“Speaking in tongues” is a gift of the Holy Spirit and is literally “speaking in an unknown language” – that is to say, it is unknown to the speaker but is not unknown to God.
Even though to many people “speaking in tongues” is a new phenomenon, it dates back to AD 31 when, on the Day of Pentecost, 120 disciples of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:1-4). The rest of the book of Acts also relates occurrences of speaking in tongues and the Epistles of Paul (especially 1 Corinthians) give instructions for the proper use of this gift.
Speaking in tongues has also been reported throughout Church history. In 150 AD, Irenaeus, a Greek father of the early church, wrote “… we hear many of the brethren in the church … who speak in tongues through the Spirit, and who also bring to light the secret things of men for their benefit.” Tertullian (ca. 155-220), a Latin father for the early church, also spoke favourably of this gift.
Montanism was a prophetic movement that broke out in Phrygia in Roman Asia Minor (Turkey) around 172AD. It made tongues-speaking a central part of the worship experience. In the middle of the fourth century Francis Xavier described his miraculous ability to communicate with various groups as speaking in tongues. In addition many believe that in the Eastern Church tongues speaking continued to be practiced in Greek Orthodox monasteries throughout the Middle Ages.
At the end of seventeenth century, widespread tongues speaking occurred in southern France among a group of persecuted Huguenots. Similarly, in the 1730s an occurrence of tongues speaking happened among a group of Catholic pietists, called the Jansenists.
Then in the 1830s until the end of the century a revival of tongues speaking occurred in England during the ministry of Edward Irving. After reports that tongues-speaking had occurred in the west of Scotland in the spring of 1830, Irving himself shortly after reported such expressions in his Regent Square Church. Until the end of the century his followers (Irvingites) made tongues speaking central to their church life.
The example of the Huguenots and Irvingites then led to similar occurrences in Mother Anne Lee’s Shaker movement in England and America. Not long after, in the 1850s, a tongues-speaking movement began in Russia that continued throughout the century. Similarly, beginning around 1860 on the Southern tip of India, through the influence of Plymouth Brethren theology a revival of tongues speaking and prophecy was reported. In addition to the occurrences of tongues speaking in 1901 in Topeka and in Los Angeles in 1906-9, it also arose in the Welsh revival in 1904-5.
Today, “speaking in tongues” is the most talked about phenomena in Christianity. Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement have brought speaking in tongues to the forefront over the past 100+ years, and these branches of Christianity are without doubt the fastest growing segments of the faith. These movements are impacting the world even more than the reformation did.
Now, in a first of its kind study, scientists are shining the light on this mysterious practice, attempting to explain what actually happens physiologically to the brain of someone while speaking in tongues.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have discovered decreased activity in the frontal lobes, an area of the brain associated with being in control of one’s self. This pioneering study, involving functional imaging of the brain while subjects were speaking in tongues, is in the November issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, the official publication of the International Society for Neuroimaging in Psychiatry.
Radiology investigators observed increased or decreased brain activity by measuring regional cerebral blood flow while the subjects were speaking in tongues. They then compared the imaging to what happened to the brain while the subjects sang gospel music.
“We noticed a number of changes that occurred functionally in the brain,” comments Principal Investigator Andrew Newberg, MD. “Our finding of decreased activity in the frontal lobes during the practice of speaking in tongues is fascinating because these subjects truly believe that the spirit of God is moving through them and controlling them to speak. Our brain imaging research shows us that these subjects are not in control of the usual language centers during this activity, which is consistent with their description of a lack of intentional control while speaking in tongues.”
Newberg went on to explain, “These findings could be interpreted as the subject’s sense of self being taken over by something else. We, scientifically, assume it’s being taken over by another part of the brain, but we couldn’t see, in this imaging study, where this took place. This study also showed a number of other changes in the brain, including those areas involved in emotions and establishing our sense of self.”
This fascinating research supports what the Bible teaches about speaking in tongues, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Corinthians 14:14). What a wonderful God-given gift this is. No wonder the Bible encourages us to seek this gift and to use it regularly.