Early Pentecostal Tongues: Intro


This five-part series (including the introduction) covers how the traditional definition of tongues all but died and replaced by a wider set of expressions; the language of adoration, singing and writing in tongues, and a private prayer language.

This series was started to settle a mystery – why the doctrine of tongues had changed so dramatically after 1906. Up until the early 1900s the christian doctrine of tongues was a stable doctrine that either was a miraculous ability to speak in one or more foreign languages, or a miracle of one language being adapted in transmission and understood within each listener’s mind.

The Pentecostal tongues outbreak that started at Azusa Street, California, in the early 1900s changed everything. The excitement created an anticipation that God was preparing all the nations through the supernatural endowment of foreign languages on certain Azusa participants for missionary purposes. As the missionaries made their journeys to their language targets, they immediately found they did not have this gift. This absence created a crisis.

This crisis was where a potpourri of new definitions arose.

Early Pentecostal tongues is an investigation into documenting the crisis of the traditional definition and tracing the the new additions and the bumps along the way about the Pentecostal movement’s doctrine of tongues.


The Gift of Tongues Project has traversed through a variety of challenges: from identifying, translating and digitizing important Greek, Latin and Syriac texts, to understanding ancient Greek philosophy and Jewish liturgy, wading through medieval Catholic mysticism and early Protestant writings, and charting through the German scholars to find answers. The study has centered on places such as Alexandria (Egypt), Constantinople, Rome, London, Kagoshima (Japan), Berlin, and Los Angeles.

However difficult these challenges, one of the greatest mysteries is why the semantic range of christian tongues has greatly expanded since the early 1900s. It remains one of the most difficult keys to solving this puzzle.

The late Pentecostal professor, Gary B. McGee lightly touched on this topic believing the shift happened because of the failure of the missionary tongues movement. Unfortunately, he hardly delved into any detail. The early Pentecostal biographer, Stanley Frodsham, ignored the transition and jumped from the traditional to the new definitions without any explanation. Regardless of any Pentecostal author, there is a serious lack in any of their literature detailing this shift.

There definitely was a crisis of tongues in early Pentecostalism; largely because of the missionary tongues failure but also because of the public outcry that this movement was bonkers. They were accused of manufacturing gibberish. These two tensions forced early Pentecostals to either review their tongues doctrine or admit they made mistakes. History clearly shows they chose to revise their definition.

How did they do this and where did they get license to do such?

The correlation between early Pentecostalism and the original doctrine of glossolalia devised by German scholars in the early 1800s holds the best explanation. The early Pentecostals adopted and modified the glossolalia doctrine as a solution to their missionary tongues crisis. This adaptation makes sense. Glossolalia was, and remains, the principal theme in the primary and secondary religious dictionaries, encyclopedias and commentaries since the late 1800s. In fact, it was hard to even find the traditional definition of speaking in tongues within any substantive publication by this time.

The Early Pentecostals on Tongues is a continuation of a previous series; History of Glossolalia which covered the origins and early development of the glossolalia doctrine. The emphasis of the original series was how the concept of glossolalia overtook the traditional definition and became the only option in most primary, secondary and tertiary source materials produced after 1879. As will be shown, their dominance in the publication realm helped shape the framework for Pentecostal tongues as well.

By the early 1800s the traditional doctrine began to unravel and different streams of understanding began to appear. This began with the London-based Irvingite movement in the 1830s which brought a heightened academic interest and a critical re-analysis. This led to German scholars reclassifying speaking in tongues as glossolalia – that is speaking in tongues was an unintelligible discourse proceeding from an ecstatic state above the ordinary language of communication.1 In short, they defined speaking in tongues as a psychological condition rather than a miraculous state. The leading scholar of this subject was August Neander, whose thoughts made it into the English religious vocabulary largely through the later influence of Philip Schaff and Frederick Farrar.

This series is a critical study on Pentecostalism between 1906 and 1930 and how it was deeply influenced by doctrine of glossolalia. The Pentecostal archives, along with the Missionary Alliance archives, and books produced by early Pentecostal leaders were resourced to see the connections between early Pentecostalism and Higher Criticism on the topic of tongues. Higher Criticism is the name of the scholarly movement whose framework produced the original glossolalia doctrine. This study will show there was a deep connection.

It was an unintentional connection. Early Pentecostals were deficient in any intellectual framework and internal mechanisms to solve this doctrinal dilemma. They lacked the textual skills of Greek, Latin or Aramaic where the majority of tongues texts resided untranslated into English. Instead, they chose to look at the currently available histories and secondary books published in the English language for their solution. Here they found the works of the highly touted historian Philip Schaff, the Anglican church leader and writer, Frederick Farrar, the Anglican writers Conybeare and Howson and a short list of others. Pentecostals found that these writers conclusions matched their experiences. They did not realize that these authors were strong proponents of the higher criticism doctrine of glossolalia that started in the early 1800s – a doctrine that departed substantially from the christian traditional definition.

All of these scholarly writers lived near the time the Pentecostal outbreak happened. They were held with high authority and esteem in the religious academic world. None of these authors had connections with Methodism or establishments that American Pentecostalism was railing against. Neither were these authors adhering to the doctrine of cessationism which the Pentecostal accounts are always in contest with. These were all great writers who could be understood by someone with an intermediate reading level. All of these authors were appealing to an experience, not a doctrine.
The early Pentecostals were looking for a solution that was within the bounds of Biblical interpretation, free from a preconceived bias, inclusive of the variety of tongues experiences that their Pentecostal activity had discovered under the perceived and unquestionable direct power of the Holy Spirit.
The historian Schaff and other similar writers were able to fill this void. Their emphasis on a divine encounter that impacts the innermost soul and results in exalted preaching, ecstatic utterances, poetic words, adoration, and sometimes accidentally a foreign language fit nicely in with the early Pentecostal experience.

Pentecostals did not realize that these authors formulated and promoted an alternative explanation that started in the 1830s. This doctrine did not follow the traditional christian trajectory of tongues. Ironically, the modern Pentecostal definitions are the children of Higher Criticism.

There are no early or even later Pentecostal writers that seriously pondered their experiences through the primary source literature of Greek, Latin, or Aramaic dictionaries or texts. They steadfastly held to tertiary literature especially English ones.

The baptism of the Spirit with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues is a doctrine unique to the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement that started in the early 1900s. An editorial decision has been made not to trace this doctrine. The final ambition of The Gift of Tongues Project is to find out why the traditional definition of tongues all but died in 1906 and why it was replaced by glossolalia. This is the final piece for the Project to complete.

The major goal of the Gift of Tongues Project is to trace the perceptions of speaking in tongues throughout the centuries. The perceptions need not necessarily align with reality. The realities, whatever they may be, are up to the reader to decide. You don’t even have to agree with my commentary or analysis. As per the Gift of Tongues Project goals, the majority of the important source texts have been digitized and provided on this website. You can look at the sources themselves and draw your own conclusions.

Although this series will demonstrate today’s doctrine of tongues a new phenomenon in the annals of Christian history, it should not be viewed as the litmus test for Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Third Wavers credibility (collectively called Renewalists). There is much more to Renewalists than speaking in tongues. They have grown far beyond tongues and have forayed into far more important matters. The Renewalists are positive agents for social change in our world.

While reading, one must be cautious. Some Pentecostal organizations emphasized certain expressions more than others. Neither did every Pentecostal organization agree on every redefinition either. The transformation was far from homogeneous–a rocky road before their doctrine stabilized.

Next: Early Pentecostal Tongues Part 2: The Tongues Crisis.

  1. Augustus Neander. Planting and Training of the Christian Church by the Apostles. London: Henry G. Bohn. 1851. 3rd ed. Vol. 1 Pg. 11

2 thoughts on “Early Pentecostal Tongues: Intro”

  1. Good Day
    Am looking through the internet searching for an explanation or enlightenment on my problem and I found your article. My name is Ntsiki Aaron from South Africa. I am a Christian, I pray a lot and most of the time in the morning I listen and write the messages as I listen to the preacher on TV channels 341 and 343. Suddenly as I was watching Dr Creflo Dollar, he started speaking in tongues, and I heard a voice inside my head saying ” open your mouth and speak, you can also speak in tongues. I did; and nothing could have prepared me for what came out of my mouth. That was on the 8th of March 2018. On the 12th of March my hand started to move and write; gibberish that I don’t know in patterns very strange to me hence I am reading about them. I need to learn and understand more about what is happening to me. Please help me understand more about my experience. Hope to hear from you soon. Kind Regards
    Ntsiki Aaron


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