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The Special Language of Pentacostalism

From Elaine J. Lawless, God's Peculiar People, University Press of Kentucky, 1988.


Folk groups and subcultures often develop a specialized language understood only by the members of the group, a language that must be learned as a new member becomes assimilated into the group and that, when artfully and correctly employed, will signify membership to others in the group. Specialized language serves further to mark the group to outsiders, to delineate boundaries hat keep groups distinct, and to intensify group cohesion and solidarity. A special language must be close enough to the mother language to make sense to the members of the group and simple enough for the novice to pick up fairly quickly. No tome is set aside for the teaching of this specialized language, but its constant and repetitive use in the verbal messages of the group members serves to teach the newcomer what the words mean and where and how it is appropriate to employ them. Converts to Pentecostalism are expected to participate fully in church services immediately upon their conversion and tongue-speaking experience; hence, acquisition of the language quickly follows initiation.

Pentecostal converts generally come from the community in which the Pentecostal church has established itself, and are brought in by “fervent and convincing recruitment along pre-existing lines of significant social relationships” (Gerlach and Hine, p.30). The conversion of neighbors will stabilize the church community and help it to grow; conversion of loners and drifters will not really benefit the group. In southern Indiana, relatives, close friends and neighbors of Pentecostal believers acquire familiarity with the Pentecostal language long before they join the group themselves. Pentecostal believers tell many stories that artfully employ the language they have acquired within the religion. Much of the language and its proper use is learned in the context of the church service, but the employment of the specialized language and the accompanying stories go beyond the church into the homes, the stores, the schools, in fact, into the entire community. Therefore, when a community member becomes a convert the assimilation process is abbreviated because of his or her consistent exposure to the world of Pentecostals outside the context of the church.

No manual of Pentecostal words and their meanings exists. Many of the words or phrases common to Pentecostals have originated in the Bible but have come to carry specialized meanings for the people who employ them. Some of the terms are esoteric enough that outsiders are not likely to know what they mean-for example, when Pentecostals speculate about the impending rapture (when Jesus will return to gather up believers). Other terms serve also to articulate the difference between Pentecostals and outsiders-for example, the Pentecostal use of the terms saint and sinner.

The Pentecostal terms that follow have definitions that have developed within the group-in some cases, unique definitions applicable only in the Pentecostal context. Some of the terms are also used in other Christian groups, but in this examination of specialized religious language I shall try to illustrate the nuance of meaning that comes from the use of the term within the Pentecostal setting.

Pentecostals, like some other Christians, call each other Brother and Sister, but for Pentecostals this tradition has special meaning. Because they do feel they are literally a family, these terms are not mere titles but are imbued with a greater intensity of meaning: “The Pentecostal church as a whole is a very, is kind of a familial feel. We call each other brothers and sisters and we are brothers and sisters. There is definitely a feeling of kinship among each other.”

The most significant esoteric differentiation between Pentecostal group members and nonmembers is the in-group use of the terms saint and sinner. Sinners are people who are out in the world, a phrase that is used to describe the world of sin in which Pentecostals do not participate but the rest of the world does. Sinners commit sins; they do things that are worldly; these include going to movies, dances, any kin of commercial amusement activities, paid sports events, bars, in fact any place, including other homes, where the influence of the world might be evident-this includes television. Pentecostals call themselves, on the other hand, saints. They have been saved; that is, through their conversion they will be saved from an eternity in hell. The Pentecostal church is made up of saints; often the congregation is addressed as “Dear Saints.” Sinners seeking to change their status from sinner to saint and gain membership in the group must do so by first professing their sins in the public context of the church and tarrying at the altar, that is, waiting at the altar (on bended knee)for the possession of the Holy Ghost. The kinesic language that accompanies tarrying includes raised arms, waving hands, closed eyes, tears, and the eventual disconnection from one's surroundings that implies a trance state. Possession by the Holy Ghost will be manifested by speaking in tongues; a linguistic phenomenon that Pentecostals believe is often an example of a true language, understandable to people familiar with it. The tarrying may take minutes or hours, or the potential convert may have to return night after night trying to pray through-that is, to reach God. This process can be completed on the first night or may take years. Seekers, the ones who tarry, are encouraged by saint helpers to let go and go all the way with Jesus-to get rid of all their inhibitions. Members generally attribute the inattention of the Holy Ghost to some lack of faith or indecision on the part of the seeker.

In order to become a saint, a sinner must be baptized twice-by immersion in water, and again in the spirit, which means she or he receives the Holy Ghost and speaks in tongues. Once a sinner has confessed her or his sins and requested baptism, the pastor of the church will baptize this person in water. Pentecostal baptism is accompanied by a standardized prayer, the quoting of a Bible verse, and often tongue-speaking by the pastor or another church member. Oneness Pentecostals water baptize with the following formula: “I now baptize you in the name of Jesus.” They have rejected the long=standing Christian formula for baptism-“I now baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”-preferring instead to recognize only Jesus as the Godhead incarnate. To other Christians, including other Pentecostals, this seems inaccurate and ineffective. Membership in this group, based on both baptisms (water and spirit), assures salvation and safety in heaven when the rapture comes. The rapture will be when Jesus returns to the earth to claim his saints and all persons will be held accountable for their lives and deeds. Pentecostals believe the rapture is imminent; the impending doom will be, of course, followed by the millennium. Their enforced rejection of the world makes their anticipation of the better life after the rapture all important: “We have so many things to do, realizing that the place that we are at, in these times, coming down to the end, when I really feel the rapture of the church is ready to take place. I expect it tonight, if it doesn't take place tonight, I expect it tomorrow. And there's such a short time that we have to witness to other people to let them know what they can receive and the change that can take place in their lives.”

Spontaneous tongue-speaking, at events such as baptisms, is distinct in the Pentecostal mind from that which occurs in a conversion experience. Being able to speak in tongues, following the initial tongue-speaking experience, is a gift and is generally recognized by believers as a message from God. Saints may possess special spiritual gifts from God. According to 1 Corinthians 12, the nine spiritual gifts include wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in divers tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. Pentecostals interpret these verses to indicate that God decides which (if any) of these gifts will be given to whom. Speaking in divers tongues refers to speaking in tongues under inspiration in various appropriate situations; this ability is seen as a gift and is recognized as different from he spontaneous, but involuntary, tongue-speaking , that accompanies a conversion experience, which is believed to be available to everyone and is a prerequisite to membership in the group: “I think, as far as the gifts, receiving the Holy Ghost and speaking in tongues, and then I think there is a gift of tongues which are two separate things altogether. Some people have the gift of tongues and some don't. I feel that probably my husband has a gift of tongues. He has prayed in many other languages that wee went from one just into another and I don't feel that everybody has that gift.” The interpretation of what someone “says” in tongues is thought to be the highest gift of all but is rarely practiced, for it is agreed that interpreting is subject to the greatest risk; the burden of a mistaken interpretation lies with the interpreter, whereas the tongue=speaker is possessed and is not responsible for what is spoken.


In a typical Pentecostal church service several activities are common, all of which are geared toward helping the group members get happy or get a blessing, which refers to states where uninhibited behaviors such as crying, dancing in the spirit (in possession), jerks, tongue-speaking, and shouting can be exhibited. Shouting can take various forms, from shrieking to crying to speaking in tongues. It is viewed as a supranormal utterance, and, like spirit dancing, cannot be controlled by the individual. This marks the distinction between such behaviors as secular activities and as sacred activities performed in the context of the church service. Under the power of the spirit of God, the saints are not responsible for their acts; performed by choice in the context of the “world.” The same acts become desecrated. Participation in congregational singing, dancing, shouting, praying, and tongue-speaking is strongly encouraged; saints long to see the house on fire for God, that is, all members actively involved in exalting God and invoking the spirit to move among the members.

Testifying is one verbal activity that all members are expected to perform within any given church service; a member is expected to rise at the pew and give an extemporaneous testimony of faith in God or God's particular goodness to him or her. Testifying is part of the duty of a good saint. Personal experience stories serve to witness for the Lord; the act of testifying itself is a witness of the saint's effort to be a good model for others.

Knowledge of the specialized language of Pentecostals is attained in a traditional manner, passed from group member to group member, both in the church and in the community. Many Pentecostals relate stories about growing up in Pentecostal homes and playing church. “Most of my friends were people that was in the church. When I was little my parents would go to visit every Saturday night. They would go places or they would have people to their homes and we played church…That was part of the game we played. And one little guy he'd always get to preaching and he always tried to get me to get the Holy Ghost.” Stories such as this reveal the pervading influence of the Pentecostal religion on the lives of its adherents. Most of their friends were Pentecostal; friends visited each other's homes in the evenings, the same friends they saw at church on other evenings; children “played church.” The language used in these stories suggests that the children, even at a very early age, were cognizant of and competent with Pentecostal terminology and behavior.

Acknowledgements to: From Elaine J. Lawless, God's Peculiar People, University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

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