Samuel M. Zwemer and the Glory of Christ

Samuel M. Zwemer and the Glory of Christ

            “The deity of Christ makes all the difference in our Christmas joy. He who came to the manger was God’s Son. To deny this is to deny essential Christianity. If the Savior of men is not identical with their Creator, there are no good tidings of great joy for the human race and no help in the cross for the sinner.”[1]

            Samuel Marinus Zwemer wrote this around 1940, after retiring from a long service as missionary to the Middle-East and Arab world, which continued indirectly while he taught at Princeton Theological Seminary. Known as “the apostle to Islam,” he focused on one certainty: Muslims need Christ as he is revealed in Scripture. A convenient, rational, domesticated Christ, such as the Jesus that was already promoted in Zwemer’s day, would not do.

            “In our day we are told to look for ‘the historic Jesus,’ the man of Galilee, a teacher sent of God, the friend of the outcast and the oppressed, the critic of society and the Jewish church, very like other great reformers even in his limitations,” Zwemer wrote. “But a merely human Christ, no matter how humane and tender, can not suffice. We need the Lord of Glory, the Christ of eternal love and eternal redemption, the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world. We need a Saviour who is alive forevermore and who abolished death and brought life and immortality to the world by His incarnation.”[2]

            This is the Christ Zwemer was committed to bring to the world.

Bearing a Hole Through a Mission Board

            Zwemer was born on April 12, 1867, in Vriesland, Michigan, to a family of Huguenot-Dutch immigrants, the thirteenth of their fifteen children. It was a pious family, and four of his brothers entered the Christian ministry. Samuel was active in the campus mission group at Hope College in HoIland, Michigan.

            A visit to the college by Robert Wilder, of the Student Volunteer Movement, kindled in Zwemer’s heart a passion for the mission field. After completing his studies, first at Hope College, then at New Brunswick Seminary, New Jersey, he was ordained minister in the Reformed Church of America (RCA). That’s when he began to make concrete plans to move to the mission field – specifically to the Arab world, where true Christianity was still largely unknown.

            At New Brunswick, he had met three like-minded men: John G. Lansing, a professor of Old Testament and former missionary to Egypt, and two students, James Cantine and Philip T. Phelps. Together, they approached various missionary agencies, but were turned down. The Arab world was too difficult and dangerous for Christians.

            They decided to form their own agency. Zwemer is quoted as saying, “"If God calls you and no board will send you, bore a hole through the board and go anyway.”[3]

            In 1890, Zwemer was finally able to leave for Beirut, Lebanon, where he joined Cantine for a time of study of the Arabic language. In the meantime, Phelps stayed in the United States as treasurer and fundraiser of the mission. From Beirut, Zwemer and Cantine went to Cairo, Egypt, where they joined Professor Lansing. After exploring different possibilities, they moved to Basrah, Iraq, where they stayed for six years. Since Arabs found his name difficult to pronounce, Zwemer adopted the name Dhaif Allah, “The Guest of God.”

Samuel and Amy

            In 1896, Samuel met someone who was going to become his greatest missionary partner: Amy Wilkes, an Australian nurse. Visiting Amy was not easy, because her missionary agency didn’t allow single ladies to spend time with men, but Samuel overcame that obstacle by offering his services as an Arabic teacher. From the start, he knew she was meant to be his wife. He proposed, and they were married on May 16, after a short engagement.

            Since now Amy was going to work with Samuel, the Australian agency asked for a reimbursement of the expenses they had faced in sending her to the mission field. Samuel paid, saying, jokingly, that he had purchased a wife, in good Arab fashion.

            On June 1, Samuel and Amy moved to Bahrain, where Amy worked with local women. This was the first known effort to bring the gospel to Arab women. Samuel, who had volunteered at a missionary clinic in New York City, was glad to have Amy at his side as they offered their medical services to the community. A hospital, built in 1903, grew over the years, attracting patients from other regions.

            It was around this time that Samuel started to write his first book, Arabia: the Cradle of Islam. At that time, the weather was so hot that he had to wrap a towel around his hand to keep his sweat from dripping on the paper. The book was well received and went through four in 12 years. His second book, Raymond Lull, First Missionary to Moslems, was published in English, Arabic, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Dutch.

            Amy wrote three books during the same time, with her husband as co-author: Moslem Women, Zigzag Journeys in the Camel Country[4], and Topsy Turvey Land: Arabia Pictured for Children.[5] The last two delightful books for children were especially unique for their time and were well-received.

            Matching Samuel’s levels of energy, in 1899 she opened on the back porch of the mission house what became the first girls’ school in Manama, Bahrain. She named it “The Acorn School.” It started with only seven students (including her daughters). In three years, the number of students grew so much that she needed a new building, which was financed by the RCA. While she remained the main morning teacher for the three R’s, she hired American missionaries and people from the local community to teach trade crafts in the afternoons.

            The couple experienced their first, piercing sorrow when two of their daughters Ruth and Katharina died of dysentery in 1904. Ruth was four. Katharina was seven. On the tomb, the parents inscribed the words, “Worthy is the Lamb to receive riches” (Rev. 5:12).

            The Zwemers returned to the United States in 1905 and stayed for five years, promoting the work of missions to the Arabic world. Samuel accepted the appointments to field secretary of the Reformed Board of Foreign Missions, and recruiter for the Student Volunteer Movement. In this later capacity, he traveled in and outside the States. He also founded a journal, The Moslem World, which he continued to edit for 37 years.

            In 1920, the couple moved to Egypt, where Samuel taught at the Presbyterian Seminary, while traveling around the Persian Gulf and North Africa. He also traveled to India, China, and Indonesia – all countries with a large population of Muslims – inspiring Christians to be faithful in their missionary work.

            In 1929, he accepted the appointment to become professor of missions in Princeton Theological Seminary, as a means to inspire young people to consider becoming missionaries. He kept this post until 1937, when Amy’s unexpected death overturned his life. He didn’t speak much about his pain, but retired from teaching and editing.

“Active Service”

            Retirement didn’t put an end to Zwemer’s energy and zeal. In fact, he jokingly said he was entering “active service.” In a speech given to Princeton Seminary and entitled “Life Begins at Seventy,” he listed seven reasons why people should make the most of the last decades of life: basically, because they should have graduated from the school of experience, they should have learned that “life consists not in the abundance of the things we possess,” and they should feel the “responsibility to witness for God to the next generation,” redeeming what little time they had before crossing “the river that has no bridge.”

            Also, at seventy, one can look “further back and further forward.” It was this wide view of past and future that allowed Zwemer to write, in his later years, some of his most moving books on the glory of Christ: The Glory of the Manger (1940), and The Glory of the Empty Tomb (1947) (fitting sequels to his 1928 The Glory of the Cross).

            In 1939, Zwemer moved to New York City, where he taught courses at the Biblical Seminary and at the Nyack Missionary Training Institute. It was then that his old friend James Cantine introduced him to Margaret Clarke, who became Zwemer’s second wife in 1940. A former secretary, she helped him with his writing – something he never stopped doing.

            Margaret became ill shortly after a trip to the Arabic Peninsula and died in 1950. Two years later, after giving two addresses in one day at a meeting of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship in New York, Zwemer suffered a heart attack and was taken to a hospital, where he stayed a few weeks, telling doctors, nurses, and patients about the Great Physician.

            He was dismissed to a convalescent home, but didn’t stay there long. He died quietly on Wednesday, April 2, 1952. Of his children, Nellie Elizabeth, married to Claude Pickens, followed closest in her parents’ footsteps by becoming a missionary to the Muslims in China.

            Zwemer’s drive in the evangelization of the Muslim world was summed up in a few words he pronounced during a conference in 1906, when he hung a great map of Islam on the wall and said: “Thou, O Christ, art all I want and Thou, O Christ, art all they want.”[6]

            He admitted that evangelizing the Muslim world was “the most difficult of all missionary tasks.”  But he also believed that Christians could face it “with God’s sovereignty as basis, God’s glory as goal, and God’s will as motive.”[7]

 



[2] Ibid., 21

[3] Roger S. Greenway, “Brief Biography of Samuel M. Zwemer,” https://static1.squarespace.com/static/54e110e8e4b0ef0a3e3def5c/t/56d47b...

[6] J. Christy Wilson, Apostle to Islam: The Legacy of Samuel Zwemer, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1952, 165..

[7] S. M. Zwemer, “Calvinistm and the Missionary Enterprise,” Theology Today 7 (1950), 215