Lessons from the life of S.N. Haskell

Seeing a new book that was written by someone I happen to know always makes awakens my curiosity.  That was the case when I saw a book by Gerald Wheeler that was recently published by the Pacific Press. I first met Gerard, some forty years ago, at a convention for Adventist editors that was held in the Adventist conference center Glacier View—high in the Rocky Mountains. (This place would later achieve some notoriety in the Adventist Church as the place where a church tribunal condemned Desmond Ford.) Gerald spent his entire church career at the Review and Herald Publishing Association and was widely known as a highly skilled book editor.

Wheeler’s first biography of an Adventist leader in the early period of Adventist history appeared in 2003:  James White: Innovator and Overcomer. The book was based on meticulous research and gave an honest, and at times quite astonishing, picture of James White, the husband of Ellen G. White. Thus it was with great expectations that I started reading his newest biography: S.N. Haskell: Adventist Pioneer, Evangelst, Missionary, and Editor. I was not disappointed.

Stephen Haskell (1833-1922) did not belong to the oldest group of pioneers who had a personal involvement with the Miller movement. However, he was one of the many self-made men, who—without much formal education—grew into many-faceted and powerful church leaders. Wheeler follows Haskell through the various phases of his long life, in various roles (and often combinations of roles). He follows him to the places in the United States where he worked (first in the East, then more westward and ultimately in California), and on his many journeys to Europe and Australia, and other continents, which might take him away from home for many months or even longer than a year. It was the life of a hard-working, utterly dedicated and versatile man, but also of an individual who could be very stubborn and was not always ready to accept advice from others. He received countless letters and ‘testimonies’ from Ellen White. Although he received much criticism from her, he gradually became very close to her. He even proposed to her after she had become a widow. The book is also very valuable in that it consistently places Haskell in the time and culture in which he lived and against the background of the developments (and troubles) of the steadily growing Advent movement.

I recommend this book in particular to those who, like me, enjoy reading biographies. However, I would also strongly recommend it to those Adventists who keep on telling us that the Adventist Church should follow the patterns laid out by the pioneers of the church. It is true that in Haskell’s days many good things happened in the church, and that there were many committed people who brought great sacrifices ‘for the cause’. There is much in the history of that period that can inspire us. But the book about Haskell also clearly shows that there was much in the church that was not so good. There was rivalry between leaders. At times there were bizarre ideas that brought confusion.  Projects could fail because of mismanagement and often there was a distinct lack of unity. Many decided to join the church, but many also left again—some respected leaders among them.

In actual fact there is not that much difference between the present and the past. Today’s church is far from perfect, and that is true of the leaders as well as the members in the pew. This is no excuse to just accept whatever happens. This book is, however, a strong warning not to be too quick in assuming that the church of the past—and certainly in the days of the pioneers—was far better than it is today. And a nostalgic looking backwards to an often romanticized past is no panacea for all the problems and challenges the church must face today and will be confronted with in the future. If in doubt, allow yourself to be convinced by reading this fascinating biography of Haskell (which may be ordered at Amazon.com).


Voices from 60 years ago

It has been said that Adventists will eventually react to changes that occur in the rest of the world, but that it does take them about fifty years to do so.  Fact is, that the issues that are affecting society—and other christian denominations—eventually also come to our door.

Last week I read a book by a Dutch theology professor, Dr. Hans Snoek, entitled: Van Huis uit Protestant, which translates best as ‘Raised a Protestant.’ The subtitle describes the content: Hoe de leer verdampte en het geloof veranderde (Or: ‘How doctrine evaporated and faith changed’.)[1]

Giving some historical background to the challenges of Dutch Protestants, Snoek points to two authors who, some sixty years ago, tried to give an analysis of the situation Protestants were confronted with. They pointed to elements that needed to be faced. However, the books they wrote pointed in dramatically different directions.

One author—Prof. R. Schippers—strongly believed that the greatest danger confronting the conservative stream of Dutch Protestantism was the tendency of many church members (in particular of the younger generation), to follow ‘worldly’ trends. He emphasized the problem of the deterioration in sexual morals, and the lure of unacceptable forms of amusement, such as the cinema.

The other author—Thijs Booij—also writing in 1954, argued that the conservative Dutch Protestantism he saw around him was mostly defined by a culture of old age. The dynamic character of the church had disappeared, giving place to stagnation.  He saw very little growth—intellectually and spiritually. Too many people, Booij contended, are focused on the past, which has led to a ‘monologue-culture’ that has preciously little to say and mostly repeats itself. He signals a lack of imagination, a distaste for experiment, a lack of improvisation and of creative planning.

Booij goes on to say that one of the problematic elements in the conservative Dutch Protestant world of his days, is that church culture is male-dominated. And he adds that it is characterized by a strong intellectualism that leaves very little room for the experiential aspects of faith. This tendency towards abstract thought leads to building systems, which encourages people ‘to define their doctrinal differences in six decimals.’

In contemporary Adventism many would agree with Prof. Schippers. Much more emphasis ought to be placed, they say, on leaving ‘the world’ and on striving for the kind of character and lifestyle that God expects us to develop. Well, who can disagree with that?  And yet, it struck me that what Mr. Thijs Booij wrote more than half a century ago seems a very accurate description of what contemporary Adventism is like.  By and large, Dutch conservative Protestantism did not heed the warning of Professor Schippers. Nor did it adequately respond to the concerns listed by Mr. Booij.  Will the Adventist Church fare any better?

A denomination that mostly repeats itself without the kind of ‘present truth’ that relates to the issues of our times, that is male dominated, and is afraid of new forms of spirituality, may still exist for a while, but is not going to be very appealing to most of the men and women around us who are in search of a spiritual home. Let’s not wait another fifty years before we address these important concerns.

[1]  Published in Kampen by Uitgeverij Kok, 2015.

Easter morning: women first

The male disciples were painfully absent at the crucifixion. John was the only one who stuck around.  Besides him, remarkably enough, only Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a few other women, stood at the foot of the cross when Jesus died.  And when Jesus was taken from the cross, and had to be ‘buried’ as quickly as possible, the men who had been Jesus’ disciples were not there, and left this task to Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus.

But then it is Easter morning. At dawn a number of women go to the cave where Jesus had been laid. They went there to care for his body, since there had not been time to do so on Friday afternoon, as the Sabbath was near. They were greatly worried about the big stone that had been put before the entrance of the cave. Who would be able to roll it away? Their concerns were, however, unnecessary. The stone had already been rolled away. The tomb was empty. Two angels tell the women that the Lord was risen!

The gospels inform us about a series of ‘appearances.’ Jesus meets with individuals and some groups of people. Would it not have been more logical for Jesus to appear first to the eleven men who were going to be the apostles of the early church? We would have expected that in a society where men always came first. Yet, the first witnesses of the risen Lord are a women. It is a powerful affirmation of the important role Jesus attributes to women.

How tragic it is that almost two thousand year later we must conclude that many who claim Jesus as their Lord, have still not paid attention to this aspect of the resurrection morning, and still do not give women the status in the church that is rightfully theirs. And this also applies to many Seventh-day Adventists. Unfortunately, many have closed their ears for the powerful statement Jesus made by first appearing to women.

Could things change before we celebrate another Eastern? I am not very optimistic when I consider the bureaucratic preparations for the new round of meetings (during the GC autumn council of 2018), which will once again discuss what must happen to those church leaders who have agreed to ordain female pastors, or at least have taken measure to ensure that male and female pastors are treated equally. Must there be punitive measures? It is as if we hear the apostles say to Jesus: ‘Lord, excuse us, but should you not have appeared to us first?

What might be done to change the minds of those church leaders who continue to discriminate women? Perhaps the only way to put this across is to ask all women to discontinue their activities in and for the church during a few weeks. How would the church function if all female pastors and elders would stay home, and if all women who serve in some capacity in the Sabbath school, who play the piano or the organ, or serve as greeters or in whatever other role, would just sit in the pew and passively listen to the men? Would that perhaps get the message through to those who oppose ordained women pastors that putting women in second place goes against the Spirit of the gospel?

In any case: On Easter morning Jesus made clear that for Him women come first.


The Lord is risen

For many—whether they are, or are not, versed in theology—the resurrection is a beautiful story, but nothing more. Its inspiring and uplifting message is: Do not despair when things are not going so well. You can always make a new start.

The apostle Paul totally disagrees.  He makes that abundantly clear in 1 Korintiërs 15. He is not satisfied with a symbolic interpretation. To deny Christ’s bodily resurrection changes the gospel into a miserable lie. It ceases to be Good News. And, he emphasizes, if Christ is not risen then all hope that there is something beyond death for us evaporates. Our faith would lose all meaning.

The resurrection of Jesus is a core truth of the Christian faith. There is no living faith if we only have a dead Jesus. The reality of death and the reality of his resurrection must go together.

There is no absolute proof for Jesus’ resurrection. Yes, we have the story of the empty tomb, but we have no witnesses who saw what happened and can take a polygraph test to give credence to their testimony. There are stories that Jesus appeared to some individuals and to some groups of people. Remarkably enough, these appearances do not continue indefinitely. This usually happens when stories that have no basis in truth begin to circulate. Such stories become more and more embellished, and more and more people become involved. But stories about Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection stopped after just a few weeks. Why? Because he was not only risen, but also had ascended to heaven.

Journalist Frank Morison was a skeptic, who believed that the idea of a resurrection was utter nonsense. He decided to write a book about this grand delusion. But after having thoroughly studied all the arguments, he concluded that the resurrection must have been reality after all. His book Who Moved the Stone? became a classic in defense of the resurrection. From a total skeptic he became a fervent disciple of the risen Lord.

For me, personally, the existence of the Christian church is the most powerful argument in favor of the reality of the resurrection. Jesus’ mission seemed to have ended in disaster. The Jewish leaders, with the approval and technical support of the Roman authorities, succeeded in having Jesus crucified. The Man from Nazareth, who for some time had a significant following, died between two criminals—just 33 years old. His disciples were in total despair. Only John and Mary, and a few other women, remained with Jesus to the end. His own brothers and sisters (most likely from a former marriage of Joseph; see Matthew 13:56, 57) had never become convinced that he was anything else but the physical son of Joseph and Mary.

However, just weeks after Jesus’ ignominious death, thousands of people believe that there was more to it. They become believers in a risen Christ. On the Day of Pentecost they come to Jerusalem from many different regions in the Middle-East. They listen to the apostles, they hear what has happened with Jesus, they are convinced, and they take this conviction with them when they travel back home. The disillusioned disciples  become enthusiastic apostles who are prepared to give their life for the Truth of the Risen Lord. James, one of the brothers of the Lord, is no longer a skeptic, but becomes one of the key leaders of the early church (Acts 15:13). What made them change their minds and made them believers rather than disillusioned skeptics? It must have been some momentous event: the resurrection.

I know that even this argument is no final proof. We still must take a leap of faith. And yes, I am prepared to take that leap.

A doubting octogenarian

The other day Dries van Agt was interviewed on Dutch television about his faith. In his weekly program ‘Adieu God’ Tijs van den Brink talks with people about their faith—or the loss thereof. The interview with van Agt startled me. I thought of this former Dutch prime minister as a staunch Catholic believer rather than as a doubting Thomas.

Dries van Agt was prime minister in the Netherlands from 1977 to 1982. It was not the smoothest period of Dutch political history in which van Agt led several cabinets with rather different coalitions. I have always felt great sympathy for van Agt. This sympathy was further increased when I read his fascinating biography which appeared in 2008.[1]  I always enjoy listening to his unique use of the Dutch language, with many archaic words and long, complex sentences. And I must admit that I have great admiration for his tireless efforts on behalf of the Palestinian people. Van Agt played a major role in the fusion of three Christian parties into one political stream (Christian Democratic Appeal), but he was gradually estranged from his party and confessed that, in the last general elections, he voted for the green party.

The conversation with Tijs van den Brink focused, of course, on matters of faith. Van Agt has a Roman Catholic background. As a young boy he served in the church as altar boy, and his faith and his church remained very important for him during a major part of his life. But in the interview he was very open about his continuously growing doubts. He still believes in God. There must be Someone, he said, who is at the beginning of everything. Even if one believes in the ‘big bang’, there must be something or someone who caused it. He had no doubt that Jesus Christ is a historical figure and has left mankind with an inspiring example of how to live. But everything else is more and more surrounded by question marks. He can no longer believe that Jesus rose from his tomb. Is there nothing beyond this life, van den Brink asked. Van Agt replied that it would be nice if there were indeed some form of life after death, but he is far from sure that this is the case.

In the context of my book FACING DOUBT I have in the last eighteen months received may reactions from, and have had numerous conversations with, members of my church who in many different ways struggle with their doubts. I have been struck by the fact that many people develop doubts about important aspects of the Christian faith when they are at an advanced (or even high) age. In some cases it concerns doubt about the very existence of God. Often the doubts center on the why-question—why is the so much misery in the world or in my own life? But again and again there is also the question whether Jesus did indeed rise from his tomb. It comes perhaps as no surprise that, as we become older, we are more inclined to contemplate our own mortality. But in that stage of life it would be more important than ever before to have the inner certainty that death is not the end of everything.

I have my doubt s about a number of things which my church regards as ‘Fundamental Beliefs’, but I do not want to lose the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. I agree with the apostle Paul that I should be pitied if I lost that conviction. If Jesus did not rise from death, faith and church are no more than a sick joke. I would plead with van Agt—especially with Eastern coming soon—not to give up his faith in the resurrection of Jesus. That is what I emphasize when people talk with me about their doubts. I tell them: I have no problem with the fact that you have doubts about many things, but do not let go of the core of the Christian faith—however difficult that may be, There is no ‘hard’ evidence that the resurrection is indeed a historical fact. There was no cctv in the tomb where Jesus had been laid. But there are enough valid reasons to hold on to the belief that ‘Jesus is truly risen!’ That will be the topic of next week’s blog.

[1] Johan van Meriënboer, Peter Bootsma en Peter van Griendsven: Tour de Force (Uitgeverij Boom, 2008).