Horatio B. Hackett — Scholar and gentleman

by Doug Kutilek

Each man called of God into the ministry has his own field of labor from God: He gives some to be pastors, some missionaries, some evangelists, some teachers, and some writers. Of course, often two or more of these activities will find a place in the life of a single man of God, either simultaneously or successively. Horatio B. Hackett (1808-1875) was one of those whose primary field of labors for the Lord was in the classroom, committing Biblical truth “to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2), though he also made a substantial contribution as a writer and editor.

Born in Salisbury, MA, near the end of Jefferson’s second term, Hackett was bereft of his father at age five. Raised a Congregationalist, he was educated at the Amesbury and Phillips Academies, Amherst College, and Andover Seminary, graduating from the latter in 1834. He was converted during his student days at Amherst. His training included extensive study of Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and German, all of which served him well in his later work.

After graduation, Hackett was Greek tutor at a college in Baltimore, during which time he became convinced of believer’s immersion as the only true Biblical baptism, and declared this conviction by submitting to immersion at a Baptist church there.

He was professor of Latin and Greek, and then Hebrew, at Brown University, 1835-1839, after which he became professor of Biblical Literature and Interpretation at Newton Theological Institute, where he would remain until 1867. Among those students he helped train for the Gospel ministry was future Boston pastor A. J. Gordon.

Hackett had opportunity to spend a year in Germany (1841-42) studying languages and theology with the likes of Tholuck, Gesenius, Neander, and Hengstenberg. In 1858, he became associated with the American Bible Union (Baptist), a Bible society organized with the express purpose of providing the most accurate version possible in the various languages of the world. Hackett’s resignation from Newton in 1867 was so that he might devote full time to the work of the ABU in a Bible revision project.

From 1870 until his death in 1875, he was Professor of Biblical Literature and New Testament Exegesis at Rochester Theological Seminary.

Among his many literary labors, Hackett wrote the commentary on Acts that was included in An American Commentary on the New Testament (Baptist) and which, besides Broadus’ famous commentary on Matthew, is almost the only other part of that set that merits attention today. His Illustrations of Scripture: Suggested by a Tour through the Holy Land (1856), a very instructive little book, is based on a many-months-long tour of the Holy land — a full month was spent in Jerusalem alone — which he undertook in 1852-3. He illustrates and vindicates the Scriptures in many particulars (his treatment of the parable of the mustard seed has silenced more than one critic). Later, he compiled Christian Memorials of the [American Civil] War: or, Scenes and Incidents Illustrative of Religious Faith and Principle, Patriotism and Bravery in Our Army (252 pp.; 1864 and reprinted 2002). While the famous revival in the army of Northern Virginia is well known, the Christian faith and testimonies among the Union army have been largely neglected. This volume corrects that neglect.

Hackett’s greatest literary legacy is in the American edition of William Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible. A contributor of some 30 articles to the original three-volume British edition of this reference work (1863), Hackett was asked to edit an American edition, which he did with his characteristic energy, precision, and attention to detail. The American edition in four volumes (1868, and often reprinted,) is a distinct improvement over the original work, with longer, more detailed articles, corrective supplements, and expanded bibliographies and remains worth owning and consulting even today, though its Old Testament-related articles are rather more out-of-date than those relating to the New Testament (the one-volume, greatly shortened edition, in contrast, is not worth having).

Baptist historian Thomas Armitage eulogized Hackett: “Only once in an age is such a man granted to the world. With the tenderness of a woman, the artlessness of a babe, and the learning of a sage he blended the most modest humility, and yet his speech was wrapt in fire.”

Thomas Armitage in his The History of the Baptists gives a two-page sketch of the life and labors of Hackett (pp. 915-17). William Cathcart’s The Baptist Encyclopedia gives an unusually full account, with an engraved portrait. The 303-page Memorials of Horatio Balch Hackett edited by George H. Whittemore (1876) includes a biographical account of nearly 180 pages, as well as numerous tributes from a diverse group of colleagues, students, and others. It can be consulted at www.archive.org, where most of Hackett’s works are also available in downloadable form.