Start It Up, Then Ask Permission (3rd of 5). How Samuel Zwemer Established a Mission Agency That Would Send Him to Arabia

Two Seminary Students Organize the American-Arabian Mission and Send Themselves to the Middle East

Samuel Zwemer

Samuel Zwemer Proposes to Start a Mission Society. Samuel Zwemer and James Cantine, seminary students at the Reformed Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey, established the American Arabian Mission after leadership in their denomination, the Reformed Church of America, determined that the church did not have the funds to send them. Ira Scudder explains the story:

The inspiring genius of the Arabian mission was Professor John G. Lansing, the Professor of Old Testament Language and Exegesis at the Seminary of the Reformed Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was his dream, his spiritual child. He it was who planted the seed; he it was who defended its organization as an autonomous mission project against those who would have let it languish for lack of official adoption; and he it was who marshaled its support.[1]

The RCA Board turns down Zwemer’s Mission Proposal. On May 23, 1889, Lansing, Cantine and Zwemer presented their plan to the Reformed Church Board of Foreign Missions. The board was already severely in debt with heavy commitments in India, China, and Japan. Scudder writes,

The board “declined to assume responsibility in the matter.” There the dream might well have died. But Lansing put the dream in writing, announcing the organization of a mission effort independent of the Reformed Church. “A responsibility Divinely imposed is not discharged by any admission of existing human difficulty . . . When God calls, we must obey, not object.” On this principle the fraternity proceeded to devise an “undenominational” plan for the Arabian Mission.[2]

John Beardslee recounted how the mission began:

The swirl of student zeal blew into the narthexes of the mainline churches. Not that the fresh wind was uniformly welcomed; Lansing et al. comprised an autonomous group that the organized church was not ready to touch. “Lack of funds” was said to be the reason. So Zwemer and Cantine brought into being the American Arabian Mission, members of which pledged to give financial support.[3]

Is it thrilling to discover that Samuel Zwemer and James Cantine raised support for each other! James Cantine raised money for Zwemer and Zwemer for Cantine.[4] On October 16, 1890 Cantine departed for Arabia. “Zwemer and Lansing, meanwhile, continued to develop the financial base of the mission, with Zwemer concentrating his efforts in the Midwest and Lansing (as his now deteriorating health allowed) continued to work on his contacts in the East.”[5] Zwemer followed Cantine to Arabia in 1891.

The RCA Board Changes its Mind. Zwemer and Cantine and Lansing established The American Arabian Mission, a small appropriate mission agency to send missionaries and hold them accountable. Dozens of Reformed Churches supported their mission and awaited their newsletters with eager anticipation. In 1894 the Reformed Church Board changed its mind and adopted the Arabian Mission as its own.[6] There was no cost to the Board, as the revenue needed for the mission was assured by private donors. This sequence is a familiar one in the RCA: Start it up; then wait for permission. John Piet, professor of missions at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan, told Ralph D. Winter that every RCA overseas mission initiative began as a voluntary effort outside the government of the church.[7] Winter wrote:

The Reformed Church in America as a “church in mission” directly sponsors mission work in 24 countries. In not a single case were these locations pioneered by denominational board initiatives. In every case, informal initiative spearheaded the initial activity and the denominational board later shouldered ongoing responsibility. This is not to be considered ominous but does underscore the crucial importance of allowing breathing space for initiatives too small to gain a 51% approval in a democratic church body.[8]

Thus, every RCA mission endeavor apparently began when “restless people seeking to deal with problems that were not being successfully coped with by existing institutions escaped the old formats and were driven to invent new forms of organizations.”[9]

[1] Lewis R. Scudder, The Arabian Mission’s Story: In Search of Abraham’s Other Son, The Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 135-36.

[2] Ibid., 141-42.

[3] John Beardslee, “American Arabian Mission Centennial Address,” (New Brunswick Seminary, New Brunswick, NJApril 1989). Unpublished. I was present at the Centennial as a reporter for the Zwemer Institute.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Scudder, The Arabian Mission’s Story: In Search of Abraham’s Other Son, 146.

[6] Ibid., xvii.

[7] Author’s interview with Ralph D. Winter, autumn 2002. Piet was probably referring to pioneers like John and Harriet Scudder, who sailed for Ceylon in 1819 under the ABCFM, and Guido Verbeck and two medical companions, Samuel Robbins Brown and Danne B. Simmons, who organized themselves for the purpose of sailing to Nagasaki in 1859, thus opening the Reformed Church mission work in Japan. Ibid. 131, 134

[8] Ralph D. Winter, “Protestant Mission Societies and the ‘Other Protestant Schism’,” in American Denominational Organization (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1980), 205-06.

[9] David Bornstein, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2004), 4. Speaking of “inventing new forms of organizations”, James Cantine operated the “Freed Slave School of the American Arabian Mission” between1899 and 1901, and Zwemer began a hospital in Bahrain that celebrated its centennial in 2005.