Conyers Middleton's Essay on Tongues

Conyers Middleton, a controversial church historian from the 18th century, became famous for his work Divine Inquiry but also wrote a small work dedicated to the topic on the Gift of Tongues.

It is an essay found in The Miscellaneous Works of the Late Reverend and Learned Conyers Middleton Vol. II, published in 1752, Pg. 79, properly entitled, An Essay on the Gift of Tongues.

It is one of the better works on the topic, and surpasses the level of arguments written by George H. Williams and Edith Waldvogel, A History of Speaking in Tongues and Related Gifts, published in Michael Hamilton’s 1975 work, The Charismatic Movement, which is ubiquitous in charismatic and pentecostal circles, or John Macarthur’s 1993 cessationist publication, Charismatic Chaos. (I haven’t read Macarthur’s new work, Strange Fire to comment on it.)

Middleton quotes a larger than usual number of Church Fathers when he covers the tongues of Pentecost, painting a portrait that it was the spontaneous speaking in a foreign language that the speaker previously did not know. He was not aware of any doctrine of a private prayer or heavenly language.

He makes the mistake of lumping both the tongues of Pentecost and the problem tongues of Corinth as the same entity, which is very problematic. He certainly leans upon Greek and Latin authors and excludes almost completely Hebrew and Jewish sources. By doing so he is working with a restricted set of tools.

His citing of Church literature is more extensive than most, but still falls considerably short. He does not grapple with the difficult texts offered by Gregory Nazianzus, which set the pace and discussion on the subject for centuries, nor of Augustine, who may have been the most prolific writer on tongues, which is a great oversight.

His work is plain quotation and there is no attempt to perform any textual criticism. He does delve into the Delphic oracles in a brief fashion, explaining that Christians were being accused by others of being of similar nature, but does not syncretize these two camps.

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.

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