Samuel Zwemer was challenged to give his life in service to Christ and the nations while a student at Hope College in his hometown of Holland, Michigan. And Zwemer set his compass for one of the hardest, most neglected places on the planet: Arabia, the epicenter of Islam, a hostile place both physically and spiritually.
After language study in Beirut, Zwemer reached the Arabian Peninsula in 1890. Maps and demographic information were sketchy, but Zwemer was aided by the help of Major General F. T. Haig, whose expeditions into the interior and love for missions gave him special insight into the situation on the ground.
In 1896 Zwemer married the equally intrepid Amy Elizabeth Wilkes, an English nurse serving in Baghdad. The two made Bahrain, an island on the eastern shores of Arabia, their mission base and home. Together they were a gospel force: speaking of Christ at every opportunity, distributing Bibles, starting the first school for girls, providing orphan care, and, with a growing team, opening the island’s first hospital. They also co-authored a book written especially for children; it’s an extensive pictorial introduction to Arabia’s geography, culture, and gospel needs. It was remarkable for the times and, I believe, a reflection of their partnership in the work that in the original edition their names are side by side on the cover of Topsy-Turvy World: Arabia Pictured for Children.
But Bahrain was also where Samuel and Amy suffered the deepest loss of their lives. In July 1904, dysentery swept through the community. In the space of a week, they buried their firstborn, a 7-year-old daughter named Amy, and their youngest daughter, 3-year-old Ruth. Years later Zwemer pulled back the curtain on their grief, and in doing so, showed the depths of their sorrow and their worship as they buried their precious ones. Zwemer said his wife wrote their daughters’ epitaph, which said simply: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive riches.”
A few years ago I was traveling in the Middle East, bound for Jerusalem. Along the way I made a brief stop in Bahrain to find the graves of the little Zwemer girls. I wanted to see the place where the claims of the cross and the hope of the resurrection met for Samuel and Amy Zwemer.
I also wanted to see glimpses of gospel work there today.
Bahrain, March 9, 2015
As the sun sinks into the western wastelands of Arabia, the silhouetted cityscape could pass for a sci-fi movie set—the rocketship-shaped skyscraper across from my hotel looks ready to launch, and nearby glass-and-steel high-rises designed like sailboats lean into the sea breeze as night falls over Bahrain.
Bahrain, like a docking station on the Death Star, is tethered on the west to Saudi Arabia by a 16-mile-long causeway. Across the gulf to the east is Iran. So Bahrain is positioned between the two heavyweights of Islam: the Saudis and the Iranians—Sunni and Shia. Geography is destiny. The majority of Bahraini Muslims are Shia, but they are ruled by Sunni Arabs. Being a long-time seafaring trading stop on the Persian Gulf and one of the oil-rich city-states along eastern Arabia, Bahrain is a destination for workers and students from the region and from across south Asia. This diverse society is packed on a cluster of desert islands collectively the size of Austin’s city limits.
Today Bahrain is positioned between the two heavyweights of Islam: the Saudis and the Iranians—Sunni and Shia.
Through a friend of a friend, I met with Bill and Jeana, veteran missionaries who have spent nearly 30 years serving in Bahrain. They gave good insight to help me understand the situation on the ground. All of Arabia is hard. Some places are violently hostile to the gospel, but among the nations of the peninsula, Bahrain is one of the freest. The ethnic diversity and religious divide between Shia and Sunni have forced a bit more tolerance, which has opened the door a bit wider for Christians. Plus, there’s a still recognition of the role that Christians had in providing the first schools and hospitals more than a century ago. In fact, Bill and his wife came to Bahrain to serve in connection with the American Mission Hospital, which is the hospital started by Samuel and Amy Zwemer.
I was delighted that Bill and Jeana could show me around the hospital. Of course, a lot has changed since 1903. The one photograph I’ve seen of the original structure shows a simple, serviceable two-story hospital building, complete with a camel in the barren background. Today, the hospital is a modern, multistory facility that straddles a busy highway choked with cars instead of camels. A sky bridge connects the two sides of the hospital. Bill showed me the chapel, and a display that highlights the hospital’s history and Zwemer’s work. To me, the most striking feature was a window formed in the shape of a cross, which is clearly seen by all on the outside—and light-giving to all on the inside.
Afterward, with Bill’s help, we found the keeper of the key to the Old Christian Cemetery. The dusty half-acre is enclosed with a high wall, although several years ago a fanatic got in and smashed crosses and headstones. The damage was patched, and the place is well kept. In fact, after opening the gate, the caretaker went over the sandy ground with a broom, sweeping fallen palm fronds and seagull droppings off the graves. Crosses stood stark against the brown, barren ground. Buried here are sailors, soldiers, diplomats—mostly British—who died in service here. But there are also many small graves of children, who were most vulnerable to the epidemics that swept through the island with fearful unpredictability.
Their sorrow upon sorrow was also hope upon hope, for in Christ there is grace upon grace.
Some of the gospel pioneers are buried here, too, including Dr. Marion Thoms, the first female medical doctor in Bahrain; she died while saving others. Near her grave, I found the graves of Amy and Ruth Zwemer, who died within days of each other and were buried together. It’s a lonely spot. Zwemer wrote little about this suffering in his memoirs beyond recording the words of worship his wife wrote for their daughters’ epitaph, as they entrusted their little lambs into the strong, scarred hands of the worthy Lamb. When Zwemer was in his 80s, the old veteran returned here for the last time. In looking at his daughter’s graves he said, “If we should hold our peace, these very stones would cry out for the evangelization of Arabia.”
Because of the cross and empty tomb, their sorrow upon sorrow was also hope upon hope, for in Christ there is grace upon grace. Like the hospital window I saw today, the cross-shaped gospel brought light to their darkest days—and it brings life to all who put their trust in the Lamb.
Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from A Company of Heroes: Portraits from the Gospel’s Global Advance (Crossway, 2019).