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A history of Presbyterian mission in Korea

Every year, researchers visit the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia to access our extensive Korea mission collections. Many are individual scholars and family historians. But the groups from South Korea seem most moved by the history we have preserved and now share – a history of the hospitals, churches and schools founded in Korea by Presbyterian mission workers and nurtured by Korean Christians into institutions that thrive today. Without the U.S.-based archival programs of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., much of that early history would have been lost during the wars and conflicts that marked life on the Korean peninsula during the 20th century.

Prior to the 1880s, Korea maintained a closed face to the world, earning the name “Hermit Kingdom” in some western circles. Catholic missionaries started venturing into the country in the late 16th century, but had little sustained success.

Korea signed its first international treaty in 1876 with Japan, and six years later signed its second with the United States. This opening to the outside world made Korea an attractive new field for foreign mission work, especially for the Protestant denominations that had well-established missions in neighboring China and Japan.

Starting with the “two Horaces”

Horace Allen, a medical doctor from Ohio, was the first U.S. Presbyterian missionary to arrive in Korea. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. initially assigned Allen and his wife, Frances, to China in 1883. But as attention turned to Korea, Allen was able to use his medical credentials to secure appointment as a doctor to the foreigners staffing the new legations in Seoul. At the time, existing treaties did not sanction mission work in the country. Allen arrived in September 1884 officially as a medical doctor, not a missionary.

Internal politics soon played out in Allen’s favor. At the time, Korea was divided between pro-Japan progressives who favored modernization and pro-China conservatives who wanted the kingdom to remain isolated. At a banquet in December 1884, the progressive faction attempted to assassinate conservative members of the government. In the resulting melee, Prince Min Yong Ik, the queen’s nephew, was wounded. Summoned by the secretary of the U.S. legation, Allen arrived at the prince’s bedside and advised court physicians not to pour hot pitch into his wounds to stop the bleeding. Allen then supervised the prince’s treatment and recovery, and became his personal physician. Within the year, the Korean government opened Royal Hospital, with Allen overseeing medical operations.

Like Horace Allen, many of the first Presbyterian missionaries to Korea had medical credentials. While still a seminary student, Horace Grant Underwood heard one of the first mission lectures touting the new field in Korea. He secured an official appointment to Korea in 1884 and arrived in Seoul in April 1885. With only one year of medical education, Underwood initially assisted Allen at the hospital while working to expand Christian evangelism. On his first long trip away from Seoul, Underwood carried medicines such as quinine and religious books.

Taiku Women’s Bible Class, 1917. (Adams Family Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society)

Materials at the Presbyterian Historical Society help people understand what it was like for the “two Horaces” – who are revered by many Korean Presbyterians as the founders of the church in Korea – to initiate medical and evangelistic work in the country. The archives also document the work of the first female missionaries, including Allen’s wife Frances and Annie Eilers, a trained nurse who arrived in 1886 to begin medical work with women and children in Seoul. Two years later, Lillias Horton, a physician, replaced Eilers, and she worked alongside Underwood for three decades after they married in 1889. Their two-month-long “honeymoon” itineration took them to Pyongyang and Kangkei, and then back along the Yalu River to Euiju.

Mission expansion

In four short years, the Presbyterian mission in Korea expanded from one doctor to the organization of a church, the baptism of Christian converts and the establishment of medical and educational programs. However, not everyone in Korea welcomed the missionaries or supported their Christian allies. In 1888, the Korea Foreign Office issued an interdict that banned the teaching of Christianity and the administering of Christian rites. For several months mission work contracted, but then cautiously pushed ahead, both in Seoul and in other regions of the country. This pattern of opposition, temporary contraction and then expansion is documented again and again in the Korea mission records.

Seoul Girls School, circa 1895. (William M. Baird Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society)

The historical record also includes much evidence of the cooperation that marked the development of Protestant Christianity in Korea. The Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) decided to send missionaries to Korea in the 1890s, with Horace Underwood playing a key initial role. Underwood and Horton returned to the U.S. on furlough in 1891, and Underwood gave an address on Korea to the Inter-Seminary Alliance for Foreign Missions that October. Inspired by Underwood, three senior seminary students in the audience (Lewis Boyd Tate, Cameron Johnson and William Davis Reynolds) applied to the PCUS Executive Committee of Foreign Missions to go to Korea as missionaries. The PCUS was reluctant to open a new mission field, and all three were turned down. Not to be deterred, the students arranged for Underwood to tour leading PCUS churches in an effort to rally support, and the Underwood family contributed $3,000 to help start the Korea Mission of the PCUS. In full cooperation with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Board of Foreign Missions, the PCUS officially established Korea mission work in 1892 with the appointments of pastors Tate, Reynolds and William McCleery Junkin.

In January 1893, the PCUS and Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. organized the Presbyterian Council and agreed to work toward forming one native church of the Reformed faith with a Presbyterian form of government. PCUS missionaries focused their work in the southwestern provinces of Chulla and Choong Chung, areas where no Protestant missionaries were yet working.

Medical mission work was an important aspect of the PCUS Korea Mission, as it had been for the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Mattie B. Ingold was the first female physician appointed by the PCUS to Korea; she served in Chunju from 1895 to 1928.  Like Lillias Horton Underwood, Ingold focused her medical work on women and children, initially in small dispensaries. Ingold also taught Sunday school and a women’s weekday Bible class, and she and her assistants offered Christian education to patients in the dispensaries and through home visits and trips to the countryside. In 1905, Ingold married Lewis Tate, a pastor and one of the first PCUS missionaries to arrive in Korea.

Board of Bible Translators, circa 1896. Horace Underwood, first row, second from left; William Reynolds, far left. (Courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society)
Nurturing Christian leaders

Records at the Presbyterian Historical Society document all of these early mission activities and more. In a photograph from around 1896, we see the Board of Bible Translators including Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. missionary Horace Underwood, PCUS missionary William Reynolds, and three native Koreans. Translation work is often key to sharing knowledge of Christianity. In Korea, missionaries chose to use the simple Korean script called “Eunmun” in order to reach the widest possible audience, not the Chinese characters then favored by the Korean educated elite. There are also scores of photographs and reports about the Bible class system that proved so popular in Korea. Started by Underwood in Seoul in 1890, the training of Christians in Bible classes and Bible institutes spread throughout the country and involved both women and men.

Nurturing Korean Christian leaders was an especially important aspect of Presbyterian mission strategy in Korea. In the mid-1880s, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. China missionary John Nevius developed and publicized a plan that    emphasized itineration and self-support in foreign mission work. The “Nevius Plan” did not gain traction in China, but it influenced the budding mission work in Korea. Both Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and PCUS missionaries worked with Korean Christians to build ministries that relied on Koreans for leadership, direction and funds.

Bible Institute Graduates in Pyengyang, April 1928. (Courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society)

The year 1907 was a significant one. The need for Korean pastors had become so great that Presbyterians from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., PCUS, Australian Presbyterian Mission and Canadian Presbyterian Mission established the first theological seminary in Korea in Pyongyang. That same year, the Presbyterian Church of Korea organized its first presbytery with missionary Samuel Austin Moffett as moderator; the vice moderator, stated clerk and assistant clerk were all native Koreans, as were the majority of members. The intention was clear: The future of Presbyterianism in Korea would be largely directed by Koreans. Despite Korea’s annexation by Japan in 1910 and continued turbulence within Korean society, the Presbyterian Church of Korea continued to expand.

By the 1930s, there were hundreds of Americans serving as Presbyterian missionaries in Korea and hundreds of thousands of Korean Presbyterians. Each has a story, and some of those have been preserved in archival records. There is much research left to do to bring this history to light.

Lotus Flower Church in Pyongyang, 1912. (Charles Lynch Phillips Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society)
Korea at war

Wars often draw a lot of historical attention, but archival records also reveal the often heart-wrenching struggles that occur in the time leading up to military conflict. In the mid-1930s, Japanese officials put increasing pressure on missionaries and Korean Christians to pay homage at Shinto shrines. Most Presbyterians refused to participate in the shrine ceremonies, and both the PCUS and Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. closed their mission schools beginning in 1937 rather than comply. By 1940, Japan had forced most missionaries to cease their work, and in September, Japanese authorities rounded up 300 ministers and lay leaders of all Christian denominations. Some Christians died in prison, and many were mistreated. Both the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and PCUS governing boards made the decision in late 1940 to begin evacuating mission personnel from Korea.

The Japanese surrendered in Korea in August 1945. Almost immediately, the seeds of future conflict were sowed with an administrative division of the country between the Soviet Union to the north and the United States to the south. During the ensuing Korean War, hundreds of thousands of Koreans from the north fled south, including many Korean Christians. The once thriving churches, schools and hospitals in Pyongyang and throughout what is now North Korea were destroyed, abandoned or seized by the Communist government. But that legacy lives on in the memories of many older Koreans and in the records preserved at the Presbyterian Historical Society that allow researchers to freely research the history of foreign mission work and Korean Christianity.

Sustaining work

In South Korea, Christianity has not only survived but also flourished since the Korean War, and U.S. Presbyterian missionaries have continued to work alongside Korean Christians in creating and sustaining Christian work. Just this year, a delegation visited the Presbyterian Historical Society from Hannam University in Daejeon, founded in 1956 as Taejon College and connected to the PCUS Korea Mission. The delegation looked at records of the first two presidents of the college, William Linton and John Talmage, as well as other materials.

Researchers will continue to travel to Philadelphia to study original archival records. But for those who cannot make such trips, materials are available on microfilm and increasingly in digital form through the Presbyterian Historical Society website. The connections between past and present are vast, the relevance obvious. There is much to learn from history that is compelling in its own right. But in the case of Korea, archival holdings are crucial to understanding the complicated human story of what is happening on the Korean Peninsula today.

Nancy J. Taylor is the director of programs and services at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, which serves as the national archives of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She is a professional archivist and associate editor of The Journal of Presbyterian History.