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Toronto Blessing

Entry prepared for the Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, February, 1998

Margaret M. Poloma. (In Press)
Visiting Professor of Graduate Religion and Sociology; 
Southern California College
Professor Emerita; The University of Akron

The term "Toronto Blessing" is somewhat of a misnomer, having been coined by the British media after the blessing experienced at the Toronto Airport Vineyard beginning in January, 1994 was carried to Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican Church in London. Although this original appellation is widely used by those both inside and outside of the renewal, many involved in this religious social movement now prefer to refer to it as the "Father's Blessing."  As Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship's pastor, John Arnott, noted in the introduction to his book The Father's Blessing (1995:p.8), this outpouring comes from the Father and "it's not confined to Toronto."

Yet the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship (originally the Toronto Airport Vineyard) will go down in history as the epicenter of this latest wave of the Spirit movement. It is from humble beginnings at a small church located in a strip mall just outside the Pierson International Airport in Toronto that the shocks eminating from a "revival meeting" reverberated around the world. The gathering was originally scheduled for January 20 - 24, 1994, but the nightly meetings (except for Mondays) have continued without interruption at the time of this writing over four years later. Visitors and itinerant speakers have now carried the fire (to use a popular renewal metaphor) to scores of countries on all continents. The Blessing was transported to Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) by May of 1994 through Eleanor Mumford, a Vineyard pastor's wife who had visited the Toronto site (Roberts 1994). HTB, indirectly and inadvertently, became a catalyst for of another major stream of the current Spirit movement in North America when Steve Hill, a seasoned Assemblies of God evangelist, received the Blessing at Holy Trinity Brompton. He in turn was instrumental in the "Pensacola Outpouring" that began on Father's Day of 1995 (Poloma 1998). The story of the "Toronto (Father's) Blessing begins with a prelude, and it is to those pre-January 20 events that we will now turn.

In the Beginning

In 1986, while John and Carol Arnott were pastoring a church in Stratford, Ontario, John felt a call to plant another church in Toronto. By 1991 they were able to turn the Stratford church over to the associate pastor and to begin pastoring the Toronto church full time. Much of the early efforts were devoted to counseling, inner healing and deliverance, and, as Arnott (1998: p. 4) describes it, "Somehow battling the darkness had become our focus rather than dispelling it with light. Inadvertently, the devil had become too big, and God, too small!"

Reportedly "dry" spiritually from all the ministering, John and Carol Arnott began to see other powerfully anointed ministries in action and prayed that they might be similarly empowered. Responding to what they believed was the word of God spoken to them, they began to spend their mornings in prayer and to interact with others who were specially anointed. Their search took them to the revival in Argentina in November 1993 and to attending meetings with many of the Argentinian evangelists. It was here that Claudio Freidzon, an Assemblies of God evangelist, singled John out asking him "Do you want the anointing?" As he gave an affirmative response, John reported something "clicking" in his heart. He later reported, AI received more of the Holy Spirit's anointing and power by faith."

Meanwhile, a Vineyard pastor from St. Louis, Missouri, Randy Clark, was experiencing a blessing of his own through a series of Rodney Howard-Browne meetings in Tulsa. When he heard about Clark's experiences, Arnott invited him to come to preach four meetings at the then Toronto Airport Vineyard. Clark came on January 20, 1994 and the unexpected happened to the 120 persons gathered there. As Arnott (1998: p. 5) reports: "It hadn't occurred to us that God would throw a massive party where people would laugh, roll, cry and become so empowered that emotional hurts from childhood would just lift off. Some people were so overcome physically by God's power that they had to be carried out." Unknown to them, the seeming pandemonium experienced these and subsequent nights had precedent in early American revivals (see Synan 1997; Riss 1997; Chevreau 1994).

The "Toronto" or "Father's Blessing" is a bonafide new religious movement that is beginning to illustrate the stages identified by scholars (Mauss 1975). It has experienced emergence, coalescence, organization and bureaucratization, as well as signs of decline on the North American continent. It is within this framework known as natural history theory of social movements that I wish to continue this narrative.

A Natural History Overview as Told by a Participant Observer

When I first began doing sociological research on the "Toronto Blessing" in late 1994, it was still in its charismatic moment. There was a freshness of a collective excitement that readily bound visitors from around the world together. The charismatic movement of the 1960s and 1970s had fallen upon lean years for many full-gospel Christians of the 1980s and 1990s, and the "Toronto Blessing" seemed to offer them spiritual refreshing. Respondents to a 1995 survey conducted on nearly 1000 visitors to the Toronto church confirmed this impression. Approximately half of those who filled out the questionnaires indicated that they had come to Toronto feeling "spiritual dryness and great discouragement," but most left reporting great refreshing. Nearly nine out of ten respondents indicated that they were Amore in love with Jesus now then I have ever been in my life" that they had "come to know the Father's love in new ways."

At this stage of the movement there was, to use a Durkheimian phrase, a collective effervescence that produced not only a sense of solidarity but also provided the collective excitement that is vital for the launching of a social movement. It did not take long for the Blessing to shift from the emergence stage to the coalescence stage (Blumer 1969; Mauss 1975). As it coalesces, a movement must seek to define itself as it develops a strategy for appealing to the public and for dealing with criticism that develops. It seeks to develop an ideology or a set of "theoretically articulated propositions about social reality" (Berger, Berger and Kellner 1973:159). The development of ideology and changes in its formulation are central to developments that can be observed during the life history of a social movement. In the emergence stage, the leaders were free to acknowledge they "didn't have a clue" about what God was doing through the strange manifestations that characterized the Blessing. As they began the necessary task of defining and strategizing, tension increased between the Association of Vineyard Churches, the denomination with which TAV was affiliated. (It is significant that the publication of John Arnott's book The Father's Blessing in November 1994 became the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.) Although the Vineyard grew through a democratization of "signs and wonders"--especially the practice of healing--in the 1980s, the American AVC had begun its toward more of a "plain vanilla" evangelical approach to Christianity and away from its charismatic moment. Tension between the old move and the newer movement was both an asset and a liability.

Some Vineyards had experienced (at least in some degree) the same manifestations that occurred later in Toronto (see White 1988). The AVC thus inadvertently provided a plausibility structure for the unusual happenings. Affiliation with AVC was an asset in that the Toronto church at first enjoyed the support and guidance of many within the parent denomination (see Poloma 1995). In sharing some of the responsibility for the movement, in providing a model and ideology, and even in its cautioning against certain activities, the affiliation with AVC may have helped to protect the charisma of the "Toronto Blessing". The alliance between the Toronto church and AVC, however, became increasingly strained as "Toronto Blessing" became the newest charismatic star and overshadowed its parent denomination.

When TAV was ousted by the AVC in December, 1995 its direction seemed to change quickly. Within weeks TAV--now the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship (TACF)--began laying the foundation for increased organization or bureaucratization, the third stage in the natural history process for a social movement. TACF embarked on television and radio ministries, acquired a total of three large buildings and increased the size of its staff, established new alliances (Friends in Harvest), launched a new denomination (Partners in Harvest), and established an international network (International Renewal Network). These structural and environmental changes were accompanied by ideological changes that reflect the decline of the "Toronto Blessing" as a social movement--the fourth and final step in the evolutionary natural history model.

One of the ways to present what has been happening in the "Toronto Blessing" over the past four years is to take a closer look at what has happened to the message of the renewal and the media through which the message is conveyed. The message and the media also provide content to further develop the stages the Blessing has experienced since its original inception. The data for this narrative analysis comes from my role as a participant observer of the movement since late 1995, from surveys conducted in 1995 and 1995 on the "fruits" of the renewal, from interviews with leaders and participants in the movement, from literature published to promote the renewal, and finally from the Internet. It is important to remember as the stages are discussed that they are not hard and fixed. They all may be experienced at different times and different places, with the movement seemingly manifesting one stage at one time and place that may change with a different focus. What is intended by this presentation is to indicate the path trod by the Toronto Blessing and where it appears to be headed.


From the first outbreak of the "Toronto Blessing" the TACF (then the Toronto Airport Vineyard) had many resources in place that made possible institutional developments to further the spread of the movement. These resources coupled with being freed from AVC constraints permitted a rapid development of bureaucratic structures more characteristic of a movement organization than a social movement. The "Toronto Blessing" had moved a tiny local church into the international spotlight, from small rented facilities in a warehouse district to owning three large buildings, from being led by unknown "nameless and faceless" pastors to having leaders who speak at renewal meetings around the world. The Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship and Partners in Harvest appear to be in good organizational health, but the early vitality that characterized the "Toronto Blessing" in the emergence and coalescing stages has waned. In an electronic age when history unfolds with unprecedented speed, the charismatic moment appears to have a very short life span.

This transition from social movement from emergence to decline does not mean that the "Toronto Blessing" is a thing of the past. As Doolittle (1996: 62) noted in his natural history study of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN):

The decline of a social movement does not necessarily indicate its death. (Italics added for emphasis.) Decline refers to a loss of the inherent dynamics of a movement. The people within the movement will not perceive the decline; they may even see this stage as an era of success, since many of the movement's goals have been realized at the expense of coaptation. . .

To phrase it another way, the tension existing between charisma and institutionalization has been greatly reduced as institutional demands continue to take a greater toll on the free move of the spirit.




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