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.
I was probably in the seventh or eighth grade when, at a prayer service in a side room at a Pentecostal church called the Rock of Roseville, I made the decision to be prayed for to receive the gift of tongues. A number of people, some of them my own age, some of them adults, gathered round and placed their hands on my head and shoulders. Their prayers tumbled forth in a fervent, almost musical harmony. Some of their speech was unintelligible: a babble of unknown tongues, the tongues of angels. Most of it sounded sort of Arabic. “Shalala bahelo tenji tunka lapotolel,” they moaned in a rapid-fire stream of alien-sounding syllables. When praying in English, their words took on an almost poetic rhythm. Swaying piously with their eyes closed and brows crinkled, they entreated, “Fill him with your Spirit, God. Let your love just wash over him, Father God. Send your power and your grace, Lord Jesus. We pray in the name of Jesus for the gift of tongues, Lord God.”
I wasn’t the only one being prayed for this night. The room was packed with pious youths and their adult leaders, gathered in groups around newbies like me. We had been taught that tongues was a miraculous sign that one had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. If I didn’t receive it this night it wouldn’t be the end of the world. There would be other opportunities to be prayed for some other time. But my friend James had just received it, and others in the room were singing out triumphantly in the angelic language. Turning my eyes toward heaven, praying aloud with great zeal and tears in my eyes, I begged my Father for the heavenly gift.
I had heard different accounts of what tongues felt like. Some said that they had felt it welling up inside them, others that they felt their mouths physically controlled by the Spirit. I experienced no such sensations this night, no such loss of control. It was terribly disheartening. Why was the Spirit ignoring me where it had spoken through so many others?
A person close to me had shared with me a more mundane theory of what it means to speak in tongues. In Chapter 2 of the biblical Book of Acts, all the members of a multi-ethnic crowd miraculously understand the words of a single preacher. This person’s idea was that the miracle of tongues takes place in the ear of the hearer rather than in the mouth of the speaker. She suggested that when we speak in tongues, we speak nonsense sounds under our own power and God fills those sounds with meaning. That account of tongues never sat right with me. It seemed to me that tongues was supposed to be a real gift and a real miracle. The way this person explained it made it sound awfully unmiraculous.
On this night, one of the adult leaders took me by the shoulders and gave much the same explanation of how tongues worked. Then he laid his palm on my forehead and told me to “just begin to speak out.” I had to make a decision to speak, he told me. It was me who had to do the speaking. I needed to let go of my fears and insecurities and just start babbling. I hesitated, but I did what he said. Awkward syllables tumbled from my lips, all of them consciously chosen and formulated in my mind beforehand. “Hallelujah,” my peers around me intoned sincerely. “Praise God. Thank you Jesus.” Everyone else in the group dispersed that night satisfied that God had showed up and bestowed upon me a miraculous gift. I wasn’t so sure.
I went home that night and sat on the floor next to my bed and prayed and cried and prayed some more. There, alone, with no one to lay hands on me and no one to pressure me, I spoke in tongues again. It still felt like it was me doing the talking, but it flowed more freely, and this time I let go more than I had earlier in the evening. Although it didn’t seem that anything properly miraculous was happening, I felt uplifted in my mind to a place of deep and personal closeness with God. Babbling like this had had a curious cathartic effect: it emptied my mind of rational thought, making room for sheer emotion and the raw sensation of transcendence. It was a mystical experience, rather like that sought by Buddhists. Of course, I didn’t make that connection at the time. At the time I only knew that at long last I had been filled with the Holy Spirit.
I now consider my adolescent Pentecostal belief in a miraculous gift of tongues to have been naïve, but the practice itself is not as silly as it sounds to non-Pentecostal ears. As with so many religious rituals and ideas, speaking in tongues is rationally absurd but experientially and symbolically powerful. Pentecostal theologian Frank Macchia has written that tongues symbolizes that “language cannot follow one into the depths of the encounter between the mystery of God and the mystery of the self before God.” He also adds that “It is the lowest common denominator between people who might be very different from one another, revealing a deep sense of equality that cannot be denied and that challenges any discrimination based on gender, class, or race.” I am speaking from experience when I say that I think that that’s true. I no longer speak in tongues, because it doesn’t make much sense to me to do so without the literal belief or the communal solidarity that I learned to associate with it. But I remember fondly the unity I felt with strangers as we harmonized together in nonsense song more meaningful than any lyrics. And I find myself, from time to time, wishing for a new ritual through which to have the same experience.
 J. W. Gunnison, The Mormons, or, Latter-day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition, and Prospects, Derived from Personal Observation, during a Residence among Them (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1852), 53, https://archive.org/details/mormons00gunngoog (accessed April 6, 2016).