Samuel Zwemer – missionary to Bahrain and Egypt, founder of Arabian mission and editor of The Moslem World for 38 years, professor of missions at Princeton Theological Seminary and internationally popular speaker and advocate of missions for over 60 years, famous for his quote: “the history of missions is the history of answered prayer” – was arguably one of the greatest failures on the mission field with less than a dozen known converts to Christian faith.
Whether it’s defensiveness or faithfulness, Zwemer is still regarded as a hero. Hailed as another example of Hebrews 11:39, “commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.” It’s easier in hindsight to champion Zwemer’s cause of hand-wringing in the face of the insurmountable, but it’s hard to imagine funding his ministry today, or raising support for 40 years of work on the field with fewer than a dozen success stories.
Zwemer embraced the debate over differing measures of success, complaining often of inefficiencies even while heralding a career of relative fruitlessness. Toward the end of his teaching career, he mused: “The printed page is a missionary that can go anywhere and do so at minimum cost. It enters closed lands and reaches all strata of society. It does not grow weary. It needs no furlough. It lives longer than any missionary. It never gets ill. It penetrates through the mind to the heart and conscience. It has and is producing results everywhere. It has often lain dormant yet retained its life and bloomed years later.”
Regardless of Zwemer’s own stewardship message, his biography does show what is the most compelling feature of his ministry – the alignment of his ministry and message.
And what was Zwemer message? This son of a Reformed pastor, young Zwemer unapologetically proclaimed that the task of evangelism was to identify the elect, and the chief end of missions is not simply the salvation of people but the glory of God (or the glory of God in the salvation of sinners, as he later said).
Late in his career, he wrote an essay titled, “The Glory of the Impossible,” in which he portrayed the discouraging, prohibitive and insurmountable obstacles to Christian mission among Muslims. He said, true faith is that “which enables the missionary to look upward with confidence and see by faith the future result of…toil; a world where statistics are inadequate to express realities, where finance and budgets have lost all significance, and gold is used for paving-stones.” (Zwemer, “The Glory of the Impossible,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, 1949, 16)
But Zwemer didn’t mislead anyone it seems. His message of God’s sovereignty-explains-evangelism was his response to detractors, and his dig-in-your-heels-because-God-is-sovereign approach motivated generosity, and some fame. But the question remains, after you’ve exhausted deep Dutch pockets from Orange City, Pella, New Holland and Grand Rapids, where do you turn?