Tongues in Court

May 4, 2007 | 7 comments
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In doing research on 19th century church courts, I recently came across a legal issue that I haven’t seen before: What exactly is the evidentiary value of speaking in tongues?

Modern Mormons tend to think of the gift of tongues in terms of speaking a foriegn language so as to preach the gospel. There is a statment by Joseph Smith to this effect in the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Interestingly, however, this statement was originally given in a judicial context. A brother had been tried for some infraction or another before his local branch. Initially the branch had voted to be lenient on the brother, giving him time to consider his conduct before taking any action. At this point, one of the brethren in the branch rose and began speaking in tongues to the effect that the erring brother ought to be disciplined immediately. At the time, of course, speaking in tongues meant saying something in an unknown language (often claimed to be the Adamic tongue) followed by an inspired translation by another person. In this case the brother seems to have translated his own statements because the record doesn’t metion anyone else arising to render his words into English. On appeal to the Kirtland High Council the question was whether or not the branch was bound to follow the position given in tongues. The logic seems to have been that decisions were supposed to be by revelation, and tongues, being a special gift of the spirit, was special evidence of revelation.

Having heard the case and delivered his famous statement about the true use of the gift of tongues to preach the gospel, Joseph Smith went on to announce the following rule of evidence: “[i]f brother Gordon introduced the Gift of tongues as testimony against brother Carpenter that it was contrary to the rules and regulations of the church, because in all our deicions we must judge from actual testimony.”

Anglo-American law, of course, has a long tradition of spectral or supernatural evidence going back to trial by ordeal or combat. For centuries there was a procedure known as wager of law by which a defendant could avoid liability in certain kinds of actions by simply swearing an oath that he was not guilty. The idea was that God would deal with those who swore falsely so we need not be worried about their foreswearing. Indeed, the whole notion of oaths originally rested on supernatural intervention in litigation. Those who perjured themselves risked damnation by virtue of the oath, and the testimony of atheists and Quakers was excluded because they either refused to swear the oath or had not fear of damnation if they foreswore and accordingly could not be relied upon.

Church courts too rested — and still rest — on the faith that God will intervene in adjudication and that his Spirit will guide judges to good and just decisions. Joseph’s sermons to church councils often emphasized the need to be guided by the Spirit of the Lord in all that they did. Apparently, however, he drew the line at certain kinds of supernatural evidence, preferring instead “actual testimony.”

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7 Responses to Tongues in Court

  1. Jettboy on May 3, 2007 at 12:16 am

    “Apparently, however, he drew the line at certain kinds of supernatural evidence, preferring instead “actual testimony.”

    That shouldn’t be surprising. Joseph Smith in his revelations always taught that there needed to be two or three witnesses as evidence of anything. In this case, one person both used toungues and interpreted them – not to mention was not an actual witness.

  2. Susan S. on May 4, 2007 at 2:27 am

    I love you Nate. This sort of thing warms my heart. Did you see the queen?

  3. Struwelpeter on May 4, 2007 at 11:25 am

    If we proceed from the assumption that evidentiary rules are based on whether the evidence offered has “sufficient indicia of reliability,” does Joseph’s pronouncement say anything about the reliability of tongues, or am I just reading my modern-day cultural bias against the gift of tongues into this anecdote?

  4. jimbob on May 4, 2007 at 11:30 am

    I’m always susupicious of those claiming to have the gift of tongues. I think the reason is that unlike other gifts of the spirit, this one is particularly easy to imitate, especially, as here, if the result is a language that can’t be verified. And even if the spririt led you to speak French, for example, it’s still quite hard to know if that’s coming from memory or from God. So perhaps these problems are the best reason to disallow the introduction of evidence of speaking in tounges court: it would be next to impossible to verify whether someone was lying or was actually having an ecstatic experience, so it’s best to disallow all such testimony to begin with.

  5. Ardis Parshall on May 4, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    I kept trying to think of what this reminded me of — it’s the old and recurring case of a young man telling a young woman that he’s received a revelation saying she should marry him, discussed in church settings with the reminder that revelation comes to individuals for their own guidance and to those with legitimate stewardships. If the branch in Nate’s report was voting as a body on the case, this random brother had no superior stewardship. Purporting to speak in tongues was (like the prospective groom’s supposed revelation) playing a spiritual gift as a trump card, claiming an authority he was not entitled to exercise.

    What do you call it in modern law when someone’s evidence is unacceptable because he is not qualified to give it? Incompetent testimony, something like that?

    Maybe that’s what Joseph meant — he was contrasting “actual” testimony with “incompetent” (or whatever the correct word is) testimony.

  6. Bookslinger on May 4, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    Witnesses are not judges, and don’t have authority over the accused, therefore a witness does not have authority to receive revelation in regards to the accused. The scenario described violates proper order (chain or hierarchy of authority) for receiving revelation in regards to another person.

    In such a proceeding, only the judges/president and jury would have the right to receive revelation in regards to the guilt of the accused.

    So Ardis is right, the individual was claiming an authority he was not entitled to exercise.

    Another point is that JS also said that things spoken in tongues, and by interpretation of tongues, are not to be taken as doctrine or as binding, but merely for the edification and uplifting of those in attendance. (Don’t have the reference on that one. But probably somewhere in TPJS.)

    One interesting parallel between the gift of speaking in tongues as mentioned in the Book of Mormon and modern day Pentecostalism, is that of “praising the Lord”, 2 Nephi 31:13, “… then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.” Sounds like Pentecostalism to me.

    As mentioned in the last conference (Elder Holland?) the “tongue of angels” can also mean saying things to someone that an angel would say to them, presumably in English. But I think it can also mean speaking in the angels’ “native language” which would likely be the Adamic language. I think one of the first specific mentions of the gift of an unknown tongue in the History of the Church, is in a prayer offered by Brigham Young. Or at least it is the first instance mentioned in the HC where it names the person involved. In that account Joseph says it was a true gift. And from the context, it was not a situation where the tongue was an eartly language used to preach the gospel.

    Brigham’s gift of tongues in that instance would then come under the type described in 2 Nephi 31:13.

    Satan can and does imitate spiritual gifts. I’ve seen charismatic services where there was not the right spirit. But on the other hand, you don’t have to be LDS to receive spiritual gifts. Many humble people who call upon God in the name of Jesus Christ can testify of blessings and gifts. The listing of the gifts in the NT and the D&C says ‘they who believe” not “priesthood holders” and not “members.” Scriptural prophecies also mention the Spirit being poured out upon _all_ flesh. So it’s not proper to tar all Pentecostals and Evangelicals with the “imitation” brush.

    One might say that the majority of the time the gift of tongues is used for preaching. However, 2 Nephi 31:13 (and Paul’s discourse on “unknown tongues”) prevents us from saying that’s the case all the time.

  7. Wayne Warner on July 23, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    I found your \”Tongues in Court\” interesting. I\’ve heard of Pentecostals trying to influence church business meetings with spiritual gifts but not Mormons. You might be interested to learn of a meeting the Pentecostal evangelist Maria Woodworth-Etter (1844-1924) conducted in Fremont NE in 1920 that attracted 5,000 people. Known for her Pentecostal teachings, speaking in tongues, prophesying. falling in the Spirit, and divine healing, she said, \”A few earnest Christians, largely of the Mormon faith, decided to back up a large campaign for their community.\” My research revealed that it was actually the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints who extended the invitation and backed the meetings. When Woodworth-Etter and co-workers in Fremont were arrested for practicing medicine without a license, it was Reorganized member and tent meeting chairman Otis Gardner who bailed them out. Gardner also testified that he was healed in the meetings.

    This was the only connection I could find that Woodworth-Etter had with the Reorganized church in her 44-year ministry (1880-1924). And it could be argued that had the church in Fremont been active (it had closed because of the influenza epidemic), leadership would have prevented Gardner and others to support a Pentecostal woman evangelist.

    Wayne Warner, author of \”Maria Woodworth-Etter, For Such a Time as This.\”

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