Open Arms to the Muslim World

The Story of Samuel Zwemer

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Founder & Teacher,

Just over seventy years ago, in December of 1946, Samuel Zwemer addressed the first student missions conference that eventually became Urbana. According to Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette, “No one, through all the centuries of Christian mission to the Muslims, has deserved better than Dr. Zwemer the designation of Apostle to Islam.”

J. Christy Wilson, Zwemer’s biographer, makes the astonishing claim that Zwemer, together with Robert Speer (1867–1947) of the Student Volunteer Movement, “probably influenced more young men and women to go into missionary service than any two individuals in all of Christian history.”

Jesus Is Worth It

Zwemer was born in Vriesland, Michigan, on April 12, 1867, and grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church. He went to Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and New Brunswick Seminary in New Jersey, the oldest extant independent seminary in America.

During seminary, he and his friend James Cantine resolved to go to the Muslim world. They approached several mission boards who thought the venture was foolhardy. Zwemer’s response was, “If God calls you, and no board will send you, bore a hole through the board and go anyway.” So, they found churches that confirmed their calling and believed in the mission.

In June of 1890, at the age of 23, Zwemer left America as a missionary to Muslims. After six years as an unmarried missionary, he married Amy Wilkes, a missionary nurse who had come from Australia with the Church Missionary Society. They were married forty years until her death on January 25, 1937, when Zwemer was 69.

“If God calls you, and no board will send you, bore a hole through the board and go anyway.”

They had two daughters, Ruth and Katharina, both of whom died within a week of each other in Bahrein in 1904. Ruth was four. Katharina was seven. On their graves is recorded, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive riches.”

Fifty years later Zwemer would look back over those early years of struggle, and say, “But the sheer joy of it all comes back. . . . How gladly would I do it all over again in some unoccupied seaport of Western Arabia.”

Life Begins at Seventy

In 1929, Zwemer accepted a professorship at Princeton Theological Seminary, and was installed as Chair of History of Religion and Christian Missions in October of 1930. He served there until his retirement at age 71 in 1939.

“Retirement” is the wrong word. He would live another fourteen years. Until he became too weak, he never stopped traveling and advocating for the cause of world missions. He died April 2, 1952, ten days short of his eighty-fifth birthday.

Zwemer had signaled his attitude toward retirement by a message he gave to Princeton’s Warfield Club in his seventieth year. It was titled “Life Begins at Seventy.” He gave seven reasons why:

  1. We should have a diploma from the school of experience by that time.
  2. We are near to the river that has no bridge.
  3. We have passed our apprenticeship in the school of life.
  4. At 70, we can look further backward and further forward.
  5. By this time, we should know that life consists not in the abundance of the things we possess.
  6. The responsibility to witness for God to the next generation.
  7. At 70, the Christian must redeem the time and live in more deadly earnestness.

Even in old age, Zwemer was a man of energy. According to W.H.T. Gairdner, who worked with Zwemer in Cairo, he was “a steam engine in Breeches.” One example of his energy and pace is that in 1914, when he came back to the States, he gave 151 addresses in just 113 days.

Man of One Message

But his energy was not scattered. It was focused. Zwemer’s colleague James G. Hunt wrote, “He may be said to be a man of one idea. While his interests and knowledge were wide, I never talked with him ten minutes that the conversation did not veer to Islam.”

“No agency can penetrate Islam so deeply, abide so persistently, witness so daringly, and influence so irresistibly as the printed page.”

His zeal in that singular idea was matched by his courage. Once in 1912, at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the foremost theological school of Islam, he handed out Christian literature to students and was reported to officials. The British government ordered him to leave the country. So, he went to Cyprus for two weeks and returned. The officials pressed the matter no further. One student had come to faith.

Zwemer’s courage and zeal pour out through his almost fifty books. Explaining his passion for writing he said, “No agency can penetrate Islam so deeply, abide so persistently, witness so daringly, and influence so irresistibly as the printed page.”

Now Is the Time

His own favorite of all his books was The Glory of the Cross, published in 1928. It was also his best-selling book, and is still in print today. Not surprisingly, therefore, when Zwemer was asked to be the keynote speaker at the very first Urbana missions conference in 1946 (before it was called “Urbana”), he chose the theme “The Cross in Christ’s Commission.” This was seven years into his “retirement,” and six years before his death.

World War II had just ended the year before. The world was reeling under the uncertainties of atomic weapons and how the new antagonistic superpowers would go forward. Zwemer began his message,

All of Christendom and the best thinkers of the non-Christian world face the New Year with deep forebodings and a consciousness of crisis. It may be doubted whether there has ever been a time when the Christian church was beset by so many and such powerful foes. . . . Everywhere we read of persecution, closing of doors, bitter opposition, the patience of unanswered prayer, or the flaming sword of martyrdoms. The Christian church is under fire in a hostile world — a world of disillusionment and hopelessness.

This was seventy years ago. It reminds us that there never has been an ideal time for a great missionary movement. The time is always now. Into this setting, Zwemer spoke the only message that he believed could carry the day in such a world: the message of the cross.

Sword of Islam, Cross of Christ

He had written in his favorite book, “The Cross is the center of the universe and of history.” Without this message, there would be no salvation anywhere in the world. It had to be spoken. As much as he believed in prayer, he insisted that prayer is not the message of the cross. It is not evangelism. It will not by itself accomplish the mission of Jesus. “We pray for our friends and relatives. But do we ever evangelize them? It is so much easier to talk about them to Christ than to talk to them about Christ.”

The message of the cross was in radical contrast to the military threats of the day.

The sword can only produce brutality; the cross, tenderness. The sword destroys human life; the cross gives it priceless value. The sword deadens conscience; the cross awakens it. The sword ends in hatred; the cross in love. He that takes up the sword perishes by it; he that takes up the cross inherits eternal life.

But he insisted to the students gathered in Toronto that the cross was not only a message; it was a way of life. And this way of life was essential at this critical hour in missions:

The life stories of David Livingstone, Henry Martyn, James Gilmour, Mary Slessor, and all the great missionary pioneers bear the print of the nails. . . . Only those who have suffered, who have iron in their blood, can serve a generation that has seen so much “blood and sweat and tears.” Neither Japan nor China today will hearken to any easy-going gospel spoken by those who have never borne a cross after Jesus. We are living in an age of new martyrdoms. . . . Only those who love truth more than life are really soldiers of the cross.

Surely, this must be said in our day. Most of the peoples who are yet to be reached have no interest in a soft and degenerate Western culture. But they may respond to the message of the glory of the cross, spoken by true soldiers of the cross.

Will You Cross?

I attended Urbana ’67, which was the one-hundredth anniversary of Samuel Zwemer’s birth. William Miller stood to give tribute to this giant of missionary courage and toil. He said, “Dr. Zwemer’s pleading voice thrilled multitudes of Christians in many lands, inspiring them to work and pray for the Muslims of the world.”

“There never has been an ideal time for a great missionary movement. The time is always now.”

I have written this article with the prayer that Zwemer will continue to have this effect. This is why I am committed — at the beginning of my seventies — to the Cross missions conference for students. At our gathering last December, hundreds of young people committed themselves to pursue God’s leading to the unreached peoples of the world by asking their local church for guidance and help. I wear a black band on my arm to remind me to pray for them. Would you join me? And pray that God would raise up thousands more in our day, from around the world, to flood the nations with the light of the gospel.

Pray that fifty years from now when these thousands look back over a life of missionary “blood, sweat, and tears,” they will be able to say with Samuel Zwemer, “The sheer joy of it all comes back . . . . How gladly would I do it all over again.”

Zwemer said of the apostle Paul, “His philosophy of life was on fire with an irrevocable decision.” Great life-decisions happen when students gather under the Cross. This is happening somewhere every day. Pray that those commitments be “irrevocable.”