By Ryan N. Danker

On February 8, after what had been a regularly scheduled chapel service at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, something unexpected took place: the students didn’t want to leave the chapel. They wanted to stay and to pray. What ensued in the aftermath have been continuous — and overwhelmingly spontaneous — prayer, repentance, worship, testimony, reconciliation, and other classic signs of what has been historically called revival or awakening. The spontaneity of the Asbury Revival is noteworthy, even if it is a historic sign of revival. So too is the lack of revivalist leadership. Often revivals have leaders, but not in this case. The university continues to hold its scheduled chapel services during the week, but otherwise there is no organized leadership. It appears to be led by the Spirit.

Revival or awakening has been a historic pattern within the life of the Church for centuries. Some have called it an American phenomenon, but that’s simply not true. It comes in various places and in various forms throughout the history of the Church. Sometimes it’s a splashy event, and sometimes a quiet awakening that can only be seen properly with distance. Within Anglicanism, John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, John Newton, William Cowper, and others come to mind as leaders of the 18th-century transatlantic sweep called the Evangelical Revival.

On this side of the pond, Devereux Jarratt was a notable figure in the Great Awakening as an Episcopal priest in Virginia. But Episcopalians haven’t always been open to the revivalism that swept across the country in later Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal settings. Leery of revivalism, Anglican clergy hounded George Whitefield out of Charleston in the middle of the 18th century. John Wesley noted anti-revivalism a few decades later when he encouraged American Methodist leaders not to place themselves under Episcopal bishops, fearful that these bishops would stifle revival, but his brother Charles worked to encourage a number of early American Methodist leaders to seek ordination within the Episcopal Church. The most notable of these men was Joseph Pilmore, an early leader of Methodist work in the colonial period who would eventually be ordained by Samuel Seabury and serve evangelical parishes in and around Philadelphia.


Many of the great revivals in American history have spanned denominational boundaries. This includes the Great Awakening in the 18th century, the Holiness Revivals with their camp meetings in the 19th century, and the outbreak of revival at Azusa Street in the early 20th century that helped to launch Pentecostalism.

Historians of revival have noted patterns that can best be described as waves. An initial outbreak takes shape and expands. Eventually, if the movement continues, it creates structures, institutions, and a polity. This usually signals the crest of the wave, even if the structures continue in some form or another. Within English-speaking contexts, four waves are easily discernable: the first would be inspired by the Pietistic Revivals of the 1720s-30s, followed by the Evangelical Revival spanning most of the 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic. Following this wave, we can cite the Holiness revivals of the mid-19th century, something that would include Phoebe Palmer, Asa Mahon, and Charles Finney. The last major wave in English-speaking contexts was the Pentecostal Revival, with figures such as William Seymour and Amy Semple McPherson. These waves, however, do not preclude local outbursts of revival. Nor should the Charismatic renewal of the 1970s be overlooked.

Historically, local revivals often take place unexpectedly, in ways that can disturb established norms, and among those who lack power and prestige. The Wesleyan revival (a subset of the larger Evangelical Revival) began as a local revival among college students at Oxford — a powerful place — but not among its elite. And as the revival spread, it took root not in Oxbridge or London, but in a sporadic belt that arched roughly from Cornwall in the southwest to Yorkshire in the northeast — not a geography of power in 18th-century England, but one on the fringes of it.

Its immediate fruit was a renewed and vital faith among many within the Church of England. This was after a period of social, political, and religious turmoil that included the English Civil Wars, the martyrdom of Charles I, the Commonwealth, the Restoration, and the Revolution of 1688. Most of Methodism would leave the Church of England in the decades after the death of the Wesley brothers. Many Methodists would take their place among other evangelicals within the Church of England, where an evangelical presence can still be found.

Asbury is no stranger to revival. Outbreaks of the Spirit’s work have been recorded sporadically there for years, the most significant perhaps in 1970, when something very similar to the current awakening took place, spread to other colleges and universities, and had an effect that would be felt for decades after many participants felt a call to ministry.

Named after Francis Asbury, the dominant leader of an independent American Methodism, the university is independent, not officially connected to any denomination, but it has strong roots in the Holiness Movement of Methodism. Perhaps because of these connections, some within Methodism critiqued the revival — always from a distance — imagining that what was happening at Asbury had something to do with the current turmoil of United Methodism. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Others, from a uniquely Reformed perspective, simply denied the reality of revivals. Still others took the opportunity to critique the university’s traditionalist perspective. In every case, I failed to see even one substantive critique of the Asbury Revival. Revivals can only truly be critiqued by their fruit. The initial fruit of the Asbury Revival can be described as prayer, repentance, worship, testimony, conversion, reconciliation, and a deep yearning for God’s presence — in other words, all of the historic signs of revival. Long-term effects will only become apparent in the long term.

The deep yearning that has been seen in the Asbury Revival is noteworthy. Wilmore is a not a large town. In fact, it’s the university, the seminary across the street, a small business district, and some houses. If you go to Wilmore, you do so intentionally. And so on February 18, when 20,000 people descended on the town to experience the Asbury Revival, even something as basic as the water and sewer systems were overwhelmed. The town had to be closed off to all but residents.

Jason Vickers, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, wrote one of the most significant testimonies about the revival. His words, published in Firebrand magazine, describe his initial curiosity, but also his experience once he crossed the street and walked into Hughes Auditorium, where the Revival was unfolding:

I wound up staying for well over an hour. In the time that I was there, I could not get over certain distinctive qualities about the atmosphere. The words that came to mind were: gentle, sweet, peaceful, serene, tender, still. Some people were singing. Others were talking. Many were praying. But there was something like a blessed stillness permeating the place. No one was swinging from the chandeliers. In fact, it was [quite] the opposite. What made this so wild was just how un-wild the whole thing was … is.

It is the peace that I find most striking. In addition to being a historian of the Evangelical Revival, I have many connections with Asbury and so I’ve received daily updates from people on the ground there. I’ve heard how the revival has spread throughout the town and how more than six different locations had to be opened to contain the people, in addition to those who simply wanted to be outside the main chapel in the yard. They note the peace, the repentance, and reconciliation, and the deep yearning for God seen in the hearts of the now tens of thousands of people from around the world who have experienced this awakening. It has all the classic marks of revival. And so I hope that it spreads. It already has. Even last week, I gathered with a group of students at Virginia Theological Seminary to pray for revival there. I hope you’ll join me in praying that the fire spreads, even to the ends of the earth.

Dr. Ryan N. Danker is director of the John Wesley Institute in Washington, D.C.

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