Introduction to the History of Glossolalia

An examination on why the traditional doctrine of tongues as a supernatural endowment of a foreign language all but died and was replaced by the doctrine of glossolalia.

This series of articles will demonstrate how the new definition originated in the early 1800s and had progressed to the strong doctrine that presently exists.

The reader will discover a rich story behind the development of this concept with exact names, disputes, and places. The series will clearly show the change from a miracle of speech or hearing to glossolalia. This change was a process that took over a century to develop and became universally and unquestionably entrenched.

What is glossolalia and were the ancient Christian writers aware of this practice?

Though there are many words to describe modern tongues speaking such as ecstasy, ecstatic utterance, frenzy, etc., glossolalia will be used throughout this series as a blanket term.

Glossolalia, ecstasy, and ecstatic utterances are the same words to explain something that is unintelligible and meaningless. “Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like.”1

This new definition has a personal history separate from that of the ecclesiasts who guarded the old doctrine of tongues as a miracle of either a person spontaneously speaking a foreign language or the recipient hearing sounds in their native one. Rarely has the new definition of glossolalia been critically examined or traced from its initial beginnings to the present. This examination is what the series, A History of Glossolalia, is all about.

This series is part of the Gift of Tongues Project that has a fourfold purpose of collecting, digitizing, translating and analyzing important texts relating to the christian doctrine of tongues. The overwhelming evidence collected so far maintains the church had always understood the miraculous use of tongues at Pentecost as either spoken or heard as foreign languages. Historical leaders such as Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Epiphanius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria, the Ambrosiaster text, Pachomius, the Venerable Bede, Pope Benedict XIV and more have covered the subject. The details may be different, but all agree that it was a foreign human language. Their critical debates were whether it was a miracle of hearing or speaking, or whether the language constructed itself in the mind or converted at the last moment on the lips.2

These Church writers were not aware of an alternate interpretation of tongues as ecstasy or glossolalia.

Michael Psellos in the eleventh century was well aware of the Greek prophetesses going into an ecstatic state and speaking in foreign languages. He knew that there could have been a relationship between this and the Christian practice but dispelled the correlation outright. Neither did he believe that the ancient Greek prophetesses spoke gibberish or a highly exalted language. He believed they were speaking a foreign human language. When the connection between the Greek prophetesses and Christian tongues occurred in the early 1800s, Psellos important contribution to the debate was neglected out of ignorance or willfully ignored.3

The initial problem connecting glossolalia with the christian doctrine of tongues.

An implicit bias in the doctrine of glossolalia is its absence or little use of the church fathers. Many scholars who were proponents of tongues as glossolalia failed to recognize or integrate base Christian texts, selectively choosing weaker ones instead. They neither wrestled with the church texts in any detail to assert or repudiate their claims.

The church fathers focused mainly on the Day of Pentecost in Acts where they believed the experience to be people supernaturally endowed with the ability to speak in foreign languages. Paul’s coverage of the tongues problem in Corinth has been more difficult for the ancient church writers to cover. Most have avoided explaining it, choosing to go into allegory or emphasizing the moral force of the text: the need for charity instead of pride. Noted exceptions to this were: Epiphanius, who saw the Corinthian problem as an ethnolinguistic conflict, the Ambrosiaster text, which summed it up as a conflict between Aramaic and Greek-speaking Jews; and the Cyril of Alexandria text which explained problems arising from hypothetically speaking in Eastern languages such as Mede in a Greek-speaking community. These church writings can be found documented at the Gift of Tongues Project.

Problems connecting Montanism with the christian doctrine of tongues

Scholars from the realm of higher criticism have introduced Eusebius’ coverage of the Montanist movement and their ecstasies as the historical definition of speaking in tongues in the church. However, the Greek keyword for tongues doesn’t even occur in the text. This omission is very problematic and weakens this solution. The ecclesiastical writers made no connection with the Montanists regarding speaking in tongues. Neither can any person find documents with the church specifically arguing for or against Montanist tongues. The Montanist experience for explaining Christian tongues didn’t arrive until 1500 years after the Montanist experience by Conyers Middleton in his publication, Free Inquiry.4 This is a later interpretation that cannot be substantiated through early historical literature.

An overview on the history of glossolalia series

How the doctrine of glossolalia first appeared and took over this subject matter is a complex journey that requires a series of articles to answer. To get started, here are some brief thoughts to set things up for the following articles:

The nineteenth-century Irvingite Movement can be blamed for renewed interest into the subject. They brought the tongues theology out of deep sleep and into the critical attention of the international community; from the layperson to magazines, newspapers, and scholars. It summoned a deep theological debate that was in the cross-hairs between the traditional supernaturalists and the quickly rising rationalist movement. The Irvingite event was the litmus test for both parties credibility.

The rise of the glossolalia definition and the abandonment of the traditional one was also primarily due to the casualty of ecclesiastical writings dropped as historical literature and switched to the category of legends and myths. There is a purposeful de-emphasis of ecclesiastical writings in the primary, secondary and tertiary sourcebooks from the 19th century onwards.

This has had a profound impact on the controversies surrounding this doctrine. If this de-emphasis on ecclesiastical writings did not exist, it would change the current debate altogether.5

The series of articles

These are all generalizations here, which the Gift of Tongues Project normally tries to avoid. In this case, some introduction was necessary. This is a large work and is broken into a number of articles. Here is the complete listing:


  1. a quote from William Samarin as found in: Robert Carroll. The Skeptic’s Dictionary. A collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons. 2003. Pg. 135
  2. For more information on whether it was a miracle of speaking or hearing, see Gregory of Nazianzus on Pentecost and Michael Psellos Michael Psellos on the Tongues of Pentecost.
  3. Michael Psellos on the Tongues of Pentecost.
  4. see Conyers Middleton and the doctrine of tongues
  5. Read The Historical Rejection of Patristics and its Legacy for a detailed account on why and how the Ecclesiastical writings were dropped and not considered a legitimate source for scholarly study.

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