On Wednesday, February 8, 2023, some students at Asbury University lingered after the usual morning chapel service to pray a little longer, worship together, and bask in the felt presence of God’s peace and love. More students joined in. Hundreds of hours later they were still meeting, and thousands of pilgrims were on their way to Wilmore, Kentucky, to experience a remarkable, ongoing season of spiritual renewal. The university has called it an “outpouring”; the seminary across the street has referred to it as an “awakening”; the internet has picked it up and called it a “revival.”
We both teach on the other side of the country, in California, but Asbury is a special place for us. Joe grew up in Wilmore and graduated from Asbury College (now University); he and Fred met while earning master’s degrees at Asbury Theological Seminary. So we’ve been monitoring the encouraging reports from our friends and connections in that little town.
Everybody seems to have an opinion about the Asbury revival by now, but a lot of those opinions are simply thoughts on revival in general. Those are important conversations to have. But as Asburians out West, we want to help explain this Wilmore moment with specific attention to its history and context. By connecting a few dots, we hope to make the significance of this revival understandable to outsiders.
Asbury University stands in the Wesleyan tradition, which began as a revival of spiritual life within an established church. The 18th-century movement Americans call the First Great Awakening is known in the U.K. as the Evangelical Revivals. It started as a renewal in the Church of England, driven largely by the preaching of John and Charles Wesley. The transformative preaching of the Wesley brothers and their colleagues started when they went to what looked like ordinary chapel services and found their hearts “strangely warmed,” as John put it. “An assurance was given me that [God] had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
John Wesley had an experience of the love of God in Christ, which launched him on a historically powerful ministry, a life of service and proclamation. The students in Wilmore, nearly three centuries later, testify to a similar breakthrough experience of God’s love. As the Methodist movement spread, John Wesley commissioned Francis Asbury to take the work to the American colonies, which he did. As you drive into Wilmore, you pass a statue of Francis Asbury on horseback: the intercontinental link back to the great 18th-century revival is visible.
As you drive into Wilmore, you pass a statue of Francis Asbury on horseback: the intercontinental link back to the great 18th-century revival is visible.
The variety of Wesleyan spirituality endemic to Asbury University is further colored by the Holiness movement here in America. The watchword of the movement is “consecration.” Churches influenced by this tradition usually have an altar rail at the front of the sanctuary. Challenged by preaching and stirred by sung worship, people come up to that altar and offer themselves to God. Phoebe Palmer described this altar theology in the 19th century. Once you notice it, you see it’s widely diffused in American evangelicalism. The old song “Trust and Obey” (written by a Biola faculty member) includes this line: “But we never can prove / The delights of His love, / Until all on the altar we lay.”
In addition to being downstream from Wesley and the Holiness movement, Asbury University has a distinctive local history of revivals, centered on the same chapel that’s in the news this week. Revivals happened here in 1950, 1958, and 1970—big enough to remain as living memories in the community to this day and significant enough to have books written about them (see Halls Aflame: An Account of the Spontaneous Revivals at Asbury College in 1950 and 1958 by Henry C. James and Paul Rader and One Divine Moment: The Account of the Asbury Revival of 1970, edited by Robert E. Coleman and David J. Gyertson).
The title of Coleman and Gyertson’s book is taken from Dennis F. Kinlaw, the Asbury president during the 1970 revival: “Give me one divine moment when God acts, and I say that moment is far superior to all the human efforts of man throughout the centuries.” Kinlaw speaks for a tradition that waits expectantly for the initiative of the living God to make himself known in power and holiness, on his own schedule.
February 8 to Present
On the cornerstone of the campus chapel, Hughes Memorial Auditorium, are carved two mottoes: “Free salvation for all men and full salvation from all sin” and “Follow peace with all men and holiness without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14, KJV). The preaching in the chapel is to be characterized by the free gift of salvation and the summons to a transformed life.
At the ordinary chapel service on February 8 that was the occasion for the current revival, preacher Zach Meerkreebs exhorted Asbury’s students from Romans 12 to live lives marked by the standards set forth there: 30 commandments in 13 verses, calling his hearers to love with perfect love, not polluted, hypocritical, or perverted love. Meerkreebs’s concluding point was that the love demanded by these verses isn’t possible in our own power: “You can’t love the way that this verse speaks. . . . You cannot love until you are loved by Jesus.” We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19), and “if you want to become love in action then you have to experience the love of God.”
The sermon wasn’t especially impressive (Meerkreebs later shared he felt he was doing a pretty bad job of it), but it had the weight of Romans behind it, and it was obviously shaped by the Wesleyan Holiness emphases of free grace and full salvation. Students heard the invitation and responded. The resulting worship was neither sensational nor dramatic. Watching the intermittent livestreams was at times almost boring. There was nothing to see but people praying together, singing rather quietly, or reading from the Bible. Everyone faced the front of the room but there was no spectacle on stage. Later, pilgrims began arriving and formed a real crowd. People on-site testified to a powerful feeling of reverence and a sweetness that refreshed their spirits and made them aware of God’s presence. But the drama continued to be invisible.
The current generation of college students is uniquely marked by the pandemic’s disruption. It not only interrupted their plans and forced them to confront sickness and mortality, but it threw them into isolation and disruption at a developmentally delicate stage. Their social worlds shrunk at precisely the time they’d expected their horizons to expand. They’re disproportionately marked by anxiety and depression.
These are the young people who enrolled in a Christian university in Kentucky and were going about their college business when they were suddenly and compellingly invited to experience the love of God in Christ. These are the students stepping up to collaborate with university leadership to keep prayer and worship going for hours on end.
The revival is centered on students, but it’s also blessed with a large number of sympathetic theological interpreters on hand, mostly at the seminary across the street. Tom McCall, Craig Keener, Lawson Stone, Steve Seamands, and many others are on hand, not to mention veterans of the previous revivals, including Robert E. Coleman. These are wise and critical thinkers, spiritually open to witnessing God’s work in the current generation.
People on-site testified to a powerful feeling of reverence and a sweetness that refreshed their spirits and made them aware of God’s presence.
In a blog post published January 4, Timothy Tennant, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, presciently described January 2023 as marking “that pre-revival stage where we must sow the good news more broadly, believe the gospel of Jesus Christ more firmly, trust in the Word of God more resolutely.” Responsible, multigenerational leadership is in place, ready to respond with discernment to this special season of blessing.
The meaning of what’s happening in Wilmore—awakening, outpouring, or revival—will become clearer over time. The Asbury community knows the tide of revival rises and recedes as God determines. Meanwhile, the news something special has happened in Wilmore spreads rapidly: other colleges and seminaries are experiencing their own moments of awakening. And crowds are making a pilgrimage to see and hear as much of the original excitement as they can in tiny Wilmore, Kentucky.
Whether coming to town or catching revival from afar, these people are from many churches and denominations. Even though this awakening has broken out among a particular kind of Wesley-influenced evangelical college students whose spiritual heritage primed them for it, Asbury doesn’t own this movement and isn’t branding it as only belonging to their tribe. The seating capacity of Hughes Auditorium is listed as 1,485, but millions have turned their attention to the unspectacular spectacle there. The rumor is spreading widely that it’s possible in our day and age to know the love and power of God.
Whatever else we learn from the recent outpouring at Asbury, it’s clear there’s a widespread spiritual hunger for God’s presence. It’s a hunger felt as strongly in our century as in the 18th and as fervently in Gen Z as it was for their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. May their hunger inspire our own, readying our hearts—wherever we are—to be “strangely warmed” and led to renewed worship, revived holiness, and deeper intimacy with the One who loved us before we could love him.