We might have been dealing with a lot of Old and Middle English, Latin and Ancient Greek, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slang, but the word that brings us to Toronto now is one of – if not the – most recent invention on our list. Dating from no earlier than 1994, a Toronto blessing is a fit of religious ecstasy.
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On 20 January 1994, an Evangelical pastor from Missouri named Randy Clark was invited to minister to the congregation at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church, or TAV. Clark, whose congregation initially numbered just over a hundred churchgoers, professed to have experienced miracles at churches he had spoken at before, and reported that he himself would often be overcome by the Holy Spirit during his ministry, falling into fits of spontaneous, ecstatic laughter. His words seemingly caught on with the small congregation in attendance that day, and before long many of those in attendance had fallen to the floor, shaking and laughing, crying, even barking and howling, in a seemingly otherworldly display. Clark assigned all these bizarre reactions to manifestations of the Holy Spirit entering the bodies of those in attendance. As news of the extraordinary display spread, his congregations grew.
Requested to minister at the church initially for only three days, Clark remained at the TAV for several months, during which time the size of his congregations increased tenfold as word of the events there spread. Before long, more than a thousand people were regularly packing themselves into the church, with ever more congregants experiencing the bizarre fits of religious ecstasy Clark’s ministering inspired. Even more extraordinary, these fits appeared to be contagious; those in attendance who had travelled from miles around to attend Clark’s meetings would reportedly bring this religious fever away with them, and similar instances of religious ecstasy began occurring elsewhere.
News of these events, and of Clark’s work, understandably soon found its way into the press, and in an article in The Times in June 1994, the ‘Toronto blessing’ – which had apparently led ‘one vicar to cancel an evening service remove the chairs from the nave because so many of his congregation were lying on the floor’ in paralysed ecstasy – appeared in print for the very first time.
The impact of Clark’s ministry was felt far outside the posts of the dictionary, of course. On the one hand, these extreme displays of religious fervour led to a revival of interest in the church in the mid 1990s, and reportedly led many agnostics and atheists to re-evaluate their relationship with Christianity. Clark’s unorthodox methods did not go unnoticed by the established church, many of the members of which questioned, from a theological point of view, his focus on the power of the Holy Spirit over all else. Others merely questioned the veracity of his work, and that of the so-called Toronto blessing itself.
From its debut in print in 1994, however, the expression Toronto blessing has remained in use in the language in relation to the experiences at the Toronto Airport church ever since, but more recently it has also come to be used more broadly to refer to any instance of extreme religious ecstasy.
The church was later renamed the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship Church, and finally rebranded as Catch The Fire Toronto in 2010. The church is now considered the flagship church of the nondenominational ‘Catch the Fire’ movement.