A Lasting Legacy of Samuel and Amy Zwemer in Bahrain
Despite winning only a handful of converts, Samuel Zwemer was the greatest missionary the United States has ever sent to the Muslim world. Of him, the historian Kenneth Latourette said, “No one is more deserving of the title, ‘Apostle to Islam.’” He was a gifted evangelist, a prolific author, a compelling speaker, and a dedicated professor—never deviating from this message: Muslims need Jesus, and Christians need to reach them.
When Zwemer was asked to be the keynote speaker at the very first Urbana missions conference in 1946 (before it was called “Urbana”), he chose the theme “The Cross in Christ’s Commission.” This was seven years into his “retirement,” and six years before his death.
World War II had just ended the year before. The world was reeling under the uncertainties of atomic weapons and how the new antagonistic superpowers would go forward. Zwemer began his message,
All of Christendom and the best thinkers of the non-Christian world face the New Year with deep forebodings and a consciousness of crisis. It may be doubted whether there has ever been a time when the Christian church was beset by so many and such powerful foes. . . . Everywhere we read of persecution, closing of doors, bitter opposition, the patience of unanswered prayer, or the flaming sword of martyrdoms. The Christian church is under fire in a hostile world — a world of disillusionment and hopelessness.
This was seventy years ago. It reminds us that there never has been an ideal time for a great missionary movement. The time is always now. Into this setting, Zwemer spoke the only message that he believed could carry the day in such a world: the message of the cross…
Too often I hear questions posed that imbed what might be unhelpful assumptions:
What does the Qur’an say about sin, free will, the nature of believers and unbelievers, etc.?
What is the basic psychology of the Muslim mind?
According to the Qur’an, should Muslims kill Christians?
What was the character of Muhammad?
What laws actually make up Shari’ah?
As a philosopher, I immediately begin to consider whether questions such as these assume as fact what may not be fact. For example…
Is there a single discernible position within the Qur’an about sin, free will, the nature of believers and unbelievers, etc.?
Is there a single discernible Muslim mind such that accurate generalizations about it can be reliably described?
Is there a single unarguable decontextualized position within the Qur’an about whether Muslims can justifiably kill Christians?
Was Muhammad a flat, consistent character or was he, what in literature would be called a round character, namely, a multidimensional character with growing trends and contradictions in various situations and in differing times?
Is there a monolithic, agreed upon authoritative voice among Muslims about what laws constitute Shari’ah, or are there multiple voices that have similarities and differences.
The Muslim World (TMW) is one of the leading academic journals covering Islam worldwide. Strange it would call its own history “bigoted”.
It was founded in 1911 by Samuel Zwemer, a founding father of Protestant missions in engagement with the oft-rival monotheistic faith. Now published by Hartford Seminary, like much of the Protestant mainline its original evangelistic fervor has faded. Still I was startled to read the concluding sentence of an informative historical biography TMW published in commemoration of their 100th edition:
“A century later, TMW has successfully broken ranks with religious provincialism and bigotry, and lives up to the present motto of the Seminary “exploring differences and deepening faith.””¹
Is this a fair account of all but TMW’s most recent scholarship…