Gallimard : Julliard. 1985. Pages 120 and 160.
  13. http://anglicanhistory.org/neale/holland/intro.html
  14. “langage
    incognu” and “langages estranges.”
    See the article The Unknown Tongues of the English Bible: Part 2. See also, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. Pg. 435ff in the English, or Commentaires De M. Iehan Calvin sur toutes les Epistres de l’Apostre Sainct Paul. Pg. 293ff
  15. B. Robert Kreiser. Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris, Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1978. Pg. 268. Kreiser’s book is not available in any nearby library and too expensive for a one read purpose. I am hoping that the book snippets provided at Google books suffice for this reference.
  16. “The greatest emphasis upon the gift in the early church was made by followers of the 2nd-century prophet Montanus. His excommunication about 177 and the later decline of the sect probably contributed to a climate of opinion unfavourable to tongue speaking and the practice declined. During later church history, glossolalia occurred in various groups, including the 13th century mendicant friars, the French Protestant Camisards (18th century), the French Catholic Jansenists (17th and 18th centuries), and the members of the Catholic Apostolic Church (organized in England in the 19th century). It has been said that some of the converts to Methodism also experienced glossolalia.” Encyclopedia Brittannica. 1987. Vol. 11. Pg. 842
  17. “After Montanism there are only isolated cases recorded and it was not until the late seventeenth century that it was claimed to be a ‘symptom of divine inspiration’ on a large scale. Extensive outbreaks of tongues occurred among the Huguenots of the Cevennes and the appellant (but still nominally Catholic) Jansenists.” C. Gordon Strachan. The Pentecostal Theology of Edward Irving. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. 1973. Pg. 14
  18. “The gifts have never entirely ceased. Irenaeous, Tertullian, Chrysostum, Augustine, all refer to these gifts as being still existent in their own times. Even during the dark Middle Ages they appeared among the persecuted Waldenses and Albigenses. Then among the Jansenists, the early Quakers, the so-called French Prophets, the early Methodists, down to the “Irvingite” Church of the nineteenth century. There were many saints who spoke with tongues and had other manifestation of the Holy Spirit long before the present great outpouring that began about 1900.” Donald Gee. Concerning Spiritual Gifts. Missouri: Gospel Publishing House. 1972. Pg. 19

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