Hi and welcome back! Recently, megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne got himself in legal trouble for violating Covid-19 stay-at-home orders from his county. Readers of Roll to Disbelieve will easily remember this name because he was a very big figure in our recent look at the Toronto Blessing. Not coincidentally, he’s also a Grade-A wingnut. Today, let me dive a bit deeper into his backstory. I’ll show you why he’s so danged important to modern fundagelicals, and more importantly, we’ll see why his status as a big-name wingnut meant he absolutely had to defy those orders.
(Also: Yes, I was in the earthquake. It was very strong and quite scary. Thankfully, nothing was destroyed and all seems well so far. I think Bother’s forgotten about it already. I still feel panicky, but hopefully that was the last of trouble.)
(Previous posts mentioning Rodney Howard-Browne: Predators Go Where the Prey Gazes (<– this one surprised me quite a lot! I had no idea who he was at this point); Speaking in Tongues at the Company Party; Todd Bentley and His Friends; The Influences Creating the Toronto Blessing; Authoritarians Arise in the Toronto Blessing; The TTB’s UK Invasion; The TTB’s Lasting Legacy; Kenneth Copeland’s New Grift.)
John Arnott’s Wildest Dreams.
Recently, we did a big series on The Toronto Blessing (TTB). That’s a worldwide evangelical movement that took place in the mid-to-late-1990s. Evangelicals don’t refer to it as a revival because it didn’t result in wholesale mass conversions of heathens. Instead, this movement renewed (or refreshed, or revived, or blessed) already-fervent evangelicals.
As its name suggests, the movement initially began in Toronto at a church whose name at the time was Toronto Airport Vineyard (TAV), which was part of the Vineyard denomination of fundagelical churches. TAV’s pastor was and is John Arnott. TAV was his second church. His first had grown rapidly, but it wasn’t a Vineyard-denomination church from the ground up. He wanted to start one that would be Vineyard through-and-through. So he started TAV.
From very humble beginnings, TAV soon took off. But Arnott wanted more. He wanted a giant movement like the Latter Rain of the 1950s. He wanted huge miracles, magical healing, dancing and singing in the Spirit, and the whole nine yards. In short, he wanted a shower of divine grace that nobody in the world could ever mistake as anything but PROOF YES PROOF of fundagelicals’ claims.
And Rodney Howard-Browne turned out to be the key to John Arnott’s wildest dreams.
Everyone, Meet Rodney Howard-Browne.
Born (probably) in 1961 in South Africa, Rodney Howard-Browne claims he had a very powerful fundagelical experience in 1979 (according to a Toronto Blessing timeline). He was already Pentecostal, but that night he went all in on chasing this dragon.
The next year, when he was just 19 years old, he began a ministry with Youth for Christ.
The year after, in 1981, he began attending Rhema Church in Johannesburg. That’s a Word of Faith church. (Sometimes Christians call this doctrine Word Faith or Word-Faith. To maintain clarity, I only call it Word of Faith.)
We’ve talked about Word of Faith as well recently — it’s the basis of prosperity gospel, often called name it and claim it. Word of Faith is likely an offshoot of New Thought. In turn, New Thought is the ideology that inspired all that power of positive thinking and The Secret balderdash, which tells gullible, desperate people that if they just wish hard enough, the Universe will give them literally anything they want.
E.W. Kenyon started Word of Faith. Kenneth Hagin, a fundagelical preacher, adopted Kenyon’s philosophy and became its most successful pioneer. His ministry was wildly successful, eventually branching out all over the world and sprouting churches and “Bible training schools” everywhere — including in South Africa. He eclipsed Kenyon by orders of magnitude, so most people think of him, not Kenyon, as the real father of Word of Faith.
Rodney Howard-Browne began attending one of Hagin’s churches and indoctrination stations in South Africa. Almost immediately, he began to speak and write about Word of Faith and the powerful experiences he wanted all Christians to have.
And in 1989, he and what sounds like most of his entire extended clan headed for Kentucky. In 1994, they relocated to Florida.
Moving to America.
In Tampa, Florida, Rodney Howard-Browne founded Revival Ministries, River Church, and River Bible Institute.
In Freedom Land, Rodney Howard-Browne’s church managed to stand out far from the madding crowd for its sheer rowdiness. It wasn’t at all unusual for his church services and prayer meetings to break out into all the displays that would later feature so prominently in The Toronto Blessing: animal noises, uncontrolled laughter, shaking, hopping and dancing, and of course falling over.
And you can absolutely bet that other pastors wanted what this guy had. They were mad jelly. However, he didn’t enjoy immediate success as a preacher. Success finally glanced his way around 1989.
Rodney Howard-Browne traveled the country, offering services at numerous other fundagelical churches. At these services, he got the flocks worked up and often these other churches had outbreaks of the wildness enjoyed by his home church.
Through a circuitous series of connections, Howard-Browne came to the attention of the Vineyard denomination — and from there, to the attention of John and Carol Arnott, who’d only just founded TAV in 1990. In June 1993, Howard-Browne preached in Texas — and the Arnotts happened to attend. They were hugely impressed.
A fellow Vineyard pastor, Randy Clark, attended a Howard-Browne meeting in Tulsa (HMMM!) a few months later in August 1993. Over the next few months, so did other Vineyard ministers, including the denomination’s leadership.
Reading about all these connections of people and ideas gives me the slow-burn sensation of watching a volcano rumble to life. Or hearing the music get ominous in a scary movie.
In January 1994, the Toronto Blessing began at TAV.
It’s very safe to say that without Rodney Howard-Browne, the entire movement would not have taken the course that it did. He was completely, absolutely instrumental in the Toronto Blessing.
The Problem of Wingnuts.
When someone subscribes to an ideology that lacks an objective foundation in true facts, they stand at serious risk of becoming wingnuts. Wingnuts lack a tether to reality. They lack any real-world means they can use to assess claims.
Their leaders tell them to reject and distrust the entire apparatus of critical thinking, and so they do. In the place of real critical thinking, wingnuts substitute ersatz processes. Their substitute processes are largely useless except for their ability to paint wingnut beliefs as true despite their total lack of corroboration from reality. Apologetics is one of those processes, but there are others.(One of those others is, of course, “another way of knowing,” which we’ll talk about soon.)
So when wingnuts need to assess a new claim, the only way they have of doing it is to compare it to the other claims they’ve already accepted as true. If it generally fits in with that established framework of precedence, then it is in. And it doesn’t even need to fit exactly. All it needs to do is sound close enough — and somehow make the wingnuts feel good about adopting it as a true claim. If it doesn’t fit well enough, then wingnuts can bash it into place through bellowing and sheer bravado.
This is why Christians have so much trouble convincing other Christians they’re wrong.
None of them use anything objective to judge claims and ideas, so none of them respect the processes that lead others to objective truth discovery. So once one of them thinks they’ve figured out DA TROOF, nobody can convince them otherwise unless they argue extremely well or know about oneupsmanship in wingnut tribes.
The Tail Wagging the Dog.
In a lot of ways, Rodney Howard-Browne was the perfect man to spearhead a new and major movement within fundagelicalism. Not only did he know very well how to speak persuasively, but he also figured out how to out-wingnut a tribe full of fellow wingnuts:
Get in front of them by pushing the envelope constantly.
Win their eternal game of More Hardcore Than Thou.
His tribemates had always noted him as being particularly persuasive. Well, he only got better and better at preaching. As long as his ideas stuck to the general shape fundagelicals already accepted, all he had to do was figure out ways to look more hardcore and dedicated and fanatical than the rest of the tribe — and they’d follow along in his wake to get a bit of what he had.
But as we saw with Kenneth Copeland, this reindeer game has a really bad downside, and I’ve got to all-caps us here because this is critically important:
ONCE YOU START, YOU CAN’T EVER STOP PLAYING IT!
Momentum Is Everything.
In wingnut tribes, momentum is everything.
Once someone who’s winning the wingnut game stops to smell the roses — or, more likely, is ejected from the board like Mark Driscoll, Ted Haggard, and numerous others have been — then the game is effectively over for them forever. They won’t ever be able to step back up to the board and take up their former position leading the tribe.
Oh, they’ll slink back into ministry because they must, because they’re useless for anything else, because they’re certainly not gonna go get real jobs after tasting the forbidden fruit of money for nothin’ and chicks for free. But their former glory is almost always gone.
Very few pack-leaders take their L and ever return to the front of the pack.
Jim Bakker’s trying, bless his cotton socks, as is Benny Hinn (another name inextricably tied up in the Toronto Blessing). Mark Driscoll tried very hard as well. But very few struggle back into their former thrones.
Seeking the ANGLE.
Even if fundagelical leaders don’t get caught up in scandals, they can’t ever rest on their mattresses filled with money. They have to keep publishing terrible self-help books, giving lectures/sermons, giving shockingly inhumane sound bites to roving minicam news crews, and participating in tedious “debates” with their tribal enemies.
If they want to keep rolling in money and gaining power and influence year by the year, they must keep pushing the envelope of wingnut beliefs.
No matter how wingnutty someone in the tribe gets, there’s always another up-and-comer who can out-wingnut them who’s searching for the new ANGLE, the next crazy.
Bringing It All Together.
So Rodney Howard-Browne began his career as a teenager — and he understood even at that age exactly what the fundagelical game is and how to play it. This dumpy, sadly oafish fellow couldn’t get the rush of power he craved doing anything legitimate, so he plunged into a game he could actually play: deceiving gullible Christians.
But the flocks are easily bored and quite restive. They wander off if not sufficiently entertained, and that means titillation and shock-jock antics. Howard-Browne had to keep upping the ante of his offerings to them.
Now we’re smack in the middle a goddamned pandemic that’s already killed many thousands of people. Florida’s finally getting sorta-kinda-maybe serious about slowing the disease-tornado bearing down on them.
And the precautions demanded by reality fly in the face of every single lie that’s ever slimed its way out of this snake-oil huckster’s mouth.
Yes, of course Howard-Browne is going to defy the order to self-isolate.
He literally can’t do anything else and hope to keep himself at the crest of the fundagelical wave.
Staking Everything On Staying Put.
In his way, Rodney Howard-Browne reminds me of another guy who did something similar.
On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted. In the lead-up to the eruption, an old man living right on the mountain refused to flee its wrath. Harry R. Truman was 83 years old when the first scientists came to warn him about the impending explosion coming right down his tailpipe.
He’d lived there for many, many years. He’d had an interesting life and preferred to run it his own way. When people told him about the danger, he brushed them off. No, he would stay put in his little mountain home with his 16 beloved cats. In those weeks before the eruption, he became quite a folk hero! As late as May 17, he waved away warnings and offers to help him vacate.
The next day Truman perished, along with the 16 kitties.
That’s how I see Rodney Howard-Browne acting, and why.
If he obeys orders from the government, then he destroys his entire ministry.
It’d be better for him to end up in prison — because then he can at least pretend to be persecuted for his faith. His tribe respects ZOMG PERSECUTION.
But they do not and never will respect a preacher who behaves in ways that suggest that he knows damned well that his patter isn’t actually true. As long as he continues to push the envelope of belief and practice, they’ll continue to take their cues from him — and throw money at him and grant him enormous influence over their lives.
If he stops, oh if he stops, the ride ends and probably forever.
Whether he realizes it or not, he’s trapped on this ride he created. Trapped alongside him is a tribe that will tear him apart if he steps out of line. So he’ll stay on his about-to-erupt volcano. If it doesn’t erupt, then he obviously wins big. If it does, then he’ll be way past worrying about his future prospects. And I’m just laughing myself helpless thinking about how he’s put himself in his predicament through his grotesque hypocrisy.
Wingnuttery, y’all! Not even once!
NEXT UP: A looooonnnnnng time ago, I talked about atrocity apologetics. We’ll brush up on this concept — and I’ll show you why it matters enormously these days. See you tomorrow!
Please Support What I Do!
Come join us on Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter, and our forum at rolltodisbelieve.com! (Also Instagram, where I mostly post cat pictures. About 99% of my insta consists of Bother being adorable.)
Also check out our Graceful Atheist podcast interview! It was a blast.
If you like what you see, I gratefully welcome your support. Please consider becoming one of my monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve for as little as $1/month! My PayPal is firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips. You can also support this blog through my Amazon Affiliate link–and, of course, by liking and sharing my posts on social media! This blog exists because of readers’ support, and I appreciate every single bit of it.