Samuel Zwemer

Samuel Zwemer was born in 1867 to Dutch parents in Michigan. His father was a pastor and Samuel's life revolved around the church. He finished high school when he was sixteen, was a hard worker and did well in college. In 1886 his mother died after being sick for several years. Before she died, she told Samuel that when he was a baby she prayed that he would one day become a missionary. From that day she never doubted it would happen.

During his senior year Samuel attended a meeting given by Robert Wilder, a young man passionate about missions. He and nine other students had formed the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions with the goal to urge young people to give their lives to spreading the gospel. Samuel heard the call that night and pledged his life to missionary work. After he finished college he enrolled in New Brunswick Seminary. He found he had a gift for preaching and began to study medical textbooks, as well as missionary biographies.

In 1888 he felt that he was meant to go to Arabia and often met with two other students, Jim Cantine and Philip Phelps, who also felt the call. At the time very few missionaries went to Arabia, but the men were determined. They all studied Arabic with an Egyptian named Dr. Lansing and Samuel worked at Bleecker Street Mission by filling prescriptions. The mission always put a Bible verse on the medicine bottle and one day Samuel pasted a verse that read, “Prepare to meet thy God” on a bottle and upset a sick patient. From then on he was careful about what verse he stuck on a bottle.

In 1889 the three men were turned down by the Reformed Church Mission Board but that didn't stop them. They, along with Dr. Lansing, decided to form an independent, nondenominational mission. Philip would stay in the U.S. because of family matters, but he promised to do all he could to help the mission. They called the mission the Arabian Mission and its goal was to share the gospel with the Muslims of Arabia. Jim set off for Arabia on a ship called City of Rome while Samuel finished seminary. He graduated in 1890 and was ordained in May. That August he landed in Beirut, Lebanon.

Once he arrived he settled in with the other missionaries, including Jim. They continued to learn Arabic and to pray about where to set up their mission. They worked with a friend Jim had made, Kamil Abdul Messiah El Aeitany, who proved to be amazing at sharing the gospel with his people. He spoke flawless Arabic and English and knew both the Koran and the Bible. He used both to show the people the truth of the gospel. After several years of traveling Jim and Samuel chose Basrah, Iraq and later set up another spot in Bahrain. Then the unexpected happened: Kamil died. Nobody seemed to know how and Samuel suspected foul play. But the Muslims buried Kamil and Samuel never found out where his body was.

Peter Zwemer, Samuel's younger brother, joined the mission and eventually ended up in Muscat, Oman. Samuel opened up a bookshop in Bahrain, where he sold Bibles, as well as other books in Arabic. He also started up a dispensary and a dental surgery. In 1894 the Reformed Church Mission Board accepted the mission and took over the administration duties and fund-raising, lifting a burden off Samuel and Jim's shoulders. In March 1895 Samuel went to visit Jim, who was in Basrah. While he was there the men received a telegram saying two women, Alice Philips and Amy Elizabeth Wilkes, were joining them and would be there the next day. The men jumped to their feet and cleaned Jim's house in time to welcome them. Samuel was smitten with Amy and they were married in May, 1896.
Amy became busy as she adjusted to life in Bahrain. She reached out to the women in the area and helped Samuel with medical cases, since she was a nurse. They also began to dream about one day opening up a hospital. In 1897 they went on a furlough to the U.S., where Samuel introduced Amy to his family and friends.

While they were there Amy gave birth to Katharine Zwemer. Peter fell ill and became so sick he went to the U.S. for treatment. More people volunteered to serve in the Arabian Mission and in 1898 the Zwemer family returned to Bahrain. After they returned Samuel found out his brother Peter had died. Samuel was shocked but continued with his work. In 1899 Lydia and her three children, Nejma, Razouki, and Mejid, were the first people Samuel baptized in Bahrain. Later that year Amy had another daughter, Nellie Elizabeth Zwemer, but they called her Bessie. Yet another daughter, Ruth, followed in 1900. Also in 1900 Samuel tried to get the ball rolling so they could start a hospital, but finding land was hard. In 1901 they finally bought some and drew up the plans. As the structure was erected Samuel worked on a book about Raymund Lull, who was considered the first missionary to the Muslims. The same day he mailed off his manuscript 1902 Amy gave birth to a son, whom they named Ramund Lull Zwemer.

In December 1902 Samuel went to the Fourth Decennial Indian Missionary Conference, where he got the idea to hold a conference specifically for those who were trying to spread the gospel to the Muslims. With this tucked in the back of his mind, he returned to Bahrain to see the hospital completed. He and Jim dedicated the hospital in January 1903 and it was soon full of patients. Samuel organized a conference they called the Cairo Conference, which would be held in April, 1906. In 1904 tragedy struck his family. He and Amy's daughters, Katharine and Ruth, died within a week of each other from a fever. Samuel found it hard to work after their deaths, but he pressed on. Eight months later the family went on furlough, during which Amy gave birth to Amy Ruth Zwemer. Jim also married Elizabeth DePree in 1905 and the Cairo Conference in 1906 went so well they decided to hold another one in five years.

Samuel continued to travel, write books, and speak about Arabia until 1929, when he accepted the chair of the History of Religion and Christian Missions at Princeton University. By 1932 all of his children were married and he and Amy had fifteen grandchildren. In 1936 the couple celebrated their fortieth anniversary, but less than a year later Amy died from a heart attack. Samuel retired from Princeton when he was seventy-one, but really he wasn't retired. He preached at churches and conferences and continued to write.

In September 1939 Samuel met with Jim, who was also retired and widowed. He also met Margaret Clarke, a woman he found himself attracted to. Even though they were twenty-three years apart, they fell in love and were married in 1940. The couple didn't seem able to run out of energy. In one month Samuel spoke at forty-three events and services. Also in 1940, Samuel's longtime friend and partner, Jim, died.
When Samuel was eighty he and Margaret went to Bahrain to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Arabian Mission. After the trip Margaret's health declined and she died in February 1950. Two years later, ten days before his eighty-fifth birthday, Samuel died in his sleep on April 2, 1952. He was buried in the Zwemer family plot in Michigan.

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