Missions History: Samuel Zwemer


“The history of missions is the history of answered prayer. It is the key to the whole mission problem. All human means are secondary.” 

-Samuel Marinus Zwemer

In 1867, a Reformed Church pastor and his wife welcomed their thirteenth child. It was a son, and they named him Samuel. Just like the Biblical Samuel, his mother dedicated his life to the Lord’s work. As she placed tiny Samuel into his cradle, the mother whispered a prayer that he might someday become a missionary. Twenty-three years later, her prayers were answered when Samuel sailed for a foreign mission field. 

Here is the inspiring story of Samuel Marinus Zwemer.

Call to Missions

After accepting Christ as Saviour at a young age, Samuel felt God’s call to ministry. He attended Hope College, and, in his senior year, Robert Wilder of the Student Volunteer Movement visited his campus. Silhouetted in front of a map of India, Wilder preached about the great need for evangelization. He set up a metronome in front of the map, and each tick represented the death of someone in India who had never heard of Christ. 

Overwhelmed with a desire to go, Samuel rushed up to the front of the classroom. He quickly signed the decision card, which read, “God helping me, I purpose to be a foreign missionary.” God would fulfil this desire, but He would lead young Samuel to a far different field than India. At our Baptist church in Cape Breton, we believe that missions are essential to God’s plan, and we support several missionaries.

The Arabian Mission

After graduating from Hope College, Samuel enrolled in New Brunswick Seminary. In his spare time, he served in evangelism and learned all he could about medicine. He also preached his first sermon to a black congregation in New Brunswick, New Jersey. 

One memorable moment occurred when he was assisting the missionary doctor William Wanless. Samuel liked to attach Scripture verses to each vial of medicine they gave out. However, one patient returned to the clinic in a state of great agitation. The verse on his medicine bottle had read, “Prepare to meet thy God!” (Amos 4:12)

During his first year, Samuel and James Cantine, a fellow student, began to discuss their plans for the future. Samuel said, “You know, we must get something definite under way. I propose that you and I offer ourselves to go to some needy field and possibly start a new work.” Soon, these eager young men began planning. They selected the field of Arabia as the most challenging one they could think of. They claimed the prayer of Abraham in Genesis 17:18, “Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee.”

However, they could find no missions board willing to send them. Determined, Samuel said, “If God calls you and no board will send you, bore a hole through the board and go anyway.” The two friends separated and travelled the opposite coasts of the USA, raising support for each other. And thus they founded the Arabian Mission.

Foreign Ministry

In June 1890, Samuel sailed for the mission field. He landed in Beirut and immediately began studying Arabic. Within the year, he and his friend James were involved in full-time ministry. They sold Bibles, shared the gospel with locals, and preached wherever they could. By 1894, the Reformed Church got on board and decided to back their ministry.

In 1896, the young missionaries welcomed two new recruits….one of whom would become Samuel’s wife. Amy Wilkes was a missionary nurse from the Church Missionary Society. They were married on May 18, 1896. 

For the next nine years, Samuel and his wife would face severe trials. They would welcome three daughters and a son…and lose two of the daughters to dysentery. They struggled to adapt to the tropical climate, counter Muslim persecution, and persevere in the face of spiritual attack.

By 1905, it was time for a much-needed furlough.

Missions Conventions

When Samuel, Amy, and their family returned to the States, he was asked to be field secretary for the Reformed Board of Foreign Missions. And he was also offered the position of travelling representative for the Student Volunteer Movement. Unable to choose, he accepted both!

Next, Samuel threw himself into promoting world missions, especially missions to Muslim nations. He helped found the first General Conference of Missionaries to the World of Islam in April 1906. He was instrumental in motivating thousands of young men and women to enlist in missions.

After returning to the field, Samuel and his family moved to Cairo. He continued to preach the gospel and give out tracts there, despite the menace of the Egyptian government. He also made missionary journeys back to Bahrain, as well as Iran, India, and China. 

In addition to his missionary work, Zwemer was a prolific writer. He wrote 29 books, coauthored 19 more, and edited the journal The Moslem World. His favourite of all the books was The Glory of the Cross (1928). 

Faithful to the End

In 1929, Samuel returned to his homeland to chair the History of Religion and Christian Missions department at Princeton. However, he continued to travel the nation and challenge young people to accept the call. On January 25, 1937, he lost his beloved wife, Amy. The next year, he “retired” from Princeton to continue in ministry.

In his seventies, Samuel kept an active schedule of speaking, teaching college classes on missions, and writing. He remarried in 1940, to a woman named Margaret Clarke. A trained secretary, she was a great help in his writing work. 

In 1949, the veteran missionary took his final trip to the Middle East. Samuel and his wife attended the 60th anniversary of the Arabian Mission he had helped found. While there, they visited the missionary graves in Bahrain, where he exclaimed, “If we should hold our peace, these very stones would cry out for the evangelization of Arabia!” 

Three years later, after suffering a heart attack, Samuel Zwemer went to his reward. 

Though he did not see many converts, Samuel was faithful to the end. He was unashamed of the gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16). He obeyed God’s call on his life, and only eternity will tell what an incredible impact he made on the souls of men. At our Baptist church in Cape Breton, we want to be faithful, too.


Will you faithfully share the gospel as Samuel Zwemer did? Join the friendly church family of Northside Baptist Church on Sundays at 11:00 am. 

For more information, call 902-304-4707 or email northside1178@gmail.com  
Claudine Broussard is a Cape Breton based musician, the social media director of ForwardMarketing.ca, and coauthor of Seeking Jesus: Stepping Into a Life of Bold Surrender, Freedom, and Deep Joy.