Samuel Zwemer (1867-1952) pioneered American missionary work to the Muslim world. I knew his daughter Bessie who married Claude Pickens and were retired in Annisquam, Massachusetts after being missionaries in China. I also knew J. Christy Wilson who came to teach missions at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in 1975 after 22 years as a missionary in Afghanistan. Christy wrote the biography of Samuel Zwemer: Apostle to Islam, which I have recently read.
Samuel Zwemer lived through great changes in the Muslim world when the old Ottoman Empire was divided up into separate nations after World War I. He enjoyed the status of an American during the colonial age before the establishment of the state of Israel and the enrichment of the Muslim states through their oil revenues. He would be surprised at the recent resurgence of radical Islam. In his day Islam seemed to be a religion of the past.
He made no bones about the superiority of Christianity and saw his mission as a war of the King of Kings against the hosts of Islam. The following is an example of his approach in evangelizing Muslims, given at a conference in 1906.
“Sir William Muir, an acknowledged authority, has said, ‘The sword of Mohammed and the Koran are the most stubborn enemies of civilization, liberty, and truth which the world has yet known.’ To the unprejudiced mind his statement is a historical commonplace. While other religions and systems of error has fallen before the advance of truth, as Dagon before the ark of Jehovah, Islam, like mighty Goliath, defies the armies of the living God and the progress of Christ’s Kingdom! In three continents it presents an unbroken front and is armed with a proud and aggressive spirit.”
In 1910 he spoke of the impending struggle in Western Asia, what we now call the Middle East.
“Above all, think of the inspiration of Jesus’ life in Western Asia. If God so loved the world, He loved it as a unit; but if Jesus Christ is the Son of Man, He loves Western Asia. His manger and His Cross stood there. In Western Asia His blood was spilled. In Western Asia He walked the hills. There His tears fell for Jerusalem. There His eye still rests. Thither He will come again. It was in Western Asia that He said, ‘All authority is given unto me;’ and although for thirteen centuries His royal rights have been disputed by a usurper, they have never been abrogated. Shall we give Western Asia to Him, or shall Western Asia remain the Empire of Mohammed? Shall Bethlehem hear five times a day ‘There is no god but God, and Mohammed is God’s apostle’, and shall not a single one of us dare go, if God will, in this year of our Lord 1910 unto Mecca itself, the very stronghold of Islam, and preach the Gospel of the great King?”
Do we not need another call to missionary action and attitude towards Muslims today?
He preached on the duties of the Church as elder brother to the prodigal son of Islam. The Church should be like the Father, watch for the return of the prodigal son and be ready to embrace him and welcome him to the Father’s home. He saw Islam as the brother who can only be won by the love of the Church – love which needs to be like that of the Father.
He was a prolific writer whose books need to be rediscovered in this day of Muslim resurgence. Taking Hold of God is on the subject of prayer. The Glory of the Cross, The Glory of the Manger and The Glory of the Empty Tomb expounded the Gospel. His books on Islam are classics. The Moslem Doctrine of God; Islam, A Challenge to Faith; The Moslem Christ; Mohammed or Christ; The Cross Above the Crescent.
Kenneth Scott Latourette, the Yale church historian, concluded his review Samuel Zwemer’s writings with this judgement:
“It is always in its relation to Christianity that Dr. Zwemer views Islam. He is passionately convinced of the inadequacy of Islam to meet human needs. He recognizes in it admirable qualities, but he is clear as to the incalculable superiority of Christ over the Prophet, and states his reasons unequivocally. Dr. Zwemer has no illusions about the resistance which Islam presents to Christianity. He knows that through the centuries it has won more converts from Christianity than have been lost to its greatest rival. Yet he has no doubt as to the ultimate triumph of the Cross.”
We meet Muslims in the course of our daily lives. One of our restaurant managers is a Bengali Muslim who regularly engages me in conversation. I mainly listen, but after reading about Samuel Zwemer I am going to talk with him about Jesus, for Jesus is presented in the Koran as much more important than Mohammed. What does he know about Jesus? Perhaps it is I who will lead him to discover that Jesus is his Savior.
We are involved in the same struggle with Islam as was Samuel Zwemer. Let us not flinch in proclaiming the Gospel of the great King.