Middle East Resources

Samuel M. Zwemer: Defender of Apostolic Missions

Bassam M. Madany

Early in 1979, the Shah of Iran was overthrown, and an Islamic Republic, under the guidance of Ayatollah Khomeini, replaced his regime. Since then, books on Islam have been appearing rapidly. Most of them restrict their subjects to geo-political matters. This is why “Islam and the Cross”[i]  is very welcome. It reminds Christians that the challenge of missions to Muslims remains as great as ever. Millions of Muslims now live in Western Europe and North America. They are to be found in every metropolitan center in Canada and the United States. While some new works on missions have appeared, yet there is hardly anything that equals the writings of Samuel M. Zwemer. They breathe a strong Christian fervor, coupled with a solid scholarship. This fact earned him the designation of “Apostle to Islam.”

During his long career both as missionary in the Muslim world, and professor of missions at Princeton Seminary, Dr. Zwemer authored more that fifty books, and was the founder and editor of the quarterly journal “The Moslem World.” He knew Arabic very well, and was patient and understanding when Muslim inquirers came to discuss with him the claims of the Christian faith.

Before coming to the United States, I was greatly moved by Zwemer’s book on the life of Raymond Lull. He was a Spanish poet whose meditation on our Lord’s sufferings and death led him to a complete change of life. He dedicated the rest of his days to bringing the Gospel to the Muslims of North Africa. He studied Arabic for nine years and mastered it, and traveled to many European centers of learning to convince the young universities of the necessity to start chairs for Arabic and Islamic studies. At the age of eighty, he returned to North Africa on what was to be his last missionary journey. He was stoned to death outside the walls of Bougie, in present-day Algeria, in 1315.

Then in 1950, while I was a theological student at the Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I read “The Cross Above the Crescent,” by Dr. Zwemer. I wrote him expressing my deep appreciation for the contents of his book. I was delighted to receive a very warm response. He encouraged me to continue with my special interest in missions to Muslims, and made a few suggestions that I have always cherished. Not long after that letter, Samuel M. Zwemer went to be with his Lord on April 2, 1952. By the end of that year, J. Christy Wilson had published, Apostle to Islam: A Biography of Samuel M. Zwemer (Baker Book House)

It is not easy nowadays to find the many titles of the Zwemer legacy. This is why we are very indebted to the labors of the editor, Dr. Roger S. Greenway, in providing us with these important selections from the writings of this great missionary. In Part I that deals with the general topic of Islam and Christianity, there are excerpts from The Muslim Christ; Mohammed and Christ; Islam and the Holy Spirit; Christianity’s Stumbling Block, and The Way to the Muslim Heart. Part II, treats the general subject of Islam and Animism. The concluding chapter, A Call to Prayer, was originally published in a book with the same title. **

One of the most important legacies of Dr. Zwemer is that he combined his great interest in winning Muslims to Christ, with a solid commitment to the Apostolic Tradition, or as we call it today, the historic Christian faith. In his late years, when Dr. Zwemer was teaching Christian missions at Princeton Seminary, he was aware of the radical changes that were taking place in America and Europe with respect to the fundamentals of Christianity. He took a clear stand against theological liberalism and syncretism. In his early days as missionary in the Middle East, a general consensus prevailed among missionary agencies and mission workers concerning the cardinal doctrines of Christianity. Regardless of their denominational differences, missionaries held to the supreme and final authority of the Bible; the uniqueness, finality, and superiority of the Lord Jesus Christ; the primacy of the proclamation of the Gospel; and the necessity of faith in the Savior, as a condition of salvation.

Unfortunately, in the days that followed World War I, these historic beliefs were being questioned by responsible members of certain Protestant denominations. For example, in 1932 the publication of Re-Thinking Missions: A Layman’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years caused a great stir in missionary circles. The authors of this report, who came from several Protestant denominations, advocated a radical change in the purpose and goal of missions. ***

Samuel Zwemer, as a faithful servant of the Lord, addressed these departures from historic Christianity in his book, Thinking Missions with Christ. ****

In the recent volume entitled Re-thinking Missions, the old Biblical, Christocentric basis for missions is discarded and we read: “At the center of the religious mission, though it takes the special form of promoting one’s own type of thought and practice, there is an always valid impulse of love to men; one offers one’s own faith because that is the best one has to offer” P.19

This line of thought is not that much different from the pluralist theologies that have invaded some Western theological thinking lately. Dr. Zwemer minced no words in denouncing the above-quoted line of reasoning as non-Christian. Actually, he was dealing with that notorious report on the nature and future of missions that had appeared in Re-Thinking Missions. He went on to explain the crucial importance of orthodox beliefs in any work of missions, especially among Muslim people.

For us who work among Moslems, their denial of Jesus Christ’s mission, His Incarnation, His Atonement, His Deity, are the very issues of the conflict. Almost spontaneously, therefore, what might have been mere theological dogma in the mind of the missionary turns into a deep spiritual conviction, a logical necessity and a great passion. Face to face with those who deny our Saviour and practically deify Mohammed, one is compelled to think in black and white. The challenge of the muezzin, so romantic to the tourist, is a cry of pain to the missionary; it hurts. In the silence of the night one cannot help thinking, that it pleased the Father that in Jesus Christ should all fullness dwell, not in Mohammed. Face to face with Islam, one cannot help asking what will be the final outcome of Christian Unitarianism. In the history of Islam its bald monotheism has always degenerated into some form of pantheism or deism. Pp. 20, 21

The last chapter in Thinking Missions with Christ has a very stirring challenge to remain faithful to the Apostolic Faith. Dr. Zwemer played a major role in the organization and the proceedings of the First World Missionary Council that was held at Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910. He was also present at the Second Missionary Council that met in Jerusalem in 1928. As mentioned earlier, the theological climate had changed among several Protestant denominations. Some warning calls were issued against the secularization of the mission of the church. Here are some lines from the final chapter of this book, The Other-Worldliness of the Missionary Enterprise.

It was pointed out at the Jerusalem Council Meeting in 1928 that the present-day terminology of the Church and of missions lays such great emphasis on social service and the present life that we are in grave danger of losing the sense of the eternal. Our own worldliness blinds us to the other-worldliness of those whom we call heathen. Our vocabulary is too secular. Our horizon is too earthly. Our outlook is too much in the realm of time. Secular movements rivet our attention. P. 129

As always, Samuel Zwemer turns to the Scriptures. It is in them that he hears the voice of his Lord and Savior, and the testimony of the apostles. Paul’s missionary message and passion were due to this vision of the eternal. “We look not at the things which are seen.” “Knowing the terror of the Lord we persuade men.” “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” “If in this life only we have hope in Christ we are of all men most miserable.” Not only at Damascus, but through all Paul’s life, he could not see (earthly things) for the " glory of that light” --- which shone from the heavenly world. “Our citizenship,” he said, “is in heaven.” Here we are only pilgrims and sojourners to dwell in tents. We must not be entangled with the things of this world if we would be Christ’s ambassadors. P. 133

To read the works of Samuel M. Zwemer and reflect on them is like sitting at the feet of the greatest missionary-theologian of modern times. I am so thankful for the appearance of Islam and the Cross, and look forward to similar endeavors in the not distant future.

*Islam and the Cross: Selections from ‘The Apostle to Islam’ Samuel M. Zwemer, edited by Roger S. Greenway. Phillipsburg, NJ 08865-0817: P&R Publishing, 2002. Pp. xviii +165.
** A Call to Prayer. Samuel M. Zwemer. London: Marshall Brothers, 1923. Pp. 9-52.
*** Re-Thinking Missions: A Layman’s Inquiry After One Hundred years. William Ernest Hocking. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1932.
**** Thinking Missions with Christ: Some Basic Aspects of World- Evangelism, Our Message, Our Motive and Our Goal. Samuel M. Zwemer. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1934. P.142.