Renewals, revivals, and awakenings are unpredictable, by definition. Christians should not credulously accept them as de facto works of God just because they’re on the news, or on YouTube. Sometimes revivals turn out just to be frothy chaos; sometimes they introduce aberrant beliefs and practices. But sometimes they produce godly results that last for generations: lives transformed and renewed, people called into vocational ministry, and communities brought to greater wholeness of bodies and souls.
In February 2023, the religion news beat took a sudden detour from its usual narratives of white evangelicals and politics, the rise of the unaffiliated (the “nones”), denominational schisms, and megachurch scandals. For several weeks, the news was dominated by an improbable and apparently unorchestrated revival at Methodist-affiliated Asbury University in central Kentucky. By late February, some 50,000 people had descended on the campus to pray and sing with Asbury students. The work’s logistical load at Asbury was massive (they did have courses to teach, after all!). University leaders eventually decided it was time to conclude the formal revival meetings.
As Jesus taught, the Holy Spirit does not operate on human calendars: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) It may seem surprising, in contemporary college culture, for a huge student-led revival to come out of nowhere and capture the notice even of the secular media. Aren’t all today’s college students supposed to be censorious, anti-religious, and “woke”?
In our age, religion typically appears in the elite media only when it is connected to politics or scandal. But the Asbury renewal echoed a theme woven deep in American history, and in the history of Christianity: the outbreak of religious awakening in unexpected times and places. As Christians meditate on the mysteries of Easter, a fresh look at the Asbury revival suggests that Christianity means expectations will always be defied—even in 2023.
The spiritual outpourings of the Book of Acts have been the primary Christian template for revival since the apostolic period. In America, the modern history of revivalism began with the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and ’40s. Although some skeptical scholars have dismissed the significance of those revivals, most American history courses still acknowledge the First Great Awakening as one of the biggest social upheavals before the American Revolution. It also provided a style of popular appeal and moral intensity to Patriots such as Patrick Henry, who attended Virginia revival meetings as a boy.
In some ways, the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s was even more consequential than the First in shaping American Protestantism. As Ross Douthat recently noted, just when an aging Thomas Jefferson was (ludicrously) predicting in 1822 that rationalist Unitarianism would dominate American religion, the lawyer-turned evangelist Charles Finney was going through a conversion experience and contemplating a call to ministry.
Finney’s revivals introduced novel tactics and human-centered theology that bothered many traditionalist Christians, even at the time. But Finney’s success demonstrated again that the cool, skeptical rationalism of a Jefferson almost never appeals to the people at large. By the 1830s, upstate New York was so dramatically transformed by rampaging Finneyite revivals that some called it a “burned-over district.”
The Second Great Awakening was the greatest era of Protestant growth in American history. The old colonial denominations, especially the Congregationalists and Anglicans (the latter called Episcopalians after American independence), did modestly well during the Second Great Awakening. They remained the denominations of choice for many political and financial elites. But the real dynamos of the Second Great Awakening were the Baptists and especially the Methodists.
Baptists were a tiny sect as of 1776. Methodists were almost nonexistent in America at that time. By the eve of the Civil War, however, the Methodists and Baptists had become the largest Protestant denominations in the country, with tens of thousands of congregations each. If you go to virtually any downtown area in the South or the Midwest, there will be First Baptist Church on one corner, and First Methodist on the other. Those churches were largely founded during the Second Great Awakening.
The Methodists and Baptists, unlike the Episcopalians and Congregationalists, never were officially “established” churches in colonial America. They had an entrepreneurial spirit that the old churches lacked. If they didn’t pray hard and work hard, they had no reason to expect that their churches would survive.
Yet they didn’t “dumb down” religion to make it palatable to the culturally fashionable.