Since the 13th century the Muslim lands were neglected by any or little Christian missions until Samuel Zwemer in the late 18th century. He began again to develop real encounter with Muslims; by coordinating missionary efforts and helping to focus the Christian community on the Muslim world and their needs for Christ. Zwemer has been called by many the “Apostle of Christ.”
He was born in Michigan in 1867 as one of fifteen children. It was natural for him to go into Christian service, as the son of a Dutch Reformed Church pastor. His four brothers also joined the call to ministry, along with a sister who spent 40 years as a missionary to China. He attended Hope College and during his senior year was influenced by the preaching of Robert Wilder and was moved by the urgency for the many lost souls who had no opportunity to hear of Jesus Christ. He signed the Student Volunteer Pledge, “I purpose, God willing and desirous to go to the unoccupied foreign fields.” After graduation and medical training, he applied, along with fellow student, James Cantine, to go to the Arab world with the Reformed Board; but was turned down because the mission seemed “impractical.”
Zwemer and Cantine traveled across the states speaking to many churches raising funds and support. Instead of raising money for themselves; Zwemer traveled west coast and Cantine on the east coast raising funds for each other. Finally Cantine sailed for Arabia in 1889 and Zwemer in 1890. After four years the Reformed Church officially became incorporated into the mission the two had begun.
In 1895, Zwemer married Amy Wilkes, a missionary nurse from England. They spent the first two years of their marriage in the states and returned to the Persian Gulf in 1897. They specifically went to Bahrein, passing out literature and conducting evangelism in public and in private homes. By 1905, they had established four stations with few faithful converts. It was in this year that the Zwemer’s returned to the U.S. During those years in Bahrein, they endured many hardships; enduring extreme weather conditions (<100 degree temperatures) and most significantly the death of their two young daughters the year before in 1904. They died just within eight days of each other. Despite such pain and difficulty, fifty years later he said, “The sheer joy of it all comes back. Gladly I would do it all over again…”
While in the states, Zwemer traveled the U.S. speaking on the necessity of missions to Muslims. He also aggressively raised funds for the mission and in 1906 served as the chairman of the first general missionary conference on Islam in Cairo, Egypt. During that time, he played a vital role in challenging many students to answer the call to foreign missions and ministry with Muslims. In 1910, he attended the Edinburgh Missionary Conference and soon after sailed back to Bahrein to continue his work.
After two years in Bahrein, the United Presbyterian Mission in Egypt invited him to coordinate all of their mission exploits to the Islamic world. Joining with the Nile Mission Press, the YMCA, and the American University of Cairo, he established programs to speak to students and leaders in surrounding Universities, along with publishing and distributing Christian literature. For seventeen years Zwemer worked in Cairo and from there traveled around the world participating in conferences, raising funds, and establishing work among Muslims throughout the world. He handed out leaflets and Arabic bibles while preaching Christ’s salvation in the Balkans, India, Africa, and the Middle East. In 1933, he ventured as far as China to bring the Gospel to the Chinese Muslims. One of his greatest adventures was to visit Sana’a in Yemen, a place where not one white man had ever been.
Zwemer felt so strongly the influence of getting Bibles and materials into the hands of Muslims that he authored or co-authored at least 48 books along with hundreds of tracts. He said, “No agency can penetrate Islam so deeply, abide so persistently, witness so daringly and influence so irresistibly as the printed page,” Not only did he devote his life to reaching Muslims for Christ but made great strides in creating awareness of the needs of the Muslim world to the Western Church.
In 1929, He was named Chairman of History of Religion and Christian Missions at Princeton Theological Seminary while editing and publishing the Moslem World Journal. Although he saw few converts throughout the span of his life and ministry, he is known for dealing with Muslims on an equal level, respecting them and their beliefs. He sought to learn more about their religion as he faithfully shared with them the hope and love of Christ. His life depicted a heart that truly followed Christ’s call to be a witness to the ends of the earth by seeing the significance of reaching the barren fields of Arabia.
By Sara Klotz