Book review: S. N. Haskell: Adventist Pioneer, Evangelist, Missionary, and Editor
This is the latest volume in the Seventh-day Adventist biogra-phy series. Gerald Wheeler does a masterful job—with perhaps the strongest volume in the series so far—of helping to provide the rich context for the life of Stephen Nelson Haskell, who was one of the stalwart pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism.
Church members, and especially pastors, will want to take note of this volume for several significant reasons: one of the most obvious is Haskell’s love of print and his conviction that personal Bible studies were just as important, if not more important, than public evangelism for converting others. This belief may be due in part to his own conversion. William Saxby shared an Adventist tract with Haskell in 1853, and Joseph Bates followed up afterward for ten days with intensive Bible studies (53–55). After that, Haskell was sold on the power of print and adapted Adventist evangelism to its various forms during his lifetime. It is therefore especially significant that Haskell and his first wife, Mary, were the primary catalysts in the organization of Seventh-day Adventist tract and missionary societies. Later on, he and his second wife, Hetty, were instrumental in city missions (113). During his lifetime, he witnessed America change from an agrarian and rural society to one ori-ented around large urban metropolises.
Another significant theme garnered from this book was Haskell’s vision for a global church. Haskell was a man on the move. He traveled to Europe several times and, most significant of all, participated in a worldwide survey of missions. As part of this, he advocated that schools should be one of the most effective means for missionary work (143). He believed that church workers should be trained in their home countries so that they could address the unique challenges in their part of the world. Haskell was a stalwart proponent of Adventist education, which may be due, at least in part, to his own lack of a formal education but having a desire to learn. While Haskell claims to have baptized the very first Seventh-day Adventists in China and Japan (148), this book will challenge some traditional narratives of Adventist mission history.
Another major interpretative theme concerns Haskell’s connection to the Adventist prophetess Ellen G. White. White wrote more letters to him than to any other individual outside her family (71, 191). At times, she admonished him, but he always showed resilience by believing her counsels were divinely inspired and working to implement them in his life. He considered her, apart from his first wife, to be his closest friend (310). At one point, he proposed to Ellen G. White, but she turned him down, creating the most famous failed marriage proposal in Adventist history (Wheeler goes into some depth on what I consider to be a very balanced treatment of the topic in chapter 18, “Proposing to a Prophet”). Haskell also considered himself her spokesperson (206), although he could go too far at times by advocating for a rigid view of Inspiration that placed Ellen G. White as an infallible interpreter of Scripture (208, 255). By appearing to elevate her writings above the Bible (337, 338), Haskell was inadvertently pushing Adventism in a fundamentalist direction. Despite such challenges, Ellen G. White showed great respect for his leadership, a fact that is evident when she placed his name on a short list in an early version of her will (189).
Pastors will find this to be an inspiring biography. By all accounts, Haskell was not the most dynamic pulpiteer, but his ministry was effective due to his sincerity, consistency, and dedication. During his lifetime, he implemented cutting-edge marketing techniques. He also exhibited a stubborn streak of self-determination and worked creatively to solve a wide plethora of challenges that came his way. He was so effective that even in his later years he was often sought after for his advice and worked in some of the most challenging urban environments in the country (including New York City ). Although he had a very limited education, Haskell was unrelenting in seeking opportunities to grow. He read widely and had a large library, which contained some of the latest biblical resources by non-Adventist scholars. He did not know Greek or Hebrew but sought out nuances of biblical texts by reading various translations and taking advantage of every opening for learning available to him (35). In this respect, church leaders can appreciate his unrelenting push to educate pastors during his lifetime (101, 102).
The fact that Haskell was a stalwart defender of the faith did not make him inflexible. One of his most remarkable traits was his willingness to adapt to changing needs and situations around the globe. As the denomination grew into a global church, he was a major proponent behind the reorganization of the denomination in 1901 (184). At one point, he noted that he wished A.T. Jones, the noted Adventist revivalist of 1888 fame, could have more experience outside of North America so that he could become less rigid and narrow in facing church issues. This can be seen in the Solusi Mission controversy of 1893 (172–175). Jones advocated an extreme interpretation that the denomination should not accept tax exemptions or gifts of land from the government. This resulted in an extensive controversy, and the vote by the 1893 General Conference Session that rejected tax exemptions for all Adventist Church property. Haskell and other leaders quickly real-ized the gravity of this mistake, even as he and Ellen G. White continued to labor with Jones’s extreme tendencies, which contributed to Haskell’s counsel to disfellowship Jones (289, 290).
Altogether Wheeler has made a significant contribution to Adventist studies, and anyone interested in Adventist history and theology will benefit by reading this volume.
Meticulously researched (with 791 references), it is particularly rich in providing the historical context of Haskell’s life and the development of Adventism. Many readers will likely be surprised to discover that many of the same kinds of issues continue to face the Seventh-day Adventist Church today, even if the people and circumstances have changed. Similarly, the church today would do well to remember many of the solu-tions Haskell proposed.
—Reviewed by Michael W. Campbell, PhD, associ-ate professor of theological-historical studies, Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite, Philippines.
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