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Behind The Alpha Course
by Dusty Peterson &
This article first
appeared in Discernment Newsletter, Volume 13, Number 4, July/August 2002
Nicky Gumbel, creator of the modern Alpha Course currently sweeping Americas churches, is due to speak at John Arnotts Catch the Fire conference next year. Arnott still leads the Toronto Airport church that gave us the Toronto Blessing (TB), and Gumbels church was arguably the prime British center for dispensing the Toronto spirit. Exactly how old, and how close, are the ties between the Alpha Course and the folk that gave us the Toronto church and its TB? This article takes us behind the scenes to reveal the true spirit of todays Alpha.
Alpha has taken off in a big way in America. In 2001 alone the number of courses running in the U.S. grew by 90% to more than 5300.  But Alpha comes from a single Episcopal Fellowship in England, thus not all American churches looking at the Course are familiar with its roots. (The fact that almost all references to the spiritual roots of Alpha have been removed from present editions of the talks obviously does not help!) These details prove to be immensely important when considering Alpha
Although the Alpha Course has been in existence since 1977, the modern version originated in the early nineties through Nicky Gumbel a curate at Holy Trinity Brompton church (HTB). Gumbel is a qualified barrister, but he apparently attributes his powerful gift for communication to an extraordinary single event in 1982. The following account by Gumbel is lengthy but also very interesting:
As we shall see, this experience did indeed have a substantial and lasting impact on Gumbel. It should be noted that all of his work on the Alpha Course has taken place since that event. Let us now step forward to the early years of his Alpha labours.
Gumbel received what looks a lot like the 'Toronto' spirit more than a decade before Toronto itself did, and he jumped at the chance to promote the Toronto Blessing (TB) when it finally arrived on the scene. He immediately modified the Alpha talks to incorporate, among other things, the following well-known testimony of how Eleanor Mumford, of South-West London Vineyard, channeled the Blessing to HTB through him:
Gumbel went straight from Mumfords house to a staff meeting at HTB. He was asked to close the meeting in prayer and the effect was that "the Spirit came on the people who were in the room. One of them started laughing like a hyena "  As a result of this, Eleanor Mumford was invited to speak at HTB the following Sunday and preached at both the morning and evening meetings.  Several books record the classic TB manifestations that occurred at both services. 
HTB then passed the TB onto elders of many UK churches through Alpha training courses. (And, of course, myriad churches flew people to Toronto to get it direct.) Thereafter, Alphas popularity rocketed. That Gumbel links this to Toronto is clear because, during Torontos height he wrote: "I believe it is no coincidence that the present movement of the Holy Spirit [i.e. the TB] has come at the same time as the explosion of the Alpha Courses. I think the two go together." 
And so did numerous other big names. The number of TB supporters who have openly praised Alpha is substantial. A handful of the more famous examples in the U.S. or U.K. are: Mike Bickle,  Gerald Coates, Jack W. Hayford, Ken Gott, Tony Campolo,  Roger Forster, Bill Hybels, and Mark Stibbe. Even C. Peter Wagner has called Alpha "wonderful" and says he "enthusiastically supports" it.  Apart from Wimber  and Mumford, TB promoters who have spoken at HTB include: John Arnott, Coates, Leighton Ford, and Stibbe, among many others. See HTBs online audio catalogue for more.
Did Gumbel change the essence of the Course when Alpha was revamped again during the late nineties? Apparently not - for we were personally assured by an HTB spokesman that Alphas doctrines hadnt altered in any way. Indeed, the "10,000 volts" testimony with which this article opened came from these newer videos, and Gumbel is still offering manifestation testimonies from other people like: "I experienced electric shocks of love. I found myself flat on the floor " 
When you consider the actual testimonies cited by Gumbel, or those reported in official Alpha publications, it seems a purely cosmetic change that he now says the Holy Spirit is "not something that takes people over. The gifts of God are never like that. You can start when you want, and you can stop when you want."  Alpha resources irreconcilably disagree with this, including Gumbels own videos. 
The Alpha talks are constantly being made subtler in order to lead more churches into receiving the spirit that comes with Alpha. Thus the more amazing references to mindless or drunken behaviour have been culled. This still does not represent any change of doctrine however. Nicky continues to say "Imagine being with Jesus. What fun it would have been!"  and "Think what fun it would have been to go to a party with Jesus."  The effect of Gumbels words are unaltered, and his new books reflect the same TB views. Hence the 2001 edition of Gumbels book 30 Days informs us: "[A] party This is a picture of the Christian life Dont miss out on the party"  and "[The] Early Christians had fun together." 
Although there is certainly evidence that the more severe and disturbing manifestations taking place during Alpha Courses are being kept out of Alpha publications,  (presumably in order to encourage anti-TB churches to accept Alpha), nevertheless the latest testimonies still look far more like those from TB than those from the Bible. The following are all from different articles in the Jul Oct 2002 edition of Alpha News:
"The Holy Spirit came into me My chest was up in the air like I was being pulled up. It was very powerful. I was panting and couldnt breathe properly. I was coughing I think I was there 45 minutes later, still coughing and panting. I dont know how long it was. It came to a point where I started saying to myself Enough now. It was like the power was so intense that I couldnt take anymore." [p33] 
But what of the type of people who were behind the TB? Has Alphas position there changed? Not a bit. Gumbels Alpha News still advertises John Arnott conferences,  and ones involving Rick Joyner, Francis Frangipane and Jack Deere Deere was the theologian for the TB.  Gumbel has also signed up to speak at Arnotts next Catch the Fire conference. 
Randy Clark got the spirit behind the TB from Hagins Word-Faith church and was one of those who passed it to Arnott. And Rodney Howard-Browne, the pioneer of Torontos laughing revival, was a member of Hagins Word-Faith church in South Africa. We would therefore argue that the Word-Faith movement is key to the spirit behind the TB and Alpha. Sure enough, Alphas teachings frequently lean towards the Word-Faith line. (See our book for details.)  And sure enough Gumbel promotes Word-Faith leaders,  events  and enterprises . He is now working in concert with one of the Faith movements leading lights Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral. 
Alphas roots are inextricably entwined with those of the TB and its proponents. In fact, Alpha is simply continuing Torontos work. But U.S. churches could be forgiven for not being aware of these links, since every reference to the words Mumford and Toronto were scrubbed from the Alpha talks before the Course was launched in America, and since HTB plays down its links with the more obviously problematic TB and Faith proponents.
Churches interested in Alpha really need to investigate it properly. You will find that our book Alpha the Unofficial Guide: Overview  has done all the legwork for you. In the meantime, you may want to consider prayerfully copying this article to any brothers you know who rejected Toronto and who might find it of use.
May God bless you.
(1) See Alpha News #28 ("more than 5300" courses) compared with #25 (2800 courses). (All quotations from Alpha News in this article are taken from the UK editions unless otherwise stated.)
(2) Talk 13. (In this article, all quotations from Alpha talks are from the official HTB transcripts released in the summer of the year 2000 unless otherwise stated. Also, all emphases are our own unless otherwise stated.)
(3) Details of Mumford receiving the TB are given in Dave Roberts book The Toronto Blessing, (Kingsway, 1994), pp10-11. Her own account of her visit is given in Wallace Boulton Ed., The Impact of Toronto, (Monarch Publications, 1994), pp17-19.
(4) Does God throw his children across the floor? According to Gumbel it is normal, for he elsewhere approvingly quotes this testimony: "While they were praying for him he was cast down to the ground as if someone had hurled him violently to the earth. Groaning and sobbing his whole body shaking, so that he could not speak" [Talk 13].
(5) Talk 9, Edn. 1.
(7) Tapes of Mumford preaching at HTB that day are still available. ("The Coming of the Holy Spirit", tapes 1 and 2, dated 29th May 1994.) A substantial proportion of her evening talk, along with a description of what followed it, is given in the Holy Trinity Brompton chapter of A History of the Revival of 1992-1995, by Richard Riss. See www.grmi.org/Richard_Riss/ history/htb.html for an electronic version of this.
(8) "Mumford spoke at the morning service at the end, she prayed for the Holy Spirit to come [M]embers of the congregation began to laugh [P]eople began to fall Soon the whole church was affected. There were scenes that few had ever seen before At the evening service the scenes were repeated " (The Impact of Toronto, p21); "Mumford asked the congregation to stand while she prayed Immediately people began to laugh hysterically, weep, shake, jerk, bark and roar" (The Toronto Blessing, p13, as quoted in Roger Oakland, New Wine or Old Deception? (The Word For Today, 1995), p19).
(9) Renewal magazine, May 1995, p15.
(10) Mike Bickles endorsement is regularly published, e.g. in the opening section of Gumbels book Telling Others (Kingsway, 2001) alongside praise for Alpha from Charles Whitehead, Luis Palau, Michael Green, R.T. Kendall, Terry Virgo and very many more of that ilk.
(11) Campolos support for Alpha appears, for instance, in An Introduction to the Alpha Course, (an undated HTB booklet), p15, as does praise from many other TB fans including J.I. Packer, Richard Foster, J. John and Gordon D. Fee, along with numerous Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals (see p14). Gumbel is, in many ways, an English Campolo and he cites Campolo as a sound authority on homosexuality - see chapter 5 of Gumbels book Searching Issues (Kingsway).
(12) Alpha News International Edn. #1 (Aug Nov 1999), p2.
(13) Gumbel still quotes the late John Wimber regularly (e.g. in Talks 3 & 14), and recommends his books (e.g. in the green Alpha Manual for attendees, (HTB Publications, 1998), p55). Wimber was one of the first elders to promote Alpha, calling it "ingenious" (Alpha News #11, p28). In December 1995 (i.e. after almost two full years of the TB being spread around the globe, and 13 years after Wimbers team electrified Gumbel), the Vineyard board separated from the Toronto Airport church. However, Vineyards statement was very weak and the TB itself was not renounced. Wimber went on to support the Pensacola outpouring which was obtained directly from Toronto (and also via HTB). See Al Dagers definitive Media Spotlight Special Report: Pensacola Revival or Revelling? (1997), pp1-2 for proof. Given all this, and since Pensacola was up and running by the end of 1995, Wimbers move was surely just a ploy to make Vineyard appear more palatable to anti-TB churches whilst simultaneously making Pensacola seem a reasonable alternative even though the manifestations were practically identical.
(14) Talk 9.
(15) Talk 10.
(16) Gumbel discourages self-control when he says the Holy Spirit is a "Compelling Spirit ... [T]he Spirit of Jesus ... [is a] Compelling Spirit" [Talk 7], and when he relates that "[O]n the weekend away, [one man] said he felt a real glow he had to sit down" [Talk 10].
(17) Alpha News, Jul - Oct 2000, p36.
(18) HTBs UK Focus newspaper, Mar 1999, p2.
(19) Alpha News #13, p9.
(20) Alpha News #14, pp12-13.
(21) Mark Elsdon-Dew Ed., The God Who Changes Lives, Vol. 2, (HTB Publications, 1998), pp222-3. (This is a set of books giving official HTB testimonies.)
(22) The God Who Changes Lives, Vol. 2, pp114-115 & 120-121. Since many Alpha participants admit to having not accepted the gospel before they experience such manifestations, and that people are spiritually dead to God before salvation (John 14:17), these testimonies cannot represent baptism in the Holy Spirit.And, since the fruit of the Spirit includes self-control (Gal. 5:22-23), these things are evidently not caused by the Holy Spirit at all. Besides, the true Holy Spirit dwells in our spirit and is therefore discerned spiritually, not physically (1 Cor. 2:14). Invokability and contagiousness are also not features of the true Holy Spirit. Our book supplies six chapters of such problems with Alpha testimonies using numerous examples and lots of relevant Scripture (e.g. Matt. 7:21-23, 24:3-25; 1 John 1:3; Acts 8:7 & 19:16). Note that every TB/Alpha manifestation is listed as a sign of judgment in two adjacent Bible chapters e.g. see Jer. 51:35-58.
(23) Talk 2. It was certainly not much fun to be with the Lord at His arrest or crucifixion!
(25) Gumbel, 30 Days, (Alpha Publications, 2001), p37. C.f. Acts 22:14b; 2 Cor. 11:23-28; Eph. 4:17-24; John 16:33; Eccl. 1:18, 7:4; 1 Pet. 4:12-13 etc.
(26) 30 Days, p138. In the same book, laughter is again defended (p67) (but see Eccl. 7:4 and Luke 6:25), and we are ambiguously informed that "spiritual experiences are very important" (p98).
(27) See the famous article in The Times, May 11, 1996, about people being made to "snort like a pig and bark like a dog" on the Alpha Courses. We also have anecdotal evidence that some churches still see such manifestations during the Holy Spirit weekend.
(28) Stung by the fact that such Alpha manifestations are identical to those experienced during pagan Kundalini yoga sessions (see Part 5 of our book for more details), HTB has tried to distance itself by claiming that this particular man has been rescued from practising Kundalini. No-one apparently spotted that Kundalini is not mentioned once in his entire testimony.
(29) See, for example, Alpha News, Mar Jun 2001, p18.
(30) Alpha News, Mar Jun 2002, p20.
(31) Go to website tacf.org and see the conferences page.
(32) Alpha - the Unofficial Guide: Overview. Please see this page for ordering details.
(33) Gumbel has endorsed Rodney Howard-Browne (see Neil Richardson, A Tale of Two Cities Nicky Gumbel and the Alpha Course, (CWM, 2000), p33).
(34) HTB supports events like the Son of David conference involving such Faith luminaries as Colin Dye and hosted by the God Channel see below (Alpha News, Mar Jun 2002, p20).
(35) HTB supports enterprises like the God Channel - which has been funded by Benny Hinn and is dominated by all the Word-Faith leaders (e.g. in Alpha News, Nov 2001 Feb 2002, p26), although the Alpha News adverts are always too shy to mention the 'Word-Faith' shows available!
(36) Gumbel has even hosted an Alpha conference at Robert Schullers church (see Alpha News #17, p4).
(37) Please see this page for ordering details.