Author: J. Christy Wilson (Sr.) (1891-1973) was an influential missionary in Persia. He published Apostle to Islam in 1952, the year after Samuel M. Zwemer died. (His son, J. Christy Wilson, Jr., (1921-1999), was a pioneer missionary in Afghanistan, and was also nothing to sneeze at.)
Samuel M. Zwemer (the subject of this biography) 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.
Overview: This is probably the most comprehensive biography involving Christian work in the Muslim world. It is engaging, multi-faceted, well-researched, and well-written.
Like Ion Kieth-Falconer and others, Zwemer’s life must be divided into several streams:
- His academic career, which included a chair at Princeton Seminary in his later life.
- His literary career, which spans 48 volumes—one writer quips that, like Luther, he “threw his inkpot at the devil”.
- His pioneer work—Zwemer was one of the earlier student volunteers, and he held a position of influence in the movement—with Lansing and Cantine, he also founded the Arabian Mission, which was remarkable for its ambition and sacrifice.
- His publishing work—Zwemer was the editor of The Moslem World Quarterly from 1911 to 1947.
- His mobilization work, which, according to Ruth Tucker, was his most important contribution. Year after year, his annual schedule involved platforms and pulpits in three languages in America, India, South Africa, Indonesia, China, Persia, etc.
With so much travel and so many contributions, Wilson mainly focuses on his work; there is not much “table talk” or personal touch. This book is too big-picture for that. The biography itself reads as an account of the revival of interest in evangelical missions to Muslim-majority people groups, and for that reason it is indispensable.
Meat: One of the high points for me was reading about Lucknow 1911 for the first time—a watershed moment in missions history, in which modern missions to Muslims became focused, intentional and organized.
Zwemer seems to have been steadfast, if a little grave; and orthodox, if a bit staunch. His life work is remarkable and unparalleled, and this is one of the best books it has been my high privilege to bring back into publication.
Bones: Something that will disappoint some readers, as Ruth Tucker points out in From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, is that Zwemer had very few converts in his lifetime. He was an eagle in theology; a seer in writing; a “steam-engine” in mobilization, as his close colleague testified; but he himself did not win many people to Christ in the Arab world. For that reason, some reviewers take this book to be uninspiring; I felt—quite the opposite—that his mobilization work undoubtedly has resulted in innumerable converts through the next generation, and from this I took great encouragement as a missionary in an all-but-forgotten field.
Some personal takeaways from Zwemer’s life as a whole: I take a spur and a warning both from this biography. First, mobilization, writing, and conference work are critical elements of our global task. They must not be neglected. Second, the most important work in ministry will always be not publishing, but people—one at a time—and loving your neighbor is harder and more glorious than a mile-long trail of print. This is exactly why mobilization was Zwemer’s greatest contribution; because that is where he was relationally invested.