Pentecostal History 101 is a thematic dive into the history of the pentecostal movement. Each post picks up a historical theme and asks what that history means for today.

At the turn of the 20th century, the world was abuzz with missionary expectations. Christians the world over thought that new technologies and new churches would make it finally possible to evangelize the whole world. In that heady atmosphere, a new movement emerged that thought it had the key. The movement was Pentecostalism, and the key was tongues.

In September 1906, the leaders of the Azusa Street Revival proclaimed this missionary purpose in its newsletter, The Apostolic Faith. They wrote,

The gift of languages is given with the commission, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” The Lord has given languages to the unlearned. Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Zulu and languages of Africa, Hindu and Bengali and dialects of India, Chippewa and other languages of the Indians, Esquimaux, the deaf-mute language and, in fact, the Holy Spirit speaks all the languages of the world through his children.”

The early periodical was filled with reports of people miraculously speaking the languages of the lost millions. Their new tongues would allow them to reach the masses without the need for years of training. Two of these miraculous speakers were Alfred and Lillian Garr (Alfred Garr pictured above). Again in September 1906, The Apostolic Faith reported that “Bro. Garr was able to pray a native of India “through” in his own language,… Sister Garr also spoke Chinese.”

With their miraculous tongues in tow, the Garrs sped across America and the Pacific to become some of the first Pentecostal missionaries in India and China.

Failed Tongues?: Xenoglossia to Glossolalia

The heady days of missionary tongues did not last, however. While the Garrs reported revivals and salvations, their hope in missionary tongues faded. Writing to the British pentecostal periodical Confidence in May of 1908, Alfred Garr reported,

As to whether I know of any who have received a language, I know of no one having received a language so as to be able to converse intelligently, or to preach in the same with the understanding, in the Pentecostal movement.

Similar reports were made the world over. While tongues continued to he reported, they had lost their missionary flare and gradually began to be understood differently.

Continuing on, Alfred Garr defended his continued use of tongues.

Regarding the language I have, that was given to me in Los Angeles, Cal., about two years ago. I can speak It at will, and feel the power of God in most every instance when I speak at length, and can truly bear witness to the scripture that “Speaking in tongues edifies the one speaking.”

It can be easy for many of us to look at early pentecostals and see them as naive, but it’s important to recognize that reports of missionary tongues have not gone away and remain of interest to social scientists. While I can’t substantiate their claims, I’ve personally met good people who claim God gave them another language. Who am I to say otherwise?

What is more interesting is how the narrative of tongues shifted so dramatically without destroying the early pentecostal movement. To use the language of sociology, pentecostals moved from the widespread belief in xenoglossia (spontaneous speech in an unlearned foreign language) to a belief in edifying glossolalia (a speech-like act that lacks any readily available meaning).

While missionary tongues may have proven to be a failure as a mission strategy, the pentecostal experience of tongues remained intact and continued to be one of the defining aspects of the movement. The question is… how?

Tongues and Acts 2

As it is today, the early Pentecostal experience of tongues was rooted in the narrative of the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. The logic is simple: What they experienced in Acts is what we can experience now.

But, experience is a tricky thing to nail down. It exists in particular contexts and is constantly changing in relation to those contexts. Tongues in the New Testament did not always occur in the same way as it did in Acts 2, with crowds of potential Jewish converts standing around. Likewise, modern tongues experienced in Topeka, Azusa, or Tibet do not always operate the same way because they’re taking place in different times and different places with different people. Tongues look different in those contexts and they may operate differently because of those contexts. Early pentecostals had to grapple with this complex reality.

In that vein, the shift to glossolalia can be seen as a shift from the narrow theological reading of Acts 2 to a broader canonical reading of the New Testament. To be crude, early pentecostals stopped quoting Luke and started quoting Paul.

Another way to say it is that early pentecostals allowed their experience to be reinterpreted by the text. When their reality didn’t match up with the Scriptures, they went back to Scriptures to discover what they might have missed. In so doing, they discovered different passages and different approaches that helped them make better sense of their own experience. It’s a process most people call hermeneutics. I like to call it doing good theology.

Tongues Today

The pentecostal shift away from missionary tongues is not so scandalous as it seems, and in fact, their process can help us understand how to approach challenging issues of today. Pentecostal tongues, whether we speak in them or not, can be an avenue of grace in our own faith journeys.

When I feel like God has failed me, tongues remind me that my theology of God is not God.

When I feel trapped by theologies or ideologies that don’t work, tongues remind me that it’s okay to change my mind.

When I look around the sanctuary and realize that everyone looks like me, tongues challenge me to get out of my comfort zone and into God’s transgressive New Creation.

When I see Christians bitterly divided, I see tongues as a reminder that we need to learn to speak other people’s language.

When I feel like I just cannot with someone, tongues becomes a sacrament of God’s boundary-crossing love.

To use the words of The Apostolic Faith, tongues mostly reminds me that “the Holy Spirit speaks all the languages of the world through his children.” God, in us and through us, is alive and speaking to each of us wherever we are.

If that doesn’t deserve a “shonda!”, I don’t know what does.

Note from the Editorial Team:
Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.

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Author: Alex Mayfield

Alex is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Mission Studies at Boston University, and he is a minister in the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. He is married to an amazing wife who puts up with everything those two facts entail. When he's not reading or writing, he's usually dreaming of eating Chinese food.