In the early 1960s a conservative Episcopalian journalist, John Sherrill, was commissioned to write an investigative book on Pentecostalism. He began consulting with academics and church historians to see if this was a worthwhile pursuit. He was surprised to discover that they spoke of Pentecostalism not in terms of small churches, or a single denomination, but of an apparently unstoppable global movement growing by millions every year. The academics claimed that, in terms of its breadth of influence, and size, that this was the most significant religious shift since the Reformation.
So Sherrill got to work, and part of his investigation was examining its distinctive features. He soon found that the experience of the baptism, or infilling, of the Spirit followed by the gift of tongues was a key distinctive.
The definition of ‘tongues’: Tongues is a prayer language not learned but which is spoken out by the believer usually after being filled with the Holy Spirit, and which then becomes a regular part of their spiritual life.
Testing the claims
He interviewed people of all denominations who had experienced being filled with the Spirit and who spoke in tongues. They claimed to have received these various languages as a gift. They weren’t making up the sounds. Could he test whether that claim was true?
‘I’d decided to get some tape recordings of people speaking in tongues, with the idea of playing them back for some language experts and seeing what they made of it all.’
He invited people to come and make the recordings at his publisher’s offices in New York. He tried unsuccessfully to sound-proof the room, with hilarious results as his fellow-workers eagerly listened to whatever it was that was happening inside.
Speaking in tongues – What does the Bible say?
At the same time he needed to find out whether this was a legitimate part of Christian worship. Here’s some of his results:
He discovered the New Testament contains some 30 references to tongues, and that they were used in different ways:
to exalt the greatness of God, not only as a one-time event but as a regular spiritual exercise
to build up the believer in prayer;
– that they helped the believer pray when he wasn’t sure what to pray for, or in worship;
– that they were spoken out in public meetings, followed by an interpretation by someone else, and that this combination invigorated the church gatherings.
In terms of Paul’s response to tongues he found:
‘there was no sense of surprise about tongues…He accepts them without discussion as a genuine part of the Christian experience.’
that Paul considered the Holy Spirit to be the source of tongues, and that their use is appointed by God
that they are given for ‘useful purpose..the strengthening of the one who uses them.’
that he is not teaching about them theoretically, ‘but from personal experience. He himself uses tongues extensively.’ ‘I thank God I speak in tongues more than you all…’ 14.18
that he not only prays in tongues but sings in tongues too 1 Cor 14.15
that he does not expect the tongue to be understood by the hearers
that not everyone in the church speaks in tongues
that he encourages them, ‘Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues.’ 14.5
and that one of the cautions them, ‘do not forbid speaking in tongues’. 14.39
But, he asked, why is there a gift of tongues? He asked one of those tongues speakers: ‘What’s the use of speaking in tongues?’ She replied, ‘The only way I can answer that is to say… ‘What is the use of a sunset? Just sheer, unmitigated uplift, just joy unspeakable and with it health and peace and rest and release from burdens and tensions.’
In the end, rather than focus on Pentecostalism as such, Sherrill called his book, ‘They Speak with Other Tongues’. He recounts instances where someone praying in tongues in church is discovered to be praying in a known language with highly specific knowledge of a visitor. These are amazing accounts, but relatively rare. Tongues usually are unknown languages.
Language experts examine the taped recordings of people speaking in tongues
After making recordings he gathered six language experts to examine a selection of the tapes: Two specialists in modern languages, three in ancient languages, and an expert in language structure. They convened at Columbia University:
‘I was interested in their reactions to our experiment. They were extremely attentive, dubious without being hostile. As I put on the first tape each one leaned forward, straining to catch every syllable. Several took notes…For the better part of an hour we listened to one prayer after another, spoken ‘in the Spirit’.’
‘There were some interesting observations… One of the linguists reported that although he did not identify words he felt that one tape had been structured in much the same way as a modern poem is structured. ‘Modern poetry depends upon sound as much as upon verbal meaning to get across its message,’ he said. ‘In this one prayer, I felt that although I didn’t understand the literal sense of her words, I did catch the emotional content of what she was saying. It was a hymn of love. Beautiful.’…
‘Although no language known to these men was recorded, they frequently identified language patterns on the tapes. The shape of real language, the variety of sound combinations, infrequency of repetition and so forth, is virtually impossible, they said, to reproduce by deliberate effort…
Fake tongues exposed!
‘I had slipped onto the tapes two instances of pure made-up gibberish, one by our son, Scott, and one by Tib [his wife]. They had tried to sound as much as possible like the tongues on the rest of the tapes, but the linguists spotted the deception immediately.
“That’s not language,’ one man said. ‘That’s just noise.”‘
The academics were impressed. And Sherrill was impressed that these unknown tongues had definite structural similarities to known languages. He continues,
‘I had always read the opening words of St Paul’s great thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,’ in a poetic sense…But there is no doubt in my mind now that Paul was speaking of tongues in the specific Pentecostal sense, and of angel tongues as one variety of these.’
Read the book for the rest of John Sherrill’s story! It’s an intriguing read!
Other books by John Sherrill include:
The Cross and the Switchblade (about David Wilkerson) – John and Elizabeth Sherrill
God’s Smuggler (about Brother Andrew) – John and Elizabeth Sherrill
The Hiding Place (about Corrie Ten Boom) – John and Elizabeth Sherrill
The Happiest People on Earth (about the ‘Full Gospel’s business fellowship) – John and Elizabeth Sherrill
My Friend the Bible – – John Sherrill
©2022 Lex Loizides / Church History Review