Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thomas S. Kidd's "American Christians and Islam"

Thomas Kidd is associate professor of history at Baylor University and resident scholar at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America and The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism, and reported the following:
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, sharpened many Americans’ interest in Islam, but American engagement with Islam goes all the way back to the early colonial period. American Christians, particularly American evangelicals, have cultivated a long tradition of thought regarding Muslims. American Christians have often viewed Muslims as a religious and political threat, but have also dreamed of seeing them convert en masse to Christianity. Missionary memoirs of evangelistic work among Muslims have introduced a larger American audience to global Islamic cultures. And certain conservative Christians have always given Muslims a place in speculation about the events of the end times, and the lead-up to the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Other American Christians took a more positive view of Islam, and some even repudiated their Christian faith in favor of forms of Islam. Page 99 of my book American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism examines the ideas of Edward Wilmot Blyden, who became one of the earliest American blacks to promote Islam as a preferred choice over Christianity for African peoples:

Because Christianity had become so pervasive within the African-American population by the time of the American Civil War, black apologists for Islam had to frame their religion as a suitable alternative to the Christian faith. The first such apologist was, ironically, a Presbyterian missionary, Edward Wilmot Blyden. Originally from the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, Blyden came to America to study at Rutgers Theological College, but was denied admission there because of his race. He arrived in the United States in 1850, the year that the Fugitive Slave Law passed, making it more dangerous for free blacks to remain in the North. Blyden jumped at a chance to go to West Africa with the American Colonization Society, and in 1851 he arrived in Liberia. Although the Colonization Society sought to bring Christian civilization to pagan Africa, Blyden’s work in Liberia exposed him to African Muslims, with whom he was favorably impressed. Although he never seems publicly to have repudiated Christianity, Blyden became convinced that Islam held more promise as a unifying pan-African religion. He made these views known in his book Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, published in London in 1887.

Blyden’s kind of Afro-centric interpretation of Islam flowered into an African-American defense of Islam in the twentieth century, best exemplified in the work of the Nation of Islam and its leaders, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

Many Anglo-American Christians, especially conservative Protestants, worried that the rise of Islam in America, through these domestic African-American movements and post-1965 Muslim immigration, might have brought the long-feared Islamic threat to their own shores. But widely-circulated missionary tracts, Christian exposés of the ostensible beliefs of Muslims, and speculation regarding the destruction of Islam in the last days, still helped assure American Christians regarding the ultimate triumph of their faith.
Read an excerpt from American Christians and Islam, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

Visit Thomas S. Kidd's website.

--Marshal Zeringue