Samuel Zwemer: The Burden of Arabia

Chapter 1
Death Stared Him in the Face

Each sailor clung to the side of the large canoe with one arm while trying to bail out water with the other. Everything, including their luggage and the precious cargo of Arabic Bibles, was drenched. The waves were mountainous, each one threatening to capsize the boat. “We are running ashore until the storm is over. We cannot outrun it!” the captain yelled above the wind. Sam breathed a sigh of relief. He did not want to drown, and dry land seemed the safest place to be at that moment.

Sam watched through the sea spray as two sailors wrestled with the oars to bring the canoe around. They then began the difficult task of rowing against the wind and current toward shore. It seemed like forever before he felt the bottom of the boat scrape against the sand. The sailors jumped out—half swimming, half walking—and began dragging the boat to the beach. But this proved too much of a struggle for them, and Sam and his traveling companion Kamil jumped into the sea to help. Working together, they managed to drag the canoe to safety on the beach.

Sam shivered. As he surveyed the desolate beach on which they had landed, he noticed that the captain looked nervous. The captain’s eyes kept looking from side to side as if he were expecting to see something. But there seemed to be no civilization for miles in any direction.

Five minutes later, as Sam crouched beside the canoe, sheltering himself from the weather, two Bedouin men carrying long spears and arrows burst onto the beach. Their appearance was so sudden that Sam could scarcely believe it. Sam stood up. He hoped that the captain would step forward and handle the situation, but the captain and the two sailors stood as still as statues, rooted to the sand and paralyzed by fear.

Sam felt his heart thumping as the two Bedouin men walked toward him. The men’s menacing spears were pulled back over their shoulders, ready to thrust at Sam at any moment. From the grim look on their faces, the men seemed intent on killing someone. Since Sam was the only non-Arab in the group, they immediately fixed their gaze on him. Sam looked behind him. The storm still raged, and angry waves crashed ashore. There was no escaping back out to sea. Sam and his companions would surely drown if they tried. They had nowhere to run for cover on the beach.

Death stared Sam in the face. This was not a situation he had expected to find himself in when he came to Arabia as a missionary seven months before. It seemed he was about to be killed before he accomplished any of the things he had trained so hard for. He wondered how his family back in the United States would react when they learned that the body of Samuel Zwemer had been found speared to death on a deserted beach on the south coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Chapter 2

Six-year-old Samuel Zwemer, or Sam, as everyone called him, plunked himself down on a wooden box and surveyed the scene. It was a bright July morning in 1873, moving day for the Zwemer family—the nine younger children and their parents. Sam sighed as he looked at the giant red maple tree in the yard and wondered how he was going to get along in Albany, New York. He had been born in Vriesland, Michigan, but this home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was the only one he remembered.

Although the Zwemer family lived in cramped quarters, Sam loved everything about living in Milwaukee. He’d just started school, and since he could already read and write both English and Dutch, he was doing well. He had lots of friends to play with, most of them from church. Sam’s father, Adriaan Zwemer, was a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, around which much of the family’s life revolved. In fact, it was hard for Sam to figure out where church ended and home life began. Members of the congregation visited the house in a continual flow, and Sam’s mother, Catherina, welcomed everyone with a bright smile as she served her guests her special Dutch waffles and cups of steaming hot coffee.

Every meal in the Zwemer home began with a prayer and ended with a Bible reading. This morning’s passage had been about Moses leading the people of Israel to the Promised Land. “Ja,” Sam’s father had said in Dutch at the end of the reading (the whole family spoke Dutch at home). “God tells his people to go into all the earth to spread the gospel, and go we shall.”

Sam’s father went on to recount the story of how he and Sam’s mother had come to America as part of the early wave of Dutch immigrants who settled in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The Reverend Albertus Van Raalte had led the initial group to leave Holland in 1846 and settle in Michigan. The Dutch immigrants, or Hollanders, had come to the United States partly to escape a bitter clampdown on “unauthorized” churches in Holland and partly because of a severe economic depression that had left young Dutch people with few choices for their future.

Sam knew the story by heart, but it still thrilled him. His father seemed so old now, with his flowing beard and gold-rimmed spectacles. Sam found it hard to imagine his father as an eager young man climbing aboard a ship named the Leyla in 1849, bound for the New World. Sam’s mother had traveled aboard the same ship, since she was engaged to Sam’s father. She was twenty-two years old at the time, four years younger than Adriaan. Although she was born in Holland, her parents were from Germany.

The voyage to the United States lasted thirty-eight days. Sam often asked his father to tell him about the big storm when a giant wave spilled over the stern of the ship, dousing the fire Sam’s mother was cooking rice cakes over. “The firebrands almost caused a ship fire,” his father would say, “but worse was to come. That wave was the first of many enormous waves. We were soon ordered below deck, and the water leaked in profusely. We 128 Hollanders, under the leadership of Pastor Klyn, spent the night praying. The water below deck rose until it washed over the lower bunks. Everyone climbed onto the top bunks. We thought the ship was sinking, and we were locked below deck. We kept praying. The next day was terrible, but God was with us. Eventually the violent rocking stopped, and then they opened the hold and let us out. The sun was shining, and we breathed the fresh air.”

Sam’s parents made it safely to New York City but decided not to move all the way to Michigan with the rest of the Dutch immigrants they had traveled with. Instead, they married, settled in Rochester, New York, and quickly produced four babies. Two of the babies survived early childhood and were the “big children”—James and Maud. James, who was now 23 years old, had just graduated from Western Theological Seminary and become a pastor, while Maud was a schoolteacher. Next came the seven “middle” children. Mary, the oldest of these, was seventeen years old, followed by Fred, Catherina, Christina, Adrian, Nellie, and nine-year-old Hettie. Last were the two “little ones”—Sam and his younger brother Peter. The boys were less than a year apart in age, and both had light blue eyes and dark hair. Strangers often mistook them for twins. There had been two other younger children: Anna was born a year before Sam and had died soon after birth, and Hendrik was the youngest child and had died the previous year. Sam remembered how his new brother had been sick from birth and how he had died just before his first birthday. It had been a very sad time for the family, but Sam’s parents assured him that one day he would be able to play with Hendrik in heaven.

Now the family, except for the two oldest children, James and Maud, were moving to Albany. Sam had studied the location of the city on the map that hung at the front of his schoolroom. Albany was about level with Milwaukee, but it was far away from any lake or the sea. Sam knew he would miss that. He loved to walk along the shore of Lake Michigan and dream that he was aboard a ship bound for some strange land.

“Sam, help Nellie carry that basket and hand it to Papa.” Sam’s mother’s voice cut through his thoughts. He obediently lifted the nearby basket and carried it to the back of the wagon where his father was standing.

“Dunka,” his father said, pulling his pocket watch from his vest pocket. “We need to have this loaded before noon if we’re going to make the train.”

Sam smiled at the thought of getting aboard a train. He knew a lot about trains; everyone in his class did. The students had traced how the Pacific Railroad now linked America all the way from New York City to San Francisco Bay. Sam was thrilled to think that a boy could get on a train in Milwaukee and just seven or eight days later step off it on the West Coast of the United States. Sam hoped to make that trip one day. For now, taking the train from Milwaukee south to Chicago and then east through Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, Utica, and all the way to Albany, seemed like a big adventure.

The Zwemer family managed to pack the wagon on time and were soon seated on the train for the two-day journey. Sam loved every minute of the trip. In Chicago he watched as herds of longhorn cattle stood mooing in the stockyards beside the railroad tracks.

“Those cattle come all the way from Texas,” Sam’s older sister Mary explained. “Cowboys drove them to the railhead, and then they were loaded into railcars. The railroads have turned towns like Chicago into boomtowns.”

As they approached Buffalo, Mary pointed to the land on the far side of Lake Erie. “See that land over there? That’s Canada,” she said. Sam stared in the direction she pointed, wondering what it would be like living in another country such as Canada.

When the train chugged to a stop in Albany, Sam got the first glimpse of the town that was to be his new home. Albany was bigger than he had imagined, with tall church spires and very old buildings, much older than the buildings in Milwaukee.

“Ja, the Dutch were among the first to settle this area,” Mary said. “Albany started off as two trading posts between the Indians and the Dutch colonists way back in the early 1600s. The trading posts were called Fort Nassau and Fort Orange, after the Dutch royal family. New York City was founded by the Dutch too. Did you know that?”

Sam shook his head.

“Well, it was,” his sister went on. “It started out as a trading post called New Amsterdam, mainly trading beaver furs from the Indians.” Then Mary laughed and patted Sam’s dark hair. “That’s a lot of information to take in, isn’t it? I hope to be a teacher like Maud, and sometimes I practice on you.”

Sam smiled. He didn’t mind at all. In fact, he loved to learn about the world he lived in.

It did not take long for Sam to settle into the family’s new home in Albany. Things soon fell into a routine much the same as that in Milwaukee, with family life revolving around school and the church Adriaan pastored. Sam discovered a love for reading and quickly rose to the top of his class. Books became his friends. Sam would rather curl up in a chair and read a book than do almost anything else. He had two favorite books, one written in Dutch and the other in English. The book in Dutch, The Family Fairchild, was about three young English children and their everyday adventures living in a big house in the country. The book in English was Pilgrim’s Progress, and Sam especially loved its colored illustrations.

Three years in Albany passed quickly, and just after Sam’s ninth birthday, it was time for Adriaan Zwemer to leave his church and take up a new pastorate. This time it would be somewhere quite different—Graafschap in Allegan County, Michigan. Unlike Albany, which had a rich, long European history, Graafschap was a tiny frontier town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Many people warned Sam’s father about taking his family to such a place, and one of Sam’s friends even taught him the rhyme, “Don’t go to Michigan, that land of ills. That word means ague, fever, and chills.”

When Sam asked his sister Catherina whether this was true, she did not give him a direct answer. Sam wondered what his new home was going to be like. Would Michigan be as wild as everyone said it would be?