The Ichthus Music Festival: Fifty Years As A Spiritual Heritage in Music
Article by: Robbie Danielson, Scholarly Communications Librarian
Note: If the story of the history of Ichthus interests you, be on the lookout for an expanded article with more photographs in October in the Fall 2020 issue of The Asbury Journal. For additional interesting articles about other topics, see the current edition: Spring 2020 (Vol. 75 no. 1) issue of The Asbury Journal.
It was a very different world in Wilmore in 1970. The world seemed in a cultural tailspin. With the Vietnam War in full swing, the Woodstock revolution of the previous year, and Christianity shortly to be culturally defined by popular musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) and Godspell (1971), the time seemed right for an Evangelical response. On the campus of Asbury Theological Seminary, faculty like Dr. Gilbert James and Dr. Robert Lyon were asking probing questions about faith and society, and an idea emerged to hold a Christian music festival as a counterpoint to Woodstock. Using the Wilmore campground, the site of many traditional Holiness camp meetings, the first Ichthus festival was established. Little did those first organizers realize it would continue as one of the major Christian music festivals in the U.S. until 2012, for 43 years, and would be called by at least one writer, the “granddaddy” of all Christian music festivals.1
At the start of this movement, the Ichthus Music Festival was born with an evangelistic emphasis, according to Bob Lyon, “to use the medium of young people to reach young people.”2 Started by a small group of students called the Christian Service Brotherhood, it developed in part from students who had gone with Dr. James to live and work with urban churches in New York during the summer of 1969. Over an executive meeting in the Seminary cafeteria for breakfast in March of 1970, Dr. Lyon suggested the possibility of a Christian response to Woodstock and the students immediately began planning.3 They only had about six weeks to plan the entire event. The first poster and advertisement for the festival reads in part,
Ours is a musically oriented society. Ichthus 70 moves into that realm with power. Ichthus 70 is a weekend of contemporary expression of the Christian faith through music. Ichthus 70 provides togetherness for hundreds of Christians from colleges across the nation… Ichthus 70 brings you folk and folk rock groups from many schools and areas. Ichthus 70 presents the best in entertainment with a message. Ichthus 70 offers you two days of music for less than the price of one album. Ichthus 70 is a demonstration of the society of the committed.
The tickets cost $2.50 if you preregistered ($4.50 with housing) and $4.00 at the gate. By 2010, full event tickets were $99.00 and single day tickets were $47.00 at the gate. Student volunteers worked that festival and the many that followed, most coming from Asbury College (now Asbury University) and Asbury Theological Seminary. From those picking up trash and providing stage security, to those serving in prayer tents and concession stands, there were many roles to be filled. Over time those numbers increased.
For that first festival, most of the performers were local, and the music was primarily folk music, many with connections to Ed Kilbourne, a local musician from Asbury College and Asbury Seminary, who had released an album of his own music. People who came to the first festival were housed in the dorms on the campground, and one of the early founders remembers getting the musicians to help make egg salad and cold cut sandwiches to feed them all. Over time, the festival grew and the music became more diverse. Later, well-known musicians, such as Andraé Crouch, Steven Curtis Chapman, DC Talk, TobyMac, Jars of Clay, and Skillet would preform at Ichthus.
By their third year in 1972, registrations began to come in and the fledgling festival organizers gave up on the idea of housing the growing numbers, turning to tents and camping instead. The festival moved out of the Tabernacle into the field behind the Wilmore campground, where a flatbed trailer served as a stage for around 1,200 to 1,400 attendees. Rev. Jack Harnish, the general director of Ichthus that year, notes that his biggest takeaway was “learning as a pastor to think creatively. What if we tried this? – Not being afraid to take a risk.” By 1996 there were recorded 14,000 people in attendance and almost 1,000 people who committed their lives to Christ that year alone. There were around 20,000 people present in 2004 at its height.
Christian teachers were also brought to preach, teach, and evangelize during the course of the festival. Sometime in the early 1970’s when Dr. Lyon went on sabbatical, Dr. John Oswalt was asked to be the faculty representative on the committee. Somewhere about this same time, organizers noticed there were empty spots in the program as the musical groups were changing and setting up. As Dr. Oswalt4 remembers, “so they asked me if I could do some 3-6 minute talks to fill those spots. Daunting to think of speaking to thousands of milling teenagers! But I said yes, and did four or five of these each year for three years. I always wondered if I was connecting with anyone in all the hubbub. However, there have been a few occasions when someone has reminded me of something I said during one of those times, so apparently there was some connection.”
Above all, Ichthus influenced people from all different parts of the country and from different walks of life. Tanya Goodman Sykes (of the Happy Goodman Family) wrote at Andraé Crouch’s passing in 2015,
I can still remember how the rain felt on my skin that day. I was 15 years old, and my friends and I had driven to Wilmore, Kentucky, to attend the Ichthus Festival at Asbury College. We were beyond thrilled because Andraé Crouch and the Disciples were headlining that year. There was a steady drizzle the entire drive up, and just before Andraé took the stage, it gave way to heavy rain, but it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air that day as an entire hillside of dripping wet, mostly teenagers sang along- “Jesus is the answer for the world today…” Truly, I have never experienced anything quite like it before or since. And I certainly have never stood in the pouring rain to hear anyone else.5
Rev. Jack Harnish, also remembered the passing of Andraé Crouch in 2015 writing,
The highlight of the weekend was a performance by Andraé Crouch and the Disciples. If the whole notion of a folk-rock festival was a bit shocking for the town of Wilmore, the fact that the headliner was an African American was even more controversial. But once he took the stage, no one could question his spirit and his gift… I remember him closing the festival that weekend with, “It won’t be long, soon we’ll be leavin’ here; it won’t be long, we’ll be goin’ home.”6
By 1998, the Wilmore campground was becoming too small of a venue for this growing musical event, so a 111-acre site, known at the Ichthus Farm (now called Servant Heart Farm) was purchased and became the site of the festival from 1999 till 2012. The space allowed for more stages, bigger venues, and more room for campers. After the move to the new location, the festival has six stages including: The Main Stage, The Deep End, The Edge, two separate Indie Stages, and The Galleria Stage. This reflects both the growth of the festival, but also the diversity that had occurred in contemporary Christian music as well.
Ichthus was also well known for the amount of rain it seemed to attract. Originally held in early May or late April, which allowed the festival to make use of a large number of volunteers from Asbury College and Asbury Theological Seminary before the summer break in classes, by 2006 the organizers decided to move the festival to mid-June. Part of this move was due to the weather in 2005. Choosing the rather unfortunate theme of “Let it Rain,” did nothing to help matters. As one reviewer noted on the Friday afternoon,
Then, the theme of Ichthus 2005, “Let it Rain,” manifested itself. Only it did not just rain, it poured. A tornado warning forced campers to evacuate and take shelter in their vehicles. Cassie and I struggled against the wind and the rain to take down our tent. After the storm blew over, I was very dismayed to hear the rest of the concerts for the evening had been canceled… Saturday, the weather got even stranger. The gravel on the roads helped make them less muddy than last year, but there was still quite a bit of mud. It was also unusually cold… We had hoped to see Day of Fire during the afternoon, but we could not stand the cold. As we were leaving the Extol concert, the unthinkable occurred. It began to snow. I have seen wild weather at Ichthus over the years, but I never expected to see snow.7
In 2004, the rain was so bad it shut down the road system on the Ichthus Farm, and as a result paved and gravel roads were added. Another writer noted, “The problem with rain started in 1983, a year that became known as the ‘rain year’ or ‘Mudthus.’ However, it rained even harder at the 2002 festival. Last year (2005) set the record for the coldest temperatures.”8
No matter what people thought of the festival itself, Ichthus had a major impact on young people’s lives. And some of those lives continue to have an impact. In an article in Charisma magazine Leslie Montgomery tells the story of how United States Vice President Mike Pence found Christ at Ichthus in 1978. A key part is detailed when she writes,
A few weeks later, (Mike) Stevens (a fraternity brother from college) invited Pence to attend the annual Ichthus Christian music festival in Wilmore, Kentucky. It was there that Pence’s life was transformed.
“I heard lots of great singing, and I heard lots of wonderful preaching,” Pence says, “On Saturday night [while] sitting in a light rain,… my heart really finally broke with a deep realization [that] what had happened on the cross, in some infinitesimal way, had happened for me. And I gave my life and made a personal decision to trust Jesus Christ as my Savior.”9
The last Ichthus festival was held in 2012, but it retired as the oldest and longest running of the Christian music festivals. Christian music festivals do continue to occur, as is evidenced by the Christian Festival Association, founded in 2006, which currently lists 26 Christian music festivals as their members; although the fact that they also currently list 25 of 28 Christian music festivals as postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic from 2020 to 2021 may signal some future warning signs.10 It is important to recognize the contextualization of rock and roll, and the adaptation of the music festival setting, has been a major factor in the Christian culture in the United States from 1970 till today. While the form itself may be in a decline from its peak, events like the Ichthus music festival demonstrated that Evangelical Christianity could adapt to the complex youth culture of its time. Spiritually, Ichthus and the Christian music festivals that followed provided a context where young people could come together, drawn by a cultural love of relevant music, be affirmed in their Christian identity, and for many find the relationship with Christ that would grow, guide, and sustain them through adulthood. As with any ministry, it may have been useful for only a moment of time, but for the people who encountered Christ in that moment, it became an eternity.
Special note: Do you have a special memory of Ichthus? Was your life and walk with Christ changed as a result of the festival? Did you volunteer your time while a student? We would love to hear from you! Please send us written accounts of your experiences or scans of photographs you may have of the festival. We are hoping to add these to the collection of Ichthus materials for future researchers. Send your stories or photos to: firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you!
1 See Greg Robinson, chapter one, “The Granddaddy of Them All: The Ichthus Festival” in Christian Rock Festivals, Rosen Publishing Corporation: New York, NY 2009:7-14.
2 John M. Steck and Jay R. Howard, Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music, University of Kentucky Press: Lexington, KY 2004: 56.
3 Special thanks for the gracious interviews and information supplied by phone interviews with: Rev. Jack Harnish, August 4, 2020, John Park, August 5, 2020, Larry Minner, August 6, 2020, Ed Kilbourne, August 11, 2020, and Dr. Jim Garlow, August 11, 2020.
4 Email correspondences with Dr. John Oswalt, July 31, 2020.
5 “Remembering Andraé Crouch.” April 1, 2015. Homecoming Magazine online. Available at: http://www.homecomingmagazine.com/article/remembering-andra-crouch/
6 Jack Harnish, “’Soon and Very Soon’… He’s Gone to Meet the King.” Monday Memo blog. January 11, 2015. Available at: https://jackharnish.wordpress.com/2015/01/11/soon-and-very-soon-hes-gone-to-meet-the-king/
7 Laura Nunnery, “Ichthus 2005 ‘Let it Rain’.” May 5, 2005. Jesusfreakhideout.com. Available at: https://www.jesusfreakhideout.com/concerts/ichthus/2005/default.asp
8 Cassi Haggard, “The Ichthus Experience.” The Times-Tribune, Corbin, KY. June 14, 2006. Available at: https://www.thetimestribune.com/community/the-ichthus-experience/article_c6db4682-7a76-5203-bd25-3fa4fcb18422.html
9 Leslie Montgomery, “The Faith of Mike Pence.” Charisma. Vol. 44, no. 11 (June/July) 2019: 36. Leslie Montgomery is also the author of The Faith of Mike Pence, Whitaker House: New Kensington: PA 2019.
10 https://www.christianfestivalassociation.com/about-us. See also, Aisha Harris, “The Fragile Festival Economy.” The New York Times. April 21, 2020. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/21/opinion/coronavirus-music-festivals-canceled.html for a more in depth view on how the coronavirus may impact secular festivals and the local economies they support. Similar dynamics are likewise true for Christian music festivals.
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