Charles Parham on Speaking in Tongues

Charles F. Parham
Charles Parham, 1873 — 1929 AD

Discovering what speaking-in-tongues meant to Charles F. Parham, separating the mythology and reality.

Charles Fox Parham was a self-appointed itinerant/evangelist in the early 1900s who had an enormous early contribution to the modern tongues movement. It was his teaching and missional emphasis that encouraged a number of his followers, especially Lucy Farrow, and later William Seymour to go to California and be major patrons in the Azusa Street Revival — a movement that is considered the public symbol for the Pentecostal message being spread throughout the world.

Parham is both a controversial and complex figure that goes far beyond his codifying speaking-in-tongues within the holiness movement. This article focuses on what Parham believed the miracle of tongues to be; was it a foreign language, a heavenly one, ecstatic, or a combination?
It is not the goal of this writing to discern whether his perception was accurate; rather, it is merely to ascertain what he believed.

Neither does this investigation want to revisit the historical contribution of Parham’s Apostolic Faith Movement. This subject is already well documented.

Initially, it was not hard to find his position both experientially and theologically on the subject. He believed it to be the miraculous endowment of speaking in a foreign language unknown beforehand by the speaker for evangelistic/missionary purposes. His family supported such a thesis.

His wife, Sarah Parham made the idea of it being foreign languages. Her biography discloses this in The Life of Charles F. Parham: the Founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement.1 Of course, it is entirely valid to recognize any biography produced by a relative has an implicit bias, which this book contains. However, in the case of defining his concept about speaking-in-tongues, it can be held as source material.

On the other hand, further complexity was later found after the first publishing of this article. A fellow evangelist and faith healer, F. F. Bosworth, claims that Parham was the one responsible for theologically separating speaking in tongues into two separate definitions. A sign gift as found at Pentecost where the person’s miraculous speech was unpredictable and the gift of tongues, which a person could call upon and control a language at will.2

Judging from extent Parhamite literature, if Parham had split tongues into two entities, he understood the vocal expressions as foreign languages.

It is hard to discuss speaking-in-tongues without first addressing the emerging doctrine called the Baptism of the Spirit about Parham. However, this is outside the scope of this article or the Gift of Tongues Project, but requires acknowledgment. Sarah Parham references both tongues and baptism. She includes both in a firsthand account in chapter 8 written by a Miss Lilian Thistlethwaite:

On Mr. Parham’s return to the school with his friends, he asked the students whether they had found any Bible evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The answer was, unanimous, “speaking in other tongues.”

Services were held daily and each night. There was a hallowed hush over the entire building. All felt the influence of a mighty presence in our midst. Without any special direction, all moved in harmony. I remember Mrs. Parham saying, “Such a spirit of unity prevails that even the children are at peace, while the very air filled with expectancy. Truly He is with us, and has something more wonderful for us than we have known before.”

The service on New Year’s night was especially spiritual and each heart was filled with the hunger for the will of God to be done in them. One of the students, a lady who had been in several other Bible Schools, asked Mr. Parham, to lay hands upon her that she might receive the Holy Spirit. As he prayed, her face lighted up with the glory of God and she began to speak with “other tongues”. She afterward told us she had received a few words while in the Prayer Tower, but now her English was taken from her and with floods of joy and laughter she praised God in other languages.

There was very little sleeping among any of us that night. The next day still being unable to speak English, she wrote on a piece of paper, “Pray that I may interpret.” [Pg. 59]

In reference to speaking-in-tongues as a miraculous endowment of a foreign language. There are copious references that suggest this was their belief. Here a few examples:

  • On one occasion a Hebrew Rabbi was present as one of the students, a young married man, read the lesson from the Bible. After services he asked for the Bible from which the lesson was read. The Bible was handed him, and he said, “No not that one, I want to see the Hebrew Bible. That man read in the Hebrew tongue.”

    At another time while Mr. Parham was preaching he used another language for some time during the sermon. At the close a man arose and said, “I am healed of my infidelity; I have heard in my own tongue the 23rd Psalm that I learned at my mother’s knee. [Pg. 62]

  • During the wonderful altar service, the audience, having been previously dismissed, moved quietly and informally about, hearing and witnessing the marvelous demonstrations of the power promised to believers. Sometimes as many as twenty various languages were spoken in one evening, not an unintelligent utterance of mere vocal sounds, but a clear language spoken with the intonations and accents only given by natives, who repeatedly gave testimony to that effect.

    It was my privilege to be frequently in concourse with some professors from the city schools and colleges, all of whom spoke some foreign language and one of them spoke five languages. He said to him the most marvelous thing about the use of these languages was the original accent they (the workers) gave. They demonstrated that under instruction, it was impossible for an American to learn. They gave the REAL FOREIGN ACCENT SO PERFECTLY, that when he closed his eyes, it seemed to him as though he were listening to utterances from his native masters in the Old World.

    To me this was very convincing, coming from those unbiased and competent judges. They oftimes interpreted for me when languages they knew were spoken. Many foreigners came to the meetings and were frequently spoken to in their native tongue, with the original accent that could not be perfectly acquired. This, more than anything else, convinced them that it was wrought by some power above the human. Their hearts were always touched and they frequently went to the altar for prayer, convinced that it was the real power of God. [116-117]

A persistent theme in this book was that speaking-in-tongues was not gibberish — a tome directly aimed at what Parham accused the Azusa Street Revival of doing:

I hurried to Los Angeles, and to my utter surprise and astonishment I found conditions even worse than I had anticipated. Brother Seymour had come to me helpless, he said he could not stem the tide that had arisen. I sat on the platform in Azusa Street Mission, and saw the manifestations of the flesh, spiritualistic controls, saw people practicing hypnotism at the altar over candidates seeking baptism; though many were receiving the real baptism of the Holy Ghost.
After preaching two or three times, I was informed by two of the elders, one who was a hypnotist (I had seen him lay his hands on many who came through chattering, jabbering and sputtering, speaking in no language at all) that I was not wanted in that place. [Pg. 163]

It has been previously documented in the Gift of Tongues Project that the leaders and the official newspaper of the Azusa Street Revival viewed speaking-in-tongues as the miraculous endowment of a foreign language. Parham reinforced this definition when tension arose between him and Azusa.

Seymour initially introduced Parham as his spiritual father at Azusa before they broke fellowship. Some may think it was his segregation or supremacist views. Perhaps, it was an internal leadership problem or their style of worship. We may never know what the reasons were. He must have been personally demoralized and that his assessment of the practices of Azusa, whether correct or not, was an effort to regain his lost stature.

Speaking-in-tongues as ecstasy, prayer, or heavenly language were not part of Parham’s religious vocabulary. He certainly believed it was the miraculous spontaneous utterance of a language unknown beforehand by the speaker for evangelistic or missionary purposes. Parham would have vehemently disagreed with Wikipedia’s description that he “associated glossolalia with the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” because he felt it was known human languages, not glossolalia, which implies something psychological or non-human speech.

For more information:

  1. Mrs. Charles F. Parham. The Life of Charles F. Parham: the Founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement. Fourth Printing. 2000. Baxter Springs. Kansas. 1930. Many thanks to Dean Furlong for alerting me about this book and its particular contents.
  2. IBID. F. F. Bosworth. Do All Speak With Tongues? I Cor. 12:30. An Open Letter to the Ministers and Saints of the Pentecostal Movement. No Date. New York: The Christian Alliance Publishing Company. Pg. 5–6

14 thoughts on “Charles Parham on Speaking in Tongues”

  1. All Nations Worship Assembly, Apostle Matthew L. Stevenson III taught this 3-25-18 to his congregation. It was some of the most profound information defining the gift of the Holy Spirit, I’d ever heard in my life. We all went away feeling as if we had been bejeweled with information.

  2. The entire premise of the above article goes against the Bible. Jesus said,”If any man is not born of water and of the spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of God” John 3: 5. If the Lord God who came to Earth to establish the truth has said this, then it is very important to consider this statement. This “born of the spirit” is what is called “Anointing of the Holy Ghost” or “Baptism in the Holy Spirit”. This is revealed as utterances by the spirit and speaking in unknown tongues.
    Now consider this: If Lord Jesus mentions something that is very difficult to achieve, then it cannot be truth and He cannot be God. How can he then judge the millions of people? The Bible clearly says that God the Father freely gives the Holy Ghost to anyone who asks. Prophet Joel foretold it and in Acts chapter 2 we see that fulfillment. If everyone has to speak in some foreign language and only then they will be permitted into the kingdom of God, then Heaven will be much emptier space. This is not the plan of God. He promised that He will pour out His spirit upon all flesh!
    The entire article above tries to demonize or disqualify glossolalia which the Bible clearly authenticates and accepts. Read Isaiah 28: 11 and 1 Corinthians Chapter 14. In Corinthians Paul clearly explains both Glossolalia and Xenolalia. Glossolalia is a common sign manifested by the person who has received the anointing of the holy spirit whereas Xenolalia is a gift.
    Tell me one thing. Why should all get this gift Xenolalia? To speak in a foreign language? If so, what is the purpose? To reveal gospel to other language people? Think this – Why should everyone in the world become a Gospeler? Absolutely not required. That is not the plan of God. God has chosen a few and bestowed gifts of the holy spirit for spreading of the gospel. We see that pattern even today. Thus if Charles Parham had spoken in a foreign language, well good, that was given to him as a gift. But he has no right to establish it as a doctrine that only people speaking in foreign language can be accepted as people received anointing of holy spirit. That is absurd!
    The entire argument in the above article does not stand when we thus analyse the facts in the light of the word of God understanding God’s mind on salvation of mankind. It is absolutely skewed, baseless and does not fit into the eternal plan of God. I request you to write to me, and I will expound these truths with more evidences and will easily nullify all your imbalanced thoughts.

    • Thanks for coming to the site and engaging in this topic. The Gift of Tongues Project does not engage in subjective arguments or restrict itself solely to the Bible for analysis. There are myriads of books over the last 100 years that suffice for such approaches and it is not necessary for me to add to that list with a similar work. The GOT Project works from a comparative literature framework–a method which has been sorely lacking. It provides resources such as ecclesiastical texts in the original languages, translations, and analysis. The GOT Project also assumes readers know their Bible and have a good understanding of the subject. Please continue to read through the many ancient documents provided. They will answer many of your questions. You will find the christian doctrine of tongues has a rich, diverse, and interesting history.

    • When you hear people today talk about speaking in “tongues,” they likely are talking about something completely different from what the apostles and Christians practiced in the first century. When the Lord’s church first began, the Gospel needed to be preached to people all over the world. But since there were many different languages, it would have taken many years for the apostles and early Christians to learn those languages. For this reason, the Holy Spirit gave the apostles and other Christians the ability to speak languages they had never studied. In Acts 2, when the church was established, the apostles were able to preach the Gospel to people from nations all over the world. Those people were astonished because they knew the apostles were all from Galilee and had never studied those languages (read Acts 2:5-7). Some people today believe that “speaking in tongues” means saying a lot of gibberish that no one can understand. But that is not what the Bible says. Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 14:10 that all the languages that the Holy Spirit empowered the early Christians to speak were languages that were important, because they were used by certain groups of people. Although the Holy Spirit does not empower us to speak in tongues today, it would be like if you suddenly had the ability to speak French, Russian, or Italian, even though you had never studied those languages. That is what the Bible is actually talking about when it mentions speaking in tongues.
      God confused the people at Babylon for trying to build a tower to heaven and on Pentecost he restored their ability to communicate because the ones speaking in tongues now know how to get to heaven.

      • Excellent points that you have given consideration. I wonder if people can repeat the miracle today. Perhaps, but it would be so difficult to qualify as the whole world now is so interconnected. It would be hard, almost impossible, to discern if a person is miraculously speaking or has been exposed to a different language via social media, the internet, or whatever spontaneously praise in another one. I have heard rumors of the miracle of foreign languages happening today, but nothing ever quantified. I have also heard people tongues-speaking as a personal prayer language, but those are rudimentary or primitive in sounds that do not even come close to resembling a language.

        Can God speak through people miraculously today? I believe so, but extremely rare, just like all miracles are. If speaking in tongues was familiar, it would no longer be a miracle but a ritual or a rite.

  3. Now we’re getting just like the Catholic so called church using traditions of men(books written by men not Holy Spirit inspired) to over ride The Word of God.

    • I don’t think this is a Catholic problem but a human tendency to follow rules instead of engaging the heart and mind. The Bible too can be used to hide from our own personal problems or avoid engaging thoughtfully with our fellow man. Our interpretation of the Bible then becomes a form of personal and public slavery. On the other hand, if the Bible is understood and applied correctly, it can be a source of great freedom. For more information see my article Thoughts on the Bible.

  4. If Charles Parham was not the first person to teach tongues as “heavenly languages” in the 20th century, which of the early Pentecostal teachers did, and do you have the writings that they did this in? I’m trying to find the origins of this teaching but am running into difficulty.

    • Thank you for the question. Parham did not teach tongues as a heavenly language but strongly asserted it as the miraculous ability to speak in a foreign language. However, the question you ask is a good one. When did the theology of tongues as a heavenly language begin? I don’t know. However, what I do know is that it was after the 1830s and really leaped forward after the Azusa Street revival in 1906. The first instance that comes to mind, albeit an indirect one, are the Irvingites around 1830 where Edward Irving stated;

      “This operation of the Holy Ghost is very wonderful to behold: the fulness of the mind and heart, the rapidity of the utterance, the difficulty and sometimes struggling of the organs to get disburdened of it, are not more demonstrative of supernatural agency, that is the matter uttered demonstrative that this agency is that of the Holy Ghost. Such depths of doctrine, such openings of truth, such eagle-glances into the mind of God, such purity of love, such earnestness of exhortation, and, in one word, such heavenly exaltation of spirit, heard I never from man’s lips, as I have heard from those speaking in this manner by the Holy Ghost.”

      I realize one cannot directly make a connection with heavenly languages here but is seems to show some type of formative thinking.

      The Weekly Evangel (Assemblies of God) started to offer this as an interpretation in 1916. A man by the name of John S. Mercer stated; “This is not a gift of different languages as some have believed, but is an emotional or heavenly language, in which the speaker speaks only to God, He speaketh not unto men but unto God. “No man understandeth him;” this part of the text shows that it is not an earthly, but a heavenly language, which is the reason that no man can understand it.”

      You can find slightly more information at:

      It is a good question that needs more investigation as mine is good but only introductory. If you find more information, the curious readers of this blog would like to know.

      Have a great day.

  5. Please explain to me in Corinthians 12 of it saying “are all Apostles,on up to do all speak in tongues,Paul’s answer being no,no,no. Plus by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body.

    • For those not familiar with what Doyle is referring to, here are the verses from the Net Bible;
      ” 4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. 8 For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things.”
      Yes, you are on the right track Doyle, that no one person possesses all the gifts, including speaking in tongues, which means the ability to speak in one or more foreign languages. Not every Christian is mandated nor expected to have the ability to do this.

    • I am writing a response from the Christian mystical perspective. God can do whatever He wants and when he wants. This omnipotence applies to a miracle of any type, including the miraculous ability to speak or hear a foreign language. However, it is doubtful that He would do that today. With the advent of social media and internet technologies, the exposure to different languages is quite prevalent. If someone did have the miraculous ability, it would be very difficult to prove. The person may subconsciously be recalling words from languages they have already heard. Secondly, the miracle of speaking or hearing may be unnecessary for today because almost everyone has access to a translation tool(s). Last of all, in my over 40 years of being around people speaking in tongues, which may number over a thousand, I have never heard anyone miraculously speak in a foreign language.

  6. Is it true that Parham sent out missionaries to foreign countries, trusting that they would be empowered by the Spirit to preach the Gospel in the native tongues of those countries? My understanding is that these missionaries eventually returned home from overseas and they were greatly disillusioned because they had been unable to communicate in the local languages, as they had been expecting and hoping to do.


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