Mormons and tongues

In a book called “History of Mormonism” published in 1840 and written by Eber D. Howe, we get an interesting look into the use of tongues amongst the early Mormons. It raises questions about why tongues are no longer practiced by Mormons. Howe writes:

On the opening of the year 1833, the “gift of tongues” again made its appearance at head-quarters, and from thence extended to all their branches in different parts…it would appear, from all the facts which we have been able to gather upon this subject, that if this gift were not supernaturally bestowed, it required but a few moments instruction from a priest, to render his pupil expert in various dead languages, which could never be understood by man or beast, except a supernatural power was at the instant given to some one present to interpret it. They sometimes professed to believe that these “tongues” were the same which were “confounded” at the building of Babel.

Some curious particulars are related respecting these blasphemous practices by a Mr. Higby, who was eight months an Elder in the Mormon church, and which he published in a small pamphlet. He says that shortly after he joined them, a Mormon Elder said to him, “you must go to work in the vineyard of the Lord as a preacher of the Gospel. I have viewed your heart by the spirit of discernment; I see what is in your heart and what the will of the Lord is, concerning you all.” Mr. Higby says that he was soon after ordained as an Elder in the said church, and commissioned to preach and baptize, ordain Elders, confirm the churches, heal the sick, in short, that he was ordained to all the gifts of the church, which were the same as given to the apostles of old. He continues – “about the 10th of April following, R. Cahoon and D. Patton came again to the place-a meeting was called, and previous to the meeting, they said that some one would speak with tongues before they left the place. Accordingly he set himself to work at that meeting to verify his prophecy. During the meeting he said, “Father H. if you will rise in the name of Jesus Christ, you can speak in tongues.” He arose immediately, hesitated, and said, “my faith fails me-I have not faith enough.” Said Patton, “you have-speak in the name of Jesus Christ-make some sound as you list, without further thought, and God will make it a language.” The old gentleman, after considerable urging, spoke and made some sounds, which were pronounced to be a correct tongue. Several others spoke in a similar manner, and among them was myself. I spoke as I listed, not knowing what I said, yet it was declared to be a tongue. The sound of the words used by some, in speaking in tongues, was a medium between talking and singing-and all, as I am now convinced, a mere gibberish, spoken at random and without thought.


“The next time those men came among us, they gave us a rule for speaking in unknown tongues, and also for interpreting what was spoken by others. This rule, they said, was perfect-that as long as we followed it we could not err. And so I believe; it was a prefect rule to lead men astray. The rule, as given by Cahoon, is this: rise upon your feet and look and lean on Christ; speak or make some sound; continue to make sounds of some kind, and the Lord will make a correct tongue or language of it. The interpretation was to be given in the same way.”

They would frequently sing in this gibberish, forming a tune as they proceeded. The same songs, they said, would be sung when the lost tribes appeared in Zion, in Missouri.

Another seceder from this delusion, relates that he was present on a certain occasion, in an upper room in Kirtland, where were assembled from fifteen to twenty Elders and High Priests. After sundry exhortation by the priests, the prophet himself arose, and with much earnestness, warned his followers to be zealous and faithful in their duties…Joseph next arose, and passing around the room laying his hand upon each one, and spoke as follows, as near as the narrator can recollect:

“Ak man oh son oh man ah ne commene en holle goste en haben en glai hosanne hosanne en holle goste en esac milkea jeremiah, ezekiel, Nephi, Lehi, St. John,” Ec. Ec. After administering the sacrament, several of the brethren were called upon to arise and speak in tongues. Several of them performed with considerable applause. Our informant says he was at length called upon to speak or sing, “in tongues,” at his own option-preferring the latter mode, he sung, to the tune of Bruce’s Address, a combination of sounds, which astonished all present.

This gibberish for several months was practiced almost daily, while they were about their common avocations, as well as when they assembled for worship.

11 thoughts on “Mormons and tongues”

  1. I find the whole thing fascinating. We tend to think of tongues as re-appearing at Azusa street early in the last century after centuries or millenia of being gone, but I wonder if there has always been a “backwoods”/ underground tongue speaking movement that the Mormons tapped into? Where did they come up with their practices of teaching how to speak tongues? It does sound a LOT like what you hear from a lot of charismatic settings in the 70’s and 80’s when people were made to speak in tongues by repeating one syllable over and over.

  2. Joel –

    You might want to read some of Wesley’s writings on what he encounter when he was in the colonies. Campmeetings in the backwoods of Appalachia was common place with ‘occurrences’ similar to speaking in tongues taking place – long before Joe. Smith.

  3. I once did a time line that contained all the references to tongues in the history of the church I could find. Of course a good three quarters of them were from heretical sects but a had over a hundred marks on the paper.

    Most translations obsure the meaning of Isaiah by translating the words, but here is a section from chapter 28. Many commentaries will mention that it is a string of words not meant to be translated. More like a sing song a child would repeat trying to learn to speak.

    10 With his “Sav lasav, sav lasav, kav lakav, kav lakav, zeer sham, zeer sham!”
    11 Now, with stammering lips and in a foreign language, he will talk to this nation.
    12 He used to say to them, ‘Here you can rest! Here you can let the weary rest! Here all is quiet.’ But they refused to listen.
    13 Now Yahweh is going to say this to them, ‘Sav lasav, sav lasav, kav lakav, kav lakav, zeer sham, zeer sham.’ So that when they walk they will fall over backwards and so be broken, trapped and taken captive.
    14 Hence listen to Yahweh’s word, you insolent men, rulers of this people in Jerusalem.

    It is clear from the context that it is judgement. A few verses before he also speaks of being drunk. If you pull in the verses Isaiah is refering to from Deut., and from Deut. go to Genesis, you can see a pretty clear line of reasoning that Paul is refering to. Of course getting people to see this in Corinthians is a futile act as most people see the verse numbers and can not follow a winding argument. It helps if you read it out loud and in a sarcastic voice… “Iiiiiff *I* could speak in the tongues of men and angels…”

    Anyway, I digress. I would say that the Mormons got the practic from the Shakers and the Quakers and the Restoration movement. Before the there are roots in Irvings church, etc.

    1. Thanks Brent, that’s cool. Is there anyway you could send me that timelinee? I have done haphazard research on the same subject over the years.

  4. Next time some LDS missionaries come by my door, I’ll ask about tongues, since those are part and parcel with the apostoles (at least prior to 70 A.D.)

  5. It’s all over the Book of Mormon too. For example, in Mormon 9:
    7 And again I speak unto you who deny the revelations of God, and say that they are done away, that there are no revelations, nor prophecies, nor gifts, nor healing, nor speaking with tongues, and the interpretation of tongues;
    8 Behold I say unto you, he that denieth these things knoweth not the gospel of Christ; yea, he has not read the scriptures; if so, he does not understand them.
    9 For do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing?

    Given the emphasis the BOM places on tongues, you’d think the LDS church should be practicing them today.

  6. Well I “thought” that the BOM taught tongues, but it’s been a few years since last I read it.

    All very interesting.

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