Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.

Chapter 16
The Gift of Tongues

[p.67] As a gesture of gratitude, a convert I had baptized on my mission invited me and my companion to dinner. She seated us at her table covered with a white cloth lined by cream-colored china and glittering silverware. We ate a bowl of lentil soup that Esau would have traded his birthright for, followed by a crisp endive salad. Then this newly reborn sister made a grand entrance through the kitchen doorway carrying a large dish, and, with a flourish, uncovered a garnished plate piled high with slices of … BEEF TONGUE. My companion and I had been forewarned in the MTC to expect to be served tongue at some time on our mission, an expensive delicacy in Europe, as well as counseled to graciously eat it. As she carefully lifted the slices onto our plates, we glanced sideways at each other with barely disguised dread. I stared at the broiled taste buds for a moment, then complimented our former investigator, [p.68] saying, “Wunderbar—es schmeckt wunderbar,” between bites. The taste of tongue was akin to, well, Spam, as I recall, and not as heinous as I had imagined, but the texture almost gave me the fantods (to swipe a phrase from Mark Twain). I kept thinking I was eating my own tongue—numb from Novocaine—with each mouthful.

Aside from our typical modern Mormon “watered-down” version of the gift of tongues—learning a foreign language on an accelerated basis (as miraculous as that is), or even speaking in a known tongue without having studied it—this dinner episode constituted the only gift-of-tongues story I personally experienced on my mission. But I did know some companions who were gift-of-tongues-impaired.

I knew one elder whose German was hopeless. He spoke with a thick Spanish Fork accent, often in a creolized English/German. Once when he got to the discussion on baptism, he told an old widow that John the Devil gave Joseph and Oliver the Aaronic priesthood, an excusable mistake since Täufer means baptist, whereas Teufel means devil. Apparently his investigator never challenged the assertion and got baptized anyway, not questioning the source of his authority. On another occasion he used Jesus’ baptism as an example demonstrating the separateness of the members of the Godhead. He said God the Father spoke to Jesus, a little strange if they were the same person, and that the Holy [p.69] Ghost came down in the form of a grape, another easy mistake since Taube means “dove,” and Traube means “grape.” With the widespread use of wine for the Lord’s Supper among non-Mormons, perhaps his investigators considered this merely poetic license.

A friend who went on a French-speaking mission reported his two favorite language faux pas. One of his companions once confused the first-person possessive pronoun with the third-person, and proudly told his investigator that “God so loved us, he gave us a body like mine.” Another companion confused reflexive and non-reflexive verbs, as well as the nouns for woods and box, and instead of saying that “Joseph Smith went into the woods to pray,” said that “Joseph Smith threw up in a box.” I’d be surprised if Bert Wilson hasn’t already categorized these stories among his files of missionary folklore.

Of course early Mormons practiced “glossolalia,” a fancy word for the gift of tongues. Like Paul (1 Cor. 14), Joseph Smith suggested that the gift of tongues was most appropriate if interpreted (Teachings, p. 162). Our own no-nonsense prophet Brigham Young prayed in tongues on at least one occasion, causing Joseph to remark that Brigham spoke in the pure Adamic language (see, for instance, Copeland’s “Speaking in Tongues in the Restoration Churches,” in Dialogue, Spring 1991). [p.70] Some Mormons even sang in tongues, as illustrated by this clipping from the Times and Seasons (4:70): “Elder Snow then addressed the meeting, and stated the method they had adopted in the London conference of raising funds for the temple, which was by holding tea meetings, at which times anyone wishing to appropriate anything to this purpose had the opportunity. Elder S[now] concluded his address by singing beautifully in tongues.”

Of course, no one transcribed the sounds of these tongues and the melodies. I used to think it would be fascinating to analyze them aesthetically and linguistically. Would we be overwhelmed with the beauty of the meter, rhyme, assonance, or alliteration, the way a Muslim is transfixed when the Koran is read aloud? Would the melodies cause our hearts to soar above the clouds? I’m not so sure nowadays.

I’m afraid gifts of the spirit would not fare well under modern linguistic analysis, let alone under aesthetic criticism. This doesn’t surprise me since Paul suggests that only one of the gifts of the spirit would never fail: “but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away” (1 Cor. 13:8). Now I don’t doubt that early Mormons experienced a divine gift of tongues, nor that modern Mor-[p.71]mons so experience them as well; I just think this gift is susceptible to corruption.

I also have to confess that I would be, well, uncomfortable if I started speaking or singing in an unknown tongue, say, while I was teaching my gospel doctrine class (although more people might attend and stay awake).

And though I’m not suggesting Pentecostalists experience a valid gift of tongues (nor am I discounting their experience), a study of their practices in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology (according to Psychology Today, June 1996) suggests how a modern secular mind might analyze this most peculiar of all gifts of the spirit.

Dr. Nicholas Spanos invited experienced tongue-speaking Pentecostalists to a studio and taped them at work. Then Spanos invited non-tongue-speakers to listen to a one-minute segment of the tape, and asked them to mimic what they’d heard. Approximately 20 percent of these novices were immediately able to imitate the speech patterns from the tape. Spanos then encouraged the remaining group members to practice by listening to and watching the accomplished members of the group. At the end of the day, approximately 70 percent of the group spoke “fluently” (whatever that means) in tongues. Fortunately, Spanos did note that it [p.72] was beyond the parameters of his study whether any participants were divinely inspired.

Getting back to my personal feelings about the gift of tongues, I guess I would feel comfortable some day singing in a choir in which all members sang in tongues, safety being in numbers. I might then sing on key even. But for me right now, I think I’ll work on developing some related aspects of gifts relating to the tongue: (1) a talent to eat things I don’t like; (2) an ability to bite my own; and (3) the tendency to place it in my cheek.