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Religious revival meeting at Eastham, Mass., 1852: Exhortation and preaching... (Public Domain)

If nothing else, the national public attention and copy-cat movements following the Asbury Revival speak to the need for spiritual revival—as in the Great First Awakening, most people are dissatisfied with established religion and are looking for ways to experience a genuine spiritual awakening.

The story of evangelicalism in the United States begins with the First and Second Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The First Great Awakening peaked in the 1740s but its impact continued through the American Revolution, while the Second Great Awakening began after the War of Independence and ran intermittently until the mid-nineteenth century. Arguably the most far-reaching social movement of the eighteenth century, these revivals created cultural confusion for religious traditionalists since revivalism was characterized by rebellion against established churches in an effort to recover a sense of spiritual authenticity: “a religion of the heart as opposed to the head” (Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, p. 13).

In the United States, revivals transformed Protestantism by undermining the very churches that had helped found the thirteen colonies, generating an explosion of new sects and denominations, and creating religious conflicts that eventually led to the separation of church and state. Thus, it is possible to trace the history of Protestantism in the United States by observing these moments of revivalism, from the First and Second Great Awakenings, to the 1906 Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, to last year’s revival at Asbury University in Kentucky.

Typified by their emotional fervor, large crowds, and reported miraculous charisms, evangelical revivals have long captured the public imagination. The second time Jonathan Edwards preached his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741) to a large crowd gathered in Enfield, Connecticut, “the congregation virtually rioted when the preacher had barely begun,  so it is impossible to say that they actually heard the sermon” (Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, p. 508). While the published version of the sermon is a carefully crafted text, it is known that Edwards preached extemporaneously to better connect with his audience. A fragmented two-page outline is what Edwards used when preaching that day in Enfield, not the completed handwritten or published versions of the sermon, and the outline (containing verbal cues designed to elicit response) stands as a perfect example of an “awakening” sermon designed to elicit a passionate response on the premise “that one could get to life eternal only after first being scared to death” (Ibid.).

Given this history, the extensive media coverage of the Asbury Revival—especially the barrage of 24-hour-a-day social media updates from participants and observers—ought not surprise us. As the national media spotlight landed on Wilmore, Kentucky, its effect could be felt across the nation as tens of thousands of people made a pilgrimage to Asbury University, a small Christian college thirty minutes south of Lexington, for “what some scholars and worshipers describe as the nation’s first major spiritual revival of the 21st century.” Christians poured into the university’s tiny chapel to join in prayer and song, hoping—as one student stated—to “experience the presence of God.”

The revival at Asbury University began on February 8, 2023, when a few dozen students lingered after an ordinary morning chapel service to continue singing and praying together. Word of their spontaneous gathering spread around campus, and by evening many more students joined them in the chapel with plans to spend the night. Within days, their youthful enthusiasm transformed into a national media event, attracting over 50,000 people to a small Kentucky town of about 6,000, and sparking similar revivals on other college campuses, like Lee University in Tennessee, Samford University in Alabama, and Cedarville University in Ohio.

For scholars who study matters of religion and theology in the public discourse, the Asbury Revival generates many questions. Given our nation’s long love affair with religious revivals, could these revivals be viewed as a form of public theology? If so, what does such a theology look like? How can we appraise the theological and cultural politics of evangelical revivals? Do past revivals shed light on the present moment? Or does this revival read differently from past movements given the rise of Christian Nationalism in the U.S.? Are revivals exercises in religious freedom, as so many participants believe? Or does such public religious enthusiasm seek to upend secularity? How have past revivals been linked to the fate of the nation? Are such revivals distinctly American or Protestant?

The Political Theology Network has invited four scholars to reflect on the Asbury Revival, to look back to the historical roots of American revivalism, to compare and contrast this revival with past revivals, while at the same time situating these recent events in the context of a racially, politically, and religiously divided Twenty-First Century America. Jon Bialecki, a lecturer in anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, holds out hope that the Asbury Revival marks an important shift in American religious life, but is deeply troubled by its relationship to Christian Nationalism. Lisa Gasson-Gardner, Assistant Professor of Religion at Mount Royal University, explores the liminal experience of “revival time” as different from ordinary time thus potentially transformative in concrete political ways, as evidenced by the inclusion and participation of queer students in the Asbury Revival. Michael Baysa, a Henderson-Harris Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Vermont, argues that “revival” has always been a contested term and suggests that in the final analysis, whether or not so-called revivals are genuinely spirit-led events remains an open question. Finally, Erica Ramirez, Director of Applied Research at Auburn Seminary, reflects on the exploitation of spiritual revival movements for political gain while noting the persistence of the miraculous despite scholarly predictions of secularism eclipsing religion.

If nothing else, the national public attention and copy-cat movements following the Asbury Revival speak to the need for spiritual revival—as in the Great First Awakening, most people are dissatisfied with established religion and are looking for ways to experience a genuine spiritual awakening. In other words, the rise of the Religious Nones is not a secularizing movement, marking a shift away from theistic belief toward atheism. Rather, the Asbury Revival speaks to the thirst for spiritual fulfillment that continues to underlie the national character given the fact that most who identify as religious “nones” still believe in God or some other higher power despite their alienation from and dissatisfaction with established religious institutions.

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.