Are Quakers allowed to speak in tongues?

Sep 17, 2015 by

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The first time I heard someone speak in tongues was at the World Gathering of Young Friends, an international Quaker gathering held in 2005, in Lancaster, England.

It was a minister from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Deborah Saunders, who spoke to us with a commanding presence and a message that struck me to the heart. She called us to know who we are, to be grounded in the life and power of God, to live without being rocked by every new voice we heard. She called us to a life of guts, grit and courage.

I didn’t realize that she was speaking in tongues at the time. I just thought I couldn’t understand some of what she was saying. But those sessions were recorded, and I listened to the audio many times in the years following the gathering. Eventually, after listening to the same sermon a half dozen times or more, I figured out what was happening. This Quaker minister was speaking in the voice of the tradition where she had come to Christ, in the Pentecostal stream.

After that, I didn’t run into the gift of tongues again for a very long time. I wasn’t involved in charismatic/Pentecostal circles, so it didn’t come up. Not until last year, at the Northeast Christ-Centered Friends Gathering in New York State. There, I came into contact with Quakers who had been impacted by the charismatic renewal. During prayer time, they spoke in tongues.

It was wild.

They didn’t make a big deal of it. They weren’t ostentatious, nor did they expect anyone else to join them in their prayer language. But for someone like me with little experience of such phenomena, it was eye opening. I didn’t know such things could happen among Friends, and I honestly didn’t know what to make of it. I was both intrigued and slightly uncomfortable.

And then tongues came even closer. At the 2014 Fall Gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, we experienced a critical mass of charismatic Friends. During one prayer time in particular, there was an outpouring of ecstatic utterance, with perhaps about a third of those gathered actively speaking in tongues.

I didn’t. In fact, I had a tough time not laughing while others were praying in unknown languages. I don’t know why I had the almost uncontainable impulse to laugh. I think I was mostly nerves. To have half a dozen of my brothers and sisters praying in tongues was simply something I had never experienced before. But there’s no doubt that the spiritual temperature in the room was off the charts. It really felt like God was moving, and who was I to stop Christ’s mouth?

Who’s afraid of tongues?

I recently learned that a visitor to our 2015 Spring Gathering experienced discomfort at the fact that speaking in tongues appeared to be a central part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. It seems that some of the folks who joined us for the weekend were unnerved by the fact that glossolalia was present in some of our prayer sessions.

I can understand why. It makes me uncomfortable, and I know this community intimately! I can only imagine how it must have felt for those who had neither a background with tongues, nor with the community where they were being unexpectedly spoken. It was probably pretty unnerving.

But what is so threatening about speaking in tongues? I have several guesses.

One is that, perhaps, speaking in tongues is seen as being exclusive. Not everyone speaks in tongues, and some brands of Pentecostalism hold that those who do not practice tongues-speaking are not actually saved. That would be pretty alienating, to say the least. I know I wouldn’t want to be part of any community that judged people’s spiritual lives based on whether or not they spoke in tongues. Especially since I never have.

Another reason that I think many folks – Quakers in particular – might have qualms with speaking in tongues, is that it is seen as being overly emotional, even irrational.

I can understand why many would come to that conclusion – especially Quakers, who tend to shy away from strong expressions of feeling. The act of speaking in tongues is profoundly non-rational. It’s about something that goes beyond normal human understanding, delving into the realm of the unconscious and supernatural. For those who value reason above all, speaking in tongues must seem profoundly dangerous.

When are tongues OK?

I don’t understand this whole speaking in tongues thing. I have never spoken in unknown languages, and it’s not a gift I’m actively seeking. Yet there are some in my community who do sometimes speak in tongues. It’s a significant part of their spiritual experience and personal prayer life. Sometimes it comes out in worship.

I’m proud of my community. Friends of Jesus Fellowship isn’t obsessed with charismatic expressions. We’re not chasing after exotic gifts and wonders. At the same time, we don’t flee from them when they do occur. On the contrary, our 2014 Fall Gathering was edified by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, expressed in large part through the ecstatic prayer and non-rational utterances by several of our brothers and sisters.

I don’t have to understand speaking in tongues to know that it felt healthy when others did. I don’t have to pretend I’m comfortable with tongues to welcome these gifts into our community.

This was never about being comfortable, anyway. I learned a long time ago that it’s those times when I’m stretched beyond my comfort zone that God is doing really important work in me. If our community is stretched and challenged by the emergence of charismatic gifts among us, perhaps this is an opportunity for spiritual growth on a mass scale.

I’m down for that.

What’s your experience of the charismatic gifts — tongues, healing, prophecy and more? Do such gifts have a place among Friends? Do these expressions make you uncomfortable? Why?

Micah Bales is a writer, teacher and grassroots Christian leader based in Washington, D.C. He is a founding member of Friends of Jesus, a new Quaker community, and has been an organizer with the Occupy movement. You can read more of his work atmicahbales.com or follow him on Twitter.


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