Middle East Resources

Samuel M. Zwemer: Defender of Apostolic Missions

Bassam Michael Madany

4 April 2022

During Dr. Samuel M. Zwemer’s extensive career both as missionary in the Muslim World, and as professor of missions at Princeton Seminary, he authored around fifty books, and was the founder and editor of the quarterly journal “The Muslim World." He knew Arabic very well and was patient and understanding when Muslim inquirers came to discuss the claims of the Christian faith.

Dr. Zwemer combined his great interest in winning Muslims to Christ, with a solid commitment to the Apostolic Tradition, or the Historic Christian faith. In his late years, he took a clear stand against theological liberalism and syncretism.

During his early days as missionary in the Middle East, a general consensus prevailed among missionary agencies and missionaries concerning the cardinal doctrines of Christianity. They 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 Lord Jesus Christ, as a condition of salvation.

Following the First World War, these historic beliefs were questioned by members of certain Protestant denominations. 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 the report advocated a radical change in the purpose and goal of missions. Dr. Zwemer addressed these departures from historic Christianity in his book, Thinking Missions With Christ. Here are excerpts from this valuable book:

“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 different from the pluralist theologies that have invaded some Western theological thinking in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Dr. Zwemer minced no words in denouncing the above-quoted line of reasoning as non-Christian. Actually, he was dealing with the nature and future of missions in “Re-Thinking Missions.” He went on to explain the crucial importance of orthodox beliefs in Christian Missions, especially among Muslims.

“For us who work among Muslims, 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 Muhammad, 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 Muhammad. Face to face with Islam, one cannot help asking what the final outcome of Christian Unitarianism will be. 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 had played a key 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 above, the theological climate had changed among several Protestant denominations. Some warning calls were issued against the secularization of the mission of the church. The following are some pertinent excerpts from the last chapter of this book, “The Otherworldliness 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 Saviour, 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. 

A Short Bibliography of Dr. Samuel M. Zwemer 

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. 

Thinking Missions with Christ: Some Basic Aspects of World- Evangelism, Our Message, Our Motive and Our Goal. Samuel M. Zwemer. Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI:  1934. 

The Cross Above the Crescent: The Validity, Necessity, and Urgency of Missions to Moslems. Samuel Marinus Zwemer, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI 1941

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Re-Thinking Missions: A Layman’s Inquiry After One Hundred years. William Ernest Hocking. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1932.