3-6 The Psychology Of Tongue Speakers
I’ve elsewhere explained Biblically why I find the present claims of ‘speaking in tongues’ to be mismatched with the Biblical record of what ‘tongues’ were in the early church. I’ve commented that the ‘tongues’ spoken in were intelligible foreign languages; and that the commandments concerning their use in 1 Cor. 14 aren’t followed by those who claim the gift of tongues today. But all the same, there remains the obvious question- why, then, do people experience ecstatic utterances, periods of speaking with sounds which aren’t intelligible? That some do is beyond question; my earlier analysis simply concluded that this experience isn’t the same as Biblical speaking in tongues. But what exactly’s going on when people experience the phenomenon of ‘glossolalia’, as it’s technically termed?
A historical review of glossolalia reveals that there have been various outbreaks of it throughout church history. In the 2nd century, Montanus proclaimed the imminent end of the world- and his message and emotional rhetoric was associated with claims to speak in tongues. The intensity of it appeared to increase wit the intensity of opposition to him. In the 17th century, the Hugenots were persecuted in France- and they too started speaking of the end of the world, accompanied by glossolalia. The glossolalia phenomenon over history hasn’t been confined to Christians- various religious groups have also experienced it. It’s been observed that glossolalia “arises in a variety of individuals and groups subjected to strongly repressed emotional forces” (1). Those experiencing persecution or opposition would therefore be likely to experience repression, and would fit into this category.
This leads us to consider various psychoanalytical insights into glossolalia. Kelsey, clearly influenced by Freud and Jung, concludes that ‘tongue speakers’ are allowing themselves to be possessed or dispossessed by their unconscious self (2). Several studies in the journal Pastoral Psychology have taken this approach further. Lapsley and Simpson found that their samples of those involved in glossolalia indicated that it was particularly attractive to those with a deep need for personal security and an outlet for repressed emotions; many were in the category of “very troubled people” (3). They found in their ‘tongues’ experience an opportunity for self-expression which was denied them elsewhere in their lives. They experienced genuine benefit from glossolalia because it lessened their inner conflicts.
What I find most significant in all the psychoanalysis of 'speaking in tongues' is the conclusion that the person is not under complete conscious control of their 'tongue speaking'. In the context of Biblical speaking in tongues, Paul makes the point that "the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets" (1 Cor. 14:32)- almost as if he was aware that there were false imitations of 'tongue speaking' around, and the litmus test would be whether the tongue speaker was consciously in control or not. Glossolalia can't be replicated by others- and that's taken as an indication that it is not under the conscious control of the speaker. The fact it can't be replicated or the sounds imitated is hard evidence that the sounds made aren't human languages- the noises produced are an emotional release and not human communication. The 16 recognized criteria for human languages aren't met by glossolalia- there's no syntax, no appropriate pauses to grasp for words or syllables, etc. (4). This is why the proffered interpretations of 'tongues' are of a very general nature- e.g. "She's saying we should praise God!". Each word or item of 'language' isn't translated- because it's not language. And yet Biblical tongues were languages capable of interpretation. Likewise when the same recordings of glossolalia have been played to different people, they offer different interpretations of what was said.
Other studies have found that those who practice glossolalia are more submissive, suggestible and dependent upon authority figures. Many admit that when they begin speaking in tongues, they are thinking of some supportive authority figure (5). This would explain why when a person leaves a church, moves away from the area, becomes disenchanted with the pastor or trusted authority figure- the practice of glossolalia declines and eventually ceases. That has been my personal experience with many ex-Pentecostals I've encountered. This runs right against the Biblical data about tongues- that the gift of speaking in foreign languages was given at specific times to achieve specific ends, independent of the presence of a group of tongue speakers or a human authority figure. Those who claim to speak in tongues today often mention the person who taught them to do it; and the majority of their glossolalia is performed with other tongue speakers, and not alone or in the presence of unbelievers, as required by the Biblical data. For tongues were a sign to those who do not believe, and not to those who believe (1 Cor. 14:22). Further, if the group leader speaks in tongues in a certain way, the followers tend to do likewise. In one study, no fewer than 85% of those who claimed to speak in tongues admitted having passed through a crisis prior to when they were taught to speak in tongues by a trusted pastoral figure at church (6). In other areas of life, especially church life, they revealed a strong tendency to do 'the right thing' before others. The emptiness within them [and we all have this to some extent] was poured out, found an escape, in the expressions of glossolalia, under the influence of a strong leader. This is why typically glossolalia only begins after intense worship or group meditation upon something- the person has to be prepared for it, eased into it- rather than having a gift which is under their conscious control.
- Anthony Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), p. 126.
- Morton Kelsey, Tongue-Speaking: An Experiment In Spiritual Experience (New York: Doubleday, 1961) pp. 192 ff.
- James Lapsley and John Simpson, “Speaking in Tongues: Token of Group Acceptance and Divine Approval”, Pastoral Psychology May 1964 p. 52.
- The classic study on this is Eugene Nida, Glossolalia: A Case of Pseudo-Linguistic Structure available on nidainstitute.org. The 16 criteria for human language are listed in Joseph Greenberg, ed., Universals Of Language (London: MIT Press, 1966).
- John Kildahl, The Psychology Of Speaking in Tongues (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) p. 40.
- Kildahl, ibid. p. 57.