Speaking in Tongues: Evidence or Sign?

At first glance, it may seem to be splitting hairs to ask whether speaking in tongues is the initial evidence or the initial sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We tend to think of the words “evidence” and “sign” as synonyms. Indeed, depending on what we mean by these words, it may make no difference which we use.

But to some early twentieth century Oneness Pentecostal pioneers, like Andrew D. Urshan, it was important to distinguish between these terms. He wrote,

“There have been in the past and there are now some Pentecostal people who have insisted that speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance is the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, or that it is the only Bible evidence. This is absolutely unscriptural, and no one can prove it from a biblical standpoint. Why should we not call the speaking in other tongues a sign of the faith and the sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, since the scriptures teach it so clearly” (Andrew D. Urshan, My Study of Modern Pentecostals [Portland, OR: Apostolic Book Publishers, 1981, reprinted from original 1923 edition], 48-49).

Urshan’s thinking ran this way: There is a difference between a sign and evidence. A sign on a store window may advertise certain products, indicating that those products are found inside, but until a customer goes into the store and sees the products themselves he or she does not know if the sign is true. The actual products are the evidence.

Urshan declared that speaking in tongues as the Spirit gives utterance is the sign of the baptism of the Spirit, but the fruit of the Spirit is the evidence. In his words,

“They both go together, just as on a tree, there are leaves and the fruit growing together” (Urshan, My Study, 49).

In view of this distinction, it is interesting that the language that found its way into the fundamental doctrine of the United Pentecostal Church International reflects the concept of sign:

“. . . the baptism of the Holy Ghost with the initial sign of speaking with other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance.”

The word “initial” is important to understanding the use either of “initial sign” or “initial evidence.” The point is that speaking with tongues is only the initial, or first, “sign” or “evidence” of the baptism of the Spirit. To speak with tongues is not the only sign or evidence, it is simply the first sign or evidence. As Urshan pointed out, a person who is baptized with the Holy Spirit will not only speak with tongues; that person will also bear the fruit of the Spirit.

It has been suggested that the four most influential early twentieth century pioneers of Oneness Pentecostalism were Frank Ewart, G. T. Haywood, Franklin Small, and Andrew D. Urshan. (See David A. Reed, “In Jesus’ Name”: The History and Beliefs of Oneness Pentecostals [Blandford Forum, Dorsett, UK: Deo Publishing, 2008].) Of these four, Urshan alone was not influenced by the Western Enlightenment mindset. This may be significant in his choice of “sign” over “evidence,” for “evidence” is the scientific language of the European Enlightenment. The word suggests an experiment that can be duplicated in a laboratory. For Enlightenment thinkers, there was little room for mystery. Everything could be figured out and reduced to rules or laws guaranteed to reproduce desired results.

Urshan was much more willing to embrace the concept of mystery. His cultural heritage in Persia and his religious roots in the Church of the East worked to create a very different worldview than that held by Ewart, Haywood, or Small. Although Urshan’s father was a Presbyterian minister, this was a result of the work of American missionaries in Northwest Persia in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Urshan family lived in one of many Assyrian villages that valued the traditions of Syrian Christianity, and the goal of the Presbyterian missionaries was not to proselytize from the Church of the East but to contribute to spiritual renewal within the church. Urshan’s continuing appreciation for his heritage in the Church of the East, popularly known as the Nestorian Church, can be seen in Andrew D. Urshan, The Life Story of Andrew Bar David Urshan (Stockton, CA: W.A.B.C. Press, 1967), 9-16.

When Urshan first visited a Pentecostal church in Chicago, one of the things that provoked him to investigate further was that he heard Swedes, Italians, Germans, and Americans speaking in the Syriac language. Urshan understood the language and wrote,

“These foreign words proceeding from the trembling lips of these people made us think a great deal of this phenomenon” (Urshan, The Life Story, 12).

On another occasion, during a prayer meeting, one of the young Persian men among whom Urshan ministered

“suddenly spoke fluently in the ancient Syriac language which he had never learned.”

Urshan wrote,

“Knowing Syriac I interpreted to the others what he was saying. The message was one of comfort and of encouragement to continue to seek God’s face; and He told us that He intended to fill us all with the Holy Ghost and use us for His glory, for Jesus was coming very soon” (Urshan, My Study, 18-19).

From the earliest days of the twentieth century Pentecostal outpouring, there has been a typical approach to explaining the idea that baptism with the Holy Spirit is always accompanied by the phenomenon of speaking with tongues. This approach points out that the Book of Acts specifically says on three occasions that those who received the Holy Spirit spoke with tongues. (See Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6.) Although the episode in Samaria does not say that those who received the Holy Spirit spoke with tongues, there are strong contextual indicators that they did. (See Acts 8:14-23.) If we understand the didactic function of the Book of Acts, this argument alone is convincing.

But there are other indications of the association between speaking with tongues and baptism with the Holy Spirit. When Peter connected the events of the Day of Pentecost with Joel’s prophecy, he placed baptism with the Holy Spirit squarely in an ancient trajectory that links the work of the Holy Spirit with supernatural vocalization. In other words, even before the Day of Pentecost, it was typical for those upon whom the Spirit came to speak out immediately under the influence of the Spirit.

For example, when Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, heard Mary’s greeting, she “was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” (Luke 1:41-42). When her husband Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, he prophesied, saying, “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people” (Luke 1:67-68).

Joel anticipated that when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon people, they would prophesy. Although there are other phenomena that accompany the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, like visions and dreams, the Day of Pentecost was characterized not by visions and dreams, but by prophetic utterances in languages never learned by those who received the Holy Spirit. The visions and dreams would come, but the initial sign that the Spirit had come was not visions or dreams, but prophetic words that – in a variety of languages – declared the wonderful works of God. (See Acts 2:4, 8, 11.)

Since we believe that Peter was inspired in his use of Joel, we must also believe that Joel prophesied that tongues would accompany the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Although Joel did not use the word “tongues,” his promise that those upon whom the Spirit was poured would prophesy provides an inspired anticipation of tongues. Otherwise, Peter could not have accurately said, “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” At best, he would have been reduced to saying, “This is something like that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” The connection between the Day of Pentecost and Joel firmly roots speaking with tongues – as the initial sign of Holy Spirit baptism – in Old Testament prophecy.

Even Moses weighs in on the connection between receiving the Spirit and speaking out immediately under the influence of the Spirit. When the Lord took of the Spirit that was upon Moses and placed the same on the seventy elders, they prophesied (Numbers 11:25). Although Eldad and Medad were not with this group, they too prophesied when the Spirit rested upon them (Numbers 11:26). When Joshua urged Moses to stop Eldad and Medad, Moses answered, “Are you zealous for my sake? Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29).

The Book of Joel lets us know that God heard Moses’ prayer, promising to answer it. On the Day of Pentecost that promise was fulfilled. Although people had previously spoken out under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost introduced a new era, an era experientially superior to what went before. In biblical terms, a New Covenant was now in effect, going beyond the spiritual provisions of the Old Covenant. (See Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 31:31-32; Hebrews 8:8-13; 12:24.) Even though people before the Day of Pentecost had spoken under the influence of the Holy Spirit, a signal of the superiority of the New Covenant era was that when they now spoke under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they spoke in languages they had never learned.

To deny that an immediate consequence of being filled with the Spirit is to speak under the influence of the Spirit is to be at odds with a long line of biblical testimony. (In addition to the Scriptures we have examined, see I Samuel 10:10; 19:20-21, 23; II Samuel 23:2.) Even after the Day of Pentecost, among those who had already been baptized with the Holy Spirit and who had spoken with tongues upon their initial baptism, there was a consistent pattern of speaking out under the influence of the Holy Spirit as a consequence of fresh fillings.  (See Acts 4:8, 31; 13:9-10; Ephesians 5:18-19.)

So is speaking with tongues evidence or a sign? We certainly shouldn’t make this a point of contention, but we do know, as Andrew D. Urshan said, that when a person has been genuinely baptized with the Holy Spirit, there will be both the initial sign of speaking with tongues and the following evidence of the fruit of the Spirit.

My book, Andrew D. Urshan: A Theological Biography, is available at http://www.amazon.com and http://www.pentecostalpublishing.com