14 June 2004

Pyongyang, "Jerusalem of the East"

By the 1920s, the Presbyterian Mission station in P'yôngyang had become the most conspicuous Western installation on the Korean peninsula. The city, which had been called "pagan" and "filthy" by the earliest Western travelers thirty years earlier, had become a beloved hometown for more than a hundred foreigners, from pioneer missionaries to children in the dormitory at Pyeng Yang Foreign School. To the Presbyterians it was a new "Jerusalem," the queen city of Christianity in Korea. Some of the greatest triumphs of the missionary effort were associated with P'yôngyang. It had been a center of the Great Revival of 1907 that is said to have set the tone for Korean Protestantism for the rest of the century; and by 1925 it was the center of the fastest-growing Christian community in all of East Asia and, some said, the whole world.

Situated on a majestic S-curve of the Taedong River halfway between Seoul and the Manchurian border, P'yôngyang had a distinguished history. Korea Kids at Pyeng Yang Foreign School grew up hearing that it had been founded in the time of Israel's King David by the Chinese nobleman Kija (Chinese: Ch'i-tzu), whose temple and tomb were among P'yongyang's prime historical sites and a favorite spot for picnics.... With nearly a hundred men, women, and children, the P'yôngyang Presbyterians outnumbered the city's Methodists and Catholics and completely overshadowed the city's foreign business contingent comprised of Russian merchants, a Portuguese trader and his family, and the American employees of the Corn Products Company's beet sugar refinery across the river.

The story of P'yôngyang as a missionary station began in 1890, when the newly arrived Samuel A. Moffett paid a two-week visit to investigate the possibility of opening evangelistic work there. The following spring, Moffett and his colleague James Scarth Gale visited P'yôngyang again while on a three-month exploratory journey by foot and horseback. They held services in the city but found that people were still "suspicious of foreigners and afraid of Christian books" because of the government's recently lifted prohibition against Christianity. P'yôngyang remained impenetrable for several years, receiving occasional visits from Seoul-based missionaries who invariably found the local authorities inhospitable. The Presbyterian Mission assigned Samuel Moffett to P'yôngyang as a full-time missionary in November 1893, and, after a rocky beginning that included attempts on his life by neighbors intent on killing the "foreign devil," he succeeded in buying property and founding a proper mission station in January 1895.

Forty years later, near the end of Moffett's distinguished career, the 120-acre Presbyterian campus in P'yôngyang boasted a formidable array of modern institutions. These included Sungsil College (also called Union Christian College) and the Anna Davis Industrial Shops where Sungsil College students worked to pay their tuition; the Lula Wells Industrial School for vocational training of abandoned wives and widows; the Presbyterian Theological Seminary training the denomination' s pastorate for all Korea; Bible institutes for women and men in the laity; secondary academies for boys and girls; Pyeng Yang Foreign School (PYFS), the Union Christian Hospital, and the West Gate Presbyterian Church. Interspersed throughout the compound were Westem-style residences, the homes of the missionaries themselves. Each day; hundreds of people, foreigners and Koreans, worked and studied in the various mission buildings. At intervals, hundreds more converged from the countryside to participate in special meetings, conventions, and church services. All year long, P'yôngyang station teemed with energy; and in many years the entire Northern Presbyterian Mission converged on P'yôngyang from the faraway stations of Taegu, Andong, Ch'ôngju, and Seoul, and the nearer-by stations of Chaeryông, Sônch'ôn, and Kanggye, to have their annual Mission Meeting and, incidentally, to admire the formidable successes of their P'yôngyang brethren.

The vitality of the missionary establishment in P'yôngyang, a medium-sized city of no more than 180,000, made the missionary campus a most conspicuous feature. For the missionaries, life revolved around "the Work," and everyone in sight was somehow related to it, whether as co-workers, servants, and employees, or potential converts. P'yôngyang was different from Seoul, where there was social contact outside the missionary and church circles. It had fewer diversions, and people tended to talk to each other. The station's early arrivals had brought theological and cultural beliefs that were part of the revival sweeping American Protestantism in the late nineteenth century. These became the basis for their own teaching and example for the Koreans. And inasmuch as the missionary calling was the ultimate expression of those beliefs, they understood that their own work was of earthshaking importance. As one missionary put it, "Among the full-time professions, the missionary call was often viewed as the highest. This related in part to the degree of personal sacrifice: anyone who would leave home, family, friends, and country to go to a 'heathen' country to serve Christ was looked upon with a kind of holy awe usually reserved for saints."
SOURCE: Living Dangerously in Korea: The Western Experience 1900-1950, by Donald N. Clark (Eastbridge, 2003), pp. 121-125

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