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The calling of the revivalist: A rebellion of exhortation (part 2)

Editor's Note: This is the second part of an op-ed series examining the calling of revivalists. The first part of the series can beread here

Nolan Harkness
Courtesy of Nolan Harkness

I am one who strongly believes that the answers to many of life’s difficulties lie in our past. When you consider the huge amount of Old Testament verses quoted by New Testament teachers, it makes you realize that looking back is not such a bad strategy. As Jesus and all of the apostles intentionally quoted the “Word of God,” they were pointing to the fact that whatever problem they were dealing with at the time had existed before and that was the way that God had led others to deal with it.

As my eyes as a revivalist were opened by the Holy Spirit to the gradual backsliding of the church in America, I knew the answer to dealing with the church in their lukewarm condition had to be found in history. It was at that time that I began studying many of the sermons of the 1800s.

Over time, I noticed how different those sermons were to the ones being preached today. I also noted that quite probably not one of those preachers would be allowed to preach in today’s mainline evangelical churches. Their messages would be considered too strong and too unloving.

As I began to seek the Lord fervently about this dilemma, He directed me to study the lost gift of “exhortative preaching.” Revivalists are known for such preaching and many of the sermons that God gives me fall into that category. What I found was that even the modern Biblical translation of the word “exhort” has been dumbed down. In fact, it has even been completely removed from several modern Bible translations. Shockingly, the meaning of the word has also been dumbed down in sequential generations of English dictionaries. I thought, “If Satan could have engineered such a complex plan over several generations what would be his reason? Could he have worked to alter a word’s meaning in the English language to make Bible preachers less effective?” I came to the absolute conclusion that he did, and God showed me the reason why.

The morally decayed anti-God climate that is growing in America started to rapidly accelerate immediately following World War II. A pediatrician named Dr. Benjamin Spock published a book on child rearing called The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. Dr. Spock experimented in uncharted child psychology waters. His writings instructed a whole generation of new parents concerning how to raise their children.

One of the most outstanding dogmas taught by Dr. Spock was that children should never be spanked; introducing a type of parenting that put very few restrictions on children. In spite of the fact that his theories were widely condemned by the Biblical fundamentalists of that day, his book was translated into thirty-nine different languages and ended up selling more than fifty million copies covering three generations of parents worldwide.

What was Satan’s plan in all of this? It was to create an image of God who never disciplines His children! Unfortunately, Satan was very effective. To add meat to Satan’s potato soup, the doctrine of secular humanism was also introduced to America. It put the self at the center of everyone’s universe. Instead of making man in the image of God, they were successful in making a god in the image of a man. This new “Pacifists Manifesto,” as I like to call it, basically said, “I will never raise my voice against your choices in life so that you will not raise your voice against mine.” These new WWII parents were the offspring of Great Depression-era parents who had raised them on hard work, little play, and strong discipline. Rebelling against that style of parenting, they were susceptible to Dr. Spock’s parenting style, which was new, less intense, and more fun.

Dr. Spock’s philosophies had great appeal. As Satan convinced the first generation of Americans to resent strict leadership, strong words, and forceful confrontation, fierce resistance and rebellion of exhortative preaching was birthed. Satan had just taken out the most effective tools of revivalist preaching to turn hearts toward God and lead people into true repentance!

I eventually realized that not only modern dictionaries but dictionaries dating back to the turn of the twentieth century had dumbed down “exhorts” original English meaning step by step. The interpretation of the first full English translation of the Bible, the King James Bible, was not a paraphrase as many modern Bibles today. Greek scholars were translating New Testament Greek into King James English. Before you stop reading, thinking I am a King James-only preacher, I am not. I am just saying that the word “exhort” used in the King James Bible was defined in nineteenth-century dictionaries as meaning to “charge, challenge, or rebuke.” However, today’s Oxford dictionary interprets it to mean “to strongly encourage or urge (someone) to do something.” That is the reason that modern Bible paraphrases have taken the word “exhort” out altogether and replaced it with the word “encourage.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary defines exhort as “primarily to call one along side, to admonish, to urge someone to pursue some course of conduct.” Vine’s Dictionary suggests it could be the opposite of comfort! If it means to encourage as some translations suggest, it would have to mean “I encourage you to stop that!”

The revivalists of the 1800s were obeying the true meaning of 2 Timothy 4:2-4: “Preach the Word; be instant in season and out of season; rebuke, reprove, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine but after their own lusts will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned into fables.”(KJV)

These revivalists properly understood that preaching against sin and proclaiming the truths of Heaven and Hell in good balance were the most loving messages they could ever preach. As leaders, we may have to un-teach in order to re-teach this generation of Christians the fullness of God’s love.   

Rev Nolan J Harkness is the President and CEO of Nolan Harkness Evangelistic Ministries Inc. since 1985. He spent most of his adult life working in youth ministry. He also felt the calling of Evangelist/Revivalist and traveled as the door was open holding evangelistic meetings in churches throughout the Northeast. His website is

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