To understand today's Benny Hinn, it is helpful to know something of his background and calling.
The family emigrated to Canada
in July, 1968, when Toufik, who became Benny, was fifteen. He attended a junior high school and the next year took grade ten at Georges Vanier Secondary School. Hinn has often described how he was isolated at school by a chronic stutter and was teased mercilessly by the other children. The stutter is an important component of the Hinn mythology, although his old school friends say they don't remember it. In fact, the people who knew Hinn at the time recall very little about him. He was eager to please and enthusiastic. Someone remembers him dancing on a table but the details are gone. He was the kid who tried so hard to make you laugh that it didn't matter that what he said wasn't funny. He is remembered with fondness, but it quickly becomes clear from rummaging in his past that he made few deep impressions on anyone.
In 1972, during his last year at Georges Vanier, Hinn was at his locker when a Jesus freak asked him to come with her to a pre-class prayer meeting. Hinn couldn't say no, because of the stutter, and he went along to a study room off the school library. There, for the first time, he was exposed to speaking in tongues
, a phenomenon viewed by Pentecostals as proof of an encounter with the Holy Spirit
. In a sermon to his home congregation at the Orlando Christian Center in Florida Hinn has played the moment for affectionate laughter. "I thought they were going to say 'Our father, who art in Heaven,' Instead they were going bla-la-la-la.... I thought, my God, they're really crazy."
Speaking in tongues, the language of angels, is the defining characteristic of modern Pentecostalism
. The movement coalesced at the turn of the century around the belief, acquired from American Methodism, that the inherent, inbred sin of the human condition can be eradicated in an ecstatic moment of sanctification such as was received by the disciples on the Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter. This was a departure from Christian tradition, which maintained that grace
could be achieved only through a lifetime devoted to emulating Christ-like traits, and it gave Pentecostalism, from its inception, a means to experience directly a supernatural force. The proof that the believer had been infused with the Holy Spirit, baptized in the Spirit, or slain in the Spirit, was the sudden murmuring in tongues. Another tenet of the new movement, which began in working-class congregations, was that these encounters with God were in no way dependent upon the presence of an ordained intermediary.
Hinn stayed for the prayer and had a vision of Jesus
standing before him. Then he went to history class, his favourite subject, which at the time was studying the Chinese Revolution. He became a regular at the prayer meetings and began to accompany the group to the massed ecstasy of The Catacombs. This was the weekly convergence of the city's Jesus freaks in an Anglican church in downtown Toronto. The meetings were technically nondenominational but were shaped by Pentecostal values.
"It was a departure," said Paul Pynkoski, who befriended Hinn there. "Especially if you were used to two hymns and an organ and nobody singing very loud. There were trombones, trumpets, guitars, and people leaping down the aisles. There may have been some drama, a lot of singing, and a lot of psalms and passages from scripture that were put to music as a catalyst for worship. It was a very sensual, very exuberant experience."
The founder and creative force of The Catacombs was Merv Watson, a former high-school music teacher, and his wife, Merla. The couple used The Catacombs as a base to assemble a prayer and praise troupe that played locally in churches, schools, and shopping malls and that toured Europe in the summer of 1973. Hinn went along as a dancer, but also had a small speaking role, reciting parts of a psalm during the pageant. Merv Watson, who now lives in Vancouver, says Hinn was given the speaking role in part because of his lingering Middle Eastern accent. The couple was charmed by Hinn's exuberance and says Hinn helped to teach them Hebrew. In return, the Watsons taught Hinn about the inherent entertainment value in religion and introduced him to their millennialist belief in biblical prophecies.
Nothing in the Pentecostal doctrine is as remarkable as its yearning for the Rapture
. This is the view, held by 2.5-million Canadians, that sometime in the near future, while the rest of the world succumbs to Satan, true Christians will be elevated, still living, to join Christ in heaven. After seven years of plagues, pestilence, and a rain of fire on earth, a warlike Christ will return, with his Christian army, to a final victory over Satan. The ungodly will be hurled into the pits of hell and the victors will prosper throughout a millennium of peace. This promise of eternal physical life gives Pentecostals a religious rationale for their archly anti-liberal politics; there is no point in solving social and environmental problems since the world as we know it will soon not exist. Moreover, the signs of growing malaise -- the plagues, epidemics, and turmoil increasingly evident in the world -- are all for the good, since they are affirmations that the End Times have begun and that Satan, in a breathing, physical manifestation, is already back on earth. And since the possibility that the Second Coming
might somehow be contingent upon the number of Christians available to serve in Christ's army, the movement has the frenzy of a pyramid scheme in a yuppie neighbourhood.
In 1948, the most supernatural components of Pentecostalism were embraced by a new movement that swept out of the Bible Belt in northern Saskatchewan. This was the New Order of Latter Rain
, which quickly fell under the sway of William Branham
, an erratic, messianic preacher who would not speak in public until he was joined on the stage by an invisible angel. Branham preached that, after the long corruption of Christianity under Roman Catholicism, God had begun to restore the church in successive stages that he characterized as the age of Luther, the age of John Wesley, and finally the age of William Branham, which would restore the church to the glory of the first century AD, when the apostles walked the earth and miracles and healings abounded. As a sign that the End Times had begun, God had anointed certain individuals, among them William Branham, to impart bodily healing by a laying on of hands; in effect, passing on the anointment of the Holy Spirit. This was the doctrine of restorationism.
The movement took as its principal inspiration passages in the Bible that promised, as Peter promised in the Book of Acts, that in the "last days" God would "pour out his spirit on the earth."
These spiritual gifts
, or charismata, are listed in Corinthians and include speaking and understanding tongues, a gift that was already commonplace, and the power to heal, discern spirits, and prophesy. Branham's views were formally rejected as heretical in 1949 by the Assemblies of God and its Canadian sister organization, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, but the belief in charisma spread rapidly throughout Pentecostal churches and even into mainstream Protestant
churches. Moreover, charismatic
preachers and faith healers had found in television an ideal medium for the high spiritual drama of instantaneous conversions and healings and had begun to evangelize the principles of Pentecostalism. And this had resulted in a flood of conversions. So the charismatic views of the Latter Rain movement, although formally rejected by the council, had seeped into the church regardless. By 1980, the Assemblies of God, with 2-million members, was the fastest-growing denomination in the world.
The new creed of miracles continued to evolve. To non-believers, tuning in to the services of televangelist miracle workers, the garish claims and whining appeals for support, uttered by wattle-necked preachers in flat Midwestern drawls, seemed nakedly exploitive; to the devout, they were valid expressions of worship. Every prophecy, miracle healing, and windfall of prosperity affirmed the belief that the Second Coming, with its promise of eternal physical life, was at hand. Some preachers argued that God tolerated sickness only so that the evangelists could demonstrate His power to heal. Oral Roberts,
a pioneer of the genre, took the point further by arguing that if you prayed or made "a positive confession" for a desired object, expressing the inner spark of the godhead with which all Christians are imbued, the desire would come to pass. In the Bible God said, "Let there be light," and there was. So why couldn't a Christian say, "Let there be a Cadillac in the driveway," and expect it to be there in the morning? This was the Word Faith
movement. By the 1970s one of the principal proponents of charismatic beliefs was a faith healer called Katherine Kuhlman
who plied her trade only a few hundred miles from Toronto. She was the next formative influence on young Benny Hinn.
Hinn was selling hot dogs in a Willowdale mall, handing out religious tracts with the change in the summer of 1973, when he met Jim Poynter, a Free Methodist minister, who organized bus tours from Toronto to Kuhlman's services in Pittsburgh. Poynter, along with his wife, Marion, ran a foster home for adolescent boys and invited Hinn to visit. Hinn began to drop over regularly and spent the afternoons, when the house was mostly empty, singing hymns accompanied by Poynter's accordion. Hinn had dropped out of school, which, along with his newly discovered religious fervour, had alienated his father, who, he says, had physically beaten him for attending church. So he gratefully adopted the Poynters as surrogate parents. In December, Jim asked him if he wanted to make the trip to Pittsburgh.
Katherine Kuhlman was perhaps sixty-six years old at the time, although the figure is not firm since she lied about her age and, until her death three years later, insisted that the announcers introduce her on stage as a "young woman." She had been sanctified by laudatory articles in Redbook and in Time, which called her a "one-woman shrine of Lourdes." Both magazines accepted that miracles seemed to occur in her presence. She spoke with the backing of a 700-member choir, and often induced spontaneously ecstatic laughter in her audiences that she characterized as "holy laughter
," a sign that the Holy Spirit was moving over the crowd. She was the author of two best-selling books, and her sermons were broadcast on radio and on a television programme watched by 750,000 viewers. Her on-stage dialogue, described in Time, was a forerunner of the sermons Hinn would deliver ten years later.
"The power of God is going through a sugar diabetic," she cried, suddenly pointing out into the audience. "There is a cancer and every bit of pain has left that body. Somebody with a hearing aid on, take it off. You can hear. Someone with a heart condition is being healed. There is bursitis in an arm in the balcony. The arm is completely loosened."
For Hinn, the white-gowned Kuhlman was an inspiration. He wrote in Good Morning, Holy Spirit
that as he sat with Jim Poynter, listening to the music and the testimonials, he felt something "grab him inside." "It really got to me. I cried and said, 'I've got to have this.'" He had been seized by a mysterious trembling ever since he and Poynter had lined up in the early-morning cold but he now felt a breeze that was a blanket of warmth wrap itself around him. This was his moment of ecstatic rebirth. He became aware of his sins as if a great spotlight were shining on him and he heard a voice say, "My mercy is abundant on you." Until that moment he had been a normal, average Christian. "But now, I was not just talking to the Lord. He was talking to me."
That night at home, at 11:10, Hinn was praying on his knees when the Holy Ghost walked into his room. In another account of this moment Hinn has written that the presence of the Holy Ghost was "like a jolt of electricity." His body began to vibrate all over. From that moment on he was never long out of the company of spirits. One night, he woke to see little boys in beautiful white robes floating in the air. Another time he saw the spirit of death, in a black hood and black robe, sent by Satan to choke him. When he cried out, three angels rushed into the room. One angel threw Death against the wall and held him there while another angel stood looking at Hinn. A fourth angel rushed in and said to the angel looking at Hinn, "Michael, Michael..." Michael said, "Yes." And the fourth angel said, "Someone else is in trouble." Michael said, "You look after Benny." And then they all disappeared. On another night Satan arrived. He wore a hood and had a face like a goat and his eyes were huge and they were filled with hate and there was smoke but the Holy Spirit drew a blanket over Hinn and kept him safe. And finally, God dropped by. "As God is my witness, before my eyes...there was this person."
The colour of God was a colour that Hinn had never imagined. He hovered in the air and was clad entirely in flames. "Fire on the arms. The hair was fire. The body was fire." God said, in a voice like Niagara Falls, "Preach the gospel." Hinn, mindful of his stutter, said, "But Lord, I can't talk." God came back two nights later and showed him a vision of people falling into hell, the souls who were damned if Hinn didn't preach. He still said no. The year dragged on.
"Finally, I couldn't avoid the subject any longer. I said to the Lord, I will preach the gospel on one condition: that You be with me in every service." God agreed. In December, 1974, at the very moment Hinn began to speak at a Christian fellowship meeting at a Pentecostal church in Oshawa, the stutter was gone for good.
In 1975, Marion Poynter helped Hinn draft an application for tax-exempt status for the Benny Hinn Evangelical Association, a ministry that would endeavour to "evangelize men and women bringing them to a knowledge of Jesus Christ as personal Saviour and Lord." He spoke in auditoriums and church halls in Toronto and throughout Northern Ontario. When he prayed people fell down, slain by the power of the Holy Spirit
. He was speaking one night in a church hall in Toronto when he suddenly felt someone in the audience had been miraculously cured. He said, "There's somebody on the balcony who has a problem with her leg and her hip and if you move your leg you'll find that the pain is gone." When there was no response he said, "I know you're up there and I'm not going to quit until you come down." A woman came down and said that yes, while he was speaking, the pain had gone. From there, Hinn says, things just mushroomed. "I would say someone is being healed and they'd start coming down and people started lining up by the hundreds." How did he know? "I don't know. I can't explain it. It's a spiritual thing."