Samuel Zwemer: Missionary to the Arabs


The Theological Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church at New Brunswick, New Jersey, had as one of its professors in the eighth decade of the nineteenth century, Rev. John G. Lansing, a son of the honored missionary of the United Presbyterian Church in Egypt, Rev. Julian Lansing, D.D. The latter had been praying for many years for Arabia, and his enthusiasm for the regeneration of that land by the gospel finally brought forth its fruit in his son. Through the influence of the latter, three students of that Theological school decided to go to Arabia, Samuel M. Zwemer, James Cantine and Philip T. Phelps.

They made application to the Board of Foreign Missions of the Reformed Dutch Church under whose auspices they had been educated. But that Board felt itself at the time too heavily burdened by a debt of $35,000 to enter on work in a new field of missions. However the attention of that church had been called to this movement and contributions began to come in. The young men, too, determined to go, without the support of their Foreign Board, relying on private subscriptions and prayer. A nondenominational missionary society was organized August 1, 1889.

A few days later Dr. Lansing composed the Arabian Mission hymn which has been a great inspiration to these workers in Arabia.

“There is a land long since neglected,

There is a people still rejected,

But of truth and grace elected,

In his love for them.

Softer than their night winds fleeting,

Richer than their starry tenting,

Stronger than their sands protecting,

Is his love for them.

To the host of Islam leading,

To the slave in bondage bleeding,

To the desert-dweller pleading,

Bring his love to them.

Through the promise on God’s pages,

Through his work in history’s stages,

Through the cross that crowns the ages,

Show his love to them.

With the prayer that still availeth,

With the power that prevaileth,

With the love that never faileth,

Tell his love to them.

Till the desert sons now aliens,

Till its tribes and their dominions,

Till Arabia’s raptured millions,

Praise this love of them.

Kamil Abel-el-Massiah, Busrah, January 1, 1892

Rev. James Cantine sailed October 16, 1899, and Rev. Mr. Zwemer on June 18, 1890. They met at Aden, Mr. Cantine going to Muscat, to the Persian Gulf and Baghdad, while Mr. Zwemer went south along the coast, accompanied by Kamil, and landed at Basrah.

The story of Kamil is of fascinating interest and reveals a life entirely surrendered to Christ, even to death. On the morning of February 10, 1890, a young Syrian called on Rev. Dr. Jessup, the well known Presbyterian missionary at Beirut. He told the story that he had met a Maronite priest near Beirut who advised him to go to the Jesuit college, which he did. One of them gave him an Arabic Testament. But his father caught him reading it and burned it in the kitchen fire. The next day one of the Jesuits gave him another New Testament and suggested he adopt a false subterfuge to his father so as to be able to retain it—that he tell his father that he had bought it in order to write a tract against it, which was a clear untruth. It was the old Jesuit policy that the end justifies the means, however wicked the latter might be. But the mind of the pure-minded Syrian revolted against such sinful trickery and replied: “What! advise me to lie to my father! Never!” He laid down his book and came away. The Jesuits had proposed to send him to Alexandria, Egypt, for education, but his family protested.

So he left the Jesuits disgusted, after being with them a month, and came to Dr. Jessup, saying: “I am not at rest, I find nothing in the Koran to show one how God can be just and yet pardon a sinner.” Dr. Jessup allowed him to come and read the Bible at his house. He seemed instinctively to learn the way to Christ, so quickly he grasped it and was soon rejoicing in the felt forgiveness of his sins. He proved to be a true Nathaniel without guile. He entered the mission school at Suk in Syria to prepare himself for work among the Arabs. Being afraid for his life if he returned to Beirut, he spent the summer of 1890 in evangelistic work among the Bedouin. After having been a Christian only seven months he was found trying to convert no less a man than the Greek bishop, who so admired his abilities and zeal that he offered him a fine position. After this Kamil was baptized January 15, 1891.

Arabian Missionaries. Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Reformed Church in America.

It happened that Messrs. Cantine and Zwemer, of the new Arabian Mission, were spending some time at Beirut when his baptism took place. They requested the services of Kamil, which was the more willingly granted because, as he was a convert from Mohammedanism, his life was to some extent always in jeopardy in that region. He arrived at Aden February 7, 1891. He at once set to work among the Mohammedan merchant caravans that passed through Aden. His knowledge of Mohammedanism enabled him to interest and answer his listeners. He was so successful that he frequently had fifty to one hundred seated around him listening to the Bible.

He then accompanied Mr. Zwemer along the coast of the Red Sea southward. At Mejada they ran their boat ashore owing to the storm. When they had drawn the boat up on the beach and were preparing some food, an armed Bedouin came up with a long spear and warned them against being robbed or killed. They said they feared nothing as God was with them. But in five minutes another Bedouin rode up and demanded coffee and finally money, which was refused. Then a crowd of Bedouin women and children came down upon them. It was difficult to protect their goods. Sometimes a child seized one thing and a woman another and four or five at once reached out their hands. They seized the boat and refused to let them launch again. The missionaries then demanded their help and all laid hold and drew the boat to the water. Mr. Zwemer then went up to the chief robber and cut off a little bead hanging from his neck as a keepsake. The latter never uttered a word. He then gave him a cup as a keepsake, and gave them all medicine for their ailments. The missionaries then took their spears and stuck their shafts into the ground. He then offered prayer, praying for half an hour and exhorted them, closing the prayer in the name of Jesus, to which all the company responded “Amen! and Amen!” And they exclaimed: “Never in all our lives will we cut off the roads, rob them on the highway again, or speak harshly to a stranger.” And on parting they said: “Go in peace.”

Samuel Zwemer with his wife, Amy and one of their children

Kamil continued preaching to the sailors of boats at Aden and in the bazaars there. He wrote earnestly to his father, trying to open his eyes to the truth in Christ. The father replied and the correspondence resulted in a bitter controversy. Kamil also itinerated in the neighborhood of Mecca, the center of Mohammedanism of the world. He went from Aden to Busrah in January, 1892, with the mission. His last letter is dated April 22, 1892, where he says Mr. Zwemer had urged him to go boldly into the Mohammedan coffeehouses and preach Christ, but he felt it would be unwise as there was no religious liberty there as at Aden where they were under the British flag.

But he busied himself, although sick, with personal conversations and with Bible distribution. On May 22, he had visits from twenty-three Mohammedans, five Christians and one Jew, and sold two Bibles. He died suddenly June 24, 1892, probably of poisoning. The Mohammedans sealed the house where he stayed, thus preventing any investigations. They buried him with Mohammedan burial in spite of the protests of Mr. Zwemer that he was a Christian, which made it suspicious that they had led to his poisoning; for his rapid burial was contrary to their long drawn out rites of burial. Even the place of his burial was sealed. So died a bright spirit after a two years’ ministry for Christ. But we doubt not that the results of his ministry will remain. If Henry Martyn’s brief stay in Persia nearly a hundred years before, led to results which appeared a half century later, we believe Kamil’s testimony will yet reveal similar results.

Mission House at Busrah. From Topsy-Turby: Arabia Pictured for Children by Samuel and Amy Zwemer, 1902

But difficulties arose to the mission. Besides the poisoning of Kamil, another of the converts was arrested. The money received by the Home Committee lessened on account of the illness of Rev. Prof. Lansing, at New Brunswick, who had been the godfather of the mission. Cholera came and interfered with their work in Arabia. Still there was also encouragement; for new missionaries were sent out, as Peter J. Zwemer and James T. Wycoff, M. D., but the latter, though the third of the medical missionaries sent out, was soon compelled to return by ill health.

Still results began to show themselves although the field was very hard. After laboring from 1892-99, during which time their Scriptures sales arose from 1,620 in 1892 to 2,464 in 1899, they at last gained their first convert. A soldier at Amara accepted Christ and came to Busrah for instruction. He had suffered the loss of all things, but witnessed a good confession wherever he had been dragged as an exile or driven as an apostate. Another convert was a middle-aged Persian, who was deeply convicted of sin by reading a copy of Luke’s gospel in the dispensary at Busrah.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of their work was the school opened at Muscat by Peter J. Zwemer for eighteen orphan slave boys who had been rescued from slavery in Africa and were handed over to the mission. The medical work also began to tell, as among the Mohammedans there are no doctors. Mr. Peter J. Zwemer died October 18, 1898, after heroically fighting with repeated attacks of fever there, until driven home to die. But in dying his heart was still in Arabia, for his last letter to his parents said he had just secured $100 for a Muscat touring boat. Thus the Lord blessed this new mission with martyrs. They will be the seed of the Arabian Church, the forerunners of many saved….”

Abridged and Edited J.I. Good’s Famous Missionaries of the Reformed Church, The Sunday-School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1903. Unless noted, photos courtesy of Western Theological Seminary Collection at the Joint Archives of Holland.