Most modern Mormons understand the “gift of tongues” as the ability to quickly learn a foreign language in the Missionary Training Center. But early Latter-day Saints had a very different concept of tongues. John Gunnison, an astute student of Mormon culture, nicely summarized the Mormon practice in 1852:
This is not the ancient gift, whereby one addressing a people of speaking a different language from himself, was enabled to talk in their own words. It is, that persons among themselves; in their enthusiastic meetings, shall be “moved by the spirit” to utter any set of sounds in imitation of words, and, it may be, words belonging to some Indian or other language. The speaker is to know nothing of the ideas expressed, but another, with the “gift of interpretation of tongues,” can explain to the astonished audience all that has been said. Any sounds, of course then are a language known to the Lord. If one feels a desire to speak, and has difficulty to bring forth the thoughts of his heart, or what the spirit is about to reveal through him, he must “rise on his feet, lean in faith on Christ, and open his lips, utter a song in such cadence as he chooses, and the spirit of the Lord will give an interpreter, and make it a language.”
Gunnison’s description of early Mormon tongues bears a strong resemblance to the practice of modern Pentecostals. Since I grew up in that tradition, I thought our readers might be interested in hearing about my own experience of tongues as an adolescent. It perhaps gives a taste of early Mormon spirituality, though in important ways modern Pentecostals are very different. As a side note, the early Mormon practice of tongues was part of what originally got me investigating Mormon history. My church claimed to have restored the gift of tongues to the world in 1906 at the Azusa Street Revival. So to learn that Mormons had beaten us to the practice by more than 70 years both intrigued me and disturbed me.