American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism

Article excerpt

American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism. By Thomas S. Kidd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, xx + 201 pp., $29.95.

In an October 2001 interview with NBC, Franklin Graham famously and incautiously called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion." Unsurprisingly, his words caused a stir in religious and political circles at home and abroad. However, the basic sentiment was not an entirely new one, prompted only by post-September 11 fear and indignation. In fact, American Christians since the early days of colonization have seen Islam as a threat to their religion and culture. As Thomas Kidd endeavors to demonstrate in American Christians and Islam, such views "usually divulge more about American Christians than about any actual Muslims" (p. xii). In this book, he explores how American Christians' impressions of Islam-and especially those of evangelicals-shaped their desire to see Muslims convert to Christianity, fueled their ambition to develop an effective missionary presence in Islamic territories, and influenced their views on eschatology and Middle Eastern geopolitics.

Kidd traces the chronology of American Christian thought on Islam through these key themes, which he helpfully summarizes near the conclusion of the book as "conversionism, missions, religion and politics, and eschatology" (p. 166). He offers an intriguing interpretation of the relationships between these concepts from the colonial era to the present day. The study begins with the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where Kidd explores the ways in which American Christians used Islam for political and religious ends. Early opinions of Muslims were shaped by tales (both true and fantastic) of seafarers captured by the vicious Barbary pirates of North Africa, and polemical books and sermons. New England's eminent Cotton Mather accurately articulated the general sentiment in 1703 after the release of several North American captives when he praised God for freeing them from the hands of the "Filthy Disciples of Mahomet" (p. 6). Kidd demonstrates how growing political concerns over the threat of Barbary piracy, culminating in the Barbary wars of the early nineteenth century, and other accounts of Muslim "savagery" contributed to both the continued demonization of Islam and theological questions over the role of the religion in Christian eschatology. Many American Protestants attempted to set their minds at rest by pairing Islam with Roman Catholicism and held out eschatological hope that they would be destroyed together with the return of Christ.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and extending roughly until World War I, American Christians made concerted efforts to convert their contempt for Islam into productive efforts to evangelize Muslims. Kidd argues that Evangelicals warily viewed Muslims, adherents of the other great proselytizing religion of the world, as "serious evangelistic competitors" (p. 47). Throughout the nineteenth century, however, missions to Muslims failed, not only because of the limited number of missionaries in Islamic territories, but also because the same eschatology that triumphantly predicted the removal of all opposition to Christ's kingdom disposed Evangelicals to expect Muslims to welcome the Christian message. As Kidd observes, the situation demonstrated that "eschatology might make for effective fundraising, but it also bred terribly unrealistic anticipation of how easily Muslims and others would be won to Christ" (p. 57). By the first decade of the twentieth century, the negligence or inability of American Christians to successfully evangelize Muslims compelled several progressive missionaries to adopt a new strategy.

Kidd argues that a 1906 conference on Muslim evangelization in Cairo, Egypt marked one of the first attempts to orchestrate a more effective plan. Samuel Zwemer (18671952), the organizer and American-born missionary of the Reformed Church in Arabia, appropriated (with modification) the Student Volunteer Movement's watchword when he called for "The Evangelization of the Moslem World in this Generation" (p. …