How The Toronto Blessing Invaded the United Kingdom

How The Toronto Blessing Invaded the United Kingdom January 21, 2020

Hello and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about the Toronto Blessing (TTB). This was a huge evangelical movement that broke out in Toronto in 1994. Very quickly, this movement skipped to other churches–yes, very much like an infectious disease–and even to other countries. It reached one other country surprisingly quickly. Today, let’s look at how this North American-based movement skipped almost immediately to the United Kingdom.

an airplane flying in blue sky with clouds
(Rafael Garcin.)

(Previous TTB-related posts: What ‘Jesus’ Is Doing Lately Instead of Being UsefulAwakenings and Other Christian LiesThe Tangled WebTodd Bentley’s Amazing Escape From AccountabilityA Muddle of InfluencesAuthoritarianism in TTB; The Chaos Created by TTB; The Problem With the Christian Slapfight Over TTB.)

The Epicenter.

Initially, the first outbreak of the Toronto Blessing (TTB) occurred in January 1994 at the Toronto Airport Vineyard (TAV) church in, well, you guessed it, Toronto. (The “Vineyard” part of the name indicates its affiliation with the Vineyard church denomination.) A good timeline for this entire shebang can be found here.

The pastor of the church, John Arnott, traveled frequently for conferences and speaking gigs. As he did, he obviously shared what his church was experiencing. So did the speaker at that initial outbreak, Randy Clark. Over the next couple of months, these two men sparked similar outbreaks in many other Vineyard-aligned churches. Similar travels brought TTB promoters all over the world. As well, TAV and other TTB-outbreak churches hosted guest speakers who then went back to their churches, taking TTB with them.

That’s how TTB reached English shores just a few scant months after the movement had begun. It didn’t spring forth from there like Athena from Zeus’ brow. In reality, someone took it there. And we know who did it, and we know where they took it from and to.

If my depiction of events makes TTB seem more like an infectious disease than a new Great Awakening, there’s a good reason for it. Christians like to represent these movements as PROOF YES PROOF of their god’s hand upon the world (some even use it in lesson plans regarding that very topic, while others criticize this stance). However, Christian movements and trends function in a very earthly way.

The Second Epicenter.

St. Louis, Missouri might well be a sort of second epicenter for the outbreak of TTB. That’s Randy Clark’s hometown. One of the big creators of TTB, Rodney Howard-Browne, a South African whose teachings proved to be hugely influential on evangelicals, went there in April 1994 to lead some Christian meetings. In attendance was a British pastor, Terry Virgo.

Terry Virgo had only just gotten back from South Africa. His ministry/missionary group, New Frontiers International (NFI), had sent him there a while ago as a side venture from his orders in America. He’d been tending a church in Columbia, Missouri, not too far from St. Louis. Upon his return to the States, his wife told him about what was going on in St. Louis, and he just had to go take a look (at this point, anyone would be well forgiven for shouting “No! Don’t go there!” at the screen, like this was a horror movie about an epidemic).

Once Virgo checked out Howard-Browne’s services in St. Louis, what he saw did kinda bother him–especially that whole “holy laughter” thingie.

But along with him, a lot of his own church members were going to these services too. And they loved loved loved what they experienced. One of Virgo’s own church services soon broke out into TTB displays.

This thing wasn’t going away, he must have realized.

Making Ready.

He of all people should have known better than to think it ever could.

Years earlier in 1990, one of TTB’s main influences, John Wimber of the Vineyard, had flown to the UK. He did so because another one of those influences, Paul Cain of the Kansas City Prophets, had prophesied that there’d totally be a huge revival there soon. Wimber wanted to help usher it in.

The promised revival absolutely didn’t break out at all, but Wimber finessed the situation.

He claimed that hey, ya know, well, uh, revivals come in, like, stages and everything. OBVIOUSLY! Also obviously, the first stage totally involves signs and wonders and gosh, they’d sure had lots of those in the UK. (Signs and wonders is Christianese for the showier, jazzier parts of their devotions: magic healings, speaking in tongues, prophecies, and whatnot.)

Amazingly, British evangelicals largely bought it.

A number of UK evangelical leaders even vouched for these would-be revival leaders at the time–among them one Terry Virgo! 

I wonder if Virgo would have cause to regret that move, when TTB broke out in his Missouri church. To be sure, he sounded decidedly uncertain at first.

Sidebar: Picking Sides.

Terry Virgo is typically included in lists of “Latter Rain” evangelists and leaders like Rick Joyner (that guy again!) and Cindy Jacobs, a complete charlatan who deals in fake magic healing. Elsewhere, we see Virgo referred to as a big name in the “Restorationist Movement,” which the Kansas City Prophets and Latter Rain folks were way into. So if he disapproved at first, he seems to have gotten on board with TTB quickly enough. (Only fundagelicals value inclusion on such a list. For everyone else, it’d constitute a good reason to go home and rethink their entire lives.) And as we’ll see next time, John Wimber was a well-known and trusted evangelical leader in the UK.

So yes, folks in the United Kingdom were readied well in advance for TTB. It all happened as methodically as good cooks set out their ingredients before beginning their tasks.

Certainly Clifford “Who Do? VOODOO!” Hill didn’t “get on” with the influencers promoting TTB. Nor did some notable others. But after TTB fully broke out, Time magazine only characterized them as “benignly wary” of the goings-on. (Time’s site gives this article a date of 2001, but multiple other sources like this one give it a publishing date of August 15, 1994.)

The Third Epicenter.

As that 1995 writeup in Christianity Today tells us, the “launch site for the British version” of TTB was Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. But as we’ve seen, North American evangelicals had already well established the movement before then.

A couple of weeks after his temporary Missouri church broke out into TTB, Terry Virgo flew back to the United Kingdom. There, an elder at his home church in Brighton, Alan Preston, regaled him with stories about his own recent trip to TAV in Toronto–and how the home church was embracing TTB. I wonder how Virgo took it!

In fact, by the time Virgo returned home to the UK, his home church in Brighton had already totally glommed onto TTB. In this way, NFI itself soon fell completely to TTB.

John Hosier, one of NFI’s pastors in Brighton, spoke glowingly of “spiritual drunkenness” taking over a meeting of 250 NFI leaders. He balked at calling it a revival, since (again) it didn’t actually gain a lot of new customers to the business. Instead, he characterized TTB as “a refreshing from the hand of the Lord [after Acts 3:19].”

May 1994.

By May 1994, we find that quite a few British evangelicals were already deeply involved with TTB. Another good contemporary writeup of how it went down can be found here. The reaction of non-evangelicals in the UK was pretty funny. For example, a September 1994 issue of The Daily Mail flat-out ran this headline: “This man has been given the Toronto Blessing. What in God’s name is going on?” They were a few months late to the TTB party, but they do go into detail about how this new movement had infected some big-name English evangelicals:

In Britain, no one has espoused the Toronto effect more enthusiastically then the Rt. Rev. David Pytches. [Pytches may be remembered for writing Some Said It Thundered, a defence of the Kansas City Prophets] Pytches, an evangelical, Charismatic enthusiast was one of the first to visit Toronto. He and his wife Mary came back and reported to the Church of England’s Holy Trinity Brompton . . . . It was on her visit to Toronto that Mary Pytches heard the roaring and found herself wailing…

Say it ain’t so! 

When she returned, you can bet she told everybody she could about what she’d experienced. That’s how everyone who glommed onto TTB acted afterward. They told everybody. They behaved like they felt compelled to spread the word.

The Outbreak of Ground Zero.

Then, in May 1994, a few things happened to solidify TTB’s presence in the UK. TTB-like outbursts occurred in a number of high-profile evangelical churches like Queen’s Road Baptist Church in London. The pastor of this church had only just gotten back from a visit to TAV–and they were fervent fans of TTB as a result.

At the same time, Gerald Coates, the leader of a group of relatively new evangelical churches in the area, spoke at South West London Vineyard Church. The pastor, John Mumford, was there, but his wife Eleanor was away–visiting TAV, as it happens, and having a grand time. Unsurprisingly, Coates’ speech ended in TTB outbursts. In July 1994, after Eleanor Mumford returned, she wrote about her visit to TAV for Renewal Magazine in England–spreading the word just as Mary Pytches had.

Also after her return, Eleanor Mumford spoke of TTB to her husband’s leadership team and some others (including Nicky Gumbel, curate of Holy Trinity, Brompton church–remember that name) in May 1994 after her visit to Toronto. A week later, she officially preached a sermon to her husband’s congregation about that visit, and TTB broke out. All through this time, she visited other churches and preached at her home church about TTB–spreading the word further.

From there, TTB moved so rapidly through evangelical churches in the UK that its progress resembled a mid-stage epidemic in truth. A few pinpoint sparks soon became a conflagration.

Reinforcing the Movement’s Hold.

Very quickly, Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB) became a major hotbed of TTB activity when their curate bought in. And since Gumbel helped create an enormously popular introductory How to Jesus course for new converts, you can bet his organization, Alpha, bought in as well. This course, creatively called “Alpha,” was very important at the time, I’m noticing–so yes, it really settled a lot of things in evangelicals’ minds when Gumbel–and Alpha as a whole–bought into TTB.

A great many of these church leaders kept going back and forth between the UK and Toronto–and visiting each others’ churches as well back home. They verified and validated each others’ experiences–and spread the word further. A recording of Eleanor Mumford’s sermon made the rounds all through May and June 1994, affecting yet more leaders.

By mid-June, even non-evangelical news organizations in the UK had begun reporting on the subject. The Times, Daily TelegraphThe Sunday Telegraph, The Independent, and Daily Mail all ran articles on the movement’s progress in the UK. Some sounded supportive; others decidedly didn’t, but none of the criticisms slowed anything down.

Not only that, but the influencers of TTB also visited the UK. Rodney Howard-Browne made several trips to lead meetings in mostly England.

TTB in the UK received near-constant reinforcement in this manner.

All-Too-Late Pushback.

At the end of June 1994, the Archbishop of Canterbury visited Toronto. Naturally, TAV hoped he’d visit. However, he genially rejected the idea. Though he was friendly enough to evangelical-leaning Anglicans to be accused of creating a sort of “church within a church” in his denomination, he didn’t want to go whole-hog on TTB.

It didn’t matter, though. Not by then.

By July, opposition had finally mounted against TTB. But it was way, way too late. A hostile Baptist pastor, Alan Morrison, made tracts and videos criticizing TTB outbursts. Various religious leaders finally expressed opposition. These naysayers wrote strongly-worded warnings to evangelicals about TTB. The Evangelical Alliance, one of the biggest and most powerful evangelical groups in the UK, tried to be diplomatic about it.

Indeed, that September 1995 writeup of TTB I found has one “British renewal leader,” Clifford Hill, going on-record to say he thought Rodney Howard-Browne’s TTB-style services looked to him like “voodoo worship.” The article writer immediately went to big parenthetical lengths to debunk that accusation–something they didn’t really do for any other criticism of TTB. (See endnote about why the writer might have felt that need.)

But nobody involved in TTB seems to have cared what he thought by then.

Stirring the Pot.

One thing I noticed in reading about TTB’s takeover of the UK: evangelicals from different denominations there seemed way more willing to mix it up with each other than pastors in North America might be. In her first official sermon on the topic, Mumford said:

Jesus is breaking down the barriers of his church. We have been meeting with Baptist pastors, New Frontiers pastors, Anglicans, and God is pouring his Spirit out on all of us.

It doesn’t sound like any gods were doing anything there, of course. I’ve hopefully made a good case for this movement being anything but divine. And Mumford herself revealed the truth. In the same sermon, she talked about her upbringing during WWII’s devastation of her country:

I always had what I needed, but I never had sweets or party dresses. I never knew joy. Jesus has given me joy in the last week which has made up for all my childhood.

She was very likely speaking to a whole crowd of people who could absolutely relate. At a guess, most evangelicals her age had probably had a very similar childhood. So it’s no surprise at all to me that the meeting eventually broke down into the catharsis displays characteristic of TTB. Other evangelicals, eager to be part of this new trendy movement, leaped on board.

A Way After-the-Fact Observation.

Maybe the UK is just smaller than North America. Evangelical leaders definitely interacted more with each other at this time than I’ve ever seen evangelicals do Stateside. The Toronto Blessing really seemed to hit them right at a time when they were itching for something new–and something emotionally resonant. Ever since the 1980s, when TTB-influencing evangelicals like John Wimber visited them to set up a promised revival that never came, they’d been ready.

But something else seemed to be going on here.

A narrative began to shape in my mind as LeekSoup and I chatted back and forth privately about his experiences with TTB: one of control and authoritarianism. My reading confirmed those half-formed impressions. LeekSoup agreed completely with that assessment and had a lot to add as well.

Here’s what it comes down to:

These evangelical leaders had a purpose and mission in engaging with TTB. They could either get in front of it somehow, or they could be left behind by it.

And nobody wanted to be “left behind” if their god had finally gotten up off his butt to do something.

NEXT UP: A rare guest post! LeekSoup will share how the Toronto Blessing broke out in his church–and its legacy after it petered out. Please join us on Thursday for the final conclusion of the Toronto Blessing series!


Endnotes.

A Quick Note About Clifford Hill: This guy’s a biiiiiiiiig name over in the UK. He founded the magazine Prophecy Today in 1985 and seems to have quickly acquired a reputation as something of an expert in Christian trends like TTB. If you’re wondering, he is not a fan of TTB, nor anybody, any doctrine, or any practices involved with it. And he never was. He pinpointed the problem with the doctrinal beliefs involved with the TTB as being excessively politicized and alarmingly theocratic. Of course, he blames Satan for it all–not simple human frailty and all-too-earthly greed. And, too, he claims that obviously Satan wants to push TTB-style beliefs into churches cuz he totally fears them–which strikes me as pretty darned alarmist and fearmongering and narcissistic, all of which Hill decries in opposing and competing ideological groups. I guess we can’t have everything.

Nor has Hill’s antipathy faded one bit since the heyday of TTB. Last year, Hill wrote an editorial for his magazine that brought up TTB. Apparently, around 1990 he spent “a whole day trying to convince John [Wimber, the leader of Vineyard at the time and an ardent fan of the Kansas City Prophets]” that his adoration of Paul Cain, a popular leader with the Kansas City Prophets, “was all based on false prophecy.” Now, this group ended up greatly embarrassing Wimber in England. He even had to apologize to London evangelicals for their conduct, while one of them, Bob Jones (not related to the ultra-popular mega-evangelist), would be expelled from the group as a result of his shenanigans. Given those events, I’m sure Hill’s instant and utter antipathy for Paul Cain would impress like-minded evangelicals.

So YES, absolutely! If Clifford Hill accuses another minister of orchestrating something that looks like “voodoo worship,” that needs to be addressed toot dee sweet [sic]! (Back to the post!)


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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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