October 21, 2006

"Private prayer language"

According to the AP ("Seminary passes resolution against speaking in tongues", 10/19/2006), the trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary recently voted 36-1 that "Southwestern will not knowingly endorse in any way, advertise, or commend the conclusions of the contemporary charismatic movement including 'private prayer language.'"

This is not the first recent vote on this subject by Southern Baptist institutions. According to Christianity Today,

Trustees for the Southern Baptist Convention's (SBC) International Mission Board (IMB) have voted to bar new missionary candidates who practice a "private prayer language" from serving on the mission field.The trustees voted 50-15 for the new guidelines on November 15 [2005], during their meeting in Huntsville, Alabama. [...]

Candidate guidelines approved by IMB trustees at the meeting state, "In terms of worship practices, the majority of Southern Baptist churches do not practice glossolalia," or tongues. "In terms of general practice, the majority of Southern Baptists do not accept what is referred to as 'private prayer language.' "

"Private prayer language" seems to be a relatively recent descriptive term -- or perhaps a euphemism -- for (some of) a set of practices that are more commonly referred to as "speaking in tongues". According to ProQuest's historical newspaper databases, the phrase "private prayer language" has never been used in the pages of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or the Wall Street Journal, nor in a number of other ProQuest databases, including the American Periodicals Series 1740-1900, the Alternative Press Watch, the Ethnic NewsWatch, etc. Search on the NYT web site itself also returned nothing -- the Gray Lady apparently did not find either of the two recent anti-"private prayer language" votes fit to print.

Searching for "private prayer language" on LexisNexis Academic in the "Major Papers" category, I found six hits, four of which refer specifically to the two votes mentioned above. The other two uses are both in quotations. One is from a 1994 story (Esther Talbot Fenning, "Charismatic Renewal: Movement in Worship", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 19, 1994), about practices in among Catholics involved in "Charismatic Renewal" (emphasis added):

Charismatics believe that speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy are gifts of the early church and are still available to people who are open to them, says Bonnie Dillard of the People of Praise, a prayer group at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in St. Charles.

"Most Catholic pastors are frightened of the Charismatic Renewal," Dillard said. "Part of the reason is that they've seen people get into it and go on to leave the church."

Dillard said that speaking in tongues and prophetic utterances also are disconcerting to some Catholics.

"Tongues is simply a private prayer language consisting usually of a few nonsense syllables," she said. "It has no basic function at large gatherings."

The other is from a 1999 story (Lindsay Peterson, "The Human Touch", The Tampa Tribune, December 12, 1999):

They heard about a fiery young minister leading Bible studies in local homes. They began taking their children to the meetings, amazed at his spellbinding power.

He encouraged an aggressive, charismatic worship with praying so fevered and focused that people cried out and spoke in tongues.
They called out their visions.

They laid hands on the sick.

They sang, "God's got an army that's marching through this land with deliverance in their souls and healing in their hands."

Sallee had never experienced anything like this Pentecostalism, and she found it exhilarating.

She saw no visions of her own, she said, but did begin speaking in tongues, what she called her private prayer language.

In contrast, a LexisNexis search returns 2,688 hits for "speaking in tongues" from the same sources.

Similarly, there are 16,900 Google hits for {"private prayer language"}, compared to 1,400,000 for {"speaking in tongues"}.

The report from the SBTS trustees' fall 2006 meeting explains their decision in more detail:

In response to an August 29 chapel sermon by trustee Dwight McKissic regarding private prayer languages, the trustees adopted the following statement:

“The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is a school affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention for the sole purpose of training men and women to understand the Bible in all its ramifications in order to facilitate the assignment of Christ as provided in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). We wish to remain faithful to the biblical witness and its emphases, taking into careful account the historic positions of Baptists in general and Southern Baptists in particular.

“As it concerns private practices of devotion, these practices, if genuinely private, remain unknown to the general public and are, therefore, beyond the purview of Southwestern Seminary. Southwestern will not knowingly endorse in any way, advertise, or commend the conclusions of the contemporary charismatic movement including “private prayer language.” Neither will Southwestern knowingly employ professors or administrators who promote such practices.

“Southwestern will remain focused on historic New Testament and Baptist doctrine and will lend its energies to the twin tasks of world missions and evangelism. Thus, we intend to sustain these emphases, which were characteristic of our founders, B.H. Carroll, L.R. Scarborough, and George W. Truett.”

Van McClain (N.Y.), chairman of the Board of Trustees, said, “ I believe the board has addressed the issues of the August 29 chapel by this statement. Dr. Patterson has handled this matter appropriately. There is no need for the Board of Trustees to make any further statements at this time.”

The dissenting vote was cast by Dwight McKissic himself, whose sermon had raised the issue in the first place. He's the senior pastor of the Cornerstone Baptist Church, in Arlington TX. You can find further discussion of the theological issues in this exchange posted at Marty Duren's SBC Outpost, which includes a letter from McKissic to Dr. Paige Patterson, the seminary's president, and a lengthy commentary, with footnotes. Duren quotes Timothy George to the effect that "recent efforts to exclude from missionary appointment all who have a ‘private prayer language’ seemed to many ordinary Baptists both intrusive and unnecessary", and adds his own comment:

The overall impression I get from talking to my peers (mainly younger pastors) is outright confusion: “Why are they doing this? What are they thinking?”

The Rev. McKissic's letter suggests that there may be a racial as well as theological dimension to this controversy:

Just as you suspect that most of the faculty and trustees at SWBTS do not believe the Bible affirms a private prayer language, the leading evangelical African-American churches in America including Black Southern Baptists, would affirm the practice of a private prayer language by those who are so gifted by the Holy Spirit. They would certainly not invoke a policy denying freedom of a gifted person to practice a private prayer language.

For a much more hostile view of the social tensions involved, see this review of the Rev. McKissic's sermon on the theme "To equate civil rights with gay rights is to compare my skin with their sin", which asserts that "when a black man joins and lines his church up with an old wealthy organization with a rich and deep history of racism and sexism [it] speaks VOLUMES".

Nevertheless, it's clear that people of many racial and ethnic backgrounds practice religious glossolalia, both in public and in private, as explained by Cecil M. "Mel" Robeck in a recent edition of NPR's Speaking of Faith program, "Spiritual Tidal Wave: the Origins and Impact of Pentecostalism", 4/27/2006. The program's web site introduces the subject this way:

Glossolalia, commonly known as "speaking in tongues," is the ecstatic utterance of unintelligible sounds by individuals in a state of religious excitement or fervor. Pentecostal revivals are often accompanied by manifestations of glossolalia. Its biblical basis is rooted in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Xenoglossy, the ability to speak another human language that was previously unknown to the practitioner, is viewed as a means to reversing the confusion experienced at the Tower of Babel.

The audio in the program was recorded during the opening of the Azusa Street Centennial procession which began on Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles. Listen to a complete recording of Billy Wilson's opening remarks and the speaking in tongues taking place in the crowd. Also, you can hear two women from the Foursquare Gospel Church in Pasadena describe how the gift of speaking in tongues occurs in their daily lives.

However, neither on that page nor elsewhere on the Speaking of Faith web site does the phrase "private prayer language" occur.

There's a good deal more to say about the linguistics, psychology and neurology of glossolalia and xenoglossy, religious and otherwise. Sally Thomason has studied cases of hyponotically-induced xenoglossy in detail (Sarah Gray Thomason, "Do you remember your previous life's language in your present incarnation?", American Speech, Vol. 59, No. 4. (Winter, 1984), pp. 340-350), and there is a small but interesting literature of other such analyses.

But that's a topic for another post -- the topic here is just the (apparently brief) history of the phrase "private prayer language". I tentatively conclude that this began as descriptive phrase for (some types of ?) religious glossolalia, which began to be used in the 1990s by people in various denominations involved in the Pentecostal movement. Some people seem to refer to all sorts of religious glossolalia as "private prayer language", while others seem to reserve the term for glossolalia in individual prayer as opposed to public worship.

I conjecture that both those who favor religious glossolalia and those who oppose it now have theological and polemical motivations for using this new phrase, in place of older and more common phrases like "speaking in tongues". One motivation may be to distinguish glossolalia in individual prayer from glossolalia in public worship, perhaps because private religious glossolalia might be thought to be permitted by denominations that discourage public "speaking in tongues". If you can clarify these issues, please let me know.

[Tip of the hat to Abnu at Wordlab]

[Someone might want to tell the folks at Cornerstone Baptist Church that their domain name expired on Oct. 5]

[Update -- Stephen C. Carlson from Hypotyposeis explains the theology behind the terminology:

Though it is possible that mainline, liturgical denominations open to the charimatic renewal might be motivated along the lines that you suggest (since the traditional worship services do not allocate time for speaking in tongues), that is generally not the main factor motivating charismatics to make this distinction, particularly because a lot of charismatics are involved in non-denominational churches

Rather, the distinction between public and private speaking in tongues is driven by 1 Cor. 14:27-28, which reads: "If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God." Thus, if one follows this scripture, a person publicly speaking in tongues would have to be accompanied by someone with the gift of interpretation to translate it. The latter gift, however, is quite uncommon.

Furthermore, the concept of praying in tongues is found in 1 Cor. 14:14 ("For if I pray in a tongue, . . ."). Some pentecostal and non-denominational charismatic churches will permit private prayers during worship, which means that people can use their private prayer language without running afoul of 1 Cor 14:27-28.

For those denominations or non-denominational churches that adhere to the doctrine of "cessationalism" (cf. 1 Cor. 13:8-10), speaking in tongues is not permitted either in public or in private. This doctrine holds that tongues ceased when the New Testament was completed, making the distinction between public and private speaking in tongues irrelevant.


[Update #2 -- David Chiang wrote:

My guess about the use of this term is that some churches and missionary organizations have tried to steer a middle course: they forbid any public use of tongues or other charismatic practices, but don't make any prescription about a person's private spiritual life. The SBC, by forbidding any "private prayer language", is making clear that it is not steering this middle course but wants to forbid all charismatic practices public or private. I have usually seen this referred to as "private use of tongues" so I don't have a good guess for why the term "private prayer language" is used instead -- I assume it's something to do with the thorny issues in defining what "tongues" are.

Well, it doesn't seem that "private prayer language" is any more exactly defined, but maybe it doesn't carry the same baggage.

And Kelly Shropshire writes to suggest that the "private prayer language" terminology dates back 30 years or so:

I first read the phrase "private prayer language" in pentecostal literature back in the late 70's. It is considered a gift from God to aid the recipient in expressing themselves. ... A private prayer language is usually considered just that, as opposed to other glossalalic utterences which are meant as messages to the congregation and are usually followed by translations. However there was one member of the Foursquare Church who once offered to demonstrate her prayer language because she thought it would do me some spiritual good to hear it. I never got to hear it though.

As for the Baptists, I'm surprised that there was a vote. Most baptist denominations are officially suspicious of a all claims of "spiritual gifts", not just speaking in tongues. ... To deliberately seek out such gifts seems like a sign of weak faith, an exercise in self delusion, or even an invitation to demonic possession. But pentecostal denominations not only encourage seeking the gifts, some even claim that the gifts are the best confirmation of one's faith. There's been friction between the two groups for a long time over this.

(Sub-update: another reader challenges the view that baptists are "suspicious of all claims of 'spiritual gifts'", citing for example an article titled "Help Your People Discover Their Spiritual Gifts" by C. Gene Wilkes, pastor of a Baptist church in Plano TX. And David Chiang observed in response that the key difference seems to be between miraculous gifts and other gifts; but at this point, the discussion adjourns to the vestry...)

In the SBC, it seems that "private tongues" are seen as the thin edge of the charismatic wedge, both by supporters and by opponents. You can see this in the quotations from SBC leaders in the news stories about the SWBTC vote (the AP story, or the earlier story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Brett Hoffman, "Policy bans promotion of speaking in tongues", 10/18/2006), in the discussion on SBC Outpost, or in the stories about the earlier IMB decision.

In particular, it's clear that the practice of "private tongues" has long been found among some SBC members, including (for example) the president of the missionary board:

Because the ruling is not retroactive, it will not apply to IMB president Jerry Rankin. "I acknowledged even in the discussions that [tongues] has been a continuing practice [of mine] for 30 years," Rankin told CT. The trustees who elected him president in 1993 knew he prays in tongues.

And the SWBTS statement included the sentence "As it concerns private practices of devotion, these practices, if genuinely private, remain unknown to the general public and are, therefore, beyond the purview of Southwestern Seminary." The point of contention is whether to allow people to "endorse ..., advertise or commend" these "practices". For an outsider, it's surprising to find that the Baptists are apparently less open on this matter than the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 21, 2006 06:24 PM