Missionary to Islam: Samuel Zwemer

Rev. Brummel is a home missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches, stationed in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

One of the most prolific writers and proponents of missions through the first half of the 1900s was Dr. Samuel Zwemer. Zwemer authored over fifty books and countless articles promoting mission labors primarily among the Muslims. In addition, through his influence with the Student Volunteer Movement and as professor at Princeton, Dr. Zwemer influenced countless numbers of young men and women to go into missionary service. J. Christy Wilson, Jr. states that Zwemer probably influenced more young people to consider missionary service than anyone else in all of Christian history. Kenneth Scott Latourette writes in his introduction to J. Christy Wilson, Sr.’s biography of Zwemer:

It will never be known, unless God himself discloses it in “that land of large dimensions,” how many missionaries either first heard the call or had their purpose crystallized through the compelling, loving appeal of Dr. Zwemer. Nor until that roster is revealed will it be clear how many countries have been touched by them or how many thousands have been introduced to eternal life by their witness.

According to Ruth A. Tucker, Samuel Zwemer’s converts were “probably less than a dozen during his nearly forty years of service” and his “greatest contribution to missions was that of stirring Christians to the need for evangelism to Muslims.”

Samuel Zwemer was born on April 12, 1867 as the thirteenth of fifteen children born to Adriaan and Catherina Zwemer. Samuel’s father, Adriaan, was a pastor in the Reformed Church of America (RCA). Samuel was born in the parsonage at Vriesland. Rev. Adriaan Zwemer had aspirations to be a missionary to Africa, but God in His providence kept him in America, where he served churches in Wisconsin, New York, Michigan, and Iowa. Samuel enjoyed a close relationship to his father and later found the entire absence of the idea of fatherhood in the Muslim doctrine appalling at both a spiritual and a personal level.

After graduating from Hope College, Zwemer continued his education in September of 1887 at the theological seminary of the RCA in New Brunswick, New York. Samuel was fluent in three languages already as a child. While in seminary Samuel displayed an increasing interest and zeal for foreign missions and decided to take up the study of medicine along with his seminary courses in order to prepare him for overseas missions.

While a seminary student, Zwemer joined two other students to form an Arabian Mission Society. They chose Arabia because the Muslim religion was the only one that had met and conquered Christianity on a large scale and therefore was the great rival of the Christian faith. He arranged his first mission conference during his second year of seminary, a conference that featured speakers and delegates from many other seminaries. The conference was a great success, and the young seminary student began to devote his vacation times to speaking engagements throughout Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa promoting foreign missions.

Zwemer graduated with honors in 1890 and was ordained in the RCA in May. In June he sailed for Arabia and joined up with a classmate one year older than he who was laboring in Beirut. Both men sailed throughout Arabia, visiting various cities and learning the culture and language of the Arabs. Zwemer made it his business to know everything there was to know about missions to the Muslims. One of his first books was a biography of the thirteenth century missionary Raymond Lull, after whom he later named one of his sons.

In 1896 Zwemer met a nurse, Amy Wilkes, who was on her way to assist with a medical mission in Australia. They were married on May 18 at the British Consulate in Baghdad and proceeded to the island of Bahrain. During their forty plus years of marriage, God blessed them with six children, two of whom died in 1904 of dysentery.

While in Bahrain, Zwemer pursued extensive studies of the Koran in original Arabic, striving to understand the religion through the eyes of its best advocates. As a result he wrote a book entitled The Moslem Doctrine of God. This book highlights the differences between Muslim and biblical theology. Zwemer exposed the fact that Islam underestimates the holiness of God and the offensiveness of sin. The result is that there is no effective remedy for sin. Zwemer rightly and boldly attributed this error to the hand of Satan.

In 1905 the Zwemers returned to the United States, where he spent the next five years speaking at conventions and promoting mission work in Muslim countries. In 1912 he moved his family to Cairo, the center of Islamic thought and in many ways a key city to Muslims of Africa and Egypt.

While in Cairo, Zwemer established close relations with the professors at Al Ahzar University, the oldest and greatest Muslim university in the world. Zwemer provided Bibles and Christian literature to interested professors and sat in on courses and interacted with the teachers.

In the years during which he was stationed in Cairo, Zwemer traveled extensively throughout the world to hold conferences and preach. He always had literature with him and was always looking for opportunities to hand it to individuals. One year alone he traveled 19,000 miles in North Africa and East India, giving fifteen major conferences and ninety-nine public addresses in English, Arabic, French, and Dutch. He was invited to speak in mosques, Muslim schools, Muslim literary societies, and military schools, because of his command of Arabic and Islam.

Beginning in 1911, as the fruit of a conference, Zwemer was involved in establishing a quarterly publication called The Moslem World. For thirty-seven years, regardless of his extensive traveling, Zwemer, as editor of this scholarly publication, put together an issue each quarter. In 1920 Zwemer accepted an invitation from Princeton Theological Seminary to be professor of the Chair of History of Religion and Christian Missions. His travels continued as he taught summer courses and spoke for conferences and conventions in addition to writing books and articles. He faced mandatory retirement from Princeton at the age of 70, though he was able to continue teaching a couple of classes until he was 71.

But Zwemer had no desire to quit working. At his 70th birthday Zwemer gave an interesting talk about life beginning at seventy. After citing biblical passages, he listed these seven reasons: 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 seventy we can look further backward and further forward. 5) By this time we should know that life consists not in the abundance of things we possess. 6) The responsibility to witness for God to the next generation is greater. 7) At seventy the Christian must redeem the time and live in more deadly earnest.

In 1937 his beloved wife, Amy, passed away suddenly, leaving a deep loneliness. After moving to New York City in 1939, Zwemer met Margaret Clarke, whom he married in 1940. Margaret became a great help to Dr. Zwemer in his continued preaching and writing as well as extensive travels on the speaking circuit. In one month Zwemer traveled twice across America, speaking forty-five times, in addition to a great number of informal talks and interviews.

In 1950 Margaret suddenly died after their return from Arabia. Two years later Zwemer had a heart attack after giving two addresses in New York. He recovered enough to be released from the hospital, but then, ten days short of Zwemer’s eighty-fifth birthday, God took him to his eternal rest.

Zwemer was a hard working man with a brilliant mind and a single passion—to promote the gospel of salvation through Christ alone to Islam. While he had many interests and a wide range of knowledge, one could not talk with him more than ten minutes without the conversation being steered to Islam.

Not only did Zwemer have an excellent grasp of the Bible and theology, he was also an inquisitive man, who worked hard to understand the culture of the Arabs. One day he is said to have gone out to visit the famous tombs of some kings in Luxor. On the way he met a Mohammedan funeral procession and noticed something in the customs that he had not encountered before. He turned and followed the procession and never arrived at his destination.

He always had an abundance of fresh illustrations for any theme on which he was speaking, making him a fascinating teacher. Zwemer is remembered as one who had a lovable character and a keen sense of humor that made him a delightful companion. Kenneth Scott Latourette writes:

There was something of the Old Testament prophet about Dr. Zwemer. He had the prophet’s fearlessness and forthrightness, the burning conviction which would brook no compromise. That, indeed, must be true of any who would across the years present the message of Christ to adherents of so sturdy a faith as Islam…. Yet he never forgot that the Evangel means Good News, and that the Good News is the gospel of God’s love. His zeal was always transfigured by love and it was not only for his simple, unquestioning faith that those who were honored to be in the circle of his intimate friends will best remember him, but it will be also and primarily for his loving heart that they will recall him, a loving heart which was the reflection of God’s love in Christ.

Zwemer maintained his Calvinistic beliefs all his life, and toward the end of his life gave more lectures and presentations to smaller groups that were Calvinistic. Mainline denominations began to turn away from missions as smaller, more biblical denominations began to take up the work. Zwemer spoke against the liberal theologies that compromised the doctrine of Christ. He taught that in order to be a missionary, especially to Islam, one needed a strong doctrine of Christ and an emphasis on Christ’s work of atonement and resurrection. While Zwemer accepted speaking engagements from a broad array of religious affiliations, he was unflinching with regard to the doctrine of Christ and sin, and no listener left in ignorance of Zwemer’s convictions.

Zwemer’s knowledge of Islam has known few equals among missionaries. We can learn much from his dedication to learning the language and theology of those among whom he labored, to the point that he was esteemed even by the locals as an authority in their own religion.

Zwemer promoted literature that set forth Christianity over against Islam. In 1910 he joined a group of men who set up a society for the promotion of Christian literature to Islam. This society, known as the American Christian Literature Society for Moslems (ACLSM), left a tremendous mark on the Muslim world with its Christian books and tracts. Repeatedly in lectures and conferences he bemoaned the small amount of literature available and promoted support of this cause. A friend of his, after reading some of the literature, said: “No agency can penetrate Islam so deeply, abide so persistently, witness so daringly and influence so irresistibly as the printed page.”

As God gives us opportunity, we must also prepare literature for the Muslim world. Currently we can be grateful for the contribution of Hussein Wario, a member of our Byron Center PRC, through his recently published book: Cracks in the Crescent. [See review, by Mark Hoeksema, below.] This book gives excellent insight to readers as to how to understand and evangelize their Muslim neighbors. Copies are available for purchase from Amazon.com or from http://www.husseinwario.com/.

The challenge that Zwemer sounded must continue to be heard today. Islam constitutes a large population in the world and continues to make advances. The laborers for the harvest are few. The churches and missionaries that are able to face the challenge of Islam are those with a strong, biblical theology that sets forth God in all His glory and salvation from sin through Christ alone. God has entrusted us as Protestant Reformed Churches with this glorious gospel. May we be faithful as we seek to proclaim it to every nation and people as God gives us opportunity.


1. J. Christy Wilson, Apostle to Islam (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 1952.

2. Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1983.