By Jessica Wilbanks
When I Spoke in Tongues
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.
Jessica Wilbanks grew up in poverty in the backwoods of southern Maryland, where the Pentecostal church was the core of her family’s life. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a bricklayer who wouldn’t take orders from anyone. As they struggled to make ends meet, moving from one rental house to another, their faith was their anchor. They worshiped a God who lifted up the poor and downhearted and endowed them with miraculous powers, who unleashed earthquakes and hurricanes to show his displeasure, who rewarded the faithful with long lives, good health, and great riches. Their God had strict rules, but he was also merciful. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, he helped release his followers from their heathen habits. The gift of tongues was outward sign of this transformation, and Jessica first received that gift when she was eleven years old.
As a teenager, driven by a desire to discover the world beyond the close-knit confines of family and church, Jessica walked away, 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 worldviews and trying to reconcile their past and present. Years later, struggling with guilt and shame and missing the God of her youth, Jessica began a quest to learn more her childhood faith. That led her to West Africa, where she explored the Yorùbá roots of Pentecostalism and befriended fervent believers, as well as those who had been harmed by the church. 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, moving across class divides, and learning to look within oneself for strength and meaning. In the end, it’s a story of how a family splintered by dogmatic faith can eventually be knit together again through love.
Praise for When I Spoke in Tongues
“Wilbanks, winner of a Pushcart Prize for essay writing, debuts with the captivating story of how she turned away from God. She eloquently explores her long journey from being a Pentecostal Christian who spoke in tongues to being an atheist. . . . Whether writing of these scars, her dad’s rusty pickup trucks, or massive Pentecostal revivals in Lagos, Wilbanks captures the scene beautifully. Wilbanks’s slow deconstruction of her family-given religiosity is an evocative inversion of the average spiritual journey.”
– Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review
“This debut memoir conveys a down-home feel with a literary voice.”
– LIBRARY jOURNAL
“For readers who’ve wrestled with their religious upbringing, Jessica Wilbanks evokes a powerful sense of loss: the loss of the person she used to be, and of the person she might have become, had she stayed inside the fold.“
– TEXAS OBSERVER
“Wilbanks has a fascinating story to tell, and she tells it well. Especially interesting is her report of her time in Nigeria, where Pentecostalism is hugely popular and potent. But is it viable? Wilbanks wonders, and so will readers like her who may be interested in learning about the roots of faith.”
“’When I Spoke in Tongues’ is the perfect antidote to the divisions of our day. As Jessica Wilbanks travels back into her impoverished Pentecostal past and through the Nigeria of the present, seeking a lost world of meaning and beauty and belonging, she becomes our guide—but not just through new realms that may be foreign to us. She shows us how to move with deep empathy into sometimes hostile terrain, how to seek the humanity in others, especially those with whom we fundamentally disagree. Even in writing a story about faith and its loss, then, Wilbanks ends up constructing a new home for herself—and maybe for us if we follow her lead—that is grounded in love.”
– Kimberly Meyer, author of The Book of Wanderings
“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
“In When I Spoke In Tongues, Jessica Wilbanks returns to the Pentecostal faith of her youth to search for the source of power and mystery that worship once awakened in her. Along the way, she gives us a moving and clear-eyed account of what happens when a person leaves behind her deeply-held religious beliefs, and what we find when we look within ourselves for redemption and grace.”
– Lacy M. Johnson, author of The Reckonings
“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
“This compelling debut is shaped like a search for a long-lost friend, or an examination of a love affair that left the author forever changed. . . . Wilbanks weaves a fiercely candid account of reconciling with a faith whose tenets seem set in stone.”
– Bust Magazine, Five-star Rating
“Wilbanks writes with a journalist’s keen eye, capturing the loving chaos of her family’s house and the fervent, bombastic clamor of revival meetings in both the U.S. and Nigeria. . . . Her narrative provides a fascinating glimpse into a faith subculture whose popular image is often reduced to arm-waving televangelists. But even more compelling is Wilbanks’s honest rendering of the profound uncertainty that comes after leaving behind a place that hasn’t changed, but is no longer home.”
– Shelf Awareness
“Jessica Wilbanks’s memoir of faith’s loss and her efforts to comprehend its significance is no less than an illuminating exploration of how to live meaningfully. Beautifully written, When I Spoke in Tongues is compelling, honest, and memorable.”
– Claire Messud, author of The burning girl
“Fever dream—this is how Jessica Wilbanks describes the first time she spoke in tongues . . . which is as good a phrase as any to describe the experience of reading this lucid and hallucinatory memoir. The questions that float through these pages—What is belief? What is faith?—spoke to me in ways I hadn’t expected, or even knew to ask, and revealed a world running alongside our own, which we mock or ignore at our peril.”
– Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
“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
“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
“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.”