When I Spoke in Tongues

Book Cover

Publication Date: November 13, 2018 (pre-order at the link below)

A memoir of the profound destabilization that comes from losing one’s faith—and a young woman’s journey to reconcile her lack of belief with her love for her deeply religious family. (Beacon Press)

Jessica Wilbanks grew up in poverty in the backwoods of southern Maryland, and the Pentecostal church was the core of her family’s life. But at sixteen, driven by a desire to discover the world, Jessica walked away from the church, trading her faith for freedom, and driving a wedge between her and her deeply religious family.

But fundamentalist faiths haunt their adherents long after belief fades—former believers frequently live in limbo, straddling two world views and trying to reconcile their past and present. Ten years later, struggling with guilt and shame, and missing the God of her youth, who lifted up the poor and downhearted and endowed them with miraculous powers, Jessica began a quest to learn more about the religion in which she was raised. It led her to West Africa, where she explored the Yorùbá roots of Pentecostalism and found herself deeply ambivalent about its role in Nigerian society. After a terrifying car crash, she finally began the difficult work of forgiving herself for leaving the church and her family and for finding her own path.

When I Spoke in Tongues is a story of the painful and complicated process of losing one’s faith and moving across class divides. And in the end, it’s a story of how a family splintered by dogmatic faith can eventually be knit together again through love.


“At the heart of When I Spoke in Tongues is the narrator’s fervent desire to do good and speak truth. That ideal, refracted through evangelical dogma or family loyalty, sets the course for this utterly absorbing journey of self-realization. One reaches the end feeling that it is possible to maintain personal integrity, as well as to be roundly committed to family, curiosity, world, and eternity.”

Antonya Nelson, author of Funny Once

“I have plenty of bright, well-educated friends who nevertheless can’t imagine any scenario in which they could genuinely believe in God, let alone get fully caught up in some kind of religious ecstasy. For such folks, and for us prodigals still haunted by preachers long left behind, and really for anyone who grew up feeling different from those they loved most—which means most of us—Jessica Wilbanks’s vivid memoir is a great and generous gift.

This is what fiery faith really feels like on the inside, both coming and going, and this is how we use it to comfort and hurt each other, and this is what happens when it dies but you don’t, all in language stirring enough to earn Wilbanks a place beside Mary Karr and Anne Lamott on my top shelf. When I Spoke in Tongues is the book I will offer from now on, when my cradle-atheist friends wonder what it’s like to come of age truly fearing the Lord.”

Bart Campolo, coauthor of Why I Left, Why I Stayed

“This riveting personal account looks at the human freedom to assent to or move away from a faith tradition. It is a must-read for all who want to understand the pull and push of Pentecostalism.”

Elias Kifon Bongmba, editor of The Routledge Companion to Christianity in Africa

“Faith is complicated. This is a story about loss of faith and yearning for that lost faith, by a woman raised as a deeply conservative Christian. Her story of a Pentecostal childhood will intrigue Christians and non-Christians alike.”

T. M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back

“Jessica Wilbanks invites us to see the subtle ways that faith can thickly weave together lives, families, and places. When I Spoke in Tongues vividly and delicately describes the loss of faith, but it is perhaps just as much about the uncertain longing that accompanies that loss. It is a testimony to the ways faith continues, even in its absence.”

Jason Bruner, author of Living Salvation in the East African Revival in Uganda


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