Review: Unoccupied Mission Fields of Asia & Africa

Rating: ★★★

Author: Samuel M. Zwemer was a pioneer missionary among Arabs along the Persian Gulf. His later career was spent writing, teaching and mobilizing for missions among Muslims while he was based in Egypt for many years, and later at Princeton Theological Seminary. (Click here for more on Samuel M. Zwemer, or read his biography.)

Genre:

The genre of this book requires some explanation. Unoccupied Mission Fields, especially the first half, falls into the category of missions survey. Missions survey books sought to compile information from European explorers and pioneer missionaries to explain basic information that we would expect to read today on Wikipedia: geography, demographics, population statistics, religious statistics, as well as other information pertinent for missionaries and intercessors. Missions survey is not well represented today in publishing, but in comprehensive resources and websites such as Operation World, The Joshua Project, and some resources by Voice of the Martyrs. Missions newsletters, biographies, and some large-scale studies (like A Wind in the House of Islam) also may meet the same goals as missions survey.

Overview:

Zwemer writes in the preface:

The purpose of this book is to give a survey of the extent and condition of the wholly unoccupied mission fields in Africa and Asia . . . and to consider the questions that bear on their occupation. (Preface, loc. 18)

This twofold purpose is roughly how the book is divided. After a lengthy rundown of neglected areas (especially Muslim-majority populations), the second half of Unoccupied Fields deals with heart issues and head issues involved with missionary advancement in these pioneer fields.

The book begins with many accounts of geographical areas with no missionaries (as of 1911). These are mildly interesting, since we can clearly see which areas have experienced rapid progress in the past century (mainly sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia), and others that have seemingly changed little since Zwemer’s day.

Zwemer then discusses the obstacles to missionary advancement in each region, the social and religious poverty among the unreached, missionary strategy, and the need for pioneer efforts.

Zwemer’s sources are primarily missions reports and missions biographies, with some explorers’ accounts and travelogues.

Despite many dated quotations, the second half of the book shows what made Zwemer famous. Aside from his very thorough research, the book is dripping with a pioneer spirit for the glory of Christ among the unreached, and that is the book’s chief value. The last few chapters are especially potent, and “The Glory of the Impossible” is worth the price of the book.

Quotes:

“These fields are the enemy’s citadels, the high places of his dominion, flaunting defiance in the face of a militant church.” (ch. 1, loc. 167)

“The first Missionary came unto His own and His own received Him not.” (ch. 1, loc. 169)

“God does not deal with mankind in the mass, but as individuals, nor should we. [sic]” (ch. 1, loc. 678)

“Decentralization in the mission field itself is another pressing problem.” (ch. 2, loc. 855)

“Meanwhile, how slowly move the hosts of God
To claim the crown He hath already won!” (ch. 3, loc. 1099)

“The march of missionary progress throughout the past century of Protestant missions has, with some exceptions, been along the line of least resistance. When the whole non-Christian world was awaiting pioneer effort, the Church sometimes postponed the harder tasks. . . . ” (ch. 3, loc. 1128)

“The gradual breaking down of barriers . . . is a call to greater faith and enterprise.” (ch. 3, loc. 1594)

“Long neglect, trying climates, political barriers, national jealousies and religious intolerance in all the unoccupied fields are only a challenge to faith and intended of God to lead us to prayer. All difficulties can be surmounted by those who have faith in God.” (ch. 3, p. 107, loc. 1630)

“The eyes of the Christian world turn as instinctively toward the lands closed to the Gospel in this missionary age, as do the eyes of a conquering army toward the few remaining outposts of the enemy.” (John Muir, qtd. in ch. 6, p. 166, loc. 2546)

“The pioneer stands in a class by himself, like Paul among the Apostles. His glory and joy is the magnitude and the difficulty of the task. The unknown attracts him. Obstacles allure him, and difficulties only knit his moral fibre and strengthen his purpose.” (ch. 7, p. 198, loc. 3027)

” . . . men who do not know what discouragement means. . . .” (ch. 7, p. 200, loc. 3059)

“God does not put the Polar bear on the Congo, nor the hippopotamus in the heart of Arabia . . . Lambs are provided with wool, and it is untrue that God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb. He does not need to temper the wind, because He does not shear the lamb.” (ch. 7, p. 214, loc. 3267)

“Heap the difficulties together recklessly . . . He is the God of the impossible.” (Lillias Trotter, qtd. in ch. 8, p. 225, loc. 3436).

“We are not to choose conditions, but to meet them. The early apostles did not wait until the Roman Empire was ‘opened.'” (S. C. Rijnhart, qtd. in ch. 8, p. 227, loc. 3467)

Zwemer cites Bishop French’s tale, adding that MacKay had called for six young men and only French responded (ch. 8, p. 233, loc. 3572)

Livingstone challenged Cambridge men: “Do you carry out the work which I have begun. I leave it with you.” (ch. 8, p. 240, loc. 3674)

Selected quotes on Arabia and Islam:

“But in its native Arabian soil, the tree planted by the Prophet has grown up with wild freedom and brought forth fruit of its own kind. As regards morality, Arabia is on a low plane . . . ” (p. 142, loc. 2171)

“A religion that does not purify the home cannot regenerate the race.” (Fairbairn, qtd. p. 136, loc. 2085)

“The Gospel is the only hope for the social uplift of the world.” (p. 135, loc. 2061)

Zwemer cites amulet use (p. 118, loc. 1801); open slavery (p. 113, loc. 1729-1730); prostitution in Mecca veiled as ‘temporary marriage’ and the like.

“The chief barrier is that of Moslem political authority and not primarily religious fanaticism.” (p. 94, loc. 1437)

“Northern Oman together with the coast along the western side of the Persian Gulf has a large number of villages and cities. Only the coast towns thus far have been visited by missionaries and colporteurs and the people would welcome medical missions, yet there is no station in the entire area of the map.” (p. 45, loc. 675)

“Missionary work in Arabia so far has been largely preliminary.” (p. 34, loc. 518)

“The eastern tribes . . . are pagan . . . Their dialect is distinct . . . their customs are peculiar and primitive.” (p. 33)

Sources cited with recommendations:

In the Torrid Sudan
With Tibetans in Tent and Temple
Across the Sahara 
(Vischer)
Fighting the Slave-Hunters in Central Africa (Swann, 1910)
The Lower Niger & Its Tribes (Leonard, 1906)
Leaves from an Afghan Scrapbook
Six Months in Meccah
(Keane, 1881)

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