S. N. Haskell: The Self-Made Man

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S. N. Haskell: The Self-Made Man

A Man of Many Talents

Stephen Nelson Haskell accomplished a great deal in his life without any formal education. He was forced from a young age to improvise when it came to job opportunities to get by in life. For over 50 years that adaptability benefited him as he served the Seventh-day Adventist church.

Haskell was a Bible worker, president of multiple conferences, a missionary in Britain and Australia, and pioneered urban evangelism in New York City and other places throughout his career. Few men could say that they did more in the Adventist church than he did.

Throughout his life, Stephen attributed much of his success to his close friendship with Ellen White. He respected her ministry as a prophet and sought to apply her counsels to the best of his ability. Ellen wrote to Haskell more than almost anyone else during her ministry, giving him encouragement, counsel, and sometimes sharp rebukes. The record of his life is a fruitful study for anyone looking to spread the gospel more effectively.

An Early and Unusual Marriage

When Stephen Haskell was a teenager, he worked as a farmhand for a man who evidently trusted Stephen a great deal. When the man came down with a terminal illness, he requested Haskell (who must have been only 16 or 17 at the time) to take care of his invalid sister.

Stephen couldn’t think of any other way to fulfill the request except to marry the woman. The fact that she had considerable health issues wasn’t what made the young man think twice. The biggest obstacle in his mind was that she was 21 years older than him. Despite the age gap, Haskell honored the request of his employer. Mary Howe became Mary Haskell on April 10, 1851, before Stephen had even turned 18.[1]

The couple had no children over their 40 years together but still had a loving marriage. By all outward reports, Haskell truly honored the request of his dying boss from his teenage years. Mary wasn’t the only one to benefit from the relationship, though. She had amassed quite a library during her life and introduced the younger Stephen to an education that few men had access to who didn’t go through formal schooling.

Becoming a Seventh-Day Adventist

Stephen and Mary were both Methodists when they got married. That would soon change when Haskell heard a sermon sometime in 1851 about the second coming of Jesus. He was so taken by it that he wanted to preach it to anyone who would listen. Stephen became a first-day Adventist and went on multiple preaching tours through New England and up into Canada.

In 1853, Haskell met a Seventh-day Adventist on one of his travels who gave him a tract on the Sabbath. Stephen read the small book while on a boat sailing to his destination in Canada. He was so enraptured with the pamphlet that he got off the boat on a Saturday morning and went away by himself to study the scriptures on the topic. Describing the day decades later, Haskell says, “Finally, before night, I came to the conclusion that, according to the best light I had, the seventh day was the Sabbath, and I would keep it until I could get further light. So I have kept it ever since.”[2]

The following year, Joseph Bates traveled through Hubbardston, Massachusetts, at the request of the man who had given the Sabbath tract to Haskell. He visited Stephen’s home there, and according to Haskell, “Brother Bates preached to us… from morning until noon, and from noon until night, and then in the evening until the time we went to bed. He did that for ten successive days, and I have been a Seventh-day Adventist ever since.”[3]

Ahead of the Game

Haskell didn’t take long to catch on to new things. He became eager to live up to anything fresh he found in the Bible as he began to preach the Sabbatarian Adventist truths to others. One thing he discovered that was disturbing to others at the time in the late 1850s was the prohibition against unclean foods.

Stephen believed that pork and other articles of food spoken against in Leviticus and Deuteronomy should be dispensed with by faithful Christians. He wasn’t bashful in telling people about this new truth either. What might be surprising to most Adventists today is that his forcefulness earned him a rebuke from none other than Ellen White.[4]

Adventists wouldn’t come into harmony on the question of unclean foods until 1863-64. Although Haskell was rebuked for being too aggressive, this incident reveals his devotion to the Bible. He was willing to allow the word to guide his life, even before many others accepted the truth.

Another example of Haskell’s early initiative in the church was when he and his wife decided to move away from Hubbardston to South Lancaster, Massachusetts, in the mid-1860s. The move was to help grow the number of Adventists in the town, which was only six at the time. Stephen did both full-time work in business and led the small congregation there and in other nearby areas.

Due to the church’s growth, James and Ellen White and other Adventist leaders visited South Lancaster in 1868. They were so impressed with Haskell’s spirituality, innovative record-keeping, and managerial skills that they made him president of the New England conference once it officially formed in 1870. It would be the beginning of a long career for Stephen in church leadership.

Creating Tract and Missionary Societies

 In the late 1860s, Stephen’s wife Mary actively participated in a prayer group with other women in the church every week. Haskell believed the prayer group would accomplish more if they were organized into a formal lay-member-led ministry. This led to the formation of the Vigilant Missionary Society in 1869.

“During its first year, the society distributed a thousand pages of pamphlets. Soon the VMS members began sending out, at their own expense, hundreds of tracts and booklets, first across New England and then to foreign countries.”[5]

James White, who was always on the lookout for innovative ways to spread the Adventist message, loved what Haskell and the women were doing in New England. He and other leaders wanted to promote this type of initiative from lay members all over the country. White wrote in a book promoting the missionary societies:

“Our people generally are spiritual dwarfs, when they might be giants in the Lord. They are waiting for the few ministers among us to warn the world, and, at the same time, carry the churches on their shoulders, while they feel at liberty to plunge into the world, and become buried up in its rubbish. The only remedy we have to suggest for them is to lay aside unnecessary cares of this life, and to put forth individual effort for the good of those around them. In fact, this is, in our opinion, the only remedy.”

S. N. Haskell was the first to get this type of involvement from regular church members, with the help of his wife. Soon after, the General Conference assigned Haskell to travel to many different conferences to teach them how to organize these societies. In 1874, a General Tract and Missionary Society was created by the General Conference to oversee the various organizations Haskell had helped to form.

“Soon the various societies were distributing nearly five million pages of material a year, resulting in as many converts as produced by the traditional evangelistic preaching series.”[6] In the 1880s, the tract societies began to utilize colporteurs to take larger books door-to-door and to secure subscriptions to different church magazines. The canvassing programs of today can trace their lineage back to what S. N. Haskell first started in the 1860s.

Helping with Higher Education

On top of filling the position of president of the New England Conference, The California Conference voted Haskell as president in 1879. The 1870s saw the beginning of Adventist education with the opening of Battle Creek College. Stephen would waste no time planting other schools in his conferences.

He became deeply interested in creating a school somewhere in his New England home so that students wouldn’t have to travel all the way to Michigan to enjoy the advantages of Adventist education. In 1882, he pitched the idea to other leaders in the conference, who responded positively to the idea. Classes began in April of that year in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. The school’s name was South Lancaster Academy, which would eventually become Atlantic Union College decades later.

At almost the same time, another school was formed in the other conference Haskell presided over. Healdsburg College (which is now Pacific Union College) opened in northern California just eight days before South Lancaster Academy.

Although Haskell was a self-taught man, he firmly believed in the power of education to prepare workers to fulfill the mission God gave to His people. Later in life, he would also be heavily involved with the starting of Avondale College in Australia and help to bring the Nashville Agricultural and Normal Institute into existence in Tennessee (which later became Madison College).

The First World Survey Conducted by Adventists

By 1889, Haskell had been relieved of his conference president duties. Church leaders were coming to the realization that more needed to be done to spread the Adventist message worldwide. To better accomplish this, they appointed Haskell, along with the assistance of the young Percy Magan, to be “the first Seventh-day Adventist official to make a full global tour as part of his official duties.”[7]

Stephen had previously been assigned to help the missions in Britain and Australia, so he was no stranger to traveling abroad. But now, he would get to see more of Europe, the Arctic Circle, South Africa, India, Japan, and China. Percy Magan summed up their trip in the magazine The Youth’s Instructor: “We have traveled over 44,000 miles, and have taken a year, three months, three days, and an hour to accomplish the trip.”[8]

One significant thing Haskell learned while traveling the world was the importance of developing educational facilities in other countries. He believed this would work best to produce more gospel workers in countries that desperately needed them. He spoke at the General Conference Session in 1891: “Being educated on their own ground, among their own people, consequently preserving their own customs, they become more successful workers.”[9]

In Australia with Ellen White

Haskell didn’t stay long in America after his return from the world survey in 1891. In 1893, he was back in Europe helping with evangelistic meetings. He was forced to return home quickly, though, because of a sickness his wife was suffering with. She eventually passed away in January 1894, after 40 years of marriage.

Two years later, Haskell received an invitation to work with another woman he greatly respected, Ellen White. She had been working in Australia for five years already and felt that Stephen would be one of the best ministers to help her implement the type of education needed in the church. Together, they helped make the new Avondale College (started in 1896 in Cooranbong) into what Ellen would refer to as a “pattern” school for other Adventist institutions.[10]

It seems that Haskell developed a fondness for Ellen White while working with her and actually proposed to her in Australia. They had both lost their spouses and had already developed a good friendship. But Ellen turned him down. According to Herbert Lacey, who worked in Australia with her during that time and asked her about the possibility of being with Haskell, it was because she “felt it would not be best to take another name, in view of the many books she had written as Ellen G. White; and then she had her son Willie, who could take good care of her till the Lord came, or her work was done.”[11]

Instead, she recommended to him Hetty Hurd, a competent Bible instructor in her own right, who was over 20 years younger than Stephen. Despite the age gap, the suggestion turned out to be a good one. The two were married in 1897 and spent 22 years together as a powerhouse evangelistic team.

Urban Evangelism

After returning to the U. S. from Australia, Haskell and his wife became heavily involved in evangelizing New York City. Many Americans migrated to the big cities to live during the early 20th century. Ellen White encouraged the church to focus more evangelistic efforts on these centers.

Haskell and Hetty set the standard for city missions with the way they worked. They recruited a team of Bible workers, nurses, and colporteurs to work in the area they were living. Since the church was still working out effective methods of urban evangelism, the couple paid the salaries of some of the workers out of their own pockets.

The Haskell’s kept a strict schedule to keep the mission self-sustainable and train their helpers. “After a Bible study from 6:30 to 7:30 a. m. and then breakfast, Hetty, beginning at 9:00 a. m., instructed those with some experience in witnessing and then at 10:00 a. m. taught a class for new staff members. Afternoons were devoted to selling books and periodicals, personal visitation, and Bible instruction.”[12]

The nurses also helped the group to survive financially by providing massages and other medical treatments that people would pay for. On top of all the Bible studies, literature evangelism, and medical missionary work, Stephen also conducted evangelistic seminars.

In just 15 months working in New York City, the Haskell team brought close to 90 new members into the church. Haskell and his wife duplicated their work later on the west coast in Oakland and San Bernardino. Their methods deserve deeper study and implementation today. Especially since a much larger portion of society resides in cities now than back then.

Last Labors and Battles

S. N. Haskell went on to live until he was 90 years old. He outlived another wife, as Hetty, unfortunately, lost her life to what was probably cancer in 1919. Haskell himself didn’t pass away until 1922.

He remained almost as active in the 1900s as he was in the 1800s. In 1908 he took on the role of president of the California Conference once again and helped to turn around the spirituality of the churches there. He also helped to conduct evangelism and train Bible workers near Loma Linda as the medical school got going.

His fiery personality was stirred up in the battles fought over the “daily” conflict. He sought to use Ellen White’s writings to solve the issue, which she disapproved of.[13] The massive confrontation over the interpretation of the daily, led mainly by Haskell, caused a significant divide to form in the church. The division would grow years later when arguments also arose concerning the inspiration of Ellen White.

Haskell found himself in the midst of almost every important development in the church from the 1850s to the early 1920s. Some of his contributions had adverse effects, but most of his work led to many souls coming to the truth. His labor and sacrifice for the sake of the gospel should be an inspiration to us all.

Positive Lessons from the Life of S. N. Haskell


Haskell was constantly coming up with new and more efficient ways of operating the church and conducting evangelism. He came up with the question-and-answer method of Bible study used in the popular book Bible Readings for the Home. Now similar techniques are used by Bible workers everywhere to conduct studies.

He advocated for church organization during the 1860s and the early 1900s when others were firmly against the changes proposed. With hindsight, we can easily see how a more organized structure has helped the Seventh-day Adventist Church better conduct evangelism worldwide.

Haskell stayed on the cutting edge of literature distribution in his day, which helped keep his urban evangelism teams afloat financially. Because of his previous work, it was probably no accident that Haskell was chosen to conduct the church’s first world tour and survey. It was widely recognized that he had a mind that thrived in new situations, and that could come up with some of the best ideas for spreading the gospel.

Haskell’s innovation is a critical point because many people in later years believed that most of the church’s evangelistic methods were divinely inspired by Ellen White. Although she encouraged the good and helped to get rid of the bad, most of the creative ideas adopted by the church back then came from others like her husband and Haskell. Ingenuity and original proposals are often squashed in our churches before ever getting any traction due to this false belief about how things were done from the beginning. We still need innovators like Haskell to bring forth effective evangelism methods in our 21st-century world.

Mistakes We Can Learn From

Gave Too Much Authority to Ellen White

That heading might seem blasphemous to some Seventh-day Adventists. Please allow this quote, taken from a letter sent to Haskell by Ellen White’s son, Willie, to clarify its meaning:

“I believe, Brother Haskell, that there is danger of our injuring Mother’s work by claiming for it more than she claims for it, more than Father [James White] ever claimed for it, more than Elder Andrews, Waggoner, or Smith ever claimed for it. I cannot see consistency in our putting forth a claim of verbal inspiration when Mother does not make any such claim, and I certainly think we will make a big mistake if we lay aside historical research and endeavor to settle historical questions by the use of Mother’s books as an authority when she herself does not wish them to be used in any such way.”[14]

This letter was written while Ellen was still alive and was approved by her. In his later years, perhaps as a response to men like Kellogg and A. T. Jones who spoke against her writings, Haskell took an extreme stance concerning the spirit of prophecy that White herself never endorsed.

Ellen White always encouraged personal Bible study and personal study of history and other topics to draw proper conclusions. She never wanted church members to become lazy, simply using quotations from her writings to prove their points while neglecting the prayerful study of God’s word and other writings to teach the truth.

Haskell became closed off to anything that he thought didn’t jive with Ellen White’s writings (even when Ellen herself tried to correct him). And because he was unwilling to listen to the other side, it was hard to correct the wrong beliefs he held about the Bible and the spirit of prophecy. If even a man like S. N. Haskell could fall into this trap, we should be doubly careful, and avoid extreme views of the spirit of prophecy as we seek to understand how God wants to lead us today.



[1] Gerald Wheeler, S. N. Haskell: Adventist Pioneer, Evangelist, Missionary, and Editor, p. 15.

[2] S. N. Haskell, “How I Accepted the Sabbath,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 7, 1896.

[3] S. N. Haskell, “Preparation for Reception of the Holy Spirit,” General Conference Bulletin No. 7, May 21, 1909, p. 92.

[4] Ellen G. White, Testimonies to the Church, Vol. 1, p. 207.

[5] Gerald Wheeler, S. N. Haskell: Adventist Pioneer, Evangelist, Missionary, and Editor, p. 84.

[6] Ibid, p. 88.

[7] Ibid, p. 139.

[8] Percy T. Magan, The Youth’s Instructor, July 1, 1891.

[9] Gerald Wheeler, S. N. Haskell: Adventist Pioneer, Evangelist, Missionary, and Editor, p. 145.

[10] Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 349.

[11] Gerald Wheeler, S. N. Haskell: Adventist Pioneer, Evangelist, Missionary, and Editor, p. 186.

[12] Ibid, p. 236.

[13] Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, Vol. 1, p. 164.

[14] W. C. White to S. N. Haskell, November 4, 1912.

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About the author

Tony Dennis

Tony Dennis is from Sacramento, California, and spent most of his life as an atheist. He was converted to Seventh-day Adventism when he was 21 years old by reading the book Steps to Christ. He has served as a teacher of Daniel, Revelation, and Sanctuary classes at the evangelism school Souls West. His passions are education and history.