xbn .
Tent Revival: "Jesus Christ set you free" (photo by Christopher Paquette)
Religion and the Public Life

Authorizing and Authenticating Revival

Debates around revival persist because of what it promises. Indeed, it could be a site of hope for evangelicals in the midst of stories about declining church membership and religious disaffiliation from younger generations. But for some who experience revival on a regular basis, frustration and disappointment might abound.

Should we call what happened in Asbury a “revival”? 

Revival has always been a contested term. By this, I do not mean that there is little consensus around what constitutes revival, though there are plenty of debates around its definition: rather, there is rarely any closure as to whether or not an event should be labeled as revival. Even when observers wait for its cultural or institutional fruits, historians will continue to argue for its status as revival well into the future. This has been true for even the most famous religious awakenings in the history of American Christianity and continues to be the case for the events in Asbury College. 

Who gets to call something a revival? What does it sanction as exemplary? And what’s at stake in publicizing it as such through media networks? These questions portend revivals’ politics and the many mediations that shape its public life. 

The term revival has historically suggested a binary between good and bad religiosity, and encourages an assessment of their respective witness to an otherwise profane world. While there have been many Christian traditions that understood the world as suffuse with the workings of the divine which would not warrant radical transformation, revival rhetoric avoided such claims. Revivalists have deployed the rhetoric of spiritual deadness or stagnancy to justify divine rupture into the world. Asbury president Timothy Tennent echoes this language in describing the events on campus: “There comes a point when the people of God become tired of causal prayers and move to the point of desperation which opens up in fresh ways to God’s surprising work.” American revival preachers of the past have used similar language to lament the spiritual practices of their presents and immediate pasts. Their speeches and sermons scripted for listeners and readers how to properly arbitrate between spiritualities, practices, and even selves that God sanctions and those that God does not. 

The closing prayer which inaugurated the outpouring at Asbury exemplified this pattern of revival rhetoric. As Pastor Zach Meerkreebs preached: “Asbury, the world needs this kind of love. Needs it! Syria and Turkey need this kind of love, your mom and dad need this kind of love, the teammates on your team, the people on your floor, Willmore, Kentucky; Lexington Kentucky; the United States needs this kind of love…Jesus, do a new thing in our midst, revive us by your love.” His plea was clear: there was something amiss or lacking in these situations and spaces – it could be divine love (if we take the speaker’s words at face value), evangelical attention, evidence for spirituality, or passion for ministry. Whatever it was, it demanded to be resuscitated because it supposedly no longer existed in these spaces. 

The universal applicability of revival rhetoric rested precisely on its ambiguity: it is never clear what revival should materially or spiritually manifest, and this has been a recurrent feature of revivals in the longer history of American evangelicalism. During the First Great Awakening revivals in the 1740s, famed preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) remarked in his publication Some Thoughts concerning the present revival of religion (1740), “This is certain that it is a great and wonderful Event, a strange Revolution, an unexpected, surprising Overturning of Things, suddenly brought to pass, such as never has been seen in New-England, and scarce ever has been heard of in any Land. Who that saw the State of Things in New-England a few Years ago, the State that it was settled in, and the Way that we had been so long going on in, would have thought that in so little a Time there would be such a Change?” (82). The terms revolution, unexpected, and surprising gestured towards the myriad of political, the social, the cultural, and spiritual changes in New England life in this period, yet Edwards kept open to interpretation what was actually worth celebrating as God’s “surprising work.” This was what made it powerful; not because it was obvious to listeners what they needed revolution from, but rather that it blessed congregants’ material frustrations with divine authority and scripted for his audience how to express their dissatisfactions with longstanding clergy and institutions in biblical terms. Its effectiveness was tied to a performance of ambiguity to meet any and all of his listeners’ needs.

Ambiguity has long been a part of this rhetorical tradition because revival was never intended to chart a particular vision of the future. Rather, it functioned as a malleable critique of contemporaneous spiritual practices and beliefs in order to legitimate revivalists’ prophetic and political authority. Antirevivalists during the Great Awakening revivals like Charles Chauncy (1705-1787) immediately identified the undermining effect of the “new” or “revolution” on longstanding religious cultures for the purposes of establishing new ones. Opponents of the revivals rallied to deliver sermons and publish pamphlets against itinerants like James Davenport (1716-1757) who would enter a town, condemn the local ministers’ teachings and practices, leave the congregation fractured, and then proceed to do the same in the next stop on his circuit. Chauncy’s rebuttal to Edwards in Seasonable Thoughts on the state of religion (1743) challenged the extent to which the revivalists actually cared about their listeners and readers’ spiritual well-being outside of their spiritual experience of conversion. Against the fleeting spiritualities that revivals emphasized, Chauncy stressed the importance of simply “living in the habitual Practice of that Piety towards GOD, and Righteousness” (309). 

Revivals’ constant emphasis on renewal, revolution, and other terms that signify an abrupt break or departure from traditional religious institutions and practices also risked foreclosing ecumenicalism. It left little room, or at least resisted acknowledging, the less surprising and more mundane workings of the divine through persons and events across other denominations that might not recognize the legitimacy or even desire to participate in the revival event. Perhaps this explains the shift in description from “revival” to “outpouring.” Asbury’s publications clarified that revival was something only some have used to describe the events. As President Tennent explained, “I think it is wise to see this, at the current phase, as an awakening. Only if we see lasting transformation which shakes the comfortable foundations of the church and truly brings us all to a new and deeper place can we look back, in hindsight and say ‘yes, this has been a revival.’” This move avoided the exclusive rhetoric that accompanies revivals, which tended to suggest the relative weakness or ineffectiveness of contemporaneous religious events and spiritual movements.

Nevertheless, the media life of the Asbury event grew, thanks largely to its initial self-description as revival. The sensationalism around the term fueled reporters’ coverage of the events as exceptional.

On February 8, 2023, a student reported on Asbury Collegian “Revival strikes Asbury once again” just twelve hours into the worship service. News began to spread through posts using the hashtag #asburyrevivals on X, formerly Twitter, and TikTok. Two days later, Kentucky Today and Outreach Magazine spread the word on revival by publishing student testimonies and linking to the original Asbury Collegian article. Scholars like John Fea began reporting on social media reactions to revival and by February 13, Christianity Today, Tom McCall published his article titled “Asbury Professor: We’re Witnessing a Surprising Work of God,” hearkening back to Jonathan Edwards’ own assessment of the First Greak Awakening revivals. After a week of the event, national outlets picked up on the events at Asbury. On February 15, the Washington Post published an article titled “Why students at a Kentucky Christian school are praying and singing round the clock” and three days later, Fox News also published an opinion piece by Nick Hall titled “I’ve been to #AsburyRevival. It’s real and spreading. This is what I saw.” The following day, the New York Post reported “Asbury Revival’ church service in 11th day of nonstop worship in Kentucky.” 

It was clear: the term revival and the novelties attached to the term caught the attention of a national audience and grew the event’s life well beyond Asbury’s campus. 

In much of the same way, media attention was at stake for the exchange between Edwards and Chauncy during the First Great Awakening. Edwards included the term revival in the title of his work to authenticate the events as a “surprising work of God.” This led printers publishing his works to describe the events in a similar light. For this reason, Chauncy omitted revival from the title of his response, preferring instead to just call it the “state of religion in New-England.” Depending on which side local authorities found more convincing, publishers would either continue promoting the event as revival or stop reporting on it altogether. Publishers would eventually side with Chauncy as coverage waned over the next few years, despite its spirit proceeding outside of the coverage of newspapers and pamphlets through itinerancy and correspondences. 

However, this is where we see the pernicious effects of revivals’ claims to novelty and newness. More often than not, within a mass media environment, revival rhetoric did more to argue for the exceptionalism of an event so as to justify its coverage in the public sphere than to actually describe the emergence of something important. In other words, revival is recruited into the very consumerist logics of the news cycle that read relevance and popularization as means of legitimation. This encouraged Christians to interpret cultural relevance through media coverage as effectiveness and evidence of divine sanction for the event. 

Combining the dual forces of critique and legitimization, we see the politics of revival through the ways it arbitrated what was important and relevant across different Christian communities and practices. In the 1740s Great Awakening, press coverage fixated on the arrival of itinerant preachers like George Whitefield and the works of men like Edwards, in part because Whitefield himself was a brilliant marketer and promoter of his revival tour in the British colonies. However, coverage through the printing press overlooked the emergent spiritualities of the laity, as scholar Douglas Winiarski covered in his work Darkness Falls in the Land of Light (2017) and conversions that had already been occurring among Native Americans, as Linford Fisher has argued in The Indian Great Awakening (2014). 

The racial dynamics of the media coverage around Asbury appeared more readily through the ways reporters readily took for granted revival rhetoric’s claim to novelty and newness at the expense of the countless Christian traditions that exercised and experienced revival regularly, particularly among immigrant churches and non-White congregations. In Boston, for example, congregations were growing despite popular secularization narratives. Publications deemed their growth and spiritual vitality as a “quiet” revival rather than simply as revival. This distinction signaled the importance of proper revival to be a national media spectacle. Such logics only serve to further marginalize entire communities from the public sphere under the guise that non-White church growth and revivalism does not warrant national news coverage which purports to speak to and for Americans writ large.

However, “quiet” also signals the ways cultural significance becomes coded with metrics by and for White Christian bodies. It’s how the imagined White populace is affected by spiritual renewal and how they participate in those events that registered to publications’ readers and audiences as true “revival” that would in-turn merit media coverage and popular attention. When read alongside the way that revival arbitrated between dynamic and stagnating spirituality, this may explain why non-White Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions continue to be under-covered by evangelical publications and struggle for recognition as exercising revivals under their own terms. 

Debates around revival persist because of what it promises. Indeed, revivals could be a site of hope for evangelicals in the midst of stories about declining church membership and religious disaffiliation from younger generations. But for some who experience revival on a regular basis, frustration and disappointment might abound. 

When Asbury’s president provided the qualifier, “We will know revival has truly come to us when we are truly changed to live more like [Jesus] at work, at study, at worship, and at witness,” did this vision already incorporate the lives and experiences of those who are already doing this work, or did it disqualify the work of non-White religiosities as insufficient? The rhetoric around revival as a novelty and surprising work, whose cultural relevance seems attached to media channels’ fixation on White Christianity, certainly suggested that the rhetoric did more work to dismiss rather than to include voices, experiences, and bodies that constitute the experience of revival. 

So when we ponder the question: should we call what happened in Asbury a “revival,” the term’s politics should always make us pause.

Revivals: Now & Then

Symposium Essays

Asbury, Surprise, and the Fate of American Christian Nationalism

And this brings us to the aspect of Asbury that is either hopeful or depressing. Again and again, what happened in Asbury in February of 2023 is presented as first being centered around the youth and, second, as devoid of the common American strain of nationalist muscular Christianity.

The Asbury Revival: For Such a Queer Time as This?

Is revival time a kind of queer time? The suspension of quotidian time during a revival event makes possible a queer time and place, but this possibility must be held in tension with the experience of openly queer people at Asbury, whose presence at the revival caused a furor in the conservative media.

Authorizing and Authenticating Revival

Debates around revival persist because of what it promises. Indeed, it could be a site of hope for evangelicals in the midst of stories about declining church membership and religious disaffiliation from younger generations. But for some who experience revival on a regular basis, frustration and disappointment might abound.

American Revival: The Persistence of Miracles

In what follows I want to trace a political theology of miracles that makes possible their circulation in U.S. revivalism. A straightforward theology—namely that God does miracles—is certainly part of the motivating belief for revivalism. But I want to trace here the political contours of revivalisms’ continuous circulation of the miraculous, well past the time that secularization theory suggested that they would give way instead to secularity, science and the enlightenment.

One thought on “Authorizing and Authenticating Revival

  1. It seems to me that a revival is an anachronistic exercise, a way to go back into past experiences and hope to replicate what, to some, was a lens through which to look at reality with a disposition to accept it as “God’s Will.” I think a revival in the XXI Century is necessary, not as a retrospective exercise but as a means to get a new perspective of the context in which we live and to hopefully gain the spiritual fortitude to transform our world to achieve justice and peace for all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!