Despite winning only a handful of converts, Samuel Zwemer was the greatest missionary the United States has ever sent to the Muslim world. Of him, the historian Kenneth Latourette said, “No one is more deserving of the title, ‘Apostle to Islam.’” He was a gifted evangelist, a prolific author, a compelling speaker, and a dedicated professor—never deviating from this message: Muslims need Jesus, and Christians need to reach them.
Due to his endless energy, an esteemed worker (Temple Gairdner of Cairo), once referred to him as a “steam engine in breeches.” When he died in 1952, a grieving colleague said, “A missionary prince has fallen in our midst.” The purpose of this article is not to reiterate what Samuel Zwemer did,[i] but to underscore the contributions of his wife Amy. What they achieved as a team–despite hardship, suffering and loss, left a lasting impression on Muslims in Bahrain.[ii]
Purchasing a Wife
After six years of bachelorhood in Bahrain, Samuel made a survey trip to Baghdad, where he met Amy Wilkes. She was a charming young missionary nurse from Australia who had been sent out by the Church Missionary Society. Apparently, he knew from the start she was the one, so with typical impulsiveness that seemed to ignore barriers, and disregard delays, he proposed. She accepted, and after a short engagement, they were married in the British Consulate, Baghdad, May 18, 1896.[iii] Soon they began serving together in Bahrain, but CMS did not easily surrender a valuable worker. Since Amy had resigned from CMS, and joined her husband’s organization, she was asked to cover the cost of travel to the field. After Samuel had “paid up,” he liked to say he had bought his wife, as was the Arab custom.[iv]
A Wonderful Partnership
As far as the Arabian Mission is concerned (and other groups), when Amy began missionary service in Bahrain (June 1, 1896), it was a “red-letter day.” This was the first time there had been a special effort to evangelize the women of Arabia. It was during those early years in Bahrain that Samuel Zwemer wrote his first book, wrapping a towel around his head in the scorching heat, to keep perspiration from blotting the paper.[v] Amy also kept busy: Despite other heavy responsibilities, she wrote three books about Arab life and customs for children. One, Topsy Turvey Land: Arabia Pictured for Children, co-authored with her husband, was a classic.[vi]
Three years later, in 1899, Amy Zwemer “saw a need” and began the first girl’s school in Manama, holding classes on the back porch of the mission house. Named “The Acorn School,” it was a small beginning with few books and only seven students (her daughters and a few other girls). She taught them reading, writing and arithmetic; in the afternoons, trade crafts were taught by American staff and people from the local community. Through this means Amy gained access to the homes of local women.[vii] Due to her unflagging enthusiasm, within three short years, there was need for a school building and that was financed by the Reformed Church of America. Later, it became an all-girls school, and in the 1930s a boy’s section was added. It grew to include K-12, later added Advanced Placement, and is now accredited with AdvanceEd, the largest accrediting body in the world. Often referred to as the American Mission School, this institution is highly regarded in Bahrain.[viii]
Closely connected to the school, is the American Mission Hospital that has roots back to 1888, when Samuel Zwemer first arrived. He had been able to carry on rudimentary medicine, but Amy’s expertise as a nurse was a great asset. A hospital was built in 1903 and has expanded over the years, attracting patients from across the Persian Gulf. The well-respected medical facility has also experienced rapid growth and enjoys strong support from King Hamad. In order to raise funds for this non-profit service, King Hamad sponsors a yearly golf tournament, called the American Mission Hospital Island Classic Charity Golf Tournament.[ix] A new state-of-the-art facility is underway and will be called King Hamad American Mission Hospital (AMH), with plans to open in 2022.[x]
In 1904, however, tragedy struck the Zwemer family. Their two beautiful daughters died within a week of each other, and the graves are close to the school Amy started. Katharina was seven and Ruth was four, both struck down by malaria. Over the tombstones, the grieving parents wrote, “Worthy is the Lamb to receive riches.” This, more than anything, may have convinced people in Bahrain that the Zwemers had come to serve and sacrifice. It was long before the discovery of oil.
The Secret of their Perseverance
Fifty years after that heartbreaking experience, Samuel Zwemer wrote, “The sheer joy of it all comes back . . . and I would gladly do it all over again to bring the gospel to Western Arabia.” What motivated the Zwemers was that they never stopped marveling at what Christ had done for them on the cross, and they wanted Muslims to experience the same. This was the theme of what many of us consider his best book, The Glory of the Cross. Notably, when Samuel Zwemer partook of the Lord’s Supper, he would repeat the words, “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me . . . ” Finally, after laboring long and hard with little to show for it, he returned to the United States and preached on the text, “Lord, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net” (Luke 5:5). The Zwemers kept going back to parched and arid places and today we are seeing some of the fruit of their labor. During the last twenty years more Muslims have come to Christ than in the previous fifteen hundred years.[xi] The harvest has begun.
For more on Zwemer’s life see this brief biography.
[i] Much has been written about him. For example, “The Apostle to Islam: The Legacy of Samuel Zwemer,” J Christy Wilson, Jr. International Journal of Frontier Missions, Vol. 13:4, Oct.-Dec.1996. By the same author, Apostle to Islam: A Biography of Samuel M .Zwemer, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1952. Also, “Our Muslim Neighbors: The Contribution of Samuel M. Zwemer to Christian Mission,” Missiology: An international Review, April 1982. Finally, “A Brief Biography of Samuel Zwemer,” by Roger Greenway, taken from the Introduction of Islam and the Cross, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002.
[ii] When Amy died suddenly, January 25, 1937, the Board of Foreign Missions recorded how she had described her own call to work among Muslims: “The Spirit of God moved me to offer myself to the Lord for foreign work at a missionary meeting, January, 1892, Sydney. Reading F. R. Havergal’s ‘Marching Orders’ made me decide to offer myself.” One Hundred and Fifth Annual Report, Board of Foreign Missions, Reformed Church of America, 1937.
[iii] Neglected Arabia, No. 178, January-February 1937.
[iv] J. Christy Wilson, Jr. International Journal of Frontier Missions, Vol. 13:4, Oct.-Dec.1996.
[v] After that, he basically wrote one book each year for the next fifty years, and digital copies of many of them can be found on the Zwemer Center website www.zwemercenter.com.
[vi] New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1902.
[vii] Neglected Arabia.
[viii] “Strong Students. Strong Community.” www.alrafabahrain.org/history.html.
[ix] “The Island Classic Charity Gold Tournament” https://www.amh.org.bh/news/under-the-patronage-of-his-majesty-king-hamad-bin-isa-al-khalifa-amh-19th-island-classic-charity-golf-tournament/
[x] “New AMH hospital named.” GDNlife. https://www.gdnlife.com/Home/ArticleDetail?ArticleId=21282&category=4.
[xi] David Garrison, A Wind in the House of Islam: How God is drawing Muslims around the world to faith in Jesus Christ. Monument: WIGT Resources, 2014.