Toronto Blessing – looking back to 1994

While I was away from a computer for a few days in Scotland, I found myself reflecting on a topic that many of us have considered – the Toronto Blessing. For those too young to remember this significant episode in the life of the Church, the Toronto Blessing was an episode of high-octane religiosity which spilled out from Canada in the 90s to affect many Christians in other parts of the world. Even those who were not caught up directly in this explosion of Pentecostal/Charismatic enthusiasm were aware of what was going on. Reactions varied from ‘this is a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit’ to ‘what a terrible example this is of religious hysteria.’ Few people who knew anything about it could remain totally indifferent. For myself the ‘Blessing’ peaked at around the time I was finishing off some writing I was doing on healing. The reports were such that I considered taking a plane to Toronto Airport to see what the fuss was all about. But having studied the phenomena that is Toronto subsequently, I am glad that I did not make the journey and submit my emotions and my psyche to a full-frontal assault.

I have recently encountered a doctorate thesis on-line on the topic of the Blessing written by a South African, Stephanus Pretorius , from 2002. It is a very careful study. Its value for me is in the way that the author explores many disciplines in attempting to make sense of what went on at the small Airport church in Toronto for most of 1994 into early 1995. I am especially grateful for the attempt by the author to locate the phenomena of the Blessing within the context of world religion.

Among the reported effects at Toronto was the sight of people collapsing to the floor and lying apparently unconscious for considerable periods of time. Others were said to imitate animals either in their movements or in the sounds they made. The thesis claims that similar phenomena occur in Hindu spiritual practice, particularly in the disciplines associated with the awakening of an energy known as Kundalini. Kundalini is understood to be a primal energy living within every human being. It is the task of yogic spiritual practice to awaken this energy so that it can transform the body and raise it to its true potential. Kundalini energy is pictured as being like a snake at the base of the spine, waiting the opportunity to be awoken and activated in the spiritual seeker. The literature suggests that this life force also on occasion expresses itself in ways comparable to the Toronto phenomena.

That there should be a parallel between Toronto spirituality and a branch of Eastern yogic practice is something that many might find threatening to their understanding of the Christian faith. I personally do not find this idea strange as it has always been clear to me that God can only reveal himself using the faculties of mind and body that we all possess as humans. There are no special new organs of spiritual communication afforded only to Christians. A further point that is also striking in the thesis are the comparisons made between the pastors at Toronto and the gurus who teach kundalini practice. In both cases, a ritual of light touch by the leader is given when the disciple is considered ready. The Toronto initiate frequently falls to the floor and similar happenings may take place in a Hindu setting.

I suggested above that I am glad that I was not tempted to make the ‘pilgrimage’ to Toronto as part of my then research on healing. I mentioned that the highly charged atmosphere that was part of the daily service in the church seems to have been a bit like an assault on the spirit and psyche. Enormous energy was present in the building and however one wants to describe it, it is clear that few people were able to resist the massive primal emotion that was causing people to behave in strange ways. Such emotion and power seem potentially destabilising or even dangerous to mental well-being.

Pretorius’s thesis is particularly useful in the way that he discusses the power of hypnosis in the whole process. He sets out the characteristics of hypnosis for his reader. He notes the following.
1. Hypnosis is not a dreamlike quality. It is in fact a state where reflexes are fully functioning, alertness maintained and there is full awareness of what is going on.
2. The normal planning functions of a hypnotised person are reduced and the hypnotised person tends to wait passively for instructions from the hypnotist.
3. The subject’s attention becomes highly selective.
4. Role playing is readily accomplished, the hypnotised person frequently becoming quite thoroughly immersed in a suggested role.

It is clear from what Pretorius says about the state of hypnosis (he says a great deal more) that it can account for much of the strangeness of Toronto type events. It is also not difficult to identify how the participants were drawn into this state of hypnosis. The use of repeating choruses is a well-known technique for dulling the critical mind and inducing a trance-like state. I have frequently made the point that music has the capacity to bypass the conscious mind whether for good or ill. A further method used at Toronto to induce the state of hypnotic suggestibility (and no doubt among its contemporary imitators) is the repetition of suggestive phrases like ‘Let the Spirit come’ or ‘Flow into your hearts’. Taking this pragmatic understanding of hypnotic methods that we have, we need find nothing extraordinary in the spiritual events that are recorded as happening at Toronto.

Although what I have written above may seem to be reductionist and designed to undermine the Toronto experience, it is not meant to do this. The value of Toronto must be judged, not on its strangeness or its mechanics but on its fruits. Did the experience of Toronto change the hearts and lives of those attending, or did they experience a primal experience of disinhibition which they enjoyed and want endlessly repeated? For myself a suggestion that any Christian experience can only be enjoyed after using the methods of hypnotic suggestion and crowd psychology is one that makes me a little uncomfortable. My ongoing evaluation of Toronto will, however, not be swayed by what I think about the methods used to induce the experience. I shall be judging it by looking at the transformation that may have touched those who attended. The jury in me is still out.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

17 thoughts on “Toronto Blessing – looking back to 1994

  1. Thanks for this Stephen. I’ve long been aware of non-christian religious experiences that show many similarities to experiences seen in Christian awakenings but a year ago at a Pentecost event in my own town I saw something that reminded me powerfully of an Old Testament setting. The theme of the evening was the fire of the Spirit and at the conclusion amidst a call for people to come forward to be prayed for the leader was praying repetitively in a loud voice “Send the fire, Lord; send the fire”. Instantly what flashed on my mind was Mount Carmel! Had I been bold I would have gone down to the front to suggest all the things Elijah suggested to the prophets of Baal.
    Where are the voices and prayers of Elijahs today instead of this?

  2. Thanks for this, Stephen. I was just reading through, thinking, “Sounds like hypnosis”, when I got to the bit where you said that was what it was! I had an acquaintance who had experienced it. What was clear to me was that you could choose not to fall. You had to elect to allow it to happen. Reassuring in a way. Question. Do those who have experienced extreme stuff like this exhibit a greater/deeper spirituality? If so, does it last for life?
    Grammar. Phenomena is plural, phenomenon, singular.
    And most importantly, I clicked on “Esther” and got a publicity thing, an advert of some sort. I didn’t dwell on it, I hit “X”, but maybe your web master needs to check it out.

  3. Interesting Stephen. I remember it well. I did not go but David, a friend of mine did. He is not easily swayed. When he came back, his summary was “If you go looking for an experience, you will find one. Whether it is from God or not is another matter. However, if you go looking for God, then you will find God.” I appreciated this comment.
    To my mind, the important thing is to absorb Jesus’ teaching in the gospels and put it into practice. Love your enemies, etc. It is very easy to get distracted from this by e.g. looking for an experience.

  4. talking of repeating choruses, how might this be compared to the role of chanting in a rather different set-up like, say, Taize?

  5. Good point Haiku but the Taize services I have been to tend to lead worshippers into silence rather the strange antics seen at Toronto. The negative point about hypnosis is the hyper-suggestibility that is around. Even if people were to be likewise hyper-suggestible at a Taize service, I do not believe that the worshippers are being taken down a particular road of being manipulated by any leader. Focused prayerful feelings may be the end product of Taize worship. These can be good or bad according a number of factors. Discernment is key as it is in a Pentecostal event. The important thing is that we are allowed to discuss these things and not be uncritical.

    1. yes thank you, my sense was that we are looking at rather distinct phenomena and it’s good to articulate the possible differences. As it happens we have infrequently regular “Taize-style” services at my church which are well-received – I don’t think our chanting reaches great intensity and as you say it provides the backdrop for silent prayer together.

  6. This phenomenon follows the excesses of the 70’s ‘Revival’. I was involved with it for many years. People working out their own selfish salvation looking for ‘blessing’ …….. Gut reaching, a million miles away from the Christ of the gospels.

    “I wont bother to visit my elderly neighbour, I’ll lay on the floor shouting Bar, Bar, shee shee”

  7. With all these experiences it is how they affect the person during and afterwards that is important. Was he or she transformed in some way or was it a detrimental experience. If healing or forgiveness or a closer relationship with God is the result then I would like to believe it was a sign of God’s presence through his Spirit.

    1. Chris: Sad to say, the majority of us all wasted our lives @ these dead institutions; just better yet we woke up and exited (ran for our lives)! Appreciate you!

  8. Stephen, an insightful analysis. Let me add a few comments:

    People many be unaware that what happened at Toronto was not something new. Within Christianity, it’s been seen numerous times before, in the charismatic movement, the Pentecostal movement, and before that in various revivalist groups of previous centuries. What was different about Toronto was perhaps the scale of the phenomena, and the fact that they spread into mainstream churches, including many in the UK. The reasons for the spread would make an interesting research project, but are probably down to John Wimber’s approach becoming influential in churches of many different persuasions during the preceding 10 years.

    I strongly agree with the view that a form of hypnosis was behind what we saw at Toronto. I also believe that hypnosis featured in all the other movements I mentioned above. More generally, entering an altered state of consciousness (ie hypnotic trance) is a human universal, found in all cultures across time. Hence the similarities between Toronto and Kundalini.

    Where we probably differ is that I don’t see anything spiritual or divine in these hypnotic states. Yes, they result from the way God made our minds and bodies, but I regard it as paganism to suggest that they are somehow a means of experiencing God. They’re no different to the mind-bending effects of taking a psychoactive drug, and few would see any spiritual significance to that.

    People flocked to the Toronto Blessing because it was indeed “a primal experience of disinhibition which they enjoyed and want endlessly repeated”. It was in total contrast to the restrained intellectualism of both church and society. But it could never achieve anything, so people eventually became bored of it and it faded away. The promised revival simply didn’t materialise.

    That said, I do believe people have a fundamental need for trance states and ecstatic experiences, but this is rather taboo in modern society (other than at football matches and rock concerts). I’m sure there is research arguing that such catharsis is beneficial to overall health and wellbeing. It can probably even kick-start the body’s natural healing processes (I think this was suggested in a previous post of yours). But it is unhelpful, inaccurate, and potentially dangerous to suggest that these experiences are a divine encounter. Toronto was not a move of God, but simply various man-made factors coming together at a particular point in time.

  9. Peter. Thank you for your comment. You will have seen that I was careful not to commit myself on whether or God was to be found in all this. I was however making the point that if God chooses to communicate with human beings he has to use our human faculties through which to achieve this. There are no human faculties given which bypass psychologically describable facilities. If, however we completely deny God being involved in Toronto, we have the problem of implicitly denying him any direct access to the human spirit anywhere or in any way. That would be a problem for all faiths and not just Christianity. I am not prepared to go as far as this, though I do not deny that the Toronto manifestations leave a lot to be desired as a God -given phenomenon

  10. Just caught up with this very interesting thread. I was a curate in a large charismatic church which was heavily into Wimber when I arrived. By the time I left the Kansas City Prophets were in full swing, and I saw a scary incident of mass hypnosis and hysteria at a Wimber/Prophets conference. In an auditorium containing about 2000 people, around 90% swooned at one point. I wasn’t one of them, and remember looking over a sea of insensible bodies to a similarly unaffected health service administrator further along my row. The service/session had been conducted in such a way as deliberately to promote this kind of hysteria – the auditorium was crowded and stuffy; we had been standing with our heads tilted back for an hour, singing emotional songs, with an ever-increasing temp; directions from the front were loud, repetitive, and suggested what kind of phenomena we might expect. Naturally, they occurred.

    I noticed with some members of that church that they showed a pattern of addiction to such spiritual highs – it took more and more extreme methods and experiences to achieve the same result and they would travel to the latest place where some new ‘manifestation of the Spirit’ was occurring. The presence of the Spirit became defined by how many people were falling over.

    The Toronto Blessing followed soon after, but I had moved on by then. I went to a meeting in Manchester where it was being experienced and concluded again that most of it was induced and, in some people, was faked as an attention-seeking gimmick. However, it’s quite possible that some who genuinely wanted to meet God genuinely did. I have learned over the decades how gracious God is in meeting us where we are – no matter how unorthodox or ‘unsound’ the method or circumstances.

    1. Janet,

      Fascinating comment – thank you for sharing.

      Three points:

      1. Remember that John Wimber eventually expelled the Toronto church from the Vineyard movement, particularly due to the focus on “manifestations” at Toronto. So Wimber / Vineyard and Toronto are not equivalent.

      2. I think it is important to note that the vast majority of people behind this sort of thing were totally sincere. They believed it was a genuine move of God, and, for example, that God would “come” and “move in power” if people worshipped him passionately with expectant hearts. But I totally agree with you that it was actually mass hypnosis and hysteria. It is incredibly difficult for people who were involved with Toronto etc to realise that its origins were not divine.

      3. As I said earlier, I have a big issue with the idea that people were meeting with God during Toronto Blessing meetings. The people who participate in, for example, pagan rituals where they drum themselves into a trance also genuinely believe that they are meeting with whatever gods they worship. I cannot see any difference between these two situations – what is going on is psychological, not spiritual.

      It is always great to hear from people who went through this period in recent church history and can evaluate it critically.

      1. I went through similar experiences, one when I fell to my knees with about eighty other people. There was no hysteria, I received great help and my companion, healing, that evening. I will never forget the feeling. At other times I have had similar experiences although not falling to my knees because I was already on them! Taize evenings for example with the music and candles.
        ‘God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.’ I agree with Janet, God will meet us where we are. He has to have some unorthodox opportunities to work his wonders if we are ready for them!

  11. Peter

    I’m aware that Wimber later distanced himself from the Toronto Blessing, as he did from the Kansas City Prophets – but by then much of the damage had been done. At the time I was closely involved with the charismatic movement Wimber was very much identified with the KCP, as he later was with Toronto.

    Many Wimber followers, as with KCP and Toronto, were sincere. Some were not. A lot, I think, were on a spectrum of being sincere in one sense, but not questioning themselves too closely about their motives or what they wanted from it. I think I was like that at times. I would agree with Margaret that some people did have genuine experiences. I did, twice, in Wimber conferences, and their effects have lasted. But the first of those occasions was when Graham Kendrick was speaking, and most people thought he had ‘failed’ because his talk wasn’t dramatic at all! I think on both occasions my experience was despite what was going on at the conference, not because of it.

    As to your third point, the difference is that our God really exists and really wants us to meet him. I don’t rule out the possibility that he may also be meeting with people of other religions, within or without their rituals, as he does with us.

    When I went to Wimber’s conference on Managing Change (I was required to go to all these conferences during my curacy) it became clear that much of what he did that appeared casual and spontaneous was actually carefully planned and stage-managed to create an effect. His healing prayer techniques, too, were similar to those used in medical hypnosis. However innocent and sincere many of his followers were, I don’t believe that he was.

    I am very wary indeed of any attempt to manipulate people emotionally or psychologically, especially within a religious setting. I now avoid that to the extent that I am cautious about praying with people personally, and very cautious about who I allow to pray with or for me.

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