S.N. Haskell: Missionary Trailblazer

10 Min Read

Stephen Nelson Haskell was born in Oakham Massachusetts on April 22, 1833. His parents were Congregationalists and even as a boy, Stephen was interested in spiritual things. When he was very young he signed a temperance pledge and was later baptized into his parents’ church in 1848. As a youth Haskell learned soap making and was hired by an old farmer named How as a farmhand. How was a widower with a daughter named Mary who was partially paralyzed. Haskell often helped Farmer How to carry Mary outside so she could enjoy the sunshine and the fresh air outdoors. Mary was cheerful and kind, never complaining about her illness and always ready to share the little joys she had experienced throughout the day. Stephen enjoyed listening to her stories and spending time with her.

When How was on his deathbed he asked Stephen to look after his daughter who, being sickly and without any relatives would likely be destitute when he died. Barely 18 himself, Stephen agreed to honor the old farmer’s dying wish. Unable to think of any other way to help Mary outside of marrying her, Stephen proposed to her soon after Farmer How’s passing and they were married soon after he turned 18. Mary was 20 years older than Stephen. Their marriage was a tender and affectionate union. Stephen loved her and enjoyed her company. Mary had been a teacher and loved to read to him and share what she was learning with him.

In 1853 when he was 19 years old Haskell heard his first Advent sermon most likely preached by a first-day Adventist minister. He was so inspired and enthused by the sermon that onlookers challenged him to preach. The challenge resonated with him and he decided to try his hand at preaching, alongside his regular job as a soapmaker.

Later that year while he was en route to Canada, Haskell made a pitstop in the town of Springfield Massachusetts to change trains. While he was in transit he met William Saxby, a Seventh-Day Adventist who shared the Sabbath with him and gave him a piece of literature. The tract was a little pamphlet that had been published by James White at the Review and Herald Publishing house and was titled “Elihu, on the Sabbath” an edgy title which was meant to be a play on words.

Haskell read the tract and was convicted by it and began to keep the Sabbath himself shortly thereafter. The next year in 1854 he attended a conference for First-Day Adventists in Worcester, Massachusetts where he was keen to share the truth about the Sabbath with his Sunday-keeping brethren. To his surprise, many of the First-Day Adventists resisted his preaching though he managed to convince Thomas Hale and his family regarding the validity of the Sabbath. Later that year Joseph Bates paid the Haskell’s a visit and shared all the teachings surrounding the three angels' messages with them. Both Stephen and Mary Haskell were convicted by Bates’ teaching and accepted the message he shared. They were baptized into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church shortly thereafter.

In 1864 when he was 31 Stephen Haskell moved to South Lancaster, Massachusetts and a few years later organized the first Tract and Missionary Society at his local church. The Society was the result of Haskell gathering together a group of mothers in the church who had a burden to gather together and pray for their children. The group started off with four mothers and soon grew to forty-five. By 1869 they organized themselves into the Vigilant Missionary Society which later became the Tract and Missionary Society.

In 1870 Stephen Haskell was ordained by James White who exhorted him to look to God and not to man for direction in his life. He was then elected president of the newly organized New England Conference that spanned across New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Interestingly Haskell served as the president of both the New England and the California Conferences simultaneously.

In 1882 he was part of the team that established South Lancaster Academy in South Lancaster Massachusetts. The school would go on to become Atlantic Union College and is still operational today. During the early 1880s while Ellen White was traversing the tent meeting circuit she made repeated appeals to the ministers regarding the methods they should use in evangelism and Bible teaching. She exhorted them to engage in more teaching and less preaching. This made a deep impression in the mind of Haskell and at a camp meeting in Hanford he grabbed Willie White and went down into a field for a season of prayer. Haskell confessed to White that he couldn’t quite understand what Ellen White meant and the two men bounced ideas back and forth before spending a significant season praying over the matter.

After the time of prayer and brainstorming with Willie White, Haskell was inspired to try something new and during one of the meetings at camp he tested out the idea. He began by asking questions relating to some of the key doctrines that Seventh-Day Adventists believed in and asking the congregation to look up the texts relating to those questions. What he ended up doing was walking the congregation through a series of Bible studies using the question and answer method. It was a tremendous success and received the endorsement of Ellen White.

The idea soon caught on and began to spread from conference to conference. It was christened “fireside preaching” and “Bible Readings”. Before long Healdsburg College began offering a short course for interested laypeople who wanted to learn how to conduct such readings and the method was adopted at Seventh-Day Adventist camp meetings across the country. Later in 1883 an institute dedicated to teaching Adventists how to hold Bible Readings was established and under Haskell’s leadership, an initial cohort of 300 people attended the sessions with that number swelling to the 1000 mark not long after.

In 1884 to keep up with the growing demand for more information and guidance The Monthly Bible Reading Gazette was born. The first Bible Reading lessons had a whopping 149 questions for Bible Students and Teachers alike to trawl through.

Stephen Haskell also took an active interest in foreign missions. In 1875 when Ellen White had a vision regarding the need for overseas missionary effort and she identified Australia as one of the mission fields the angel had mentioned Haskell began to pray and plan towards leading a team to establish the work there. Finally on the 10th of May 1885 Haskell accompanied by John Corliss and other set sail for Australia. They arrived in Sydney on the 6th of June. In Melbourne, they set up the Bible Echo printing press and began to print and distribute literature across the city. They also ran several evangelistic efforts in Temperance Halls and in tents they pitched in the Northern part of the city. After much hard work and prayer, the first Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Australia was formed in North Fitzroy, a suburb of Melbourne in 1886. Haskell’s name is on the roll of the founding members.

In 1885, en route to the United States Haskell stopped in Auckland, New Zealand and spent some time with the Hare family there. The Hares were First-Day Adventists and Haskell, having come from a first-day Adventist background, to begin with, began to share the truths surrounding the three angels messages with them, including the Sabbath. Soon the Hares opened up their home to their friends and Haskell began to study the Bible with them as well.

Soon after he cancelled his plans to return to America and began to labour in earnest in New Zealand. Haskell travelled to Kaeo where the patriarch of the Hare family, Joseph Hare resided. The elder Hare was a preacher himself and listened with interest as Haskell shared the unique Biblical position of Seventh-Day Adventists with him. He was convicted and he along with other members of his family became Seventh-day Adventists. Later Haskell returned to New Zealand in 1886 where he ran several evangelistic efforts, organising the Kaeo Seventh-Day Adventist Church at the end of these meetings.

In 1887 Haskell was sent by the General Conference Foreign Missions Board to England to help with the struggling, fledgling work there. He took over the newly formed press and became Editor of the paper that was published there. Haskell helped to grow the membership in the field considerably but the work was slow and difficult. Ellen White advised him to focus his effort on the major cities which he did patching together a small team of Bible workers and fanning out across London from their base in Tufnell Park. They sold literature, gave in-home Bible studies, and raised a small congregation of 65 members.

Haskell also went to Switzerland to support the work there as John Andrews battled against Tuberculosis in what would be his final illness. In 1888 and 1889, with Percy Magan in tow Haskell made his way across the globe as the first Seventh-day Adventist official to traverse the world field. They made their way through South Africa, India, China, Japan, and Australia, baptizing the first groups of converts in both China and Japan.

Then in January of 1894, Mary Haskell passed to her rest at the age of 81. Stephen was grief-stricken and wrote to Ellen White stating “I loved her and she loved me” in boldface. Soon after Mary’s death, Stephen had a strange and jarring experience. Overwhelmed by grief and loneliness he had fallen asleep clinging to the promises of God. He hadn’t been sleeping long when a light inside the room woke him and he was greeted by the bright form of a shadowy figure at the foot of his bed. Startled he sat upright blinking in the darkness, his mind trying to grasp what was happening. Then the figure spoke “ Stephen” she whispered “I am come to bring you comfort. I shall ever watch over you and comfort you for I am now nearer to you in death than I was when I was living” His first instinct was to reach out to her but at that moment a clear voice sounded in his mind “the dead know not anything.” The words were like an electric shock jolting him awake and back to reality. He recoiled in fear and Mary’s voice floated back to him from the foot of the bed mournfully “O Stephen, don’t you know me?” Gathering every ounce of courage Haskell called out shakily “No! I do not know you! You are not my Mary, you are an evil spirit sent by Satan to deceive me and in the name of Jesus Christ I command you to depart and trouble me no more.” For a long moment, the gentle expression on Mary’s face gave way to unmitigated rage. Rage and malice such as Stephen had never encountered before. Her face twisted into a demonic expression. Terror-stricken Haskell wondered why this evil angel had dared to approach him in this way and pleaded with God to reveal to him any known sin that might have opened a door for Satan to set foot into his life.

He then remembered a passage from the book Early Writings in which Ellen White had indicated that demons would appear to those who were righteous before God claiming to be friends and loved ones who were reaching out to them from the dead. Comforted by this Haskell clung to God and the demon left him. He immediately felt a wave of peace and comfort wash over him and was assured of the presence of Holy Angels around him.

In 1896 he returned to Australia where he helped establish Avondale College, working alongside Ellen White, Willie White, and others. In 1897 he married Hetty Hurd who was an experienced Bible teacher and together they continued to serve God. In 1903 they organized an effective city mission in New York. In 1915 Haskell preached at Ellen White’s funeral service. Stephen Haskell passed to his rest in 1922 having lived a long and useful life of service to God.

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