In part two of this series we examined early Christian responses to Islam. We move the story now to America starting with America’s first theological superstar, Jonathan Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards and His Missionary Disciples
Luther’s paradoxical view of Islam as monotheistic and idolatrous; heretical and borderline Christian was echoed in the writings of other Protestant thinkers who followed in Luther’s wake, including America’s celebrated eighteenth century theologian, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’ primary focus and passion was revivalism with the belief that what was happening in America during what came to be known as the First Great Awakening would soon break forth in other parts of the world as a herald of the arrival of millennial glory. This led Edwards to develop a deep interest in other religions in hopes of finding a way to extend revival fervor outside the boundaries of Christendom.
Edwards read voraciously about other religions; he knew of, tried to get and perhaps read, many of the travelogues, dictionaries, and encyclopedias of religion available at the time. The books included in his ‘catalogue’ include George Sale’s translation of the Qur’an.
Sale, whose eighteenth century English translation of the Qur’an was the best English rendition of the Arabic original, made no hesitation in promoting the idea that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. He stated it clearly in his introduction. “How much soever Muhammadans are to blame in other points,” he said, “they are far from being idolatrous, as some ignorant writers have pretended.” This sentiment is echoed in Sale’s extensive and relatively accurate (for the time) coverage of the origins and teachings of Islam in the preface to his translation. The assumption throughout is of a common Christian/Muslim deity.
The fact that this was one of Edward’s primary sources for information about Islam suggests that he had access to a far more accurate and thorough treatment of Islamic history and teaching than Luther did. His interest in other religions also led him to develop his own formulation of the patristic concept of prisca theologia which says that vestiges of true religion can be discerned in non-Christian religions. This would indicate that Edwards should have been more open to finding commonalities between Islam and Christianity than Luther had. But Edwards, like Luther before him as well as many other orthodox Protestants of his era, read Islam primarily through an eschatological lens; the left arm to the Catholic right arm of the anti-Christ. “Edwards’ interest in Islam,” says historian Thomas S. Kidd, “had primarily to do with its place in eschatology, its inferiority to Christianity, and its role in the on-going debates with Deists. He made Muslims prominent in his millennial theology, arguing that as the millennium approached they would be destroyed.”
Kidd’s note about Edward’s interest in Islam as part of his “on-going debate with Deists” is worth noting here, as it underscores a trend seen throughout the history of Christian attempts to categorize and explain Islam. This is the tendency for Christian observers to interpret Islam through the lens of either ideological or actual conflict, sometimes with little reference to Islam. As previously noted, in the early years of the encounter between Christians and Muslims Islam was read through the lens of actual conflict related to the Islamic conquest of Christendom. In Edwards’ time the issue was an ideological conflict between orthodox Protestants and Deists whom Edwards considered to be the greatest threat to the Christian faith in his generation. The Anglican priest, Humphrey Prideaux set the stage for linking this conflict to Islam with his late seventeenth century biography of Muhammad which had a huge influence on shaping American Protestant attitudes towards Islam in Edwards’ time. The ostensible purpose of this book was to expose “the Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet” (as per its title). It’s actual purpose, however, was revealed in the subtext of the title which reads: “A Discourse Annexed, for the Vindicating of Christianity from this Charge; Offered to the Consideration of the Deists of the Present Age.” 
It was this battle against Deism that led Edwards to affirm Islam’s essential monotheism while denying its salvific efficacy. The prompt in this case was the provocative preference some Deists claimed for Islam over Trinitarian Christianity as they declared Islam to be a more ‘natural’ religion than Trinitarian Christianity due to its reliance on natural revelation. But, countered Edwards, Islam does not rely on ‘natural’ revelation. Its monotheistic foundations are, in fact, rooted in biblical revelation. This is how historian Gerald McDermott characterizes Edwards’ thought on this point:
It was only because of the revelation provided by Christianity that the Islamic world condemned polytheism, and all the truth found in Islam was taken directly from Christianity.
With Edwards as with Luther we find an apparent paradox that affirms a common Christian and Islamic deity while giving no validity to Islam’s other truth claims. We worship the same God, said Edwards, but due to the ‘imposture’ of Muhammad, Muslims are tragically blind to God’s true nature which is hidden behind thick clouds of ignorance and demonic delusion.
By the time Edward’s theology had been adapted to a post Revolutionary America, these basic elements of an evangelical perspective towards Islam had become cemented in place. They remained in place through the Second Great Awakening in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century which produced the vision that would give rise to America’s first organized global mission effort. It began with a group of students at Andover Seminary which was started by Edwards’ disciples among the New England Calvinists in protest over Harvard’s liberalization. These students convinced their elders to give legs to their global mission vision through the creation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in 1810. By 1812 this Board had sent their first missionaries to India. In 1819 they did the same for the Muslim majority world, sending as their representatives the newly ordained Congregational ministers, Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons.
Pliny Fisk was the centerpiece of my doctoral research. What I discovered among other things in examining his record as well as the record of his traveling companion, Levi Parsons, is that he accepted without question that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. It was a given among the students at Andover. In fact, by the time Fisk was set to embark on his pioneering journey to the Ottoman Empire he had become convinced that Islam had much to commend it. He said so in the sermon he preached to a packed church in Boston the week before he left.
Mahommedans believe, that Moses and Jesus were true prophets; that Jesus was the greatest of prophets except Mahommed; that the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels were revelations from God, but have been so much corrupted by Jews and Christians, as to deserve but little credit. They assert the unity of God, the immortality of the soul, and future rewards and punishments. They have, indeed, much of the truth in their system.
When I made the assumption that Muslims and Christians worship the same God in a sermon preached at a church in Chicago in 2008 my orthodoxy was called into question. When Fisk did the same in a sermon he preached to a revival-fired congregation in Boston in 1819 no one objected. Clearly at this point in the development of the evangelical narrative the assumption of a common deity was a generally held belief. But this by no means suggests that Fisk or any others of his generation had become pluralists or universalists. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fisk was an evangelical minister embarking on an evangelical mission to bring the light of Christ to a place (in his eyes) of great spiritual darkness. Even as he spoke in his sermon of Muslims having “much of truth in their system” he would also say:
All the inhabitants of the country believe in one God, and the leading facts recorded in the Old Testament. Here are no gods of brass or wood; no temples to Juggernaut, or the Grand Lama; no funeral pyres; no altars stained with the blood of human victims. Everywhere you see a faint glimmering of light, through the gross and almost impenetrable darkness.
When Samuel Zwemer was a student at New Brunswick Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey in the 1880s he and two other students – James Cantine and Philip Phelps – reached the prayerful conclusion that God was leading them to establish a Christian missionary presence in the world’s most difficult and challenging location for Christian missionaries. They considered various options, but finally settled on the Arabian heartland of Islam under the influence of their Old Testament professor, Dr. John Lansing. Lansing had just returned from an extensive tour of Egypt and was himself convinced that Arabia was the field they needed to ‘occupy.’ The fact that Lansing had spent considerable time in the region himself suggests that the missions landscape had changed considerably in the seventy years since Fisk and Parsons made their pioneering journey to the Ottoman Empire. When this pioneering pair went to the Ottoman Empire little was known about Islam and Arab culture beyond what could be gleaned from the writings of travelers and earlier missionaries. Fisk and Parsons were able to read the Qur’an, but only in translation. Lansing, in contrast, was able to introduce his students to a more scholarly study of Islam based on his Orientalist’s knowledge of Arabic and original Islamic sources. This ensured that Zwemer and Cantine (Phelps would stay home to take care of his parents) had a much better grounding in Islam than previous missionaries. Zwemer himself would go on to master Arabic and become a respected scholar of Islam during his long sojourn in the Arab world. Even those who did not agree with his evangelical convictions admired him for the depth of his knowledge about Islam and the Muslim majority world.
In his early years in Arabia Zwemer’s views more or less reflected the usual evangelical critique of Islam, including the long standing accusation of Muhammad’s (deliberate?) distortion of biblical revelation about God. It was a subject about which Zwemer showed a great interest as evidenced in his publication of a book in 1905 entitled The Moslem Doctrine of God: An Essay on the Character and Attributes of Allah According to the Koran and Orthodox Tradition. The book begins with this statement:
Jews, Christians and Mohammedans believe in one God and yet differ widely in their interpretation of this idea. . . . Our purpose in these pages is to learn the extent and content of this idea; an idea which holds the Moslem world even more than they hold it.
This is what Zwemer develops in this book – the widely different interpretation of the idea of God held by Muslims. What Zwemer shows is that this idea is not even remotely akin to the Christian idea of God. Typical is what Zwemer says through a quote he approvingly includes from a German critic of Islam:
What Mohammad tells us of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, justice, goodness and mercy sounds, for the most part, very well indeed, and might easily awaken the idea that there is no real difference between his God and the God of Christianity. But Mohammad’s monotheism was just as much a departure from true monotheism as the polytheistic ideas prevalent in the corrupt Orientalist churches. Mohammed’s idea of God is out and out deistic. This is why Islam received the warm sympathies of English deists and German rationalists; they found in its idea of God flesh of their flesh and bone of their bones.
In an earlier study I did of Zwemer’s views on Islam  I was led to conclude from this and other passages in his early works that he denied that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The weight of his arguments in this book and elsewhere lends itself easily to such a conclusion as his intent is to push Islamic categorizations of God into an entirely separate category, so separate as to assume something akin to idolatry or worse.
Islam is proud to write on its banner, the Unity of God; but it is, after all, a unity to the Unknown God. Christianity enters every land under the standard of the Holy Trinity – the Godhead of revelation These two banners represent two armies. There is no peace between them. . . . We must conquer or be vanquished. In its origin, history, present attitude and by the very first article of its very brief creed, Islam is anti-Christian.
This was my earlier assessment of Zwemer’s thought which seems to give weight to the argument of separate deities. But I am now convinced that a different conclusion should be reached from what Zwemer writes, which is that Zwemer, like Luther and Edwards and the ABCFM missionaries before him believed that while the idea of God is different, the deity behind the idea is the same. “Jews, Christians and Mohammedans believe in one God . . .” is how Zwemer begins this book. It is foundational to all that follows. His arguments against Islam make no sense apart from this conclusion as they all focus on distortions of a common reality. We have different ideas about God, but behind those ideas is the same God.
This is the early Zwemer. In later years he would come closer to affirming not only a common deity, but common ideas about that Deity. This was a growing conviction with Zwemer that developed particularly after WW I when his immersion in Arab culture had become nearly complete. The extent to which his thoughts changed on this subject can be seen in an article he wrote for Theology Today in 1946 when he was a professor at Princeton Seminary. This is how I characterized the transformation in my earlier study of Zwemer’s views on Islam:
The mature Zwemer, while still feeling that Muhammad’s portrayal of God was inadequate, no longer believes it was inadequate enough to justify the harsh language of his early years. In an article he wrote for the journal Theology Today in 1946, we see an emphasis less on what Muhammad got wrong than on what Muhammad got right. . . Zwemer celebrates Muhammad’s role in calling the Arabs “back to the worship of one living God.” Zwemer also now finds that the ninety-nine attributes of Allah, with only one or two exceptions, to be equivalent to the attributes of Jehovah in the Hebrew scriptures.
And this isn’t all. In this same article Zwemer makes what might be considered an even stronger case for commonality, this time based on testimonies of Muslim converts to Christianity. This is the argument I have always found to be the most convincing.
“No Jew since Paul’s day, any more than Paul himself, was conscious of a change of ‘gods’ when he accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. The same is true of every Muslim convert today.”
Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives
Zwemer set the stage for what would follow as evangelical missionaries picked up not where he had begun his journey, but where his journey ended: with a more accepting appraisal of Islamic theism giving strong affirmation to a common Muslim-Christian belief in a Creator God. What needs to be made clear here is that Zwemer had not slipped into what today would be labeled pluralism or universalism. To his dying day Zwemer remained convinced that the highest calling for Christians was to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our Muslim neighbors in such a way that it would bring them to a point of faith conviction and a fuller revelation of God’s true nature. But his long experience of living and working among Arab Muslims led him to temper his critiques in his later years. He could no longer accept that what Muslims believed about God was “tantamount” to idolatry; and certainly not idolatry itself. In fact there was much that Muslims and Christians shared in their perceptions of God.
And this is where most if not all of the evangelical community of missionaries and evangelical scholars of Islam are today in their appraisal of Islam. It is seen in nearly all the books that have been penned by those who, like Zwemer, have dedicated their careers to a winsome evangelical ministry among Muslims. My own education in Christian-Muslim relations was shaped by those who went several steps beyond Zwemer in finding commonalities upon which to build bridges of understanding with Muslim neighbors without leaving the evangelical camp. I include on this list people like Colin Chapman as well as the highly regarded Anglican scholar of Islam, Bishop Kenneth Cragg. I would also add here Phil Parshall who served for many years as a missionary with SIM in Bangladesh and the Philippines writing extensively on the need for Christians to develop a more communally based witness to our Muslim neighbors, even to the point of considering the creation of Christian mosques. Others on my list include my mentor from Northwestern College, Dr. Lyle Vander Werff and former professor of world missions at the Fuller School of World Missions, Dr. Dudley Woodberry. All operate with the assumption that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In this case one has to ask the question why this perspective is being challenged by other evangelical leaders today. What is the reason for this? And why now? The answer, I believe, lies in fears raised by pluralism and religious relativism in post 9/11 America.
Richard Cimino: Evangelicals and Islam after 9/11
Sociologist, Richard Cimino, published an article in the Review of Religious Research in December of 2005 which gave the results of a comprehensive study he did of American evangelical discourse on Islam following 9/11. What interested him in particular were public statements made by evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, all of whom vilified Islam. All made headlines with their denunciations none more controversial than Southern Baptist leader Jerry Vines’ comment that Muhammad was a “demon possessed pedophile.” These comments were widely criticized by other Christians, including President Bush. But, says Cimino, “the public statements revealed a pattern of anti-Islamic polemics that is found in much of the literature of evangelicals and charismatic Christians in the period after 9/11.” Having followed the development of this literature myself over the years I would affirm Cimino’s observation, noting that if anything it has gotten to be more wide spread and even more vociferous in more conservative evangelical circles making it difficult for Christians to relate to their Muslim neighbors in anything but stereotypical ways.
Essentially what Cimino discovered is that since 9/11 American evangelicals (I would add “conservative” evangelicals) have become more apt than others to oppose Islam. 62% of Evangelicals versus 44% of Americans in general say that what they believe is “very different” from Islam. And one of the reasons has to do with the meme upon which this paper is built as it has the effect of accentuating the gap between our two faiths which may be the real reason for its tenacious hold on the evangelical imagination.
What Cimino posits in this article based on his study of everything written by evangelicals about Islam between Sept 11, 2001 and the time he wrote this article in 2005, is that the perpetuation of memes in the evangelical community such as the one we are examining has less to do with conflict between evangelicals and Muslims (particularly given the fact that very few evangelicals have any kind of personal acquaintance with Muslims) than it has to do with fears of relativism and syncretism. In such a conflict with modern American society,” says Cimino, “I argue that such anti-Islamic polemics function to strengthen the subcultural identity of evangelicals.
Cimino makes a solid case for this thesis with a thorough examination of the sources. He also notes what I have noted in this paper, which is that anti-Islamic polemics are far less prevalent (nearly nonexistent) among missionaries or others who have extensive contact with Muslims than it is with evangelicals in general. And in every case the driving force is the fear of syncretism and religious relativism:
The fear and criticism of religious relativism and syncretism in an increasingly pluralistic society is common in most of the books and articles analyzed in this article. While the concern with pluralism is most evident in the apologetic literature, the message of the charismatic and prophetic literature also reflects the theme that the true nature of Islam is obscured in a “politically correct” and godless society, as well as in that society’s treatment of the global competition between Islam and Christianity.
An Inconclusive Conclusion
What Cimino has uncovered in his research is in line with what has been noted at
different times in our all too brief historical survey, picking up here on three trends. First is the polemical treatment given to Islam when it is either perceived to be or actually experienced as a threat. This has certainly been the case in America since 9/11 leading some to actually go so far as to call for banning Islam altogether from American society. It is telling in this sense that strong statements about Christians and Muslims worshiping different gods didn’t become prevalent in evangelical circles in America until 9/11.
Second, Cimino’s insights fit well with the observation that those who make the most negative and inaccurate statements about Islam are usually those who are at the furthest distance from it (i.e. western Christians after the Islamic conquests). That those evangelical leaders who have spoken out most forcefully about the lack of similarity between Islam and Christianity are also those who are the most existentially and intellectually removed from it is no coincidence. Distance in this case breeds contempt.
Third, Ciminos’ observation that the issue driving evangelical anti-Islamic polemic has more to do with evangelical fears of religious relativism than Islam itself, fits well with what has been observed about Jonathan Edwards’ battle with Deists. Islam in both cases serves as a kind of cannon fodder for intra-Christian battles.
A final observation in assessing what this means in terms of the meme which has served as the impetus for this paper, is to note that what Cimino points out may give the reason why it is so difficult to counter the force of this meme. If, indeed, its source is a deeply held fear of religious relativism; if it exists primarily to strengthen the sub-cultural identity of evangelicals, then logical challenges will do little to dislodge it. Logic doesn’t drive it. Logic won’t counter it. My hope in this case is that it is not as deeply embedded in the evangelical consciousness as it sometimes appears to be. The fact that I was able to overcome it with a three page paper written for a consistory in a suburban Chicago church tells me that such is probably the case. I will continue to hang on to that hope.
John Hubers is an ordained pastor in the Reformed Church in America who has served as a senior pastor in RCA churches in Michigan, New York and Texas. He also was pastor of three international congregations in the Arabian Gulf states of Oman and Bahrain. From 2001-2006 he was the supervisor of the Global Mission program of the RCA in the Middle East and South Asia. For the past six years he has been teaching Christian Missions at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa after obtaining his PhD from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in the area of Global Mission and World Christianity. For the past two years he has also been serving as director of NWC’s global education program.
 Gerald McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 92
 Elwood Morris Wherry, A comprehensive commentary on the Qurán : comprising Sale’s translation and preliminary discourse, with additional notes and emendations; together with a complete index to the text, preliminary discourse and notes (London: Trubner & Company, 1882), 37
 McDermott, 95
 Thomas S. Kidd, American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 16
 Humphrey Prideaux, D.D. The True Nature of the Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet with A Discourse annexed, for the Vindicating of Christianity from this Charge; Offered to the Consideration of the Deists of the Present Age. (London: Printed for William Rogers, at the Sun Against St. Dunftan’s Church in Fleetstreet, 1698)
 McDermott, 173
 Pliny Fisk, The Holy Land an interesting field of missionary enterprise: A sermon preached in the Old South Church Boston, Sabbath evening, Oct. 31, 1819, just before the departure of the Palestine mission (Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong, 1819), 5
 Ibid, 7
 A term often used in this era to speak of Christian mission work suggesting the spiritual conquest of lands otherwise belonging to other religions.
 Samuel Zwemer, The Moslem Doctrine of God: An Essay on the Character and Attributes of Allah According to the Koran and Orthodox Tradition (Boston: The American Tract Society, 1905)
 Ibid, 7
 Ibid, 21
 John Hubers, “Samuel Zwemer and the Challenge of Islam: From Polemic to a Hint of Dialogue,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 28, No. 3, July, 2004
 Zwemer, 120
 Samuel Zwemer, “The Allah of Islam and the God of Jesus Christ,” Theology Today 3 (April 1946): 66–72
 Hubers, 120-121
 Zwemer, Theology Today, 70
 Richard Cimino, “No God in Common: American Evangelical Discourse on Islam after 9/11, Review of Religious Research, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Dec, 2005), p. 162-174
 Ibid, 163
 Ibid, 161
 Ibid, 169
 “Nearly a Third of Iowa GOP Want to Criminalize Islam” Web link: http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/poll-nearly-third-iowa-gop-wants-criminalize-islam