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.”