Apostle to Islam: Samuel Zwemer’s Story

By Barbara Yandell

Barbara is a speaker for Perspectives nationally and a leader in the SVM2 USA network.

As we are seeking to ignite a generation with fresh vision and passion for reaching the world for Jesus in our lifetime, it is critical to observe the stories and lives of those who have gone before us in this capacity.

Samuel Zwemer is called the “Apostle to Islam” for blazing a trail into the world of Islam and being one of the first to do so. The late J. Christy Wilson, a friend of Samuel’s, dubbed him the flaming prophet. His life story ignites true hearts, young and old alike.

In 1887, a year after the Mt Hermon 100 formed the Student Volunteer Movement during D.L.

Moody’s summer conference, founder spokesman Robert Wilder came to Hope College in Holland, Michigan and spoke in chapel challenging students to join the Student Volunteer Movement by signing a commitment card stating their intentions to become a message bearer.

Wilder had a map of India on display and a metronome set so that with each tick of the metronome it was known that one person was dying without knowing Jesus Christ in that great land.

Samuel was a student at Hope at the time and could hardly wait for Wilder to finish his presentation and give the invitation to respond. When the challenge was made, Samuel rushed forward to sign the Student Volunteer pledge to commit his life to foreign missions. He was 19 at the time.

Samuel’s life, heart and preparation have much to commend to us today. Following graduation at Hope College, Samuel enrolled at New Brunswick Seminary (New Jersey) to prepare for the mission field. He chose a school located on the east coast for his training to broaden his mind and experience.

Before doing so, however, he enthusiastically sold Bibles door to door. He used this same tent-making strategy for years when he went to the Arab world.

In addition to formal mission and theological studies at New Brunswick Seminary, Samuel trained himself in medicine under the tutelage of the future great missionary doctor to India Sir William Wanless.

In a pharmacy on Bleeker Street in New York City, he was taught medicine, but more importantly, how to use medicine as a tool for reaching the lost. One practice in that pharmacy was to paste a scripture on the medicine bottles that were given out to patients.

Zwemer’s spare time in those days included singing in the choir, and teaching Sunday school. He also worked at the Thorpe Avenue mission doing evangelism and visiting the poor, assisting them with social welfare and health care.

He started the noon prayer hour at New Brunswick Seminary. This started as Samuel merely used that time slot to pray and have his daily devotions. Eventually other students joined him and they spent the hour seeking God together.

Samuel organized student mission conferences on his own for the campus, often incurring faculty consternation. He had become a flame for the purposes of God around the world, and he influenced multitudes to consider letting God use them in cross-cultural ministry.

At New Brunswick Seminary, Zwemer met James Cantine. The two became fast friends and partners in mission. They together realized the needs in the world and that they needed to purpose themselves to go to a specific place that was difficult and had little to no witness of Christ.

They made a commitment together to do this and prayed that their lives might be used in this way for God’s glory. Cantine and Zwemer then met regularly with their Hebrew professor Dr. Lansing.

Together with him, they decided to open a new mission field in the most difficult area of the world, the Arabian Peninsula and the Muslim world. They knew that this was the seat of Islam and was at the time the hardest place they could find to go.

This inspired and energized them. They adopted as their motto the prayer of Abraham in Genesis 17:18, “Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee…”

Zwemer and Cantine applied to be sent as missionaries with several church boards including their own, the Reformed Church of America. They were refused by each one being told that it was foolish to go to such an unresponsive and fanatical people.

This response, however, didn’t deter them. Together, with Dr. Lansing, they formed their own mission board called the Arabian Mission and sent themselves. The two adopted the practice of going to different churches and raising money for the other. Much money was given to them on the other’s behalf.

Zwemer sailed for Arabia in 1890 (at the age of 23). He first went to Beirut, Lebanon and spent several months in intensive language learning of Arabic – one of the most difficult languages globally to learn.

After a successful and ground breaking career in the Islamic world, Samuel edited a publication called the Moslem World, spoke at conferences, translated and published tracts and books, established hospitals and schools in the Muslim world, gathered information for future missions agencies, and influenced many other missionaries to be sent to work among all the Muslim peoples of the world.

In addition to pioneering missionary work in the Arabian Peninsula, Samuel served as secretary for the Student Volunteer Movement. Zwemer with John R. Mott, Robert Wilder and Robert Speer led the fruitful years of the Student Volunteer Movement.

It is said that between Speer and Zwemer more students were recruited as foreign missionaries than anyone else. He was the first speaker at what was to become the Urbana student mission convention. The first one was held in Toronto, before it moved to Urbana, Illinois.

Samuel Zwemer’s keynote address to students encapsulates all that captures my heart for Muslims, “The Glory of the Impossible.” He said, “The challenge of unoccupied fields of the world is one to great faith and therefore, to great sacrifice.

Our willingness to sacrifice for an enterprise is always in proportion to our faith in that enterprise. Faith has the genius of transforming the barely possible into actuality. Once men are dominated by the conviction that a thing must be done, they will stop at nothing until it is accomplished.”

Will you bring your Lord Glory by believing and living for the impossible? Today, the Muslim world is desperately in need of those who will go and invest a large portion of their life to see the gospel planted and churches developed.

There has probably never been a time period historically when more Muslims have come to faith in Christ then in the last 15 years. Let’s believe God for the impossible among the Muslim world which makes up more then one-fifth of all humanity.


Perspectives on the World Christian Movement Reader, 3rd edition .ed Steven Hawthorne and Ralph Winter, William Carey Library, 1999.

Flaming Prophet, J. Christy Wilson, Friendship Press, 1970.

1 thought on “Apostle to Islam: Samuel Zwemer’s Story”

  1. Barbara
    You wrote, “In a pharmacy on Bleeker Street in New York City, he was taught medicine, but more importantly, how to use medicine as a tool for reaching the lost.” Do you have references for Zwemer stating that medicine would be or was a good tool for reaching Muslims?


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