Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 16, 2009

Samuel Zwemer

   In the opinion of Christian historian Kenneth Scott Latourette, “No one through all the centuries of Christian missions to the Muslims has deserved better than Dr. Zwemer the designation of Apostle to Islam.”

Samuel--Zwemer   Samuel Zwemer was born on April 12, 1867 in Vriesland, Michigan. He was the thirteenth of fifteen children born to devout Christian parents. Zwemer professed his faith in Christ at the age of seventeen. In 1887, Robert Wilder, a representative of the Student Volunteer Movement, spoke on the campus of Hope College during Zwemer’s senior year. Wilder displayed a map of India with a metronome set in front of it. He emphasized that each time the metronome ticked back and forth, one person in the Indian subcontinent died who had never heard the gospel. Zwemer was so moved by Wilder’s urgent appeal to serve as a missionary that he responded by signing the Student Volunteer Pledge: “I purpose, God willing and desirous, to go to the unoccupied foreign fields.”

   Following his call to ministry, Zwemer prepared for missions service by enrolling in the theological seminary of the Reformed Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey. As a student, he worked to help the poor living in the slums and urged them to embrace Christ. During these years Zwemer developed the habit of reading the Scriptures in a different language every day in order to sharpen his language skills. He also learned as much as he could about medicine and medical treatment, a decision that served him well on the mission field.

   During his first year in seminary, Zwemer befriended a young man named James Cantine. Zwemer said to Cantine, “I propose that you and I offer ourselves to go to some needy field and possibly start a new work.” These young men subsequently decided to go to the most difficult field they could find — Arabia, the homeland of Islam. They approached but were rejected by different missions agencies who told them it was foolish for them to want to go to such a fanatical people. Zwemer later commented, “If God calls you and no board will send you, bore a hole through the board and go anyway.” So, Zwemer and Cantine raised their own support and started the Arabian Mission, which was later adopted by the Reformed Church.

   Zwemer and Cantine served in Basrah in southern Iraq for six years. It was there that Zwemer met and later married Amy Wilkes, a nurse from Australia. Zwemer and his wife later moved to Bahrain, a British-held island in the Persian Gulf. There they offered the people simple medical care, preached the gospel, and distributed Bibles and tracts. Zwemer believed “No agency can penetrate Islam so deeply, abide so persistently, witness so daringly and influence so irresistibly as the printed page.” The only thing that stopped Zwemer from distributing Arabic leaflets and Bibles was confiscation.

   Zwemer remained faithful to his commitment to reach the Muslim world in spite of challenges, threats, dangers, and personal tragedies. In 1892, Zwemer’s brother, Peter, joined him on the mission field but died in 1898. And, he and his wife suffered the loss of two of their daughters to dysentery in 1904. His daughters are buried on the island of Bahrain. The sorrowing parents inscribed these words on their tomb: “Worthy is the Lamb to receive riches.”

   Zwemer loved the Muslim people and was passionate about sharing the gospel with them. He longed to see them gathered to Christ. In the course of his life, Zwemer traveled extensively throughout the Muslim world, authored or co-authored at least forty-eight books and hundreds of tracts on Islam, and became the world’s leading authority on outreach to Muslims.  He was instrumental in awakening, challenging, and mobilizing churches and volunteers to penetrate the Muslim world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Robert E. Speer, a contemporary of Zwemer and authority on missions, commented that “not many men have lived who had the talent and drive of Samuel Zwemer. During his lifetime he exerted a tremendous influence on the Christian mission to Islam, as well as the worldwide advance of the Church and the Gospel.”

   Zwemer died on April 2, 1952. Ruth A. Tucker, author of “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions,” wrote that Zwemer’s “greatest contribution to missions was that of stirring Christians to the need for evangelism to Muslims.” Zwemer challenged the Western church to embrace the glory of the impossible in the unoccupied fields of the world. Zwemer wrote: “The unoccupied fields, therefore, are a challenge to all whose lives are unoccupied by that which is highest and best; whose lives are occupied only with the weak things or the base things that do not count. There are eyes that have never been illumined by a great vision, minds that have never been gripped by an unselfish thought, hearts that have never thrilled with passion for another’s wrong, and hands that have never grown weary or strong in lifting a great burden. To such the knowledge of these Christless millions in lands yet unoccupied should come like a new call from Macedonia, and a startling vision of God’s will for them.”

   Zwemer’s words are still relevant today. We must heed the Macedonian call to do big and seemingly impossible things for the kingdom of God. “It was the bigness of the task and its difficulty,” wrote Zwemer, “that thrilled the early Church. Its apparent impossibility was its glory, its world-wide character its grandeur.” And, in the words of Bishop Phillips Brooks: “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle.” Will you embrace the challenge and glory of the impossible?


  1. Man, you’re an amazing writer. Every time I read one of your blogs I want to run out of my door with guns blazing. Thank you so much. We respect and admire you as a teacher, pastor, and apostle. Thank you for your work.

    Joshua & Bevin

  2. Joshua and Bevin…

    Thanks for your kind words. You are serving in one of the most difficult places on the planet — one of the least occupied fields and the kind of place that would have stirred Zwemer’s heart. Your love for God and for people and your willingness to serve on the edge is an inspiration to me. I cover every remembrance of you in prayer.


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