A pioneer missionary of the Azusa Street Revival in the early 1900s explains why his conferred supernatural gift of the Bengali language did not work upon arrival.
Surely, such a condition would threaten one’s theological opinions but not Mr. Garr’s. He believed that the gift had switched to another language while in voyage and Bengali never reappeared. He then side-stepped the issue and focused on other miraculous demonstrations.
This case is one of the earliest documented examples of the tongues crisis facing Azusa missionaries. Many traveled the world thinking they were endowed with a certain foreign language and upon arrival, did not. The resolution of this theological crisis became a foremost problem to solve.
The Pentecostal movement had a number of choices to address the issue, admit they were wrong, redefine, or ignore. Garr chose the third option, ignoring the theological crisis by giving a weak apologetic.
A high number of Pentecostals and Charismatics are surprised that such a crisis existed and remain skeptical about the above thesis. They want to see proof. So, the actual letter from Alfred Garr to a periodical named Confidence is digitized and presented below, untouched from the original on this very subject.
Alfred Garr along with his wife Lillian were among the firstfruits to receive the blessing of tongues at the Azusa Street revival in 1906 and the first wave of missionaries to spread out the christian message with the Pentecostal distinctive abroad. While speaking in tongues at Azusa, a foreigner suggested he was speaking in the Bengali language – the language of eastern India that crests the Bangladesh border. This was taken as a sign for missionary service. The Garr family set-off almost immediately to Kolkata (Calcutta) to fulfill this supernatural event.
A. A. Boddy, a Vicar of the Anglican Church, and a foremost pioneer of Pentecostalism in England, was the editor of the influential periodical, Confidence. Confidence had asked Mr. Garr if he had miraculously spoke in Bengali when he arrived. Boddy and the Confidence were fully aware that Garr had been part of the Azusa Street revival and that he theoretically miraculously spoke Bengali. A. G. Garr along with his wife, Lillian, were high-profile persons within the newfound Pentecostal movement for a combination of reasons and their success was a litmus test for the Azusa experience. The Confidence wanted a report to see if this miracle of speech held true for him and other Pentecostal missionaries he met in the field.
The Azusa Street revival originally held the belief that tongues was a miracle of speaking one or more foreign languages. The concept of a divine language was in development but had no effect on Azusa at this time.
The following is a response that was republished in the Confidence newsletter.
Confidence: A Pentecostal Paper for Great Britain. A. A. Boddy Ed. Sunderland, England. May, 1908. No. 2.
Special Supplement to the “Confidence,” May, 1908; Tongues in the Foreign Field. Interesting Letters.
A letter from Bro. Garr.
Hong Kong, China,
15th March, 1908,
c/o Thos. Cook & Son.
Rev. A. A. Boddy,
All Saints’ Vicarage, Sunderland
Dear Brothers in Jesus
Your card and “Counsel to Leaders” received. We are glad to know you are sending them abroad. They are much needed in these days of conflict.
As to whether I know of any who have received a language, I know of no one having received a language so as to be able to converse intelligently, or to preach in the same with the understanding, in the Pentecostal movement.
Regarding the language I have, that was given to me in Los Angelos, Cal., about two years ago. I can speak it at will, and feel the power of God in most every instance when I speak at length, and can truly bear witness to the scripture that “Speaking in tongues edifies the one speaking.” Regarding the question of an Indian language. When I was baptised with the Spirit in Los Angelos, I began speaking in tongues immediately, and a day or two after a young man, about 25 years of age, came to the meeting and hearing me pray in the unknown tongue, said I was speaking things he could understand, and desired that I should pray for him. I did so, he kneeling with me, and as I prayed it seemed he was moved to desperation, and began to cry to the Lord for himself, and presently began to shout and proclaim that the Lord had saved him. During the course of these meetings he informed me that I had been speaking in several LANGUAGES OF INDIA. One of them his mother tongue. I know for some time I was saying the word, ‘Bengalee,’ (Pg. 2) and when I reached India, I found myself in the Bengal Province. Their language is called Bengalee, but I never knew there was such a language before until starting for India. However, before leaving for America I noticed that the languages changed and I was talking quite a different tongue, and after reaching Calcutta I noticed another change but could not understand the words.
It would be very impossible for me to believe that these were not real languages, as they are spoken with such accuracy and entirely free from guidance by my own mind. Whether or not I was speaking an Indian language in Los Angelos does not shake my faith or even cause me anxiety. I know that God was talking through me, and what it was He knew all about it, and that was quite enough for me.
If some one was to come to me to-day and tell me that I was speaking Greek, and afterwards I should find that I was not, it would not cause me to doubt that I was speaking some language, neither would I doubt God. I would more likely doubt the one who informed me of having known anything concerning what he was telling me. I surely in no case would doubt the Lord Jesus Christ and the work He has done in me. I do praise Him with my whole heart that he poured out His Spirit upon me and spoke through me—and is yet speaking!
I shall forever praise Him whether I ever learn one word or syllable of any utterance He has given or not.
I KNOW THAT GOD GAVE IT.
I know it is scriptural. I know that some of the best men that ever lived talked in tongues, and if the devil can make a fellow talk in tongues, then God can, and if the magicians of Egypt can turn a stick to a snake, then our God has one swallow all of them, so I am not uneasy. I am delighted with all God has done for me on this line. I supposed He would let us talk to the natives of India in their own tongue, but He did not, and as far as I can see, will not use that means by which to convert the heathen, but will employ the gifts—such as wonderful signs of healing and other powers, that the heathen can see for themselves and know that there is no cheat to the performance.
For instance there are people here in China, from England and America, who can speak the Chinese language as well as the Chinese themselves, yet their work for the Master is, in some cases, as dead as one could possibly imagine. Well then, the problem is not solved by knowing the language of a nation perfectly. If I could speak Chinese perfectly and explain to the Chinese that God had given it to me without studying it, they would not believe, but would think I was deceiving them, and at least there would be great room for doubt in their minds. But if we can come to them in the faith “once delivered to the saints,” and in the name of Jesus heal their sick, lame, and blind, they cannot doubt that the blind were blind, nor the lame lame, but will have to know that this work is supernatural.
Then to be able to give them such deliverance, and then to tell them that the Jesus we preach is the one doing these things; they will then believe, as the Samaritans believed Philip, because of the signs he did, and the people at the Temple believed when they saw the lame man to walk, etc.
While I do not understand all there is connected with this movement; yet I see enough to know that God is pleased to work miracles among the people to-day in the same manner as the early saints. I know He performed a miracle on me, and have seen him do the same on many, and because the devil counterfeits, backbites, scandalizes and misrepresents God’s work, does not shake my faith, but rather confirms it in the present movement as being of God. (Of course there will be devil performances wherever he can slip them in, but we may know the devices of the devil, as Paul, if we but ask to).
So far I have not seen any one who is able to preach to the natives in their own tongues with the languages given with the Holy Ghost. Here in Hong Kong, we preached the word to the Chinese through an interpreter, and God has saved some, and there are about twenty-five or thirty that were baptised with the Spirit of God and spoke in other tongues, seen visions, and received interpretations, etc.
God has kindly granted enough signs and miracles to His Church in this movement already to cause us to rejoice with all our hearts, and to expect the fulness of the power as was given to the disciples in the first century.
We are waiting on the Lord here in China to give the power and bring the church to her former strength. We do not (Pg. 3) feel it is presumption to ask it. As the disciples prayed that God would grant signs and wonders to be done as they preached, which He did!
China is the ripest field I have seen yet. Would you kindly remember us in prayer, as the opposition from some, especially the native pastors and missionaries, is very severe. The personal onslaughts of the devil are very trying at times.
Please excuse this lengthy letter, but felt I should write thus to fully explain myself in answer to your questions.
Yours in Jesus Christ,
All glory and honour to Him forever,
H. G. Garr1
For more information on pentecostal tongues:
- A digest of early Pentecostal newspapers and periodicals relating to speaking in tongues Early Pentecostal Tongues: Notes and Quotes
- Modern Pentecostal Books on Speaking in Tongues
- Early Pentecostal Books on Speaking in Tongues
- Charles Parham on Speaking in Tongues
- The Apostolic Faith Newspaper on the Azusa Street Revival