Wilmore, Ky. — The secular and cynical find it difficult to believe not only that “God governs in the affairs of men,” as Benjamin Franklin said, or that He would visit a small town where there are few traffic lights. A decent restaurant is several miles away.
Something happened here at Asbury University. Kevin Brown, the president, is reluctant to use the word “revival” to describe what began early last month and lasted for several weeks. He prefers “outpouring” to describe the days of prayer, repentance and singing that drew as many as 50,000 people to campus from miles away and other countries, along with international attention from a media that is normally indifferent to spiritual things unless they involve scandalous behavior.
Professors who have been at the school for years and read about previous spiritual experiences at this campus and in other places told me they had never seen anything like it.
Theological explanations aside, perhaps this outpouring can be partially explained by a recent NBC News poll that found that 71% of those surveyed believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Little seems to be working. We have a record national debt. Confidence in our political leadership is low. America’s enemies seem ready to take advantage of what they perceive as weakness and indecisiveness in our president. Chinese President Xi Jinping has said he believes America is in decline. Evidence for that can be found in numerous places. March Madness could describe every month in America and not just one related to college basketball. We appear to be heading toward national suicide.
Spiritual “awakenings,” as they are sometimes called, are nothing new. “The Great Awakening” of the mid-18th century began with the preaching of Jonathan Edwards (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) at his Northampton, Massachusetts, church. Patrick Morley, writing for the publication Church Leader, described what is common to all such awakenings: “People sense the presence of God powerfully; conviction, despair, contrition, repentance and prayer come easily; people thirst for God’s word; many authentic conversions occur, and backsliders are renewed.”
A second Great Awakening occurred between 1800 and 1840 under the preaching of James McGready and Charles Finney. Evangelical church membership grew from 350,000 to 3 million.
The revival of 1857 was the greatest of them all. An estimated 1 million people were added to church rolls. Church historian J. Edwin Orr said that 10,000 people a week were converted in New York City alone. Orr wrote: “Trinity Episcopal Church in Chicago had a hundred and twenty-one members in 1857; fourteen hundred in 1860. That was typical of the churches. More than a million people were converted to God in one year out of a population of thirty million. What astounded many was the social impact as it paved the way for the abolitionist movement that eventually ended slavery and created missionary societies that built hospitals and performed other good works around the world.”
We’ve tried everything else in America, from politics to government to spending money. Nothing seems to be working as effectively as that which came before from what Orr described as “a concert of prayer.”
Is that what happened at Asbury University? Time will tell. Meanwhile, what C.S. Lewis said might be helpful in leading us somewhere other than placing too much faith in human institutions: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
The Asbury students appear to be on to something.
• Readers may email Cal Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for Cal Thomas’ latest book, “America’s Expiration Date: The Fall of Empires and Superpowers and the Future of the United States” (HarperCollins/Zondervan).
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