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Is this how a new Great Awakening begins?

Religious faith appears to be receding in American life. And yet a spontaneous worship service in Kentucky went viral.

The chapel on the campus of Asbury University in Wilmore, Ky., became the center of a multi-week religious revival.JESSE BARBER/NYT

As Christians enter Holy Week, Jews prepare for Passover, and Muslims approach the midpoint of Ramadan, a new survey suggests that religion and other traditional American values are weaker than they have ever been.

“Patriotism, religious faith, having children, and other priorities that helped define the national character for generations are receding in importance,” reported The Wall Street Journal on Monday as it released the findings of its latest national survey conducted with NORC, a social research center at the University of Chicago. Among its key findings is that only 39 percent of respondents now say that religion is “very important” to them, a sharp drop from the 62 percent who said so when the Journal first posed the question in 1998.


The survey inquired about faith in a number of ways. To the question “Do you consider yourself a religious person?,” 52 percent answered either “not at all” or only “slightly.” Asked how often they attend religious services, 51 percent said “never” or “less than once a year.” One in four respondents (24 percent) identified themselves as having no religion at all, or as atheists or agnostics.

By contrast, when asked about belief in God, a substantial majority, 62 percent, described themselves as believers. Another 17 percent said that they believe “some of the time” or that they believe in an unspecified “Higher Power.”

Like other surveys in recent years, the Wall Street Journal/NORC findings thus confirm that organized religion and regular religious practice are waning in America. And yet most Americans continue to profess confidence in the existence of God. Is that because belief in a deity is a lagging indicator of society’s religious collapse and will be the last vestige of religious faith to give way? Or could it be that even in an age when long-held spiritual and social values are crumbling, the conviction that there is a God who governs the world and cares about human behavior remains a bedrock of American culture — a bedrock upon which a religious renewal might be built?


Such religious renewals have happened before. There were three “Great Awakenings” in American history — the first in the 1720s and ’30s, the second in the first decades of the 19th century, and the third between the late 1850s and the early 1900s. In each of them, waves of religious enthusiasm swept the country, leading to explosive growth in church membership, a powerful focus on the improvement of moral character, and dramatic changes in social priorities.

Are we seeing the beginnings of another religious rebirth?

Consider the remarkable happenings recently at Asbury University. At the tiny Christian college in Wilmore, Ky., a few students decided to remain in Hughes Auditorium following the regular morning prayers on Feb. 8. The service had ended with a gospel choir, and some of the kids wanted to keep singing and praying together. Word of the spontaneous worship began to make the rounds. Before long, there were 50 students in the auditorium; by early afternoon, there were hundreds. Asbury president Kevin Brown sent out a two-sentence email: “There’s worship happening in Hughes. You’re welcome to join.”

Join they did. More and more students poured into the auditorium, with many remaining through the night and into a second day, then into a third, and a fourth. “I have never seen Hughes this packed,” wrote Alexandra Presta, the editor of the campus newspaper. “Very few seats remain empty, but people crowd the walls, the floor, and the balcony.”


Word of the revival spread. The crowd of worshipers grew even larger, as residents from the surrounding area, and then from around the country, began surging to Asbury. The university opened additional buildings to accommodate the overflow. “A nonstop Kentucky prayer ‘revival’ is going viral on TikTok, and people are traveling thousands of miles to take part,” NBC News reported on Feb. 15. By then the hashtag #AsburyRevival had appeared in tens of millions of online posts. An estimated 15,000 people were participating in each day’s prayer meetings, which were kept deliberately low-key — no projector screens, no high-tech bells and whistles, no electronic instruments.

Worship on the campus of Asbury University on Feb. 18.JESSE BARBER/NYT

Finally, on Feb. 24, the university announced that no more revival services would be held. This was partly in recognition of the strain being placed on tiny Wilmore’s meager municipal facilities, and partly so that students and staff could return to regular academics. All told, the religious “outpouring,” as many called it, had attracted students from more than 260 colleges, according to Inside Higher Ed. Similar revivals broke out at other schools, including Lee University in Tennessee, Cedarville University in Ohio, Samford University in Alabama, Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, and Ohio State University.

Participants repeatedly noted that what happened at Asbury wasn’t planned, and no one had scripted the prayer services. The majority of those participating were members of Generation Z, the age group most likely to reject organized religion — and also most likely to experience depression, suicidal impulses, and other forms of psychological distress. As in earlier Christian revival movements, those taking part reported being cured of afflictions. But unlike previous revivals, noted The New York Times, “accounts of healing at Asbury are overwhelmingly about mental health, trauma, and disillusionment.”


Could America be on the cusp of another Great Awakening? It seems improbable that a society in which religious influence has declined so markedly could undergo a sweeping revival of faith. It must have seemed improbable in earlier eras, too. But it happened.

During the Second Great Awakening in the decades before the Civil War, a broad turn to religion fueled a re-moralization of a society reeling from surging rates of crime, alcoholism, and social breakdown. “There was an unprecedented growth in charities, friendly societies, working men’s institutes, temperance groups, church and synagogue associations, Sunday schools, YMCA buildings, and moral campaigns of every shape and size,” wrote the late Jonathan Sacks, a renowned British rabbi and public intellectual. The abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and the improvement of working conditions came to the fore as powerful ethical concerns.

Maybe Asbury was a fluke, a brief outpouring of enthusiasm on a Christian campus with no lasting ripple effect. Or maybe the Asbury Revival speaks to something larger. At a time when civil society has grown so dysfunctional — when Americans fear their nation is on the wrong track, when negative politics are making people sick, when happiness is at its lowest ebb — might a broad return to religion be on the horizon?


Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.