The Muddle of Influences That Created the Toronto Blessing

The Muddle of Influences That Created the Toronto Blessing January 9, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about the Toronto Blessing (TTB). If you were evangelical in the mid-1990s anywhere in the world, chances are you heard about it–or experienced it for yourself. It was far-reaching and instrumental in shaping modern evangelicalism (for good and ill). But it didn’t come from nowhere. Today, I’ll show you both the obvious influences and the undercurrents that went into the making of the Toronto Blessing. Nothing about this movement is divine or miraculous–and I’ll show you exactly why not.

John Arnott onstage during the Toronto Blessing, surrounded by bodies.
A service at Toronto Airport Vineyard during the Toronto Blessing. Note the people strewn around onstage. The redhead to the right fell down right after giving a testimony. (Screengrab from 5:51 into this link.) I have to say, this isn’t anything like what my old Pentecostal church’s altar looked like.

(Previous TTB-related posts: What ‘Jesus’ Is Doing Lately Instead of Being UsefulAwakenings and Other Christian Lies; The Tangled Web; Todd Bentley’s Amazing Escape From Accountability.)

(I’ve connected some of these people and situations in previous posts. Today, I’ll be adding their teachings and doctrines to our understanding. Strap in! This was quite a ride to me, and hopefully it will be to you as well.)

Escape in the Nick of Time.

I’m way out of your league. Way out. If your league were to explode, I wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days.

The Librarian: Quest for the Spear

I gotta say, my deconversion could not possibly have happened at a better time. Literally, I deconverted right around the outbreak of the Toronto Blessing (TTB). When TTB exploded into Christians’ awareness, I was tramping around Canada dodging my stalker ex Biff and enjoying some of the best natural scenery on the planet. So I missed every single bit of the controversy that erupted around it.

Similarly, I deconverted before complementarianism became such a big marker belief for evangelicals–as well as right before courtship culture infested that part of the religion pool. Heck, Creationism wasn’t even a dealbreaker back then. When I was Pentecostal, I’m certain that I’d have regarded the Duggars as out-and-out lunatics as well as downright abusive and possibly even dangerous. I’m equally certain that most of my tribe would have perceived them in much the same way.

So I got incredibly lucky with the timing of my deconversion.

The reason I brought this timing thing up is this: full-on deconversion and total withdrawal from evangelical culture is really about the only way possible that I could have completely missed hearing anything about TTB.

Cuz I really had no idea it’d even happened. I first heard about it from Clint, who made a crack about it in the comments of this blog at some random point a few years ago.

The vast majority of evangelicals of the time saw TTB as this big huge amazing movement that shook their religion to its very core, but outside of their bubble it made no impact at all on much of anybody.

Hooray Team Jesus!

Anointing: A Quick Lesson in Christianese.

“Benny Hinn is a fake. A dangerous fake. What he does is prey on the sick, the desperate, and the gullible.”

60 Minutes Australia, as recorded in D Magazine2003

When I began learning about TTB, I was immediately fascinated. I flung myself into analyses of it and accounts written at the time about it. Very quickly, I began noticing the very earthly influences that went into it.

This timeline here helped quite a bit in understanding the influences and people who made TTB happen. It also traced the various reactions to TTB–and to the people involved with it, like John and Carol Arnott (who pastored the church where TTB first erupted).

All of these people were stone-cold authoritarians. No question about it. But they all preached a gospel they called the anointing. And I was well familiar with this concept when I was Christian. It’d already reached well into every corner of evangelicalism, as far as I could tell at the time (and can see now).

In Christianese, an anointing is a magical granting of power by Jesus that allows a Christian to do extraordinary things. It also means the divinely-granted authority to lead a particular group or to spearhead a particular project. And it implies a measure of divine protection as well.

How Anointing Works.

[After reeling around drunkenly on stage:] “Let’s get back to the reading. Luke chapter 1. Verse, verse, verse, COCK-A-DOODLEY-DOooOO! …Oh, dear. [breaks into helpless laughter]”

John Scotland, preaching at TTB
(about 30:00 in, right after he takes off his giant black cowboy hat)

A Christian with an anointing has an extra dose of Jesus Power, basically. They think it gives them the strength to get Jesus’ assignments done–and the fortitude to resist the devil’s machinations to stop that stuff from happening.

Authoritarians love love love ideas like anointing. This doctrine gives Christian flocks the feeling of power and autonomy they want, but it also ties them very firmly to their leaders. They might feel anointing in their individual lives, but their leaders have extra-lots anointing.

And those leaders get the final say about whether a follower really has an anointing or not. Usually the leaders won’t criticize someone on that count, but if a follower gets out of hand they can stomp down on the reins and get that person under control again.

That post I wrote years ago, “The Cloud Has Moved,” described a situation with anointing that got completely out of hand. When our pastor clamped down on it, he moved a bit too late–but his anointing as our Dear Leader overrode that cult leader’s anointing as well as whatever individual anointing most of us felt as a result of the cult leader’s efforts to recruit us. That’s why Ezekiel only bagsied a couple of us who were experience-chasers like some people become tornado-chasers.

That aching for experiences was part and parcel of anointing. The ache was caused by us wanting to feel real and tangible signs of our god’s existence, like evidence that he really cared for us. And it was also a tangible sign of what we were actually supposed to do to make that god happy. In Christianity, most Christians think their god has some kind of big plan for their lives. Unfortunately, it’s downright impossible to know with certainty what that plan involves or needs them to do. An anointing makes that uncertainty a little less of a worry.

So yes, when it seems like anointing flows like water somewhere, a lot of Christians are going to gravitate to that place to get a little piece of it for themselves.

Passing the Torch.

Benny Hinn certainly talked a lot about anointing. In 1993, the year before TTB took off, he even wrote a book about it that’s apparently enjoyed great success since then (that link goes to an updated edition of it). However, Hinn’s “anointing” phase began well before, in the 1970s–which is also about when he formed a close friendship with John Arnott.

Arnott seems to have regarded Hinn as an inspiration and mentor–much like he regarded Hinn’s own inspirational mentor-figure Kathryn Kuhlman. She was a magical-healing huckster who enjoyed great popularity at the time. (And because evangelicals can’t actually reject bad ideas once they enter canon, they still revere her) Arnott met her even before meeting Hinn.

Hinn sold evangelicals this idea that they could gain this anointing in their own lives. And once they had it, they could do extraordinary things with their lives. They neither knew nor cared that he was, by all reputable accounts, both a liar and a conjob. No, he told them what they ached to hear. Consequently, they embraced him without questions. Kuhlman, for her part, knew how to work crowds. She gained similar widespread adoration.

So Hinn’s “anointing” idea would have swirled and mixed with Kuhlman’s huckstercraft in Arnott’s mind.

Leader passes on to leader the tricks of the trade. Hinn and Kuhlman passed their knowledge down to John Arnott. And John Arnott, with his wife Carol, went on to unleash TTB on an unsuspecting–but eager and waiting–evangelical world yearning for the next big thing.

The Copelands and Rodney Howard-Browne.

Now I want to show you how various teachings and movements combined to create TTB.

In the 1970s, a South African guy named Rodney Howard-Browne converted to evangelicalism. In fact, he went full-in on it. The church he attended, Johannesburg Rhema Church, followed what’s called Word of Faith. That’s kind of “name it and claim it” mixed with prosperity gospel. A handful of super-famous ministers adopted it: Kenneth Hagin, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Paul and Jan Crouch, and more. (Starting around 1993, Hinn tried at various times to distance himself from the formal teaching. But I don’t know if he ever renounced a 1990 televised outburst with Paul Crouch about wanting to murder his critics. More on that next time.)

Like Hinn’s anointing thingie, evangelicals are still divided on validity of Word of Faith as a doctrine. It does bear some aspects that should really alarm Christians who are trying to be as “biblical” as they can. But those who believe in it, really believe in it. In the 1980s/early 1990s, when I was Pentecostal myself, parts of this cluster of teachings entered the canon I myself believed–and became part of what my leaders at the time taught and preached.

In the 1970s, Word of Faith was rising quickly in prominence–especially in really poor and desperate parts of the world like, well, South Africa. As he rose toward leadership, Howard-Browne seized on a lot of its ideas. He combined them with Hinn’s anointing concept. In his hands, anointing became “the power of God manifested.”

In the 1980s, this huckster slimed his way to Florida. (Where else?) Quickly, he became a typical evangelical culture warrior and Trumpkin.

Interestingly, Rodney Howard-Browne’s biography page doesn’t even mention TTB, nor the Vineyard.

Now for the Vineyard.

The penultimate piece of the authoritarian power puzzle involves the Vineyard churches. Formally begun in 1974, this network of churches attracted quite a few evangelical leaders. In 1982, a pastor named John Wimber joined his rapidly-growing church to the Vineyard.

Wimber’s angle centered on something he called “every member” ministry. This doctrine followed Hinn’s anointing model. It granted evangelical followers a feeling of autonomy and power. When the Arnotts ran across him in the 1980s, they loved this new angle.

At the time, the Arnotts still pastored their first church in Stratford, Ontario. It wasn’t Vineyard right then, but it soon would be. They joined it to Vineyard in 1987. Soon after, Arnott assumed a leadership role in the network. But soon, they wanted to start a new church in Toronto that was Vineyard from the get-go.

Vineyard churches seem to consider themselves just a network of congregations, not a formal denomination. In fact, all the churches in it that I’ve checked out seem solidly proud of being non-denominational. But they sure look like a denomination to me. And that denomination is basic boilerplate fundagelical in nature. Sometimes they feature female leaders, but I’ve never seen one with a woman in the prime leadership role.

Early on, people knew Vineyard for the member churches’ exuberant meetings. “Holy laughter” figured prominently among the effects seen there. Rodney Howard-Browne is a big one for “holy laughter.” Starting in the 1980s or so, it pops up in his ministry.

The Last Piece: The Kansas City Prophets.

Our last puzzle piece in the authoritarian web depicts the Kansas City Prophets, a group of men operating within the Kansas City Fellowship of churches (KCF).

A guy named Mike Bickle started KCF in 1982–and it grew impressively as well. The ministers involved in the movement contributed quite a bit to that growth.

One of them, Paul Cain, had learned his huckstercraft from a guy named William Branham. Branham bought into the prosperity gospel teachings of Kenneth Hagin (who was big into Word of Faith).

Branham taught a lot of weird stuff besides that, like what’s called Serpent Seed. This doctrine holds that Eve totally had sex with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Their coupling produced Cain. (I suppose evangelicals needed to find a way to get even weirder than they already were.) The notion quickly infested the wackier, more authoritarian strains of evangelicalism–and from there trickled into the highest levels of Republican politics. And the churches teaching this doctrine eventually spawned Todd Bentley.

Paul Cain seems to have concentrated more on the huckstercraft, though. Indeed, he became a big name in magical healing. He met Mike Bickle fairly early on, then in 1987 moved to Kansas and joined the KCF. His teachings proved to be a huge hit with younger evangelicals in particular. That suited Mike Bickle to the ground. Both men’s huckster style produced a very sensation-driven, attention-grabbing, self-aggrandizing experience for audiences.

Some Big Meetings.

Paul Cain met John Wimber in 1988–and hooboy, he really impressed Wimber. Cain warned him that the Vineyard had itself some serious problems with organization and discipline. Wimber decided he had a good point–and glommed right onto KCF.

In May 1990, Ernie Gruen wrote a devastating critique of KCF. Soon after, John Wimber stepped in to mediate. This help took the form of that song-and-dance restoration that evangelical leaders insist washes clean any leaders who’ve been caught being naughty.

As a result of Wimber’s help, Bickle put the entire KCF under the Vineyard’s authority. I guess it worked, because in May of 1993, Gruen and Bickle formally buried the hatchet.

In September of 1990, Paul Cain prophesied that a huge revival would soon break out in the United Kingdom. As a result, Wimber flew his staff to London to hold revival meetings there. They didn’t get a revival–far from it. However, Cain ended up forming a relationship with the UK pastors who received him. This association will pay huge dividends later. (We’ll talk more about that end of TTB later.)

How Things Went Down.

In 1990, the Arnotts rented a building to begin the Toronto Airport Vineyard (TAV). It grew quickly. By 1992, Arnott could quit his day job and move to Toronto to pastor this church full-time.

In September of 1992, the Arnotts attended a Benny Hinn meeting in Toronto. They came away inspired by the anointing model Hinn taught. Arnott later said, “That [the anointing model] totally ruined it for us in settling for more traditional ministry models.”

In April 1993, Rodney Howard-Browne began holding revival meetings at a host church in Lakeland, Florida. This church was part of the Assemblies of God, pastored by Karl Strader. It turned out to be a HUGE hit. It also featured a lot of the general effects we’d see soon in TTB–particularly the loud laughter. Howard-Browne had a big impact on a lot of ministers and organizations, particularly Oral Roberts University and Rhema Bible College (that name again!).

In June 1993, the Arnotts got a look at Rodney Howard-Browne at a meeting in Texas. They loved his style, though he couldn’t knock them down through suggestion. John Arnott assumed that the Big Problem Here was that he had an “issue of [the] heart.” This issue, see, prevented the Jesus Power from working on him.

The Arnotts, like their flocks, were already itching for a big experience.

See how this whole thing just built up?

Reaching the Vineyard.

“He ripped out my heart. Ripped it right out and left me heartless. And I said, ‘dear God, what is happening to me?’ And he said, ‘I’ve taken away your defenses because you don’t have the same pride issue and the same issue of control anymore. I’ve taken it away.'”

a testimony given during TTB
(1:40ish into the video. Be warned: she gets seriously intense.)

A couple of months later, in August 1993, Howard-Browne worked his magic on another Vineyard pastor, Randy Clark. This occurred at Kenneth Hagin’s Rhema Bible Church in Tulsa (that name again!). Much affected, Clark returned home to spread the magic. Clark talked a lot about it and the ideas spread from pastor to pastor like a virulent illness.

In October 1993, the Arnotts attended a pastoral conference in Argentina. A Benny Hinn-inspired pastor, Claudio Freidzon, prayed over the couple. As a result, Freidzon wrote later, “Carol went flying” through the air. Meanwhile, John finally got his knock-down experience. Hooray Team Jesus!

On his way back from there in November 1993, Arnott heard Randy Clark talk about his August experience. He asked Clark to visit their church that January to preach.

Also around then, UK churches got hit with waves of “holy laughter” and instances of congregants “fall[ing] under the power.”

On 20th January 1994, Randy Clark began his guest preaching stint at TAV for the Arnotts.

KABOOM.

Such a Muddle!

This movement from the beginning was part of an authoritarian grab for power. Whatever the leaders of TTB said to the contrary, they weren’t actually wanting the flocks to become self-driven and self-determined. But we’ll have to look at that next time.

For now, I wanted all these doctrines and people and movements all tied together. That way, when I refer to them in the next couple of posts, we’ll all know who they are and what they had to do with each other. It’s just such a muddle and a mess though, isn’t it? Just so much entanglement and cross-pollination. All these people all flow together at such odd junctures.

And yet looking back at it, it’s hard to see TTB as something that just came out of nowhere through Jesus Power. There was a certain inevitability to it. Evangelical leaders had 100% primed that pump. It could no more have not-happened than the sun could have avoided rising on January 21st, 1994.

Nothing about the Toronto Blessing seems miraculous and strange at all, once one knows exactly what forces went into its creation.

In that way it’s exactly like Christianity itself, really.

NEXT UP: We’ll tackle the claims of anti-hierarchicalism and personal empowerment in TTB. Both occurred all through it. But neither was actually what its leaders wanted. I’ll show you what I mean next time. See you soon!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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