ANALYSIS: ‘Heart Strangely Warmed:' The historical, theological context of the Asbury revival

Religious revival at Asbury University has captivated the nation, but many are unaware of the theological or historical context of this revival.

Some of the largest revival meetings of the Second Great Awakening took place in Kentucky.

A religious revival at Asbury University, a small Christian university in Wilmore, Kentucky, has captivated the nation. Since the revival began on Feb. 8, worship, preaching, and the experience of spiritual renewal by thousands of students and visitors continued unabated until the event drew to a close the final week of February.

Previous revivals at Asbury have been noted in much of the coverage of this most recent revival. Many, however, are unaware of the theological or historical context of this revival, and how that context can help us better understand its significance in contemporary American life. 

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Although not officially associated with a particular denomination, Asbury has its roots in the spirituality of the 18th-century English evangelist John Wesley.

Wesley, though raised and ordained within the Church of England and affirming traditional Christian doctrine intellectually, experienced a profound personal spiritual renewal in 1738. That year, at a Bible study in London, he suddenly felt the truths of the gospel come to life in a way that they had not before.

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death,” Wesley said of the experience.

With his newfound enthusiasm, Wesley began to organize independent groups and societies across England focused on spiritual discipline, personal holiness, and good works in service of society. Due to their focus on a methodical Christian life, they came to be called “Methodists.” 

Wesley’s conviction was that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, men and women could become “entirely sanctified” in this life—having a profound emotional experience of the indwelling presence of God, producing great levels of personal holiness and commitment. 

This wholehearted embrace of the transformative power of the gospel to enable men and women to overcome personal sin stood in contrast to the more pessimistic view of much Church of England theology, which often emphasized the profound sinfulness of Man.

Taking his cue from Wesley’s thought and practice, Wesley’s associate and fellow “Methodist” George Whitefield, who lived and ministered in the American colonies in much of the mid-1700s, subsequently became one of the most influential preachers during America’s First Great Awakening in the period just before the Revolutionary War.

Revivalist preachers during this Great Awakening sought to “revive” what they saw as the relatively stagnant spiritual life of many early American colonists, calling them to radical conversion and repentance. 

“The movement came at a time when the idea of secular rationalism was being emphasized, and passion for religion had grown stale,” explains

Whitefield and others’ revivalist preaching was therefore often accompanied by great emotional fervor and ecstatic expressions of religious renewal. 

In the latter years of the 18th century, and into the early 19th, America experienced a Second Great Awakening. This coincided with the beginnings of American Western expansion, and, once again, Methodist preachers played a major role in shaping the revivals.

Some of the largest revival meetings of the Second Great Awakening took place in Kentucky. And one of the most influential Methodist preachers of this period was none other than Francis Asbury, circuit preacher and namesake of Asbury University.

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Revival, and its associated Methodist spirituality of radical conversion, emotional enthusiasm, and commitment to holiness, then, are part of the lifeblood of Asbury–and, in many ways, of America itself. During periods of spiritual laxity and increasing secularization in America, revival has often broken out, led by Christians committed to countering that laxity and secularization.

As the number of Americans, especially young Americans, that are actively religious has significantly decreased in recent years, Asbury’s revival follows in the country’s tradition of Methodist-led spiritual renewal. The more far-reaching consequences of that revival, and whether it may lead to yet another Great Awakening, remain to be seen.