A History of Glossolalia: Origins

Image of the five pioneers of the glossolalia doctrine
*There are a few more but these ones are the best documented

How glossolalia entered the christian doctrine of tongues vernacular and became the entrenched form of interpretation.

The 1800s was the era of a major transition in the interpretation and understanding of the doctrine of tongues. This is a time when the traditional interpretation which consisted of a supernatural spontaneous utterance of a foreign language gave way to enigmatic themes such as ecstatic utterances, prophetic utterance, ecstasy, and glossolalia.

This article navigates through this journey of doctrinal change; demonstrating the names, places, and events.

Table of Contents

  • Why speaking in tongues became a popular item for scholars to publish in the 1800s
  • Ecstasy vs. Glossolalia
  • The people behind the new definition
  • The propagation of the new definition
  • August Neander and his influence on Philip Schaff in promoting tongues as an ecstatic utterance
  • The expansion of the new definition into the world of English literature
  • Conclusion

Why speaking in tongues became a popular item for scholars to publish in the 1800s

A major factor that fostered such serious study was the Irvingite movement’s claim in the 1830s to have revived the gift of tongues. This movement has already been covered in detail and can be found in the above link. This brought the study of the gift of tongues out of a long slumber and into the critical attention of religious scholars throughout Europe.

The assertion about the Irvingites may be an over-generalization because the story of the alteration begins a few short years before them, but without this controversial apocalyptic and tongues-speaking group, international inquiry to the doctrine of tongues would never have occurred. There would have been no catalyst for propagating a new definition.

Ecstasy vs. glossolalia

One has to be mindful of the use of the word ecstasy used throughout this article.
Medieval catholic mysticism had defined ecstasy as a prerequisite state before a divine encounter – very similar but not exactly to what Renewalists today call baptism in the Holy Spirit. Indeed, this was a such an important word in the late medieval vocabulary that the massive sixteenth-century Greek dictionary by Stephanus, Thesaurus of the Greek Language, allowed considerable space to define this Greek word. Ecstasy was a well known concept in Catholic circles at this time. The German academic community had taken this familiar religious symbol to express this phenomenon. Ecstasy was the starting point in the evolution of the doctrine of glossolalia.

The people behind the new definition

The rise of glossolalia can be traced to Germany in the late 1700s and the 1800s. Germany was the apex where the Renaissance, Reformation, Humanism, Protestant and anti-Catholic fervor all combined together to produce some of the greatest historical and philosophical works from a Protestant Christian framework. These influences are reflected in the introduction of glossolalia to the christian doctrine of tongues.

The story of glossolalia begins with five German scholars who promoted a fresh new approach to Biblical interpretation that purposely tried to avoid the trappings of traditional and enforced interpretations of Biblical texts:

  • Friedrich Schleiermacher whose method of interpreting the Bible along with his systematic theology, has granted him one of the most powerful and influential personages that only the likes of Augustine can topple. He did not like institutional dogma or forced creeds and approached theological subjects from a sociological perspective. He believed that any process cannot be forced to conform to an established framework and a conclusion does not have to arrive at a preconceived end.
  • A fellow teacher of Schleiermacher at the University of Berlin, W.M.L. de Wette, an Old Testament specialist who refined the idea of myth as a valid form of exegesis.1
  • Ferdinand Christian Baur the founder, leader and teacher at Tübingen School of Theology2 who was deeply influenced by Schleiermacher and later by the philosophical influences of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel is a major figure in his own right but his direct influence on glossolalia is faint. However, he created a new framework for Biblical interpretation which allowed such ideas to spawn.
  • Freidrich Bleek, a student of de Wette and highly praised by Schleiermacher himself, became one of the foremost German Biblical scholars of all time. He rose to prominence when he published “Origin and Composition of the Sibylline Oracles,” and “Authorship and Design of the Book of Daniel.”3
  • Last, but perhaps the most influential on the modern definition of speaking in tongues, was August Neander. August Neander was a disciple of Schleiermacher but more conservative in his views and less speculative on theological subjects.4 He also taught at the University of Berlin along with Schleiermacher and de Wette.

Schleiermacher and de Wette do not have a direct say in the development of glossolalia being added to the christian doctrine of tongues, but their framework to allow such an inclusion is obvious.

The propagation of the new definition

The late 1800s historian, author and Biblical exegete, Heinrich Meyer believed the first known academics to publish a critical work on tongues defined as an ecstatic utterance were Freidrich Bleek and FC Baur around 1830, just before the Irvingite movement’s break-out.5 He wrote:

Bleek believes that glôssai is a poetic, inspired mode of speech, whereas Baur believes it to be “a speaking in a strange, unusual phrases which deviate from the prevailing use of language.” – partly borrowed from foreign languages.6

The Exegetical Handbook authored by Heinrich Meyer believed that most commentators followed the standard definition that speaking in tongues was either a spontaneous speaking in a foreign language or the ability to easily learn a new language through study before Bleek and Baur came out with their alternative opinion.7

A German dissertation on tongues in 1836 entitled, Die Geistesgaben der ersten Christen: insbesondre die sogenannte Gage der Sprachen, by a man named David Schulz concluded that the greatest thinkers on the subject were Bleek, Baur and Augustus Neander.8 Neander came a little later than the first two, but his contribution had more of a universal impact.

These three are so important that almost all modern scholarly and clinical Biblical interpretation trends on the gift of tongues can be traced to them.

Two nineteenth-century Anglican scholars, Chr. Wordsworth and Rev. Edward Hayes Plumptre would disagree. Plumptre believed the glossolalia doctrine to be the “theories of Bleek, Herder, and Bunsen,”9 and Wordsworth attributes Heinrich Meyer, de Wette, and Bunsen.10 However, the texts they allude to cannot be located, and this study is unfortunately restricted to English translations of German texts. Based on English texts found so far, Heinrich Meyer’s evaluation and other works combine to mark Bleek, Baur and Neander as the top three.

August Neander and his influence on Philip Schaff in promoting tongues as an ecstatic utterance

Augustus Neander
Augustus Neander

Neander was the more prolific expositor and his literature was highly praised. He was referred to by more theologians on the doctrine of tongues than any other. It was through him the modern definition became an entrenched one throughout western Christendom.

His legacy in religious studies was so great that, Philip Schaff, who edited the highly praised and popular publication, History of the Christian Church, conceded that his work was an updated and modernized version of Neander’s writing.11 Schaff was trained in Germany, but moved to the US as a professor and widely disseminated Neander’s views. Neander also influenced Frederick Farrar, an English theologian and writer, who convincingly brought Neander’s thoughts to the positive attention of English readers.

The basis of Neander’s opinions can be credited to two writers, one named Herder, which is not detailed any further in Neander’s writing but is likely Johann Gottfried Herder, and “particularly Bauer, in his valuable essay on the subject in the Tubinger Zeitschrift für Theologie, 1830, part ii., to which I am indebted for some modifications of my own view.”12

Neander also knew that the new definition clashed with the traditional one and readily admitted a sharp departure, “If, then, we examine more closely the description of what transpired on the day of Pentecost, we shall find several things which favour a different interpretation from the ancient one.”13

The “ancient one” described by Neander, was a very worded text, believing that at the times of the apostles, Pentecost was a miraculous outpouring, enabling unlearnt men to speak in languages they did not know, then in later times, this would not reoccur. From that point, the universal promulgation of the Gospel had to be done through extensive language study.

“Accordingly, since the third century it has been generally admitted, that a supernatural gift of tongues was imparted on this occasion, by which the more rapid promulgation of the gospel among the heathen was facilitated and promoted. It has been urged that as in the apostolic age, many things were effected immediately by the predominating creative agency of God’s Spirit, which, in later times, have been effected through human means appropriated and sanctified by it; so, in this instance, immediate inspiration stood in the place of those natural lingual acquirements, which in later times have served for the propagation of the gospel.”14

He felt that the use of xenoglossolalia was unnecessary for the expansion of Christianity:

“But, indeed, the utility of such a gift of tongues for the spread of divine truth in the apostolic times, will appear not so great, if we consider that the gospel had its first and chief sphere of action among the nations belonging to the Roman Empire, where the knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages sufficed for this purpose…”15

And then further reckoned that not only had the miraculous ability to speak a foreign language at Pentecost ceased, but it was replaced by a spiritual language:

“Thus the speaking in foreign languages would be only something accidental, and not the essential of the new language of the Spirit. This new language of the Spirit is that which Christ promised to his disciples as one of the essential marks of the operation of the Holy Spirit on their hearts.”16

He clearly concluded that the tongues indicated in I Corinthians to be ecstatic:

“something altogether different from such a supernatural gift of tongues is spoken of. Evidently, the apostle is there treating of such discourse as would not be generally intelligible, proceeding from an ecstatic state of mind which rose to an elevation far above the language of ordinary communication.”17

Neander personally visited the Irvingite congregation while Irving was still leading, and concluded that although the Irvingites believed they were spontaneously speaking in a foreign language unknown to them, he observed that the reality demonstrated otherwise; “Still less can I admit the comparison with the manifestations among the followers of Mr. Irving in London, since as far as my knowledge extends, I can see nothing in these manifestations but the workings of an enthusiastic spirit, which sought to copy the apostolic gift of tongues according to the common interpretation, and therefore assumed the reality of that gift.”18

Schaff felt that Neander had failed in his examination of tongues and charged him with being a victim of rationalism.19 — though it is hard to find the difference in his position with Neander’s. Schaff believed the gift of tongues to be, “an involuntary, spiritual utterance in an ecstatic state of the most elevated devotion, in which the man is not, indeed, properly transported out of himself, but rather sinks into the inmost depths of his own soul, and thus, into direct contact with the divine essence within him . . .”20

He simply reinforced Neander’s position. One of the major proofs he used was by analogy of the Irvingites;

“The speaking with tongues in the Irvingite congregations, as it manifested itself in the earlier years of this sect in England, was at first a speaking in strange sounds resembling Hebrew, after which the speakers continued in their English vernacular…”21

He then reported of an eyewitness account of a Michael Hohl, who described an Irvingite experience. He saw a person going into a trance, produce violent convulsions and then, “An impetuous gush of strange, energetic tones, which sounded to my ears most like those of the Hebrew language”.22 Schaff then used the Irvingite experience to conclude:

“Could we appeal to the Irvingite glossolaly, as a reasonable analogy, we should here have a similar elevations, in which according to Hohl’s account above quoted, the ecstatic discourses were delivered first in strange sounds, like Hebrew, and afterwards, where the excitement had somewhat abated, in the English vernacular. Yet this analogy might be used more naturally to illustrate the relation between speaking with tongues and interpretation of tongues.”23

He also hesitatingly used the Irvingites, with some caveats, as a point in the evolving tongues history:

“The speaking with tongues, however, was not confined to the day of Pentecost. Together with the other extraordinary spiritual gifts which distinguished this age above the succeeding periods of more quiet and natural development, this gift, also, thought to be sure in a modified form, perpetuated itself in the apostolic church. We find traces of it still in the second and third centuries, and, (if we credit the legends of the Roman church), even later than this, though very seldom. Analogies to this speaking with tongues may be found also in the ecstatic prayers and prophecies of the Montanists in the second century, and the kindred Irvingites in the nineteenth; yet it is hard to tell, whether these are the work of the Holy Ghost, or Satanic imitations, or what is most probable, the result of an unusual excitement of mere nature, under the influence of religion, a more or less morbid enthusiasm, and ecstasis of feeling.”24

Philip Schaff was very intrigued by the gift of tongues and it must have been an important religious topic within the religious realm during his time. In the first ever meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in the US which was held in January 1880, Schaff chose to publicly read his work, “The Pentecostal and the Corinthian Glossolalia.”25

Schaff’s view on speaking in tongues was limited to an academic audience. It wasn’t until the next author, Frederick Farrar, published a book that met a much wider audience in the English speaking world and the doctrine took the next step to being a universal standard.

The expansion of the new definition into the world of English literature

Frederic William Farrar
Frederic William Farrar

This new definition was restricted to Germany, but this significantly changed in the English world when Frederick Farrar published in 1879; The Life and Work of St. Paul.

This author and his works may be forgotten in the annals of history, but in his time, he was well-known. Not only did this Englishman tirelessly work his way through the ranks to be the Dean of Canterbury26, but a friend to Charles Darwin and later a pallbearer at Darwin’s funeral.

Farrar promoted that the tongues of Pentecost had nothing to do with a foreign language. “Pentecost, does not contain the remotest hint of foreign languages. Hence the fancy that this was the immediate result of Pentecost is unknown to the first two centuries, and only sprang up when the true tradition obscured.”27

Once again the influence of Neander is clearly stated. “I do not see how any thoughtful student who really considered the whole subject can avoid the conclusion of Neander, that “any foreign languages which were spoken on this occasion were only something accidental, and not the essential element of the language of the Spirit.”28

He introduced a newly-made noun into the English language, glossolalia, with this statement:

“The glossolalia, or “speaking with a tongue,” is connected with “prophesying”–that is, exalted preaching–and magnifying God.”29

It is clear that the noun glossolalia was first coined and used in the English language around 1879. The Oxford Online English Dictionary previously attributed Farrar and an author named Lily as the creators but both have been removed from the present Dictionary with no reference to any antecedents at all.30 The Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary 1913, traced the introduction of the word glossolalia from only Farrar.31

Nothing substantial has been found yet on the author named Lily, though by virtue of Oxford Dictionaries association with Farrar, his views must have been closely aligned.

Conclusion

The formulation of glossolalia was clearly developing. However, questions still linger. Do the primary source books agree that glossolalia was introduced around 1879? Were there strong objections to the new definition? These questions and more are answered in this series.

More on this series:

Footnotes

  1. Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University. Pg. 194
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_Christian_Baur
  3. http://www.1902encyclopedia.com/B/BLE/friedrich-bleek.html
  4. 1902 Encyclopedia Britannica
  5. Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. Translated by D.D. Bannerman. W.P. Dickson, editor. 1887. Pg. 366.
  6. Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. Translated by D.D. Bannerman. W.P. Dickson, editor. 1887. Pg. 371.
  7. Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. Translated by D.D. Bannerman. W.P. Dickson, editor. 1887. Pg. 365
  8. David Schulz. Die Geistesgaben der ersten Christen: insbesondre die sogenannte Gage der Sprachen. Breslau: A. Gosohorsky. 1836. pg. 3
  9. “Tongues, Gift of” by E.H. Plumptre. Dictionary of the Bible. William Smith, LL.D. ed. London: John Murray. 1863. Pg. 1556
  10. Wordsworth, Chr. The Greek New Testament. Vol. 2. London:Rivertons. 1930. Pg. 44
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Schaff
  12. Augustus Neander. Planting and Training of the Christian Church by the Apostles. London: Henry G. Bohn. 1851. 3rd ed. Vol. 1 Pg. 15. The spelling of Bauer rather than Baur may be a transliteration problem but it was FC Baur he was referring to.
  13. IBID. Neander. Pg. 12
  14. IBID. Neander. Pg. 9
  15. IBID. Neander. Pg. 10
  16. IBID. Neander. Pg. 14
  17. IBID. Neander. Pg. 11
  18. IBID. Neander. Pg. 12
  19. Philip Schaff. History of the Apostolic Church with a General Introduction to Church History. Trans. By Edward D. Yeomans. New York: Charles Scribner. 1859. Pg. 201
  20. Philip Schaff. History of the Apostolic Church with a General Introduction to Church History. Trans. By Edward D. Yeomans. New York: Charles Scribner. 1859. Pg. 199
  21. Philip Schaff. History of the Apostolic Church with a General Introduction to Church History. Trans. By Edward D. Yeomans. New York: Charles Scribner. 1859. Pg. 198
  22. Philip Schaff. History of the Apostolic Church with a General Introduction to Church History. Trans. By Edward D. Yeomans. New York: Charles Scribner. 1859. Pg. 198
  23. Philip Schaff. History of the Apostolic Church with a General Introduction to Church History. Trans. By Edward D. Yeomans. New York: Charles Scribner. 1859. Pg. 202
  24. IBID. Schaff. Pg. 197
  25. http://www.sbl-site.org/SSchapter1.aspx
  26. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/farrar/bio.html
  27. Frederick W. Farrar. The Life and Work of St. Paul. London: Cassell and Company. 1897 (originally published in 1879). Pg. 53ff
  28. IBID. Farrar. Pg. 53ff
  29. IBID. Farrar. Pg. 53
  30. http://dictionary.oed.com. I can’t say when this was removed but am absolutely sure it existed. This is how I originally found Farrar’s name.
  31. Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary 1913. Found on the web here

5 thoughts on “A History of Glossolalia: Origins”

  1. Tongues, at first was used as an evangelical tool only! A gift of God was given to followers of Christ. The Dead Sea Scrolls seem to indicate the may have used ecstatic utterances. Note they died out. The Catholic Church reports ecstatic utterances starting up again during the Dark ages. Note the defeats suffered by the church campaigns by the Islomics. The Great Awakening challenged many church beliefs and practices and even the existence of God. Thanks Germans and Europe. NOT! God will not tolerate such abuse of a gift but for so long. I would have to think The second coming will be speeded along with the ungodly use of tongues as seen in the churches of today. Today as a true evangelical tool of human communication it would be a miracle more than a gift as in the earliest churches. Human psyco babble or of Satin, the gibberish of today is wrong. Come Lord Jesus!

  2. While a student at the Hebrew University I was taught by a Jewish professor that the earliest understanding of the word prophesy in Hebrew was ecstatic utterance and is translated that way in the newest English translation of the Tanach by the Jewish Publication Society. These incidents are the prophesying of the 70 elders, the occasion of Saul prophesying and the prophets themselves in the book of Samuel. This would substantiate that there is nothing new under the sun and although rare the speaking in strange utterances under the influence of the Holy Spirit has always been present among God’s people.

    • I believe the Biblical reference you are referring to is I Samuel 10 verses 10 and 13 which reads in the original 1917 version of the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh as; “And when they came thither to the hill, behold, a band of prophets met him; and the spirit of God came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them. . . And when he had made an end of prophesying, he came to the high place.”[1]

      The 1985 version of the JPS Tanakh has since changed the verse to follow what you described, “And when they came there, to the Hill, he saw a band of prophets coming toward him. Thereupon the spirit of God gripped him, and he spoke in ecstasy among them. . . And when he stopped speaking in ecstasy, he entered the shrine.”[2]

      The original Hebrew reads:

      וַיָּבֹאוּ שָׁם הַגִּבְעָתָה, וְהִנֵּה חֶבֶל-נְבִאִים לִקְרָאתוֹ; וַתִּצְלַח עָלָיו רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, וַיִּתְנַבֵּא בְּתוֹכָם

      וַיְכַל, מֵהִתְנַבּוֹת, וַיָּבֹא, הַבָּמָה

      Note especially the verb וַיִּתְנַבֵּא which is used for prophesied or as in the case of the JPS 1985 version, spoke in ecstasy. This verb is from הִתְנַבֵּא . This is typically used for prophesying or foretelling. I can’t think of an instance where the semantic range includes ecstasy. Not even the modern online Hebrew dictionary, Melingo, has ecstasy for this word in its list of English equivalents.[3] The Septuagint has προφητῶν[4] and the Latin Vulgate renders as prophetavit.[5] Both do not relate to the function of ecstasy, but the prophetic office.

      The 1985 JPS edition follows the pattern as the 1970ish New English Bible did in its translation of Acts 19:16 where the translators rendered the passage of Paul causing people to speak in tongues of ecstasy and prophesy.[6] These are not typical of English translation practice and are deviations from the standard. The 1985 JPS edition is different from the 1917 version because it is adding a modern interpretation of prophecy. The editors decided to add the Greek classical prophetic rite in describing prophecy rather than the traditional Jewish/Christian one. This is consistent with modern interpretation, but this line of thought cannot be found earlier than the 19th century.

      [1] http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt08a10.htm
      [2] http://nocr.net/bexpo/english/engtnk/index.php/1Sa/10
      [3] http://www.morfix.co.il/
      [4] http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/chapter.asp?book=9&page=10
      [5] http://www.latinvulgate.com/lv/verse.aspx?t=0&b=9&c=10
      [6] https://charlesasullivan.com/1904/the-history-of-tongues-as-an-ecstatic-utterance-examining-the-source-books/

      My apologies for the Hebrew not being formatted correctly but the comment section of WordPress does not properly support this.

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