Science in Christian Perspective



Debunking Some of the Myths
About Glossolalia

Graduate School of Psychology 
Fuller Theological Seminary 
Pasadena. California 91101

From: JASA 34 (September 1982): 144-148.

Recently, a young man was observed muttering to himself as he examined various titles on the shelves of a bookstore. He would run his fingers over the title of the book in a gingerly manner then touch his forehead lightly with the volume. This would be followed by incomprehensible muttering. It soon became apparent that the youth was praying in a strange language. It was glossolalia-the pietistic utterances of those who feel they are expressing their faith in a manner similar to first century Christians at the day of Pentecost (cf Acts 2) and in the Corinthian Church (cf I Corinthians 12).

Events like this, plus many other different but similar experiences, have led many to presume that glossolalic persons were abnormal at worst or eccentric at best. Such questions as the following have been posed: "Are glossolalics psychologically different from others"? Do glossolalics tend toward greater preoccupation with emotional experience than others"? Is the experience of glossolalia one in which persons go into a trance and lose consciousness"? In what manner could glossolalia be considered a valid Christian experience?

In an effort to answer these questions a programatic study of these issues has been in process at the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary since 1971. For the past eight years graduate students under the direction of this author, a clinical psychologist and United Methodist minister, have completed a variety of experiments designed to determine the parameters of glossolalic phenomena. This essay is a report on the research.

What Is Glossolatia?

Although most persons are acquainted with glossolalia a brief summary of its meaning is in order. The literal definition of the term is "gift of tongues". In the Christian tradition it referred originally to phenomena which occurred on the day of Pentecost. The author of Acts reports that as the faithful were gathered together in prayer forty days after the death/ resurrection of Jesus the Holy Spirit swept over them with mighty power and they each began to speak in one of the languages of the world. None of them had any background in these languages so the ability to speak in them was understood as due to the power of the Holy Spirit. The explanation given for this miracle was that it occurred so the good news of Jesus could be spoken to the nations.

As the church became established in the cities of the Roman empire, glossolalia came to be thought of as evidence that the Holy Spirit was present in one's life. In the tongue speaking noted in the church at Corinth the utterances did not seem to be recognizable languages and the problem of interpreting the meaning of the words became an issue. Further, tongue speaking was suggested to be only one of the indications that a person was baptized with the Holy Spirit.

Since biblical times, glossolalia has continued to be a part of numerous Christians' experience although it long ago ceased to play a major role in Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant -Christianity. Nevertheless, contemporary Christianity includes several smaller denominations for whom all gifts of the Spirit, and especially speaking in tongues, are of central concern. These well established Pentecostal churches have been joined in the last half of this century by a neo-Pentecostal revival within major religious groups. Thus, there is a vital and increasingly accepted facet of Christianity that expresses its faith in this manner even though no research has proven these utterances to be understandable in the syntax or semantics of any extant language.

Who Becomes Glossolalic and Why?

Since by no means all Christians speak in tongues the question of who does and why becomes important.A number of personal and situational variables have been, or should be, considered. Psychopathology was early suggested as the prime concomitant of glossolalia (Knox, 1950). While several authors' postulate1 such a relationship, Hine2 concluded there was none.

Glossolalics have been found to be well adjusted to their social environments, I and able to control their thought processes outside the experience in a way dissimilar to schizophrenics who also spoke in tongues.' While evidence of interpersonal uncertainty was reported in other research utilizing psychological tests' still no signs of psychopathology were observed. In fact, Gerrard3 indicated that an

Low                                                           |                                                           Psychopathology
                              +  -                              |                          +  -
                                                                  |                                                            Presence +
Social Class _______________________|_____________________________
                                                                  |                                                            Absence -
Middle                                                       |
                              -  -                               |                          +  -
Upper                                                        |
                         For Glossolalia                                    Against Glossolalia

                                                       Group Expectancy

Figure 1. The presence of psychopathology in glossolalics of different social class and group expectancies.

There is a vital and increasingly accepted facet of Christianity that expresses its faith in glossolalia even though no research has proven these utterances to be understandable in the syntax or semantics of any extant language.

analysis of MMPI profiles suggested glossolalics were better adjusted than members of a conventional denomination. Only Kildahl and Qualben,7 among contemporary investigators, reported evidence for lower ego strength and higher suggestibility.

Pattison8 suggested there was an interesting relationship between social expectancy and psychopathology in glossolalia. He proposed that in religious groups where glossolalia was the norm, speaking in tongues would not be psychopathological but that in groups where it was not expected the reverse would be true.

He further reported that there were class differences in his research. Overt psychopathology seemed to be present more often among lower class glossolalics than among middle and upper classes. This accorded with the insight of Boisen,9 among others, that glossolalia functioned as a status symbol among the isolated and dispossessed.

Hine10 termed this the disorganization-deprivation theory. Where society was fluid and changing and where a group of people were not succeeding in moving up the socio-economic scale, there glossolalia would be expected to be a compensatory act designed to overcome isolation and lack of status. Boisen,11 Johnson,12 Lanternari,13 and Pattison14 all concluded that in marginal socio-economic groups certain religious expressions served as substitutes for lack of achievement.

Another interesting tendency reported by Hine15 was an inclination for second generation glossolalics to speak in tongues less frequently than their parents who tended to come from denominations where it was devalued. It has also been suggested that in middle class groups, glossolalia meets group goals rather than personal needs. it is more a matter of social conformity than of compensation for loss. Therefore the functional meaning of tongue speaking seems to be more critical among those for whom the experience is a more radical departure from social expectancy.

A three dimensional model including the presence of psychopathology, the group expectancy of glossolalia and social class was conceived as the basis for our investigations. Figure I illustrates this model.

Thus, where a person was glossolalic we hypothesized (s)he would be more likely to be psychopathological if (s)he was from the lower class in a group where glossolalia was not the norm. (S)he would be less likely to be psychopathological if (s)he were a member of the middle-upper class in a group where glossolalia was the norm. 

In the first study, based on this model, the incidence and frequency of glossolalia were correlated with the personality variables among youth who were members of a religious group where glossolalia was the expected norm (i.e. middle to upper class Assembly of God youth attending -a summer camp). Over ninety percent of the youths (ages 14-17) reported they spoke in tongues. Demographic data regarding family background, initial glossolalic experience, conversion, etc. were also assessed. These data were analyzed via analyses of variance in which high and low frequencies of glossolalia were the independent variables. No relationship was found between introversion or extroversion (using the Eysenck Personality Inventory) and the incidence or frequency of glossolalics to feel more internally or externally controlled (as measured by Rotter's I-E Scale16).

These results lent some support to our presumption that there would be no evidence of psychopathology among those in the middle to upper social classes where glossolalia was the norm. Of related interest was the finding of a significant tendency for high-frequency glossolalics to be more intrinsic in their orientation to religion than either nonglossolalics or low frequency glossolalics (as measured by Allport's EIRO Scale). This suggested to us that they were more likely to perceive religion as meeting individual personal fulfillment than status needs in their lives. Demographically, glossolalia was related to having been converted, frequency of church attendance and the religious activity of parents. It was not related to sex or an index of socio-economic class, i.e., salary of father. While it most often began in a group setting, it was more frequently used in private devotions.

A second study was undertaken to replicate the data on intrinsic orientation toward religion plus relate glossolalia to religious beliefs and an index of religious activity, i.e., social action. Sample weaknesses in the first study were also corrected.

Tongue speaking Christians appeared to be normal both prior to as well as after they became glossolalic. Most surprising was the finding that being a part of the group had as much impact as speaking in tongues.

This interest in whether glossolalia resulted in new behavior (such a participation in social action projects) was prompted by Gerlach, et. al.17 who saw glossolalia as a sign that the personality was being radically reorganized and a person was willing to risk new behavior. Again, the investigation was conducted among persons of similar social background who had all been exposed to similar religious experiences where glossolalia was the expected norm. Forty Assembly of God youths who went on a social action trip to Mexico were compared to forty youths who did not go. High and low frequency glossolalics in each group were also compared. The data were subjected to analysis of variance. The earlier lack of relationships between socio-economic class and sex was confirmed as was the tendency for glossolalics to be more intrinsic in their orientation toward religion and for glossolalia among youths to be related to glossolia among parents. There was a significant tendency for youths who participated in the social action project to be more glossolalic, thus giving support to the hypothesis about the behavioral effect of the phenomena. Further, although there were no differences in beliefs about God's nearness and accessibility, there was a significant tendency for more frequent glossolalia to be related to a negative and sinful view of man. Those who participated in the social action project were more pessimistic in their view of man than those who did not participate.18

In a more direct test of our model, we compared upper and lower class glossolalics on physiological changes which occurred during the experiences.19 Early in the 1900's investigators had proposed that glossolalia was a regressive psychological state involving automatisms, loss of conscious control, fugue states and dissociations resembling hypnotic trance. Later Pattison20 proposed that there were different types of glossolalia with varying degrees of cortical control. Those with less control he called "serious" and those with more control he termed "playful." We hypothesized that those in the lower social class, from a religious tradition where it was not expected, who frequently spoke in tongues, would show physiological changes (i.e., be more hysterical and suggestible) while those in the middle upper social classes, from traditions where glossolalia was the norm, who spoke infrequently, would not show such changes. The former we labeled "Process" glossolalia (cf Pattison's "serious") indicating it was a personal inner process probably reflecting psychological compensation for lack of status. The latter we labeled "Act" glossolalia (cf Pattison's "playful") indicating it was a social act designed to reflect group conformity.

Changes in brain wave activity and heart rate were assessed as glossolalics prayed in English and prayed in tongues. Contrary to expectation there were no significant differences between Act and Process glossolalics.

Initially this led us to conclude that our model was in error. This still may be so. However, we are more inclined to think that the lack of results was due to the problems we encountered in convincing people to come to pray in a psychophysiological laboratory and the errors we made in assigning persons to socio-economic levels. In regard to the first we may have utilized a very biased sample of persons. They seemed to be neo-Pentecostals for whom glossolalia appears to be predominantly under voluntary control. We need to assess the phenomenon among traditional Pentecostals for whom glossolalia reportedly is much more likely to be experienced as uninvited possession. Further, the instrument used in determining social class assessed occupation and education. In one case, this formula placed an unemployed graduate student in the lower social class-an obvious error of measurement. A more rigorous standard is needed. However, if the results of this study are accepted as conclusive, the inference that glossolalics are different psychologically at the time of the event must be reconsidered.

Perhaps our most conclusive study to date was concerned with personality changes that might result from the experience of becoming glossolalic.21 As early as 1908 Lombard22 had suggested that glossolalia was a "rejuvenating" experience, i.e., that it had some positive impact on persons. As noted earlier, although the presence of psychopathology in the glossolalic experience had been postulated little evidence had been found for this dynamic save in the research of Kildahl and Qualben23 and Wood.24 We reasoned that the "normality" observed in such studies as Gerrard and Gerrard25 and Vivier26 could perhaps have been accounted for by the impact of speaking in tongues on personality integration. In other words, they might have been abnormal before the event but have become mentally healthy afterwards.

Heretofore there had been no published studies on personality changes resulting from glossolalia that included assessment prior to the experience. This study attempted to study the effects of this phenomenon by measuring persons in "Life in the Spirit" seminars on personality and attitudinal variables pre, post, and three months after the seminar. These seminars (in Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches in New Mexico and California) were twelve week long study groups designed to introduce persons to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Persons who become glossolalic were compared to those who were already glossolalic and those who did not become glossolalic. No one of the groups was psychopathological at pre-testing time. Although persons who did not become glossolalic were highest in depression, hostility, and anxiety at the beginning of the seminar, all groups were similar at the time of follow-up. All persons changed in the direction of personality integration. However, those who became glossolalic did not change more than those who did not. The results were interpreted primarily as a function of attending the seminar rather than of the glossolalic experience.

We even compared the participants in the seminars to the standardized norms for the several personality tests we used and found them to be not significantly different on any measure from the average prior to the experience. Thus, we concluded that tongue speaking Christians appeared to be normal both prior to as well as after they became glossolalic. Most surprising to us was the finding that being a part of the group had as much impact as speaking in tongues.

Finally, our most recent study extended the investigation of physiological changes during speaking in tongues by comparing "body auras" in glossolalic and non glossolalic Presbyterians." Matched pairs (on sex, marital status and years in the church) were measured via the Kirlian (negative photography) method in resting, prayer-in-English, and prayer-in-tongues conditions. Thorough analysis of variance procedures among conditions and between group comparisons were made. No significant differences in such measures as size and color of aura was observed. The hypothesis that change in auras should be different in

H. Newton Malony is Professor and Director of Programs in Psychology and Theology in the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a diplomate in clinical psychology, American Board of Professional Psychology, and President-Elect of Division 36, Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues of APA. As well, he is President of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, Western Region. He is co-author (with Adams Lovekin) of a forthcoming book on Social and Psychological Research on Glossolalia being published by Oxford University Press, as well as editor of Current Perspectives in the Psychology of Religion (Eerdmans).

various kinds of persons and among emotional conditions, was not confirmed. No evidence for significant physiological change during the phenomenon was observed. Trance state was not evident.

Our Conclusions

Our research in ongoing. We are still asking some of the basic questions concerning individual differences among persons who speak in tongues and concerning the nature of the phenomenon itself. We are well aware of the significant variety in traditions, setting, and types of glossolalia and intend to replicate our study of socio-economic class and group expectancy.

However, our conclusions to date are as follows:

1. Speaking in tongues appears to be a concomitant of pietistic revivals throughout Christian history.

2. Contemporary glossolalic expression can be observed in both traditional and in neo-Pentecostalism and varies greatly in terms of group expectancy, setting and frequency.

3. Where tongue speaking is expected, the vast majority of youth are glossolalic by age seventeen. More frequent glossolalics do not differ psychologically from less frequent glossolalics but do appear to participate in more projects of social action.

4. Frequent glossolalia evidenced by persons in the lower social class from a background where it was not the norm does not appear to differ in kind from that practiced infrequently by upper to middle class persons in traditions where it is expected.

5. There is no indication that glossolalics go into trance during the experience.

6. Persons who speak in tongues do not appear to be mentally unhealthy either before or after the experience.


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