Asbury Revival a ‘Spontaneous Outpouring’

Jeffrey Walton on February 16, 2023

Students at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky have been engaged across the past week in what is being described by some participants as an organic, unplanned revival.

I am no revival historian and cannot speak to the historic designation of this event as a revival (university officials have avoided that term, preferring “outpouring of the Holy Spirit” or other descriptors). That important caveat aside, it has been fascinating across the past week to see who has been vocal and who has remained silent amid what is possibly the first major U.S.-based revival of the social media age.

‘Spontaneous Outpouring’

What we know: a February 8 chapel service (viewable online here) concluded with an invitation for students to receive prayer. Dozens stayed, worship leaders continued to play music, and even more returned. One week later, it has yet to conclude. Evenings now see overflow crowds spill onto the steps of the Hughes Auditorium (seating capacity: 1,489) with an up to three hour wait to enter. A smaller 375-seat auditorium has also been filled, as has the 660-seat Estes Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary (a separate, but collegial institution) across the street, and the Great Commission Fellowship at Wilmore United Methodist Church has hosted an additional overflow site.

For a town of only 6,000 people, that is a significant turnout. People bus in from neighboring colleges and adjacent states.

“It was a simple, regular chapel in which students stayed to pray and engaged in a measure of repentance and brokenness,” Dr. W. Brian Shelton, Chair of the Christian Studies and Philosophy Department at Asbury University, shared in a telephone interview. “The older people in the back offer a great measure of credibility because they have been praying for this. Essentially they offer an affirmation that this is real.”

Shelton tells that “people from all over began coming to Wilmore in order to pray in the auditorium of Asbury. They came to intercede for loved ones, to be healed, to find encouragement in their brokenness. And they just kept coming. I’ve never seen so many people here at Asbury University.”

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you are likely a person formed by, or adjacent to, the Wesleyan tradition in which Asbury is rooted. I’ve heard from friends of the IRD deeply shaped by the legacy of the 1950 and 1970 revivals there. Other friends recall the 1995 revival at Wheaton College sparked by students from Howard Payne University in Texas that spread far beyond the campus of either institution.

“Asbury has a history of experiencing spontaneous outpourings of God’s Holy Spirit,” Former IRD Vice President Jerald Walz, an Asbury University alumnus, explained to me in a phone interview. “I experienced one in 1995, 25 years after the 1970 revival. Much of what I am observing in today’s awakening mirrors what I experienced when I was a student at Asbury in 1995. Then, as now, times of praise, confession, worship, reading scripture, prayer in small groups, were all common.”

Revival in an Age of TikTok?

Local Kentucky media has covered the ongoing chapel services for nearly a week: the Lexington Herald Leader revisited the school’s history of spontaneous revivals. National Christian media began coverage, including CBN (which reported revival spreading to Tennessee’s Lee University), Christianity Today and WORLD.

National secular media took notice. Since yesterday, the Washington Post picked up Religion News Service coverage, Fox News and NBC News quickly followed with their own reports. On Wednesday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson (an Episcopalian) interviewed Asbury University Student Body President Alison Perfater in prime time.

One can hardly begrudge national media for initially overlooking the revival: it’s hard to identify a good public interest lead from “chapel service ongoing at small Christian college” – especially when there is no apparent connection to a current controversy or broader societal trend. NBC eventually led with a social media angle, noting how TikTok videos hashtagged Asbury Revival “are racking up millions of views.”

Even those who experienced earlier revivals note that the sheer scope of them wasn’t fully visible until well after they concluded. Such timing is at the discretion of the Holy Spirit, and those changed through revival can only seek to be his willing providential agents.

“Revivals happen when people inside the church repent; awakenings happen when people outside the church repent,” commented Dr. Kenneth J. Collins, professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, in an email interview (Collins is a longtime member of IRD’s Board of Directors).

Surprising Silence

Unexpected silence has come from one quarter: conservative religious leaders who regularly call for national revival seem unaware (Historian John Fea of Messiah College has an observant piece at Current documenting that here). To my knowledge, only Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has weighed in, tweeting that the revival is greatly encouraging and requesting prayer for the students.

There is no political angle here. Participants tell of a deep sense of joy, but the prayer and worship itself is quiet. Those concerned at the prospect of excessive exuberance can themselves calm down.

Revivals begin with conviction in the hearts of those present: personal repentance is an initial spark that catches fire. But among those who have been calling for “a new Great Awakening” the demand is that others change. It’s as though everything else is the problem. Is this the Christian Right equivalent of what we see in politically liberal Mainline Protestant circles, where “repentance” always involves apology for someone else’s transgression?

Repentance demands an acknowledgement that the problem is within me.

“People are coming because they are hungry for God,” Asbury University’s Shelton, an Anglican, describes. “COVID, political and social divisions have wearied our nation. They have prayed from home but they are looking for a greater source of hope, and they have traveled to this space in a way that has surprised us all.”

Shelton was struck by the response of the Asbury community, as well as the greater Wilmore community, to come in service.

“We have employees that normally don’t leave their office as a habit who now are prayer counselors, ushers,” Shelton says. “Wilmore Anglican Church has seen their entire pastoral staff come out to serve, pray, anoint with oil, and to volunteer.”

I’ve not personally experienced what is described as presently taking place at Asbury, but I look forward to it spreading far. God is indeed full of surprises and I will hope to have ears to hear.

Update [2/17/2023]: In addition to Asbury, ongoing, student-led chapel services described as “unscripted” are underway at Lee University, Samford University and Cedarville.

Update [2/24/2023]: Outworking of what is occurring at Asbury University has spread to other Christian and secular Universities, variously described as “outpouring,” “ecstatic embrace,” and “space for repentance and renewal.” Read coverage on IRD’s blog here.

  1. Comment by Dan W on February 16, 2023 at 6:11 pm

    Jeffrey Walton, what an awesome story, truly Good News. John Wesley would be proud of these students and volunteers. I pray this spark, that turned into a spiritual flame, illuminates our world. There is so much spiritual darkness everywhere.

  2. Comment by David on February 16, 2023 at 9:24 pm

    “Previous revivals had struck Asbury in 1905, 1950 and 1958…As you might imagine, there are as many explanations for these revivals as there are pundits to comment on them. Unsurprisingly, the explanations tend to mirror each pundit’s a priori assumptions about God and the nature of reality. Some view revivals as manifestations of superstition, hysteria and social contagion. Some see them as reactions to major social upheavals—revivals occur when we’re rattled and want quick fixes for our uncertainties.”—Lexington Herald-Leader 16 Feb. 2023

    This might be the Protestant version of an apparition that attracts many when reported. The Virgin Mary reportedly appears in my local park on a regular basis to the dismay of the Catholic bishop. It would be interesting to know if “revivals” happen at large universities with many STEM majors.

  3. Comment by Kay Short on February 17, 2023 at 2:01 am

    Our nation has endured a period of spiritual darkness. When we cast God out of schools, the public square, and many churches abandoned Christianity for politics, and mainline seminaries used Scripture to support trendy agendas, we lost our compass, lost our direction and declared ourselves wiser than God. We created the Jesus of our imagination. Biblical illiteracy is commonplace. Revival usually starts with the young. I see what is happening at Asbury as the encouraging work of the Holy Spirit, bringing light into darkness. I didn’t know Asbury had a history of revival. That’s wonderful, and tells me that the staff and students have remained faithful in their teaching and receiving of God’s Word, and have hearts focused on our Lord Jesus. Praise God. Thank you for publishing this inspiring article which brings hope, and tells us God is working in the hearts of His people. ✝️💜🙏

  4. Comment by Gary on February 17, 2023 at 3:48 am

    Given Asbury’s Wesleyan roots, the UMC has been strangely silent.

  5. Comment by Dan W on February 17, 2023 at 7:23 am

    David, outside observers have been trying to explain the actions of the Holy Spirit for two thousand years. You forgot the oldest and simplest observation, Acts 2:13 (NIV) Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

    Also, in the Southeastern U.S. “revival” traditionally refers to a week of nightly worship services, featuring evangelists or guest preachers. A planned event sometimes held under a big tent.

  6. Comment by Erik on February 17, 2023 at 7:35 am

    The Holy Spirit does not pour over the unsaved.

  7. Comment by Pastor Earl Wallace on February 17, 2023 at 8:25 am

    America Needs A Revival That Includes A Reformation That Raises Up Disciples Who Can Apply The Bible To Every Aspect Of Life, Including Civics!
    The concept of “Separation of Church and State” puts the Gospel in a box, so people don’t know how “The Bible applies to every aspect of life, including civics.” The concept does not appear in the Bible, as God says He will judge the nations and not separate Himself from it. Nor does the concept appear in the US Constitution, which assumes belief in God, who is the “Creator” who makes “all men equal,” and endows us with our natural, Ten Commandments, inalienable rights! America was founded by generations of people of a Puritan Biblical Faith. Starting in 1620 they came to America, and applied what the Bible says about living civicly under the administration of a government that honors how the God of The Bible says we all should live. Their first pledge to administer themselves in government that way was in The Mayflower Compact. The concept was solidified in the Declaration of Independence, and codified in the US Constitution’s first amendment that links freedom of religion and speech, so Biblical Christianity was freely expressed to be applied to every aspect of life, including civics. I call America’s actual founding concept “The Biblical Basis of The Bill of Rights.”

  8. Comment by Salvatore Anthony Luiso on February 17, 2023 at 10:38 am

    Thank you for this informative article.

    Regarding the article by John Fea: I myself would not fault any evangelical leaders for reserving judgment on the event at Asbury University for its first four days. All along, no one has known how long it would last. For all anyone knew, a tweet sent last Sunday which said “Thank God for this revival” could have been sent on the day before it ended. And, as you say, even “university officials have avoided that term, preferring ‘outpouring of the Holy Spirit’ or other descriptor”. Other Christians who desire revival have also been hesitant and unwilling to call it a “revival”–even if they did believe it to be a work of God.

    Since Fea’s article was published Sean Feucht has shared on Facebook an interview with the president of the student body of Asbury, Alison Perfater, conducted by Tucker Carlson. I don’t know if any of the other people whom he says were silent about it have mentioned it publicly since.

    I share your concern that “among those who have been calling for ‘a new Great Awakening’ the demand is that others change”. Not all of us are like that, but far too many of us are.

    In answer to your rhetorical question “Is this the Christian Right equivalent of what we see in politically liberal Mainline Protestant circles, where ‘repentance’ always involves apology for someone else’s transgression?”: I don’t know if it’s the equivalent, but, ironically, it is indeed similar.

  9. Comment by Gary Bebop on February 17, 2023 at 12:45 pm

    At first there is astonishment, then come the denials and scornful summaries of those who may be expressing fear of being eclipsed or encompassed by something greater, something unmanageable by worldly powers. The way we close down our minds (and hearts) when the unplanned occurs testifies to our jaded condition, our exhausted spiritual state, our darkness. Put aside these bitter reactions. When God comes, there is an undoing: Amos 5:18-20.

  10. Comment by Roger on February 17, 2023 at 4:40 pm

    Reply to Gary on his comment of Feb. 17. The UMC is in a splintering phase now. The UMC leadership has put out a notice that Asbury Graduates will not be accepted to the UMC.

  11. Comment by Scott on February 17, 2023 at 6:15 pm

    Fascinating to see this all unfolding:
    I move from nostalgia (I experienced something akin to this as a young charismatic evangelical in Africa) … but also feel a deep cynicism and wariness … having seen and read about so much abuse within the church… and cynical because all this seems formless, directionless and inchoate to me – soon men will arrive to control this and impose their doctrines and religious views and dare say their bigotry too. I keep thinking: what now? Are there young people there with – say – depression or BPD – who will not be healed or comforted … who will feel that having made a commitment to Christ are yet unable to come to terms with their lives? What hopes will be dashed? Are there LGBT people there who will feel coerced and condemned? If they feel the love of God’s Spirit in this moment – what will happen as they return to the every day, to a society or church where there is all the pettiness, prejudice, bigotry and othering which so characterises so many churches? So I just have anxieties and fear for these young people … I fewr that their ineffable hopes may be dashed as reality- or rather the mundane – floods back. What wisdom is there to carry them once the emotion has passed? What does Christ call us to? What is the cost of discipleship? I fear for these people and I cant explain this apprehension – I have known so many lives shipwrecked by spiritual abuse in Churches. I have known it too. Christ have mercy on these beautiful, vulnerable people.

  12. Comment by Steve on February 17, 2023 at 7:06 pm

    That would be hilarious if true since there are many Asbury Graduates in UMC leadership. Asbury graduates more UMC clergy in one year than all the “official” UMC seminaries does combined. (Asbury is an affiliate UMC seminary) Therefore, there are a lot of UMC clergy that are Asbury Graduates.

  13. Comment by Karen on February 20, 2023 at 7:44 am

    A question: is anyone else concerned about the claims that demons were cast out of a woman having an epileptic seizure?
    This is a red flag for those with invisible disabilities, to be surrounded by people without knowledge or discernment of their condition interpreting what is happening in terms more familiar to the 16th century.

  14. Comment by David on February 20, 2023 at 8:23 am

    “Asbury revival planned weeks in advance.”

  15. Comment by David B Scott on February 20, 2023 at 9:03 am

    This, nor any revival, is of no value unless it engenders action afterward to make this a better world. The proof will be in the pudding.

  16. Comment by Michael Henderson on February 21, 2023 at 1:09 pm

    This is awesome! I love it! With all the news of where the mainline UMC has gone and is still heading, these students, leaders and participants of all ages are hungry to see God move in ways that confirm His truth in their lives and as an affirmation of truth to those on the outside looking in. Stand strong, be faithful and true to God and His word. He is in the business of changing lives for the better.

  17. Comment by Amy on February 24, 2023 at 7:49 pm

    One only need a basic understanding of scripture to know this is one of the counterfeits that Jesus warned us not to be deceived by.

    Spontaneous Outpouring. There has never been nor will there ever be a spontaneous outpouring of the Holy Spirit at all let alone on a place (Asbury, Toronto, etc.) . All outpourings of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament have been on people (new believers) and one time only. God’s Holy Spirit is both sufficient and eternal.

    This idea that Asbury has that we need a “fresh” anointing ever several years or that Holy Spirit falls on non-believers bringing them to repentance is unbiblical. The Holy Spirit is only poured out on true followers of Christ as an Helper and the fruit of that spirit is not crying, dancing, singing or emotionalism.

    According to their website, Asbury believes that the fruits of the Spirit is a “practice” which directly contradicts God’s Word.

    I wish everyone well who attended and pray they find the one true God despite being manipulated and deceived.

  18. Comment by Wayne on February 25, 2023 at 12:38 am

    I have mixed emotions about this revival. What will be the outcome afterwards? Will a Christian experience based on emotions yield tangible results in the real world? How many conversions will blossom into tomorrow’s church leaders and evangelists? I think about the Parable of The Sower” and wonder if this spiritual soil is shallow or rich in nutrients. If the former, I wonder how many will abandon the good feelings after they are confronted with the real world and all it’s rawness. If the latter, I hope they remain strong in the aftermath of this event and go forth into the world with new energy and vigor for Christ!

  19. Comment by brother Jim on February 26, 2023 at 11:11 am

    An axiom I coined decades ago:
    Man [et al.] will always limit his theology to either that which he has personally experienced or what he is yet willing to undergo and has faith believing.
    Intellectualism will scoff.
    When a youth, among my dozen or so ponderings as to what career I’d pursue, at one point chosen was my being a corporate attorney. Being analytical, however, in time I realized grammar being my worst scholasic subject would exclude me (that syntax should confirm things). But I merely exemplify this here.
    If Jesus were come in the flesh today and had graduated law school specializing in contract law instead of being a carpenter, His ensuing written agreements would be so ambiguous, parenthetical and circuitous that no court in the land could ever rule against Him or them.
    And so we have the written, Living Word, allowing whatever fragment of Christianity one finds themselves in, to be diverse in our interpretation of both the Holy Scriptures and the perceived either holy or unholy events of Asbury U. As it was intended by God to be.
    Yes, the Holy Spirit will guide us into Truth. Not that He will grant any one individual ALL the Truth, but that in whatever quantity of Truth He gives us it will indeed be OF the Truth. God would love to give it all to us now,
    I suppose, but our SELF-confidence, our haughty countenance, precludes (Prov. 6:16-17a).
    So today we mirror the happenings in Wilmore, Ky. against the pinnings in our individual mind and heart, and judge accordingly, hopefully righteously but hopefully not too assuredly.
    “But Jesus would not commit Himself unto them, for He knew all men. And He didn’t need anyone to testify of man, for He knew what [remaining evil] was in man. There was a man of the Pharisees….” (Jn. 2:24-25, 3:1a)
    I’m smelling revival SOMEWHERE. Perhaps I need to bathe.

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