Brigham Young and Mormon Glossolalia

By June 9, 2008

John Turner is assistant professor of history at the University of South Alabama and contributing editor at the Religion and American History blog.

I’ve been struck while researching Brigham Young’s early years as a Mormon by how significant speaking in tongues was for his spirituality. Before his conversion, witnessing a group of Mormon elders in Pennsylvania seemed to be a powerful testimony of God’s power. After his conversion, Brigham spoke in tongues himself on many occasions and may have helped introduce Joseph Smith to the practice. In Brigham’s published history, Joseph responds to Brigham speaking in tongues in November 1832 by announcing “it was the pure Adamic language.”

Lee Copeland, in his 1991 Dialogue article “Speaking in Tongues,” downplays Brigham’s role in introducing Joseph Smith and the church more generally to glossolalia. Among other pieces of evidence, he points to a March 1831 revelation to Joseph Smith (D&C 46) that “it is given to some to speak with tongues, And to another is given the interpretation of tongues.” This portion of the revelation, however, seems to be an expansion of I Corinthians 12:4-11 rather than a specific endorsement of tongues.

In any event, beginning at least in 1833 speaking in tongues appears to have been a very significant spiritual practice among the Latter-day Saints. Particularly given its role in the Kirtland temple, it seems to have been more than a “rare phenomenon in Mormonism,” as Leonard Arrington writes in American Moses (p. 32).

Are there any other studies of early Mormon glossolalia that I could consult? Am I correct that it was a significant and fairly widespread practice, at least in the 1830s? What was the significance of Brigham’s utterance being “the pure Adamic language?”

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. John, check out Dan Vogel’s 1993 article in the JMH on glossolalia among the early Saints. He traces the beginnings of glossolalia among the LDS to 1830-31 with the conversion of Sidney Rigdon and his group of dissatisfied Campbellite followers, but argues that BY’s conversion led to a resurgence of tongue-speaking among early Mormons.

    Comment by Christopher — June 9, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

  2. Check Splendid Sun.

    Comment by mmiles — June 9, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

  3. John, for a women’s view, see Linda King Newell, “Sweet Counsel and Seas of Tribulation: The Religious Life of the Women in Kirtland,” BYU Studies 20 (Winter 1980): 151-62. Also, if you’re not aware of it, Studies in Mormon History is a tremendous online resource.

    Comment by David G. — June 9, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  4. Vogel’s article is pretty good, but I think it misses a lot. Especially how common glossolalia was among the Anointed Quorum. One of my favorite accounts is when they danced in the temple at Nauvoo and then Brigham and Heber speak in tongues. I think Newell’s article is also a good starting point, but we really are lacking a good study of the practice. Newell’s essay in Sisters in Spirit is better, but as it focuses on women and as she tries to interweave it with healing it gets a bit scattered. Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition has some info on the end of the practice.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 9, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  5. I would also add that I think it virtually impossible that Young introduced Smith to glossolalia. Enthusiasm at Kirtland abounded.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 9, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

  6. Jonathan,

    I agree — I doubt Young (at least by himself) introduced Smith to speaking in tongues. In what the Church Archives suggests is an early 1840s autobiography, Heber C. Kimball writes that “the brethren” spoke in tongues before Joseph Smith (rather than Brigham Young alone introducing the practice). My sense is that Brigham sometimes magnifies his role in events in his published history.

    What do you make of the emphasis on the pure Adamic language? This wasn’t always associated with Mormon glossolalia but seems to crop up from time to time. I’ve not heard of other Christians associating tongues with “Adamic” language.

    Comment by John Turner — June 9, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

  7. John, Samuel Brown, who sometimes comments here has done the best work on that. I can connect you with him if you don’t have his contact. Shoot me an email.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 9, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  8. Got the email, Jo[h]n. This is a fascinating area that deserves further research. I’m revising an article that encompasses this within the broader quest for pure language. A very early version of the paper was presented at Sunstone Symposium in 2007. I also treat this in my book manuscript on early Mormon death culture (the other main identified source of glossolalia was American Indian languages, which in complex ways, early Mormons saw as arising from and preserving fossils of the Adamic language).

    I have started collecting material for a book to work on after the death history that looks at the uses of charisma and reason within a drastic permutation of Common Sense in earliest Mormonism and intended to include a more thorough treatment of glossolalia there when I get to it.

    and re: your ? in 6, remember that for most Christians the “tongue of angels” was the language spoken in Eden, so they are generally saying the same thing with different words. The main difference being the much broader valence of “Adamic” per se in earliest Mormonism.

    Comment by Samuel Brown — June 9, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

  9. History of the Church, Vol 1, page 297, in the footnote, it describes what appears to be the origin of praying in tongues in the church. It says it started in one of the Pennsylvania branches, then Mendon, then Kirtland, then Zion.

    In the paragraph above it (in the same footnote), it gives Brigham Young’s account of praying in tongues in the presence of Joseph Smith in Kirtland. The surprise of the other brethren present, and their inquiry of the Prophet implies that the gift was previously unknown in Kirtland.

    Greater detail can probably be found in the reference used for Brigham’s account, Millennial Star, vol xxv, page 439.

    The Book of Mormon gives a reference for the “tongue of angels” as used for worship in 2 Nephi 31:13:

    “…then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, 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. ”

    The gift of tongues as used in prayer and worship (as opposed to preaching to someone in their native language), both in private and in groups, was later de-emphasized because its purpose and use was so easily misunderstood, and it was sometimes mishandled and falsely imitated by well-meaning believers and by the adversary.

    2 Nephi 31:13 does make pretty clear that the “tongue of angels” can be used for praise/worship, but also seems to tie it into being filled with the Holy Ghost, and not something that people can turn on entirely at their own will.

    Comment by Bookslinger — July 16, 2009 @ 11:37 am

  10. Brigham’s praying in tongues, as described in History of the Church, vol 1, page 297, may have been the first occurrence of that spiritual gift in a group setting in Kirtland. And it may also have been possible, maybe likely, that Joseph Smith had previously received the same gift in private, and had merely not advertised or documented it.

    I think it likely that the “tongue of Angels”, aka the Adamic language, is what we all spoke in the pre-mortal existence. It seems a logical deduction. It would seem a great gift then, partially withdrawing the veil from the individual and allowing the person to do what he/she did in the pre-mortal existence, and what angels have been observed doing by prophets in their visions, “shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.”

    Comment by Bookslinger — July 16, 2009 @ 11:47 am


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