Book Review: They Speak with Other Tongues, 40th Ann. ed.

John L. Sherrill. They Speak with Other Tongues, 40th ann. ed.  If you have any questions about what the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and Speaking in tongues is all about – John Sherill’s book is a really good place to start. Rhea pointed it out in the comments on my list of books related to the Holy Spirit and I cautioned her about this book being on the fringe – I was WRONG.

Again, if you have any interest in this subject at all, you should read this book! It is a good read – even if you don’t agree with it. Really. Think about it. CBD has it for $9.99 and I am sure there are cheaper copies out there. What do you have to loose?

As to the book itself – John Sherill is now 83 (or so, this 40th Anniversary edition marked his 80th birthday). For the last 50+ years John and his wife Elizabeth have been writers and editors for the Guideposts Magazine. They are journalists – they look at things as critically and objectively as able. So they say, or at least until they started meeting “the Pentecostals.”

The Sherrill’s are Episcopalians and in the 50’s had no idea anything about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. In the late 50’s John’s doctor found the cancer he thought had gone away, came back. A neighbor friend confronted him on his need to believe Jesus is God in order to be sure of his eternal destiny. John wrestled with this and he decided to take that step of faith and believe in Jesus as God. Well, he had surgery for the cancer and while in recovery he had an encounter with the living Christ (not in human form but in a bright light – you’ll have to read the book to see it did not come across as weird).

With this he was able to really move forward into a new life of faith and he was ready to encounter the Pentecostals. Even so, his first encounter with speaking in tongues was not with a Pentecostal but rather with a Reformed minister, Harald Bredesen, of New York. Bredesen was a somewhat dissatisfied minister who wanted more vitality in his spiritual life – He knew the early church had a lot of vitality and began investigating. He started reading the book of Acts and in there he found his clue – the early church found its vitality in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit (John Sherrill also wondered what the key was to long term spiritual vitality and thus his interest in the Pentecostals).

Bredesen decided to go off to a cabin in the woods and began praying for a new level of communication with God – after a few days he was baptized with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues! Well, this got Sherrill interested and he determined to find out more about this strange phenomenon. Thus the book, They Speak with Other Tongues.

Originally written four years after John had his own experience with the Holy Spirit, the rest of the book accounts his investigation of Pentecostalism and in turn his own journey toward receiving the baptism in the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues. He had to wait four years to write the book to let his own experience balance out so he could regain his journalistic objectivity and write as a journalist and not as an evangelist promoting Spirit Baptism.

In chapters 4-6 Sherill records the basic history of the Pentecostal movement and its eventual branching into the Charismatic movment. Chapter four notes Pentecostalism’s beginnings with Charles Parham’s Bible School at Stone’s Folly in Topeka Kansas. There, in the late 1800’s, Charles Parham had been reading the book of Acts and comparing the power he saw there with his own seemingly feeble ministry – it felt flat, where were the miracles, the healings, etc? He wanted more. So he decided to start a Bible school and gather some students who would join with him in attempting to find out the secret to the early church’s effectiveness. They discovered that not only was the effectiveness found in the Holy Spirit but also with ‘speaking in tongues.’ Parham and his students began seeing God in prayer for this Spirit Baptism and speaking in tongues. On New Years Eve, 1900, one of the students Anges N. Ozman, through the laying on of hands, began speaking in tongues. Soon, Parham and the other students also received the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. This eventually lead to the meeting of Parham and one William J. Seymour (pronounced “see-more”), who eventually found himself preaching the message of Pentecost in L.A where he ended up at Pentecostalism’s most famous address: 312 Azusa Street. From here started the Azusa Street Revival which then lead to the eventual fastest growing worldwide phenomenon known as Pentecostalism.

Chapter 5 tells of the account of Dennis Bennett, the Episcopalian minister, who had received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues, and the division it caused in his church such that he was asked to resign. However, this event sparked an interest in the topic and the message of Pentecost spread to every major denomination (or Church group) literally around the world: Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Catholics, the list goes on and on.

Chapter 6 tells the account of David du Plessis and how he got into the World Council of Churches as a Pentecostal and begin having an impact in that group of pastors, scholars, missionaries, etc. David du Plessis was one of the few (even still) who took the message of Pentecostalism beyond the walls of Pentecostal churches and into mainstream Christianity. du Pessis feels he was specially gifted for this task and mission when he was in a accident that almost took his life. Previously he had been a rude South African Fundamentalist Pentecostal hard to get along with. After the accident, he had a change of heart and began reaching out to the supposed liberals he had previously fought against. Though his efforts the message of Pentecostalism became quite widespread.

So, what is the effect of all this on John Sherrill? He was more and more intrigued – he kept wanting to know more. Through countless interviews, investigations, interactions, and the like he learned more of the message of Pentecost. In his investigations he even let a woman pray over him in tongues in intercession for his wife who had a need at the time and in the prayer he literally felt power go through him intriguing him even more. He had lots of questions, why would I want this? is there a power in it? is it biblical? He explains his answers well, in the more traditional Pentecostal fashion.

In the book Sherrill meets with tongues speakers and convinces them pray in tongues into a tape recorder and then later met with some learned linguists and translators to study the tapes. These men validated that the tongues were indeed real though not of any known language to the linguists (which does not mean they were not known languages). Even so, in them they detected patterns of real languages, a flow that was natural and not forced. One even identified a poetic like structure. Yet, when Sherrill tried to present some fake tongues the linguists identified it as fake immediately. There was a clear difference between incoherent babbling and real language patterns.

Yet he ran into a wall with his objective nature and was exhorted by one Baptist minister in New Jersey in regards to Sherrill’s attempt to isolate language in tongues. He writes:

“Are you sure you’re not making a basic mistake?” asked Dr. Ervin.

“I must be I am not coming up with any answers.”

“I think the mistake is to divorce tongues from the essential whole of which they are a part.” said Dr. Ervin. “Let me tell you a little story. I happen to be fond of church architecture. One day when I was out driving I found an exquisite little Gothic chapel. I stopped my car and got out to admire it.”

“But that church happened to have at its entrance a bright, red door. My eyes would try to follow the soaring lines lines of the building upward as Gothic architecture makes you do. but every they were jerked back to that red door. It was so flamboyant it kept me from seeing the whole picture.

“Tongues, John, are like that red door. As long as you stand outside your attention is going to be riveted there and you’re not going to be able to see anything else. Once you go through. however, you are surrounded by the thousand wonders of light and sound and form that the architect intended. You look around and that door isn’t even red on the inside. It’s there. It’s to be used. But it has taken its proper place in the design of the whole church.

“That’s what I’d hope for you, John. I think it’s time for you to walk through that door. If you really want to discover what the Pentecostal experience is all about, don’t concentrate on tongues, but step through the door and meet the Holy Spirit.”

And meet the Holy Spirit he did. Have you? There are lots of little tidbits of wisdom like this in the book where one can gain some quite useful insight into the nature of tongues and how they can function in the Christian life. The two primary means speaking in tongues serve for John Sherrill are prayer and praise to God (particularly in private devotional life), and intercession (for self and others).

This book is a great read and will serve as a very useful help to those needing some understanding in to the function and nature of tongues in the larger framework of the Pentecostal experience (aka: The Baptism in the Holy Spirit).