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When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  149 ratings  ·  40 reviews
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.

Growing up in poverty in the rural backwoods of southern Maryland, the Pentecostal church was at the core of Jessica Wilbanks' family life. At sixteen, driven by a desire to discover the world
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published November 13th 2018 by Beacon Press
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Average rating 3.83  · 
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(3.5) As soon as I read the blurb, I knew that I had to read this. I, too, grew up attending a Pentecostal-style church in southern Maryland and have since drifted away from the faith of my youth. I thus recognized the emotional tumult of Wilbanks’ trajectory – the lure of power and certainty; the threat of punishment and ostracism – as well as some of the specifics of her experience. She lived in rented farmhouses with her brick layer father, mother and three brothers and believed wholeheartedl ...more
Oct 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: early-reviewers
This is probably one of the saddest books I've read all year. It's a true story of one woman's journey of faith and its eventual loss. Jessica Wilbanks was raised in a Pentecostal church in Southern Maryland, where preachers hooted and howled, people flailed and danced in the aisles, services lasted for hours on end, and the message was simple: repent and be baptized, shun worldly ways and God will bless you with health and wealth and gifts of prophecy and tongues. The "health and wealth gospel" ...more
Mar 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Other than the unexpected gaps when Ms. Wilbanks let a few years pass between the end of one chapter and the next, I found this memoir easy to follow and highly relatable. I was raised in Black Pentecostal churches, switching to a predominantly white Evangelical church in my late twenties before moving to NYC and joining a progressive Christian church. Now I am a Christian atheist. So I could strongly relate to Wilbanks' descriptions of her doubts and questions, leaving the faith, wanting very m ...more
Tori Hanus
Mar 13, 2019 rated it it was ok
I was deeply saddened and troubled by this book. I am a Christian myself, and I find it horrendous when parents condemn or judge their children’s sexuality or when a pastor calls out someone who is nonbeliever. I, myself, was agnostic/atheist for many years and it is people like that in this world who have people running away from Jesus. It didn’t surprise me that Wilbanks left the Pentecostal church after all those years.

My only hope is that Wilbanks will someday find Jesus’s love again for the
Henk-Jan van der Klis
Oct 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Jessica Wilbanks' family life was drenched in the Pentecostal substream of Christianity when she grew up, recognizable from my own teenage and young adult years. Revival meetings, altar calls, speaking in tongues as proof the Holy Spirit lives in you, sheer numbers of converts, and a quest for rules and space to live your life and behave like a model citizen. At sixteen, Jessica stepped out, no longer able to accept certain faith tenets. Booze and drugs, same-sex relationship replaced the life w ...more
Y.S. Stephen
Aug 06, 2018 rated it liked it
It is never easy leaving the religion of your birth, especially if you have been immersed in it as a child through adulthood. This is what Jessica Wilbanks finds out after she realises her devotion to Christianity fading. She had stopped attending churches and began to question some of her beliefs. Alarmed and scarred, she takes an unconventional step - travelling to Nigeria, a place where she believes Christianity is purer and stronger. She does this to see if she can her faith recharged. The a ...more
James E
Feb 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
An eloquently told, honest story of Jessica Wilbanks journey out of, and following struggles with her religious faith.

I listened to the audiobook and Frankie Corzo's narration was fantastic.

Many people who leave the faith struggle with finding a new community, with battling their old biases, and suffer strained relationships with their family. Jessica Wilbanks explores all of this in her story. Her journey to Africa to try and find the origins of the Pentecostal church is eye opening, and gran
Dec 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
Another very good book in a recent wave of numerous and good memoirs written by women; this time in the context of a religious zealots' upbringing. The author is good at analysing her upbringing in the Pentecostal faith, her feelings and difficulty accepting the religion, and especially this neophyte type of cult in which one is subject to all encompassing control which provides safety and community feeling but is also a source of oppression and anxiety. Through many struggles, study and researc ...more
Diane Payne
Jun 03, 2018 rated it liked it
I was more interested in the author than the history of the Pentecostal church.
Autumn Kotsiuba
Jan 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
“My days of seeking were over. If a prayer rose up in my throat in some moment of happiness or fear, I’d push it back down. But I would never stop missing the old days.”
Jun 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I honestly have no words for what this book did for me. I have never read anything else that so perfectly captured the feeling of having it and the experience of losing it.
Jul 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
I started this book a few months ago, set it down because I wasn't sure where it was headed, but then picked it back up again and felt compelled by the story, enough to finish. It is a well-written account of how a girl who grew up being extremely religious lost her faith and built a new identity apart from that faith. I enjoyed the honesty of her observations, especially about her time in Nigeria and investigation of Pentecostalism. Unlike other memoirs, I felt that this book felt a little aiml ...more
Lynne Nunyabidness
Apr 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, religion
Wilbanks is a strong writer, and draws an evocative picture of her subject with words. I was more fascinated by the first half of the book and felt like she skimmed over some topics (e.g., the vague mentions of her father's emotional outbursts, the transition between eating disorder and grad school). I can understand that those stories weren't always hers to tell, but the narrative would have been better for it.

Also, can we just put and end to the whole "white woman goes to the Global South to
Apr 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, faith
I wanted to read this book after I found out about it when I heard Jessica Wilbanks speak at a conference I attended (NonFictioNow). I’m always interested in reading about experiences of faith and loss of faith from people around my generation. Wilbanks is from a different region and a different faith background, with a different family, but so much of her experience resonated for me. And the writing is just gorgeous. The unexpected (to me) detour to Nigeria and Wilbanks’ exploration of the root ...more
Apr 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
I particularly loved the author's honest reflections in the last chapter.
Mar 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Well-researched and very interesting; a real page turner...just didn't have the ending I was pulling for.
Lily Blackburn
Mar 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
"Wilbanks relates the human need for acceptance and community through a unique lens – revealing how language and story can shape or empower the ways we find them."
check out my full review at Angel City Review!
The memoir in general is thoughtful, painful, and very honest. I was reminded of an old friend of mine in the early 70s. I had known her to be a smart, adventurous young woman. We lived in Michigan, but one summer I encountered her hitchhiking in Arizona, where I'd been hitchhiking. I convinced the young boy drivers to stop for someone I thought I recognized, and sure enough, it was my friend. We had a great time catching up, and then we continued on our separate ways.

About six months later, I s
Nov 14, 2018 rated it liked it
I found this to be a very interesting memoir of one who had embraced Pentecostal faith as a child and let go of it later in life. Though Wilbanks describes herself as one who no longer believes, she is generally respectful of those who do believe.

The part of the book I appreciated the most was her experience in Nigeria. She had come across the Redeemed Church in east Texas. Its origins were in Nigeria so she managed to do research there for her thesis. I really liked her information about Christ
Jan 18, 2019 rated it liked it
Jessica Wilbanks is honest and kind in this clear assessment of growing up Pentecostal in America. When she leaves the faith, she continues to be haunted by the church and decides to explore its roots in Nigeria. While she comes to no real conclusions, her acceptance of her past feels redemptive. Jessica is an accomplished writer and I’m proud to have taken a writing workshop with her in Houston
Steve Sanders
Dec 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Wilbanks seamlessly blends memoir, theology, cultural history, and travelogue. The result is a moving, beautifully written examination of her past and an inquiry into questions about faith, family, love, and loss that is never once sentimental or didactic. A first-rate debut.
Jerry Smith
Nov 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Great memoir but sad that her experience of the church was such that she has lost any faith.
Aja Gabel
Jan 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is a journey. Beautiful but straightforward prose about what it means to carefully unravel faith from your life only to go chasing it as an adult.
Aug 29, 2019 rated it it was ok
Jessica Wilbanks grew up in a poor, working class area of southern Maryland. Her father was a bricklayer and her mother stayed home with Jessica and her brothers. Their family struggled financially and moved from rental house to rental house. They were also very involved in a small, Pentecostal church. Their church valued speaking in tongues which they believed was an outward sign of God's blessing on your life. Jessica received this gift when she was 11 shortly after she was baptized, but just ...more
Jane Night
Aug 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
Synopsis: Jessica Wilbanks memoir on her exploration of faith and leaving behind the strict religious upbringing of her past. As she struggles with her faith she digs into the roots of her childhood religion and finds both wonderful and terrible things there.

My Rating:


This book is near and dear to my heart. I have gone on my own religious journey so I can empathize with Jessica and her struggles with growing up in a conservative faith that is a huge part of her life and then beginning to qu
Oct 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion, nonfiction
Jessica Wilbanks's memoir When I Spoke in Tongues, is a love-letter to the Pentecostal church. However, even a sweet tale of love can still end in divorce. This book deftly moves between Wilbanks's complicated feelings about her childhood experiences with Pentecostalism and the similar forms of that religion as practiced in Nigeria. She also briefly touches on the experiences of Nigerian immigrants to the US.

Even if you didn't grow up in a church that was as enthusiastically "spirit filled" (aka
Jun 16, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: did-not-finish
I heard the author interviewed on NPR and found her very interesting, and I added this book to my reading list. Unfortunately, I just couldn't stick with it. At about 25% done I looked it up on GoodReads to see if others had also struggled, but the ratings were quite high, so I kept on. I made it to 30% and just gave up. The book is extremely well-written and the author/narrator is likable and relatable. Her story is one that many people may be able to relate to more closely than I can, and I th ...more
Alice Greczyn
Sep 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully written, and so poignantly relatable! I also grew up in tongues-speaking Pentecostal churches, and reading about someone else's wrestlings with this particular expression of Christianity felt deeply cathartic. The author delves deep into the history of this denomination, which also fascinated me as a history-lover. If you're looking for a memoir that covers religious deconstruction, family dysfunction, and travel all in one, you're sure to enjoy "When I Spoke in Tongues"!
Kate Williams
Apr 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
I’m a sucker for a good memoir about one’s spiritual journey. This one had all the things I love about exemplars of the genre, like Jesusland. Nothing came easy. It’s not simple. One’s faith journey is nuanced and deeply personal. And Wilbanks doesn’t let herself off the hook. It’s a beautiful story, one I look forward to recommending to others on similar paths.
Rob Lund
Mar 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: library
Wilbanks has an amazing gift. Her writing is both poetic and reverent for a moment in her history that was simultaneously traumatic and life-changing.

There were passages that I felt like I was reading Cormac McCarthy. She so perfectly captured what it is like -- bodily, emotionally, psychologically -- to be raised in the Pentecostal world.
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“Praise God," he whispered. “He kept you safe. You had your other accident to stop you from that."

My heart flared up in my chest, and for a moment I felt myself leaping back into the world of magical thinking, the universe as a series of divine interventions. There but for the grace of God. Maybe God was protecting me after all. Perhaps I had been spared. But if God had maneuvered events in such a way that my previous accident had kept me alive, why didn't he do as much for those who had died?”
“When I was a girl experiencing it for the first time, that rollicking religion seemed to have come organically, from the world itself, like water or air. Pentecostals aren't much for history, and the only origin story I'd ever heard was the story of how the Holy Spirit had descended on Jesus's disciples centuries ago when they gathered to mourn his death.” 0 likes
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