BeliefWatch: Spirit Filled

What does it mean to speak in tongues? And who has the right, or the privilege, to do so? These questions, largely theological, have lingered at the fringes of American Protestantism. Now, as charismatic Christianity sweeps the country and the world, speaking in tongues has become as divisive as it is popular.

Earlier this fall, in a sermon at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, a pastor named Wm. Dwight McKissic mentioned that he sometimes speaks in tongues while privately praying to God. “I did it this morning,” he told NEWSWEEK. After that sermon, Southwestern’s president, Paige Patterson, took the extraordinary step of removing the video of McKissic’s speech from the seminary’s Web site. Then, after a vote by the school’s board, Patterson issued a controversial statement saying that Southwestern would not hire anyone who advocated the use of tongues in prayer. Although Southern Baptists have no official policy against it, speaking in tongues is something the denomination has “always resisted” as un-Biblical, explains Patterson.

But Patterson is fighting an uphill battle, and he knows it. According to a recent Pew survey, nearly 20 percent of American Christians speak in tongues more than several times a year. According to a survey by Baylor University, 37 percent of Americans say their place of worship would encourage or allow speaking in tongues. A growing number of Roman Catholics now speak in tongues, as well as Episcopalians, Lutherans–and, despite the denomination’s historical resistance, Baptists.

Speaking in tongues has traditionally been seen as a gift, a sign that a person is filled with the Holy Spirit like the babbling Christians in the Book of Acts, but until recently it was common only in Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God. Fundamentalists were against it; no one but the first Christians spoke in tongues, they said. Now, as the lines between denominations break down and people seek more emotional ways to connect with God, speaking in tongues “provides an immediacy of religious experience,” says Randall Balmer, religion professor at Barnard. “It provides a voice to people who feel they have no voice.” With heads thrown back and voices ululating in haunting communion, the spirit-filled “speakers” defy rational church officials to legislate against them.