The Asbury Revival is spreading in the same way the First Great Awakening did
Something is happening in Wilmore, Kentucky. One insider said that the traffic coming into the small town—the home of Asbury University—reminded her of the final scene of the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams. Last Wednesday, February 8, 2023, Asbury University students gathered for regular chapel service. A predominantly Black student gospel choir sang, a local ministry leader preached an average sermon, and a few members of the choir closed with a song. Following the closing prayer a few dozen students approached the front of the chapel to pray. Word of this impromptu prayer meeting started to spread on campus and more students returned to join them. They did some more singing. They started confessing their sins. They did some more singing. They read passages from the Bible. Then they sang some more.
That chapel service is still going.
Evangelical pilgrims are arriving from points around the country to participate in and witness this outpouring of faith. The revival is entirely student-led. It lacks the fancy lighting, fog machines, rock-bands, and sound systems normally associated with worship in evangelical megachurches. Students are testifying to deep encounters with God. The leadership of Asbury University is providing food and drink for all the visitors and opening other buildings on campus to accommodate those unable to fit in the 1500 seat Hughes Auditorium. They are trying to balance their desire that the revival spread with their responsibility to care for their campus community. As Asbury president Kevin Brown recently said, “There is no playbook for this.”
It is not the first revival at Asbury, a college connected to the Wesleyan-Holiness wing of American evangelicalism. Similar multi-day revivals took place on campus in 1950 (lasting 118 hours), 1970 (144 hours), and 1992 (127 hours). As I write, the current spiritual awakening is entering its 182nd hour. It has gone on longer than the so-called Cane Ridge Revival, an 1801 Kentucky revival that went on for about a week and played an important role in triggering the decades-long “Second Great Awakening.” (The site of the Cane Ridge revival is about forty-five miles northwest of Wilmore.)
I have watched the Asbury revival closely—both as a historian of American evangelicalism and an evangelical Christian who is sympathetic to these kinds of spiritual awakenings. While Asbury University’s location might prompt comparison to the frontier revivals of the Second Great Awakening, this week my thoughts have turned to some of my work on the First Great Awakening, a series of revivals that swept across the British-American colonies in the mid-eighteenth century.
Nearly thirty years ago, while pursuing a Ph.D. in American history, I spent about a year reading through the letters of Eleazar Wheelock (1711-1779), a congregational minister from Lebanon, Connecticut who is best known as an Indian missionary and founder of the school that became Dartmouth College in 1770.
In 1735, as a young pastor fresh out of Yale, Wheelock presided over a revival in his congregation that caught the attention of Northampton, Massachusetts minister Jonathan Edwards, who mentioned the awakening in his chronicle of New England revivals, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1738). Later, in January 1739, Wheelock reported on another revival in Lebanon; this one coincided with the arrival in the colonies of the so-called “Grand Itinerant” George Whitefield. Wheelock was so taken with Whitefield’s ministry that he and a fellow clergyman traveled to New York City to see Whitefield preach to a crowd of (by their estimation) 8000 people. When he returned to Connecticut, Wheelock was ready to do his part in preaching Whitefield’s born-again message throughout the region. Whitefield would remain the First Great Awakening’s most prominent supporter of the revival (they were called “New Lights”), but Wheelock would become one of his many local representatives.
The First Great Awakening and the 2023 Asbury Revival have a lot of differences, not the least of which is that these events are separated by nearly three centuries. But there are also a lot of similarities between the two revivals. One of those similarities—which might be described as more earthly than spiritual—is the way they spread through already existing networks of communication.
While Christians believe that the Holy Spirit moves in the way the Holy Spirit wants to move, historically the work of the third person of the Trinity is usually channeled through an already existing, human-made, communication infrastructure. In the past, American revivals spread through print. As historians Frank Lambert and Harry Stout have shown, George Whitefield was a master at using publishers, including the Philadelphia skeptic Ben Franklin, to promote his revival meetings. My students today would not read about Cane Ridge in their American history textbook if writers had not covered it. If newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had not told his papers to “puff Graham” during the evangelist’s 1949 Los Angeles crusade, Billy Graham may not have become a household name.
Wheelock had access to print, but because of his relatively remote location letter-writing was a more effective way of spreading the awakening. Historian Edwin Gaustad called him “a chief intelligencer of revival news.” Indeed, Wheelock sent and received news of local awakenings occurring throughout the countryside with remarkable frequency. Ministers and lay people from all parts of the region corresponded with the Connecticut clergyman to describe their local revivals, invite him to preach, request spiritual counsel, or discuss religious politics. In 1740 a Sandwich, Massachusetts minister wrote to thank him for “the things you acquaint me with being Glorious things Concerning the city of God.”
In December 1741, to take one example, Wheelock spread news of local revivals to Joseph Bellamy, a Congregational clergyman settled in the remote northwestern Connecticut village of Bethlehem: “The work of the Lord spreads gloriously in the land; we hear almost every week of its being spread into one place and another where it has not been before . . . It is very great at Taunton, Bridgewater, Middleborough, Raynham, Attlebury, and Wrentham, Massachusetts.”
One year earlier he described the revival at his own church in Lebanon to Stephen Williams, minister at Longmeadow, Mass, this way: “There is an evident revival of religion among my people. There has been more appearance of conviction work here within these six weeks than there was before in three years, put all together; and one very remarkable instance of the deathbed conversion of a young woman . . .” Daniel Russell, the pastor at the congregational church in Stepney, Connecticut, wrote to Wheelock in January 1741 informing him that “God is in such a wonderful and extraordinary and powerful manner carrying on his own work in this town which hath for so long a time lain as it were in a dead sleep . . .” Wheelock passed the news along to other correspondents.
One cannot help wondering what Wheelock might think about the way Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are helping to spread news of the Asbury Revival. I think he would approve of most of it. These social media sites are filled with testimonies, videos, and calls to prayer informed by a larger hope that whatever is happening in Asbury will spread. So far it seems to be working. There are reports of student-led revivals at other Christian colleges. On Sunday local ministers throughout the country will inform their congregations about what is happening in Wilmore in the hopes of triggering a similar experience in their own communities.
In the 1740s, Wheelock helped to inaugurate and define an evangelical community—a fellowship entered only through the door of a revival experience. Though many of Wheelock’s correspondents may have never met face-to-face, clergy and lay people could share similar experiences of God’s universal work and discuss the various means to redeem and defend the revival. His letters served as a catalyst by which New England evangelicals transcended their geographical isolation and entered into what anthropologist Benedict Anderson has described as an “imagined community.”
For those of us who can’t make it to Wilmore, social media may be the next best way to experience what God is doing.
John Fea is Executive Editor of Current