The Pagan Origins of Modern “Speaking in Tongues”

 

Yesterday, during our discussion of the phenomenon of speaking in tongues in my modular (intensive) course on the Holy Spirit, one of my students, a Vietnamese, related his experience as a Buddhist youth in his village. An uncle would visit their house and then start babbling unintelligible words and sounds in a trance. But when their dog started barking, he would fall asleep as his head would fall back, and then be silent. Then when the dog stopped barking, he would wake up and then point to various things in their house telling them that those things have evil spirits in them.

His story reminded me of the fact that unintelligible babbling known as “speaking in tongues” in the modern Pentecostal movement is widely practiced in cults and even in non-Christian and pagan religions. Richard Ganz, in 20 Controversies that Almost Killed a Church (p 212) says that this kind of babbling is practiced by Mormons, The Way International, Hindus, Muslims and many others.

But this practice is not only a recent phenomenon, but was common in pagan worship long before Christ came. Robert G. Gromacki, in The Modern Tongues Movement (pp 5-10), documents the history of “speaking in tongues” in antiquity. Some of these ecstatic babbling were reported in the “Report of Wenamon” (about 1100 BC), Plato’s Dialogues (5th century BC), and Virgil’s Aeneid (1st century BC). The Graeco-Roman mystery religions before and after the Christian era most probably practiced these babbling utterances.

Gromacki also documents this phenomenon in modern times among Muslims, Buddhists, and Eskimos. Worship rituals of Eskimos are an attempt to contact the spirit-world, and “are characterized by drum beating, singing, dancing, and nudity.” He cites a book by another author who observed an Eskimo ritual:

Suddenly one of the men, Krisuk, went out of his head. Unable to contain himself to the regular rhythm of the service he leapt to his feet crying like a raven and howling like a wolf. In ecstasy he and the girl, Ivaloo, began to yell in a tongue I could not understand… Certainly it was not the usual Eskimo language… and if there is such a thing as speaking in tongues I heard it then.

What well-known modern “revivals” does this account remind you of?

For an explanation of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22:

In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.

read “Tongues are a sign not for…”

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