THE heavyset woman was a feature each Sunday night at the church in Seivwright Gardens, a community of working class Jamaicans in St Andrew.
At some point during the Bible-thumping service the woman would leap from her seat, make small jumps, her eyes closed, and shout repeatedly “Heeshamock-amock-amock=amee!”
The apparently involuntary action would spur other worshippers into similar activity, described by fellow Christians as “being filled with the spirit” — their words and phrases untranslatable.
People “filled with the Holy Spirit” and speaking in tongues is not an uncommon occurrence, particularly in evangelical churches worldwide.
Stories of people speaking in tongues are found throughout the Bible — the book regarded by people of faith as God’s written word and which outlines the ultimate set of guiding principles governing all aspects of human life.
But despite the Bible’s accounts of people speaking in tongues the phenomenon remains one of the most controversial topics among Christians to this day as there are some individuals who hold firm to the belief that it is a gift from God — heavenly language — while others are convinced that it is all fake.
“Speaking in an unknown language during religious worship is regarded as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The first mention of tongues is found in Acts 2 in the Bible,” Bishop Devon Mcken, overseer of Nazarene Church of God of Jamaica in Norris, St Thomas, told the Jamaica Observer.
The book of Acts 2, he pointed out, records the coming of the Holy Spirit to believers after Jesus’s ascension. It is celebrated worldwide as the day of Pentecost — 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus.
Reverend Dr Alvin Bailey, presiding bishop at Christian Holiness Church in Jamaica, pointed to biblical references of the phenomenon.
“There are approximately three instances of speaking in tongues in the Bible. Whereas the Bible doesn’t give a definition of speaking in tongues, it certainly explains what happened when tongues were spoken. When Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until when they were imbued with power from on high, the Spirit came on them [at the day of Pentecost] and they spoke in tongues,” Bishop Bailey said.
“Now, the tongues that were spoken at Pentecost are not unknown tongues, because persons were able to hear the wonderful works of God… They could understand what was spoken,” he added, noting that the Apostles spoke in earthly languages, and all the people from across the world who were gathered in Jerusalem could understand the message in their native languages.
Reverend Bailey also said that the interpretation of tongues is another gift or manifestation of the Holy Spirit that is recorded in the scriptures. At the same time, he pointed out that confusion should not result from someone speaking in tongues.
“If a person stopped the service and stands up in the service then began speaking in tongues, disrupting the service, the expectation is going to be that there is an interpreter,” he said.
“Now, [if] the person does that once and there’s no interpreter, he/she doesn’t interpret, nobody interprets for them, [then] the next time that person gets up to speak, the right [and] proper thing for that pastor to do is to tell them not to speak any more until when they find an interpreter or they interpret,” he explained.
“So, if there is no interpreter present then that person had best be still. If the person is not humble enough to instruct themselves to keep quiet, maybe somebody in charge must tell the person ‘Don’t do that,’ ” he advised.
Reverend Bailey’s advice brought to the fore the question of whether people can fake the act of speaking in tongues.
That issue is explored in depth on Men Must Pray, a prayer and speaking in tongues blog.
“Someone can fake speaking in tongues by imitating the utterances of those who speak in tongues. In the eyes of men he may sound legitimate — in fact, he can do it for a long time without ever being notice — but someone who fakes speaking in tongues fools only himself,” one article on the blog, accredited to a writer who goes by the name Augustine, read.
According to the writer, someone can fake speaking in tongues, however whatever that person is doing won’t qualify to be called speaking in tongues.
“Unlike what many people think, speaking in tongues is not only the utterance but also the power. Someone can fake the utterance of speaking in tongues but the power cannot be faked,” Augustine states.
Religious scholars have also concluded that there are signs when people fake the act of speaking in tongues as their utterances are different from all the manifestations in the New Testament on the day of Pentecost and contradict the writings of the Apostle Paul.
Bishop Mcken explained that, according to the Word of God, “The one who speaks in tongues does not speak to men, but God. Therefore, that person speaks mysteries from his spirit [and only oneself is uplifted or empowered].”
While this phenomenon has caused many misunderstandings, bishops Mcken and Bailey believe that “evidence of the move of God’s Spirit is when there is order and discipline”. Moreover, they stated that God is an intelligent being and operates as one.
In some churches, many people believe that speaking in tongues sets you apart from other believers. This sometimes causes strife and division in the church. This was notably why the Apostle Paul warned in the Bible against the misuse of the gift, to prevent division.
However, the bishops stated that speaking or not speaking in tongues in no way affects a person’s salvation, meaning a Christian who does not have this gift is still saved by Jesus. Still, the ministers agreed pressure has been placed on many who do not speak in tongues.
Bishop Grace Ade-Gold, founder of Arise and Shine Apostolic, shared her experience.
“There was a time while I was in Nigeria in the 70s/80s that some believers took speaking in tongues to a different level. They said that it is actually the Holy Spirit, and that if you don’t speak in tongues when the rapture comes you will not be able to rapture. They actually took people to a field teaching them how to rapture when the Holy Spirit comes,” she told the Sunday Observer.
Bishop Ade-Gold stressed that speaking in tongues is a gift, and not all receive the gift of tongues. “Jesus did not say when the Holy Spirit comes upon you you shall be speaking in tongues. He said you shall be imbued with power when the Holy Ghost comes. Because Peter, who was a coward and runaway individual, he started to get so powerful that when he preached, everybody did not remain the same — and he preached a lengthy, lengthy sermon,” she said.
“So not all believers will speak in tongues. I have never heard Billy Graham speak in tongues but he was a great preacher who brought many souls to Christ. And there are other believers that are mighty in the work of God that I have never heard them speaking in tongues.
“There are gifts of power, which are healing, miracle and faith, gifts of utterance — tongues, interpretation and prophecy, gifts of revelation — that is words of wisdom, words of knowledge and desire, and there are benefits of tongues, but living holy is more important. A relationship with God is the critical factor, not tongues; it is just a gift — one of many,” Ade-Gold said.
“As with everything, there are real and counterfeit out there. We call it mechanical tongues,” she said. “We have to be careful because people will act like they are speaking in tongues when in fact they are using demonic languages, so then we would have to be discerning when it comes to this gift.”