Samuel Marinus Zwemer

Missionary extraordinaire to Muslims

2002 is the 50th anniversary of the death, in April 1952, of Samuel Marinus Zwemer. Though unknown outside specialist missionary circles, he was widely acknowledged in his lifetime as the world's foremost authority on all matters relating to Christian witness to Islam.

This reputation emerged from a 50-year career involving pioneer missionary work, literature propagation and advocacy work on behalf of mission to Muslims and finally a career in teaching and writing on missionary theology and practice.

Samuel Zwemer was born to Dutch immigrant parents in Vriesland, Michigan on April 12 1867. Samuel was the 13th of 15 children! The family's extremely strong Christian home environment was testimony to the French Huguenot extraction of their forebears who had settled in Holland.

Four of the five brothers entered the Christian ministry as pastors or missionaries. One sister, Nellie, spent 40 years as a missionary in Amoy, China. Samuel himself could not recall having any other ambition than being a Christian missionary.

Arab interest

After education in the Dutch immigrants' Christian school, Zwemer went on to study theology and mission at New Brunswick College, New York. There he met James Cantine. Both men soon discovered that the Lord had given each a passionate interest in the Arab world and its Muslim peoples. From then on their unswerving purpose was to give their lives in this cause. With the blessing of the college's head of Hebrew and Arabic studies, Dr. John Lansing, Zwemer and Cantine founded the Arabian Mission in about November 1888.

Plans were laid for a new missionary work on the Arabian Peninsula and Zwemer made it his business to know everything there was to know about missions to Muslims. This included the pioneer work of the 13th century missionary, Raymond Lull, right through to the work of Canon Gairdner in Cairo.

Fired also by the example of Scottish missionary, Ion Keith-Falconer, who had died of fever in Aden in May 1887, the initial objective was to establish a mission base in Aden. After stop-offs in Scotland to meet Falconer's family and then in Beirut to hone their Arabic skills, this is where they found themselves in early 1891.

Permanent base

Zwemer undertook extensive surveys of the coastal areas as well as making a number of pioneering journeys inland seeking an appropriate location for the work. It was on the Persian Gulf coast in Basra, southern Iraq, where the first real opportunity emerged for a permanent base. Leaving Cantine to operate from here, Zwemer spent a number of years in itinerant evangelism and exploration of the Arabian mainland before establishing a second base in Bahrain. Meanwhile Samuel's brother Peter had arrived from the USA and established a third base at Muscat, Oman.

Early on at Basra, the young men were asked (rashly, it transpired!) if they would meet and escort to Baghdad two arrivals from Australia for another mission. One was a Miss Amy Wilkes. Samuel developed an immediate affection for her after being the cause of her dropping a laden tea tray at his feet on her first day ashore! To cut a long story short, on May 18 1896, Amy and Samuel were married in the British Consulate in Baghdad. Zwemer took Amy to Bahrain, their base for the next ten years.

Zwemer used the time in Bahrain for further detailed study of Islam. Always striving to see the religion through the eyes of its best advocates, he read the Koran and its orthodox commentators, Beidawi and Zamakhshari in the original Arabic. This led to his first and probably most enduring book: The Moslem Doctrine of God.

In it, Zwemer highlights the fundamental differences between Muslim and biblical theologies. He noticed especially that Islam wholly underestimates both the holiness of God and the offensiveness of sin. Regarding divine holiness Zwemer comments that 'everything put forward [in the Quran] concerning the unapproachable purity and holiness of him who is represented as thrice holy in the Bible could be applied to any re-spectable man'. On sin, he notes (quoting Melancthon's introduction to a Latin translation of the book) that the Quran's failure to diagnose the seriousness of sin, or offer any effective remedy for it, is sure evidence of the hand of Satan.

This radical analysis of the theological inadequacies of Islam's doctrines of God and of sin proved foundational to all Zwemer's subsequent writings.

Return to USA

In March 1905 the family returned to the USA for what became a very extended furlough. Partly because of a serious eye complaint that almost ended his overseas service and also his denomination's request for him to spend time in deputation work in the US and Europe, it was 1911 before they left again for Arabia. Yet this interlude saw the emergence both in Zwemer's own heart, and in the minds of many missionary leaders, of a world-wide vision for mission to Muslims. It was actually en route back to the field that a call was made for him to join the Nile Mission Press in Cairo. The job enabled him to continue a certain amount of work with the Arabian Mission but his primary attention turned to literature production and a world-wide brief to promote missionary work among Muslims.

This period was by far the most active in Zwemer's life. The story is told in full in J. Christy Wilson's official biography, Apostle to Islam: a biography of Samuel Marinus Zwemer. It involved travel to literally every country in the world with a significant Muslim population. As well as attending and often chairing missionary conferences on Islam for the next 20 years, Zwemer was also instrumental in the formation of many literary ventures as well as institutions for the support of mission to Islam. For example, towards the end of his 'furlough' in 1910, Samuel had founded The Moslem World journal. He edited this influential missionary paper through the second issue of 1947 (April 1947). The editorship was then taken over by E.E. Calverley.

Fellowship of faith

Following his address to the 1915 Keswick Convention Zwemer was approached to join and lead a new missionary prayer initiative which became known as the Fellowship of Faith for the Muslims. FFM (UK) is still very active and held its most recent prayer convention in Swanwick in June.

More books emerged, and foremost was The Muslim Christ which draws out the stark contrast between the emasculated portrayal in Islamic sources and the divine Messiah of the Bible.

Despite his adversarial critique of Islam, Samuel invariably commanded respect from his opponents and would frequently attend lectures at Al Ahzar University in Cairo, questioning the professors closely. On one trip to South Africa he was instrumental in defusing tensions between Christians and Muslims simply by taking afternoon tea with the local Muslim leader and engaging him in animated conversation in Arabic. The whole incident was reported favourably in the press with the result that the Muslim community felt satisfied that due respect had now been shown to them.

This long period of extraordinary, world-wide ministry eventually wore down even a man of Zwemer's great energy. Having turned down a professorship at Princeton in 1918, Samuel responded positively when, ten years later, the offer was renewed. By this time (1928) he was 61 and he and Amy agreed that a period of greater stability would be useful to allow him time for more reflection and more books!

Thus began his third major period of service, until 1938. Of this time his biographer states that Zwemer had the reputation of being a 'conservative Calvinist' but one whose sense of humour would invariably disarm his critics. For example, he once quipped that the Popes could never have introduced the doctrine of infallibility had they allowed themselves to marry!

The glory of God

More books did appear; indeed he was responsible for over 50 books in total, a good number available in London's Evangelical Library. Thinking Missions with Christ was typical of his output in this period. It contains an enlightening section on missionary motives in which Zwemer considers, in turn, the plight of the lost, the 'Great Commission', and the constraint of Christ's love. After noting the proper role of each of these, he comes to the conclusion that God's own ultimate motive, His own glory, is the one that sustains all others. To Zwemer it was the view presented in Scripture of the essential glory of God that provides the ultimate raison d'etre for mission. As he puts it, this is the 'only motive that can comprehend within the same eternal purpose both the great success attending Peter's preaching at Pentecost and the stoning to death of a Stephen'. Noting the frequency of references to God's glory in John 17, Zwemer draws attention to the context, namely the imminent crucifixion, and notes what it was that sustained the Lord Jesus in his ultimate 'missionary' act.

In attempting to assess the significance of a man like Zwemer one could relate more of his missionary exploits, review more books or list the religious societies that emerged from his work. But if a person is best measured by their view of God then it is Zwemer's exalted view of the holiness and glory of God and his radical view of the fallenness of man that hold one's attention. His combination of a theologically incisive critique of Islam with deep personal compassion for individual Muslims is the true legacy of this great man of God.

Note: For a similar perspective on Christian mission, see Eifion Evans's recent piece in the BEC's Foundations magazine (No. 48, Spring 2002): 'Calvin's Influence on Mission'.

Andrew Marsay