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.”