In a previous article, we learned that God gives each of us at least one spiritual gift, to be used in doing God’s work and building the kingdom. They aren’t used for entertainment or personal non-spiritual gain. One gift God sometimes gives is the gift of tongues. The Articles of Faith, a list of thirteen core beliefs of Mormons, includes the following:
7 We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth. (See Articles of Faith.)
Robert D. Hales, an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whose members are sometimes referred to as Mormons), gave the following explanation and caution about the gift of tongues:
“And to another is given the interpretation of tongues” (D&C 46:24–25).
Many of you who have gone to foreign lands have been given the gift to speak with tongues and to translate, or have the interpretation of tongues.
“And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God” (D&C 46:26).
We are told by prophets in this dispensation that revelation for the direction of the Church will not be given through the gift of tongues. The reason for this is that it is very easy for Lucifer to falsely duplicate the gift of tongues and confuse the members of the Church.
Satan has the power to trick us as it pertains to some of the gifts of the Spirit. One in which he is the most deceptive is the gift of tongues. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (1801–77) explained the need to be cautious when considering the gift of tongues.
“You may speak in tongues for your own comfort, but I lay this down for a rule, that if anything is taught by the gift of tongues, it is not to be received for doctrine” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 229).
“Speak not in the gift of tongues without understanding it, or without interpretation. The devil can speak in tongues” (Teachings, 162).
“The gift of tongues is not … empowered to dictate … the Church. All gifts and endowments given of the Lord to members of his Church are not given to control the Church; but they are under the control and guidance of the Priesthood, and are judged of by it” (Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe , 343).
The gift of tongues is used by missionaries to teach the gospel to the nations of the world. (See Robert D. Hales, “Gifts of the Spirit,” Ensign, Feb 2002, 12
As you can see, the gift of tongues is seen by Mormons a bit differently than it is by some churches. You will not find, in Mormon meetings, someone speaking by the spirit in a language no one else understands. The gift of tongues is not a way to prove our spirituality or to deliver revelation. Instead, it is most often used to teach the gospel to someone with whom you don’t share a common language.
For instance, when I was younger, I was serving a stake mission. This meant I lived at home and did my usual things, but also agreed to donate a large portion of my day doing missionary work. I was loaned to a mission for the deaf because I was learning sign language, and worked with two other women in teaching religion to those who could not hear. One day, one of the people the full-time missionaries were teaching asked an important question, but specifically wanted me to answer it. I panicked, because my sign language was not up to the requirements of the answer. However, as I began to answer, it was as though my hands moved on their own. I gave a detailed answer, but did not know many of the signs I was using. The investigator (student) was satisfied with my answer, but I could not take credit for it. The Holy Ghost was providing the answer and gave me the gift of tongues for that single instance to assist me in doing God’s work. Had there been no one in the room who knew sign language, there would have been no need for me to have that gift at that time, and I can’t normally do it. My sign language has never been very good, but I can sign when I need to in the course of my religious responsibilities. Other times, I can’t sign at more than a beginner’s level.
The gift of tongues always works in conjunction with the gift of interpretation. If someone is speaking in tongues, others must be able to interpret. The gift of interpretation is closely related to the gift of tongues. David O. McKay, a former Mormon prophet, once wanted to speak to church members in New Zealand without the diluting impact of an interpreter. He spoke in English for forty minutes, and many were able to understand him, even though they didn’t speak English. They were given this ability just for this occasion in order to receive God’s word. It is unlikely any of them were able to comprehend English when the meeting ended. (See “Chapter 22: The Gifts of the Spirit,” Gospel Principles, (2009),125–32.)
Although in many churches, the gift of tongues is considered a very desirable gift, Joseph Smith said it was generally the least important gift, and not useful except for the types of circumstances mentioned above. Generally, when Mormons do have the types of experiences we’ve discussed here, they don’t really think of it as the gift of tongues, although, of course, it is. They think of it as the Holy Ghost helping them share or understand the gospel.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.