WILMORE, Kentucky – One morning in 1970, without warning, all heaven broke loose during Asbury College’s 10 a.m. chapel service.
“When you walked into the back of Hughes Auditorium … there was a kind of an aura, kind of a glow about the chapel,” said Dr. David Hunt, a Louisville physician who was then a student.
“I always have been reminded of the verse ‘Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.’ You just walked in and sensed that God had indeed sent His Spirit.”
The service, a routine meeting, was scheduled for 50 minutes. Instead, it lasted 185 hours non-stop, 24 hours a day. Intermittently, it continued for weeks. Ultimately, it spread across the United States and into foreign countries. Some say it is being felt even today.
This year marks the 21st anniversary of the landmark 1970 Asbury College revival, an unplanned, unled display of fervor that has been compared to the Great Awakenings of 1740 and 1800. This year is also the 41st anniversary of a strikingly similar revival Asbury experienced in 1950.
A bigger outbreak – a global revival, in fact – will begin soon, says David McKenna, president of adjacent Asbury Theological Seminary, in his new book, The Coming Great Awakening.
The revival might not start at Asbury, but it probably will begin on campuses, says McKenna, a noted author. He travels to many colleges and says, “I see the signs wherever I go.”
Those signs include a generation of students wounded by family breakdowns and searching for spiritual fulfillment. Much of the coming revival will be a delayed reaction, McKenna thinks, to what happened at Asbury College 20 years ago.
A Baptism of Love
On February 3, 1970, students and faculty members had shown up at the college’s chapel, Hughes auditorium, for what they assumed would be one more routine meeting.
Students were required to attend chapel services three times a week. Asbury, in Wilmore, a city of 4,300 about 16 miles south of Lexington, is an interdenominational Christian college whose roots are in the Wesleyan tradition of the Methodist church. (John and Charles Wesley, brothers, were 18th century revivalists.)
On that Tuesday morning in 1970, Custer Reynolds, Asbury’s academic dean and a Methodist layman, was in charge. President Dennis Kinlaw was traveling. Reynolds did not preach. Instead, he briefly gave his testimony, then issued an invitation for students to talk about their own Christian experiences. There was nothing particularly unusual about that.
One student responded to his offer. Then another. Then another.
“Then they started pouring to the altar,” Reynolds said. “it just broke.”
Gradually, inexplicably, students and faculty members alike found themselves quietly praying, weeping, singing. They sought out others to whom they had done wrong deeds and asked for forgiveness. The chapel service went on and on.
Asbury, like many evangelical organizations, held annual, scheduled “revivals” with guest ministers and services booked in advance. This, however, was not the same. No one had planned it. No one was leading it.
There was just a different feeling about that day,” said Marilyn Blackburn, who was the a junior at the college. She is now a substitute schoolteacher in New Jersey.
People didn’t want to leave she said. They were afraid they would miss something wonderful. J.T. Seamands vividly remembers. Seamands, now retired, was then a professor at adjacent Asbury Theological Seminary, which is a separate institution from the college. He and his wife, author Ruth Seamonds, were waiting for their daughter to come home from lunch.
Sandra Seamonds, an undergraduate at the college, was late. She burst through the door and exclaimed, “You simply wouldn’t believe what’s happening at the college,” according to J.T. Seamand’s book, On Tiptoe With Love.
She was right. Her dad didn’t believe. Eventually, he went to Hughes Auditorium to investigate. The 1,500 seat chapel was packed. When he entered, J.T. Seamands felt as if he had been baptized in an unaccountable spirit of love, he said. His skepticism vanished.
“I said to myself, ‘This is not of man,’” he recalled recently. “‘This is of God.’”
‘The Lord walked in’
Reynolds, the dean, called Kinlaw, the president, who was at a conference in western Canada. Kinlaw, like Seamands, had reservations about the revival. He returned to the campus two days later, in the wee hours of the morning. The meeting, he found, was still going.
“I was scared,” Kinlaw said.
That is, he knew he would be held responsible if matters got out of hand. At the same time, he didn’t want to intervene and quench an authentic move of God.
It was after 2 a.m., but Kinlaw walked to Hughes Auditorium and sat on the back pew. He was approached by a student who asked for his counsel. Though no one knew it, she said quietly, she had been a habitual liar. She needed to make reparations to people on campus she had wronged.
Soon Kinlaw, too, was convinced that the revival was legitimate. Later, a reporter asked him to explain the outbreak.
“I said, ‘Well, you may not understand this,’” Kinlaw recalled, “‘but the only way I know how to account for this is that last Tuesday morning, about 20 of 11, the Lord Jesus walked into Hughes Auditorium, and He’s been there ever since, and you’ve got the whole community paying tribute to His presence.’
“It got real quiet,” Kinlaw said, chuckling at the memory of the reporter’s response.
Twenty years later, Kinlaw acknowledges that people might reasonably think the revival was the result of contagious emotions among students. It was after all, the Age of Aquarius, a time of runaway emotions of many kinds.
“There’s psychological factors involved,” Kinlaw agreed, “because we’re psyches…. But there’s something beyond that.”
One remarkable thing, given the youthfulness of the worshipers, he said, was that the marathon service was uncannily orderly. Worshipers did not become loud, did not speak out of turn, did not fall down on the floor in religious ecstasy.
The feelings were subtle yet, in their own way, overwhelming. Blackburn, the schoolteacher, said she had always been too meek. “I became aware that I needed more boldness in sharing my faith.”
The Revival Spreads
News of the revival spread in newspapers and on television. Strangers flocked to Wilmore to worship with the students. Asbury officials dismissed classes. By Thursday, a revival had broken out at the seminary, across the street from the college.
Leaders of other institutions read of the service in publications as far-flung as The Indianapolis Star, the Chicago Tribune, The Seattle Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and heard of it by word of mouth. They invited Asbury students and faculty members to come and tell what was happening.
One of those who went out to speak was Blackburn, the woman who had been shy about her beliefs.
Wherever the Asburyians traveled, revival followed. By the summer of 1970, the revival had reached more than 130 other colleges, seminaries and Bible schools, and scores of churches, according to published accounts. It spread from New York to California, and even to South America.
When several Asbury students gave their testimonies at the Miridian Street Church of God in Anderson, Indiana, for instance, the church experienced a spontaneous revival that lasted 50 consecutive nights. According to old clippings from Indiana newspapers, the Anderson church soon became so packed that the services had to be moved to a school gymnasium. Up to 2,500 people a night flocked to the gym in hopes of being touched by God.
A Look at History
Putting the 1970 Asbury revival in proper perspective is not easy, although America’s history is peppered with similar phenomena.
The Great Awakenings of 1740 and 1800, for instance, helped change the course of American society by turning a rowdy frontier into the bedrock of Christianity. There also have been many revivals on American college campuses, dating back at least to 1795, when a famous one erupted at Yale.
“I would say that I think that revivals are here to stay in this country,” said David E. Harrell, an Auburn University historian who is perhaps the foremost secular scholar on the subject.
Several have struck Asbury. During a 1905 revival, E. Stanley Jones, an Asbury student, felt called to become a missionary, he later wrote. Jones has since been hailed as among the most influential missionaries of the century.
In February 1950, another spontaneous revival roared through Asbury College. At the same time, revivals touched Wheaton College in Illinois and other campuses. A smaller revival followed in 1958.
The 1970 Asbury revival seems slightly larger in scope than, say, the one in 1950, Asbury officials say. The 1970 movement lasted longer and spread farther. Still its primary explosion was shorter-lived and more localized than history’s biggest revivals, said Mark Knoll, a professor of history at Wheaton College and an expert on evangelical issues.
On the other hand, Harrell said, the Asbury revival occurred simultaneously with a massive neo-Pentecostal renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. The Asbury revival was not itself Pentecostal, in that there was no speaking in tongues or healing by faith. But if lumped with that charismatic movement and the “born-again” revivals of the mid-70s, the Asbury outbreak might be part of the most influential world-wide renewals of the century.
Really, said Noll, Harrell and other scholars, it is too early to gauge the revival’s true place. It often takes a generation or more for a religious renewal to be fully felt throughout society.
Another complicated question is how such revivals happen.
“If you take a non-religious perspective, obviously, it’s sociological factors … learned behavior, patterned response,” said Randall Balmer, a historian of religion at Columbia University. His book on evangelicals, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, is being made into a PBS television series.
“If on the other hand,” Balmer said, “you are inclined to attribute it to the Holy Spirit, as the people involved are, then it’s a miraculous visitation.”
Pressed, Balmer said he wasn’t sure which view was correct. “I guess I’m not jaded enough to dismiss that it might be something, a work of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “At the same time, I think I recognize that the Holy Spirit works through specific cultural and sociological circumstances…. I honestly don’t know.”
Asbury in 1970 certainly was conducive to a revival. The college had a Wesleyan tradition and a history of unexpected revivals. Students were not strangers to the idea. A number had, in fact, been praying for an outbreak.
In addition, the campus was in an upheaval. There was the general distress of the times, and there were tensions specific to the college, stemming from a messy change in administrations a few years before.
Revivals often occur in times of discord.
A Coming Awakening?
That’s partly why McKenna, the seminary president, thinks a major revival could sweep college campuses in the 1990s. However, those campuses might as easily be in Eastern Europe, Africa or Latin America as in the United States.
Those societies, perhaps more than this country’s, he said, are suffering breakdowns of moral consensus and of institutions of authority. Today in this country, too, countless thousands of students have been hurt – by broken homes and childhood abuse.
“You’re really talking to a stressful, wounded group of young people,” McKenna said. “They become the ones who are needy and responsive.”
In December, 18,000 students from many different nations gathered at the University of Illinois for “Urbana 90” a triennial rally sponsored by InterVarsity Missions. McKenna thinks that the meeting might spark another Great Awakening, a multinational, multiethnic one. Some of its leaders might be the same people who were touched by the 1970 revival, who now are middle-aged and hold positions of church and college leadership.
An Open Matter
In the end, it is impossible to say empirically what happened at Asbury College in 1970, or in the many great revivals throughout Western history. Or what will underlie any revival to come.
Experts say revivals result when cataclysmic religious, cultural and historical movements collide. Whether God is present in those collisions is less clear.
Noll, the Wheaton professor, said that the truest test of that is whether the revivals produce lasting changes in people’s lives. Super Bowls create mass excitement, he said, but they don’t alter human beings forever. Unfortunately, the long-tern effects of revivals on individuals have received little academic attention.
If permanent change is indeed the test, then the issue was decided long ago for many of the people who witnessed the Asbury revival.
“It was a real turning point, I think, where I sensed that God really desired more of a commitment on my part of my life to Him,” said Hunt, the doctor. “You stand in that kind of presence and that kind of awe … it’s very difficult, I think, for a mortal man not to really look and examine and say, ‘What does this God want of my life?’”
In the 1970 book One Divine Moment, Jeff Blake, then an Asbury history major, described the revival as a 20th century day of Pentecost. In the Bible, the day of Pentecost was when God poured out the Holy Spirit on His apostles and created the Christian Church.
Today, “I believe that’s true,” said Blake, now with Goodwill Industries of the Bluegrass. “It was the kind of moment that only God could create,” Blake said. “It’s just the kind of experience that lives on with you always.”
Blackburn, the formerly meek woman, agreed. “I changed,” she said. “I was different.” She remains awed that she was allowed to see with her own eyes the outpouring, she said. It left her confident that God is in control of the world and of her life.
Kinlaw, the Asbury College president, started that long-ago week as a doubter of the revival. He ended as a believer in the revival’s power and truth. He is a believer now.
“There was this sense of the divine presence that one doesn’t have often in his life,” he said. “And when you do have it, you never quite get over it …
“You know. You know. You know it in your bone marrow.”
This article was reprinted by permission from the Lexington Herald Leader.