Online Christian Counseling and Opinion

The Psychological Aspects of Glossolalia In Contemporary Society

NOTE: This is an Abridged Version of My Doctoral Dissertation

The Psychological Aspects



In Contemporary Society

By  Lee W. Outlaw III

An academic paper submitted to the

Hamilton University

In partial fulfillment of requirements

for the degree of

PhD  in Christian Counseling


Written under the direction of the

Office of the Faculty Advisers


Ocala, Florida

February 8, 1999

The Psychological Aspects



In Contemporary Society

Since it’s very beginning, Christianity has been plagued with controversy.  There were the disciples of Jesus who always argued over when the kingdom of God would take place. Controversy also arose among the first century believers over whether or not Jesus had actually risen from the dead; such an instance was the case of doubting Thomas.

As Christianity grew and developed into the institution and the force it has come to be, the issues became more controversial and quite difficult to explain. Probably the most controversial of all issues to plague Christianity, is the issue of the Holy Spirit and His gifts; primarily the gift of speaking in tongues.

The speaking in tongues controversy  (as it is known among Christians) is far-reaching and widespread.  From the seminary classroom to the individual in the pew, there are nearly as many differing views as there are churches and denominations.

In general, most contemporary Christian believers are willing to accept without issue the presence of the Holy Spirit as the comforter Jesus had promised to send, following His ascension into Heaven.

The controversy arises over the way in which the Holy Spirit comes upon (or into) an individual. With such diverse opinion on this subject, the emphasis here will endeavor to look at the most commonly held views that are effecting the church today.

One commonly held view is that a person cannot be a Christian unless he speaks tongues; otherwise known as the charismatic experience or second blessing and more correctly known in theological circles as glossolalia

Another view states, the gift of tongues is simply a God given ability which allows a person to learn and communicate freely in a foreign language.  Still others make claim that the ability to speak in the unknown tongue or glossolalia (an unintelligible ecstatic utterance) is proof that a supernatural ability is indwelled within a person made possible by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

As such, the doctrine of or concerning tongues has become one of the greatest of all Christian Doctrinal controversies.  For most Christian believers and theologians alike, only the arguments surrounding the Virgin Birth and Deity of Christ would be considered a greater controversy.

The main reason for such a controversy, stems from the mention of ability by the apostles and first century Christians to speak and understand in an unusual manner as mentioned in Acts 2:3.

Up until the late 1960’s glossolalia, tongues, the charismatic movement, etc., seemed restricted to the neo-Protestant groups known as Pentecostals and Pentecostalism. This particular group was started by a former Methodist minister named Charles Parham, who began his venture with the establishment of a Bible school in Topeka, Kansas.  Because of the restriction to such a small body of individuals (at the time), most other denominations simply ignored Parham and continued with their own hermeneutical interpretations and explanations as to what happened at Pentecost. Recently however, this charismatic movement has spread to virtually every Christian denomination, both Protestant and Catholic alike.

In some cases it has even moved outside of the realm of Christianity altogether. It should be noted at this point that glossolalia is not peculiar to Christianity alone.  Other religions and cult groups note similar occurrences. Such instances are found in Egyptian and Assyrian records. [1]

Because glossolalia is not restricted to Christianity, its primary aspects will be discussed with emphasis on those that tend to be in the psychological realm.

First, some background on the word itself. Glossolalia comes from two Greek words: glossa (glossa) and lhlin (lalein), Glossa means tongue and lalein means to speak.  Lalein being an infinitive and glossa being a noun, the literal meaning is “ to speak  tongues”.1

Glossolalia is a gift of the Holy Spirit as previously stated.  It is for all practical purposes, credited to Christianity.  In describing this gift  (or as some would say- “phenomenon”)2,   there is a considerable amount of difficulty in trying to appear positive.

For example, some scholars define glossolalia as:  “… a striking phenomenon of primitive  Christianity.  It consisted in articulate, unintelligible speech issuing from Christians who in a state of ecstasy, believed themselves to be possessed by the spirit.”1

Others not primarily interested in the Christian aspect of glossolalia define it, as does George Barton Cutten, “a personal disintegration in which the verbo-motive centers of the subject are obedient to subconscious impulses.”1 There are still others who say that glossolalia whether Christian or not is strictly a psychological condition. This condition is usually ascribed to hysteria, ecstasy or catalepsy; the individual or individuals involved being highly susceptible to suggestion.2

Here is where the underlying problem for this discussion evolves.  If glossolalia is to be seen as a simple psychological condition, then what happened at Pentecost?  What happened in the other New Testament accounts such as Ceaserea, Ephesus, and Corinth?  Why is the charismatic movement so popular today when psychology (even Christian Psychology) is so well known and accepted in all well educated and informed areas of twenty-first century society?

To answer this, it is necessary to see exactly what happened at Pentecost.

There are many explanations, but the four most popular are as follows:

1)              For the purpose of evangelization a miracle of language is said in a number of foreign languages. Many of the early church fathers held this view, as do many contemporary theologians.

2)              The multitude, all of which spoke either Greek or Aramaic, and many of them both, would understand (particularly those who knew the various dialects), what Peter and the others were saying.

3)              It has been suggested that the speech of the apostles was filled with foreign phrases and idioms, heard over the years, which, under the intense emotion and excitement, began to pour fourth.

4)              The final view is that because of the close spiritual rapport, the thoughts and feelings of the speakers were transferred to the hearers and there was general understanding of what was said. 1

Now all of these views might appear at first to be somewhat reasonable.  But when other accounts of glossolalia are mentioned, such as Corinth2, the meaning is clear, that what was experienced, was an ecstatic unintelligible form of speech.

It is certain; however, that the first reference to tongues being spoken of at the day of Pentecost was foreign languages; for this, there is no mistake.  But the references in Acts 10:46; 19:6 are to the unknown tongue.1

Since the condition mentioned both in Acts and Corinthians is glossolalia and this is ascribed as psychological by many contemporary scholars; it is necessary to look at that which plays whatever part it might, in this type of conditioning.

It should first be noted that those who experience the tongues phenomenon, have the experience in a variety of ways. Some experience it only in private, others only in public and some, in both private and public.  Almost all have a deep need for personal security and emotional expression.

Those whose experience is restricted in private would have a need for emotional expression, while those having the experience only in public, have an apparent need for personal security.3

It seems obvious that speaking in tongues serves as a definite emotional outlet.

Studies concerning glossolalia show that those involved in the charismatic movements are usually very troubled people.  They have more anxiety and personal instability than do most non-charismatics.1

Some aspects of glossolalia have similarities to other psychological experiences.  Such experiences are trance states and sleep walking.  These experiences are considered similar because they are called automatisms, which some also consider glossolalia.

Automatisms are automatic movements of voluntary muscles dissociated from conscious control.  Automatisms (as viewed by most professionals involved in such studies as this), are seen as a means providing escape for deep-seated conflicts within an individual. Thus, some people bothered by problems on the job, may repress them, only to have them surface in the form of sleepwalking or sitting in their favorite chair staring at the wall or simply staring into nothingness.  Others religiously motivated, may find the same release (although unintentional) through glossolalia.

It is therefore asserted by most ministerial and psychological groups, that glossolalia, whether Holy Spirit produced or not, is a form of escape valve for problems and difficulties in life.

There are however, other psychological aspects concerning glossolalia, which involve more of the religious idea.

One of the most popular ideas is that glossolalia is actually a means of escape for deep rooted religious desires and repressed feelings.  It is asserted that certain persons having been neglected spiritually may seek glossolalia as their first means of religious expression.

This expression can be compared somewhat to that of an infant attempting to say its first words.  At first the child has difficulty with vowels and consonants so it expresses unintelligible utterances.  Gradually speech is improved and developed where full expression can be made.

There is further evidence by some scholars, that the chemical imbalance in the body that takes place from long periods of fasting (which many charismatics practice as well) is very similar to that produced by certain drugs such as LSD.  These studies have even noted that addicts of LSD and other hallucinogenics have expressed with ease and similar proficiency this same verbal ecstatic utterance we call glossolalia.1 For Christians, this should be a “red flag” of sorts.  It should give reason enough for those who would seek the truth, to challenge the contemporary Pentecostal doctrine.

Of all the study done by psychologist in the field of glossolalia or ecstatic utterance experience, probably the most difficult to explain is the fluency of the language produced from the addict.  There is little if any difference between that which is produced by the addict or Charismatic Christian.  Again, an apparent heavenly warning to those who would seek a “mystical” side of Christianity to think and know rather than become dependant on an emotional surge for spiritual confirmation.

In the speaking in tongues experience, a genuine glossolaliast can go on for hours in a very fluid manner producing sounds such as, “aish  nay  gum nay  tayo”.1 It appears that the one involved in the speaking never has to reach for words.  They are always there.  For most psychologists, glossolalia is not completely under the conscious control of the individual speaking in the unknown tongue.

Because glossolalia is considered by most psychologists to be produced by the subconscience, it is worthy to note the various aspects of glossolalia as a “Vocal Phenomenon”.2

First of all, most that speak in tongues believe that what they are saying is a real language.  There is however, no consistent understanding of the meaning by either speaker or hearer.  It is however, apparently patterned after real language because of its flowing sounds and sometimes familiarity to lost or less used languages.  It does have value to the speaker, although (and more than often) it is meaningless.  The value to the speaker is at best an emotional release similar to the expansive rambling of profanity used by an extremely angry person prone to similar chronic outburst.

Glossolalia is also considered by many scholars to be a non-human language.  If this is the case, then there is no possible way to evaluate such a practice on human terms alone.  Unfortunately, upon this single scientific diagnostic, the Pentecostals have attempted to develop and rationalize what they consider as the “true spirituality” of an entire biblical doctrine known as everything from the “second blessing” or “the language of angels” to  “the language of prayer.”

Most linguist state that glossolalia is not a natural language and nothing is found today that can be compared with it except for speech impediments, gibberish made by children and particularly infants and the physically and mentally retarded and the mentally ill.1

In general, glossolalia can be discussed forever and still have questions raised concerning its validity.

There are those who see it as a genuine gift of God not capable of being explained by mere mortal men.

Others see it as a very strange and extreme psychological condition ranging from a simple neurotic and pathological state to a full blown psychosis which enables the participant with a false sense of power and confidence to the point of producing advanced anger, violence, and associated acts of passion.

Of course, many will still want to argue the validity of what they consider the only genuine evidence of a real and living Holy Spirit.

Jesus, however, said that He was leaving “the comforter” with us; one who would give us peace in difficult moments.  Those who seek to speak in the so-called unknown tongue seem to be anything but comforted.

As such, there is more factual knowledge concerning the reasons for glossolalia being psychologically conditioned than not.

It is therefore the conclusion of this writer, based on both the research stated herein and over fifteen years of counseling of those who either seek to or have practiced glossolalia, that there is one single, underlying theme among those who speak in tongues; a lack of touch with reality and a pseudo–faith, based more on a sense of the mystical than on genuine spirituality.

An individual whose faith is genuine and sincere does not need the magical qualities desired by those who would speak in an unknown tongue, nor is there any need to withdraw from society to communicate with God in an ecstatic utterance.

God does not need any outward, verbal expression from us.  The Bible says he knew us before we were conceived1 and has spoken to us in many ways and many times. 2

Because of its use elsewhere in the world besides Christianity and the apparent problems it caused in the first century church, there can be no other conclusion apart from glossolalia and its subsequent charismatic movement being strictly a psychological condition.

The charismatic churches have positioned both their worship practices and associated doctrines for the specific purpose of conditioning their followers to hysterical heights of induced euphoria leaving the side effects of fear and lowered self-esteem.  As such, it is no accident that in the decades following the first moon landing, Watergate, Viet Nam and “free love” which left the general populous empty, skeptical, afraid and searching for love, that the charismatic church became the success that it has become.

A mind conditioned in hysteria will produce hysterical results.  In short, the hysterical mindset was already in place.  The charismatic church simply capitalized on that hysteria with further hysterical conditioning which it produced based on doctrine that was controversial to the most knowledgeable of theologians.

The end result upon contemporary society has been the transforming of the church from a source of truly Spiritual led teaching and preaching for life application, into one of mysticism and emotional release.

For the charismatic church or denomination whose doctrine has been spiritual gift centered with an emphasis on tongues, the results have certainly been amazing if not alarming.

The statistics have certainly spoken for themselves.  The seventies and eighties were definitive years of growth among the Pentecostals, Church of God and Assemblies of God, to mention but a few.  In fact, at one point in the late eighties, the Assemblies of God were the fastest growing denomination among evangelical Christians in the world.  For some, there is still the desire to hold on to that point.

Hysteria (induced or otherwise), however, will only last so long.  Just like the last person left in a movie theatre after “FIRE” has been yelled realizes there isn’t even any smoke and sits back down to enjoy the balance of the movie, so has the charismatic Christian begun to see the reality of his spiritual self.  He now wants more.  Mysticism and emotion will no longer hold his attention because he needs to know how to live as a Christian in the real world.

It is unfortunate that the church has always found the need to accentuate the negative as opposed to the positive as a means to reach people.

It is also unfortunate that the very use of conditioning and behavioral modification used unwittingly by the charismatics to intimidate and control their followers is condemned and belittled when used by those of us who are properly trained and educated in the field of psychology and counseling.

There has always been a close relationship between the spiritual and psychological side of man and the bible would have to be included as one of the greatest behavioral modification manuals and tools known to man.

To use a small portion of scripture to formulate a major doctrinal belief is irresponsible and demonstrates a lack of genuine concern for the individual believer.

The use of glossolalia as practiced by contemporary charismatic groups demonstrates a less than genuine concern for the individual and projects a spiritual environment of exclusivity;  i.e., if  a person does not speak  in the unknown tongue (as practiced today) they are often excluded from the local fellowship.

Ironically, this is the very thing Jesus came to change.

The church must be inclusive and not exclusive.

It is time the church focused on a known language rather than one that is ecstatic or unknown.

It is time to focus on the language of Jesus . . . LOVE!

©Copyright 2012 by Dr. Lee Outlaw, Lee W. Outlaw III and Drtruthman. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used for re-distribution, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dr. Lee Outlaw, Lee W. Outlaw III and Drtruthman with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All rights reserved. Any violation or infringement of this copyright notice will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.


Agrimson, J. Elmo, ed., Gifts of the Spirit And The Body Of Christ. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974.

Bach, Marcus,  The Inner Ecstasy.  New York & Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1969.

Bixler, R. Russell, ed.,  The Spirit Is A Movin’.  Carol Stream:  Creation House, 1974.

Brown, Bill: Rimmer, C. Brandon,  The Unpredictable Wind.  New York, Nashville & Camden:  Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers, 1972.

Brunk  (II),  George R., ed.,  Encounter With The Holy Spirit.  Scotsdale:  Herald Press, 1972.

Christenson, Laurence,  Speaking In Tongues.  Minneapolis:  Bethany Fellowship, Publishers, 1968.

Cutten, George Barton.  Speaking With Tongues:  Historically And Psychologically Considered.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1927.

Dalton, Robert Chandler,  Tongues Like As Of Fire.  Springfield: The Gospel Publishing House, 1945.

Gardiner, George E.,  The Corinthian Catastrophe.  Grand Rapids:  Kregel Publications, 1974.

Hamblin, Robert L.  The Spirit-Filled Trauma.  Nashville:  Broadman Press,  1974.

Hamilton,  Michael P.,  ed.,  The Charismatic Movement.  Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966.

Jones, James W.,  Filled With New Wine.  New York, Evanston, San Francisco, & London:  Harper & Row, Publishers,  1974.

Kildahl, John P.,  The Psychology Of Speaking In Tongues. New York:  Harper & Row,  Publishers,  1972.

Mills,  Watson E., Speaking In Tongues:  Let’s Talk About It.  Waco:  Word Books,  1973.

Morton, T. Kelsey,  Tongue Speaking:  An Experiment In Spiritual Experience.  New York:  Doubleday & Co., 1961.

Pittenger, Norman.  The Holy Spirit.  Philadelphia.  Philadelphia:  Pilgrim Press,  1974.

Sherrill, John L.,  They Speak With Other Tongues.  Old Tappon:  Fleming H. Revell Company,  1965.

Stagg, Frank; Hinsen, E. Glenn: Oates, Wayne E.,  Glossolalia: Tongue Speaking In Biblical, Historical And Psychological Perspective.  New York & Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1967.

The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible, 1963 ed., s.v.  “Tongues, Gift Of”.

The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia Of The Bible, 1975  ed., s.v.  “Tongues, Gift Of”.

Unger, Merrill F., The Baptism And Gifts Of The Holy Spirit.  Chicago:  Moody Press,  1974.

[1] The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible, 1963 ed., s.v.  “Tongues, Gift Of.”

2 George Barton Curtten, Speaking With Tongues: Historically And Psychologically Considered  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927), p. 160.

1 George Barton Curtten, Speaking With Tongues: Historically And Psychologically Considered  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927), p. 160.

2 Morton T. Keley,  Tongue Speaking:  An Experiment In Spiritual Experiences  (New York:  Doubleday & Co., 1961), p. 192

1 The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia Of The Bible, 1975 ed., s.v.  “Tongues, Gift Of “.

2 The Bible,  I Corinthians 12:1-14:40

3James N. Lapsley and John H, Simpson,  “Speaking in Tongues; Token of Group Acceptance and Divine Approval, “ Pastoral Psychology”, May 1964 issue, p. 52.

1 John P. Kildahl, The Psychology Of Speaking In Tongues  (New York:  Harper & Row, Publishers, 1972, ),  pp. 29-30

1 John P. Kildahl, “Psychological Observations” in Michael P. Hamilton’s, The Charismatic Movement, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), pp. 124-142.

1 John P. Kildahl, The Psychology Of Speaking In Tongues  (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1972), p. 35.

2 William J. Samarin,  “Glossolalia As A Vocal Phenomenon” in, Watson E. Mills, Speaking In Tongues: Let’s Talk About It (Waco: Word Books, 1973), p. 128.

1 William J. Samarin,  “Glossolalia As A Vocal Phenomenon” in, Watson E. Mills, Speaking In Tongues: Let’s Talk About It (Waco: Word Books, 1973), p. 128.

1 The Bible,  Jeremiah 1:4

2 The Bible,  Hebrews 1:1

Comments on: "The Psychological Aspects of Glossolalia In Contemporary Society" (1)

  1. Heath Rush said:

    I hear your concern about hysteria and its effect on church groups, however my experience of “tongues” has led me to believe that, when used privately, it can be extremely useful. For me it has become a tool for resolving childhood trauma in myself and others.
    This took a long time to develop. I started by babbling whatever came out of my mouth. I often drive alone for my work so I had long periods when I wouldn’t disturb others. I would also sit alone babbling away in my office. I got to the point when I thought if I kept going I would have to give up control and go crazy. It was scary. It felt like I would have to jump over a cliff. I somehow got the assurance that I would be ok, so I did. As I was falling a bush appeared on the side of the cliff. I reached out for one of its branches and stopped my fall. The Lord had provided the bush! I had to go through this experience many times before I could comfortably let go and “go crazy”. And when I did, things started to open up inside of me. The babbling became cries, often of pain or anger.
    Memories of early childhood experiences flooded through me…….. I was 5 when my mommy left for a week with her new husband, the abandonment I felt; My grandmother who we lived with was always impatient with me and really didn’t like me much; Anger at my younger sister for taking mommy’s attention when I was 2……..Finally a tiny baby’s cry came out of my mouth and it seemed like forever until I finally felt my mother’s arms holding me close and secure. At that point my body took a huge breath and completely relaxed.
    Over the next few months this experience was repeated over and over. Each time new memories would show up, each with its particular cry. And my life became freer and freer. I better understood why I felt I had to go it on my own because “nobody loved me.” My relationships, especially with my wife, became more open and enjoyable.
    After awhile I started to pray for others, mostly family, using tongues while driving or sitting alone. It is amazing, the same process happens: I go for a long time just babbling on the surface. Often painful cries begin to appear, often fits of anger. Memories show up (not as detailed as my own). Usually after several sessions, the baby cry begins and continues for varying lengths of time. And finally: the deep breath followed by complete relaxation.
    I have watched my grown children become healthier and the love between us deepen. I attribute this, at least in part, to praying in tongues.


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