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The term as such is not found in the Bible, though its hybrid form is built from glomssa and lalein which occur, e.g., in Acts 2:4. They are usually translated “speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 12-14; Acts 2:3ff.; 10:46; 19:6; Mark 16:17). Apparently glossolalia is the spontaneous utterance of uncomprehended and seemingly random vocal sounds. It appears to describe a form of spiritually affected speaking which is of particular value to the individual. It has been (and is) a feature of religious, especially revivalist, activities at many periods of church history. It was not, however, until the late seventeenth century that the phenomenon occurred among numerous people of one locality. In S France the Cevenols, who lived in constant fear of death, had ecstatic experiences which included speaking in tongues. In the nineteenth century a second major outburst of tongue-speaking occurred in England, among the followers of Edward Irving* who himself strangely never “received” the gift of glossolalia. Aside from sporadic instances during these same centuries among the several revival movements in England and America, glossolalia was relatively infrequent until its phenomenal rise in connection with Pentecostalism.

Several Pentecostal revivals sprang up in the United States just after the turn of the twentieth century. The earliest recorded instance of glossolalia in this century was in Topeka, Kansas, in 1901, when the “baptism of the spirit” fell upon Agnes N. Ozman, a student at the Bethel Bible College. From Kansas the movement spread to Missouri and Texas. By 1906 tongue-speaking was being practiced in Los Angeles, and “the movement began to take on international proportions” with twenty-six contemporary church bodies (two million plus in membership) tracing their origin to Los Angeles.

In the last decade, glossolalia scored great gains among the non-Pentecostal groups. Laymen also, in large numbers, have become involved. The movement has been given a considerable boost by the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International, founded in 1953 by a group of Pentecostals. Today, however, its membership includes virtually all denominations. In 1959 this organization began publishing a periodical entitled View, which is by far the intellectual superior to the other publications, Voice and Vision.

Another organization particularly interested in glossolalia is the Blessed Trinity Society of Van Nuys, California, which was started by Episcopalians. Between 1962 and 1966 it published a handsome, slick magazine entitled Trinity, which was distributed among the historic denominations. It carried testimonials which were aimed at “proving” tongues to be more than a mere religious fad.

By far the most common association in which tongue-speaking flourishes is the small Holy Spirit Fellowships which have sprung up throughout Christendom. Usually these groups are small and relatively unstructured. They often have prayer, testimonials, and singing as well as speaking in tongues.

M. Barnett, The Living Flame (1953); A.A. Hoekema, What About Tongue Speaking? (1960); W.H. Horton (ed.), The Glossolalia Phenomenon (1966); I.J. Martin III, Glossolalia: A Bibliography (1970).

See also

  • Gift of Tongues