In the late 19th century, Korea was still holed up in its 500-year-old cultural cocoon, hardened by a Confucian worldview which saw nothing worth learning outside the Confucian classics.

Women were considered inferior and were not allowed to be educated. Also, they had no names. They were known simply as “X’s daughter,” “X’s wife” or “X’s mother.” Forbidden to have personal names, they existed as anonymous human beings. That was part of the yoke which held pre-modern Korea down and behind other advanced nations.

All this changed with the arrival of American missionaries, beginning in 1884: Horace Grant Underwood (1859-1916), a Presbyterian from New Jersey; Henry Gerhard Appenzeller (1858-1902), a Methodist from Pennsylvania, and Mary Fletcher Scranton (1832-1909), a Methodist from Massachussetts. Underwood and Appenzeller were young men full of energy at 26 and 27, while Scranton was a 53-year-old grandmother.

In coming to Korea, a land so far away, and to a people so different in life and thoughts, they had only one goal: to impact their souls, their minds and their hearts for a better life, similar to that in their own land, in the name and grace of Jesus Christ.

To achieve this objective, they set up schools and waited for Korean children to show up. But no one came. Koreans feared and distrusted foreigners. A rumor was circulating in Seoul that Americans came to kidnap Korean children and sell them into slavery in their country or eat them.

So Underwood, Appenzeller and Scranton went out to the streets of Seoul looking for children and youth, orphaned or abandoned, providing them with free housing, food and clothing and teaching them English, Korean alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer. Korea’s first modern schools thus began as orphanages. They also gave names to the nameless females, as precious act of humanizing those without human dignity.

Initially, the royal court and its officialdom were guarded about the American-run orphanage schools. On the one hand they appreciated their work of helping destitute children, but on the other hand they were leery about their teachings with socially disruptive potential.

The concerns, however, gradually dissipated as King Gojong and Queen Min developed friendship with the missionaries, especially with American missionary doctors who became their personal physicians. Another critical factor was the high-handed tactics with which Japanese residents in Korea were treating Koreans in those days.

When the Japanese murdered Queen Min in 1895, Appenzeller and Underwood became King Gojong’s personal bodyguards, protecting the Korean king against possible Japanese assassins. The royal court and its officials became convinced that the American missionaries were their friends and the Japanese their enemy.

One of Appenzeller’s students at his Baejae Hakdang School for Training Useful Men between 1895 and 1897 was Syngman Rhee. He came to the school to learn English, but along the way he read books on great men of advanced nations, including Edmund Burke, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Abraham Lincoln.

From them and others he learned the value of freedom, liberty, independence, education and enlightenment. In 1904, he came to America for further education at Harvard and Princeton, becoming and educator, reformer, and revolutionary for modern Korea, and eventually the first president of the Republic of Korea in 1948.

Tragically, Appenzeller died in June 1902 in a shipwreck at the age of 44. But he had already set the tone for Korea’s modern education with fourfold goals he adopted for his Baejae Hakdang:

  1. Nurturing the spirit of self-reliance to help Korea become a truly independent nation;
  2. Nurturing the spirit of self-sacrifice and servanthood to help Korean youth serve the well-being of their society and nation;
  3. Nurturing the spirit of modernity to help Korean youth become reform-minded and transform Korea’s feudalistic society; and
  4. Nurturing a sense of appreciation for Western civilization on a strong foundation of Korea’s cultural traditions.

Mary Scranton devoted her life to the education of Korean women at her Ehwa Hakdang. Opened as an orphanage school for girls in 1885, it became Ehwa Women’s College in 1925 and Ehwa Women’s University in 1946.

As a world-class modern university of 22,000 students (17,000 undergraduate and 5,000 graduate), it trains women leaders for all sectors of Korean society including business, science, fine arts and music, medicine, pharmacy, law, engineering, government and foreign service, among others.

Of the three American pioneers of Korea’s modern education, Horace Underwood was most fortunate to have a generous and wealthy brother, John Thomas Underwood (1857-1937).

John was born in London on April 12, 1857. With his father, a salesman in ink and specialized paper, he emigrated with his siblings to the America in 1873 at the age of 16, settling in New Jersey. Soon he and his father established Underwood and Company, manufacturing ribbons, carbon paper, and other accessories for Remington typewriters.

Horace, his younger brother, on the other hand, dreamed about becoming a foreign missionary. After graduating from New York University, he attended the Dutch Reformed Seminary in New Brunswick, N.J. Originally he wanted to go to India, but the Presbyterian Mission Board decided to send him to Korea, a little-known Asian country just opened to the West.

While Horace was trying to get his education project going in Korea, John was pondering about the future of his company in New Jersey. In 1894 he learned that Franz Xaver Wagner, a German-American, designed a front-stroke typewriter combining the best features of typewriters in use in those days. As Wagner was in deep financial trouble to do anything with his invention, John bought the design.

After making further improvements on Wagner’s design, including a ribbon selector, a tabular and a back-spacer, John began to produce new typewriters. As owner and operator of Underwood Typewriter Company, he produced 200 typewriters per week. In 1901, he introduced the Underwood No. 5 model, which became “the first truly modern typewriter,” replacing Remington.

By 1915, Underwood Typewriter Company, now the number one typewriter company in the world, was producing 500 typewriters per day, selling two million of them in 10 years. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the Underwood typewriter was featured “to represent the World of Tomorrow.”

With the money he earned from the typewriter sales, John generously financed his brother’s pioneering work in Korea’s modern education. When the Presbyterian Mission Board established Chosun Christian College in 1915 with Horace Underwood as its first president, John provided money to acquire 155 acres of land in Yonhee district near the center of Seoul for the college’s campus. Even after Horace’s death the following year, John’s generous support continued.

In 1946, the college became Chosun Christian University. To Koreans it was better known as Yonhee University after the geographical name of the campus location. In 1956, Yonhee University and Severance Medical School, another monumental accomplishment of the Presbyterian Mission Board, decided to merge, becoming Yonsei University.

As one of the top three elite universities among 387 colleges and universities in Korea, Yonsei University comprises 17 colleges ― humanities, economics, business administration, basic sciences, engineering, life sciences, theology, social sciences, law, music, home economics, education, medical, dental, nursing and Underwood international studies.

Thanks to Horace Underwood, John Thomas Underwood, and Underwood Typewriter Company, Korea’s first modern education, begun as an orphanage school, in time has blossomed into a world-class university of 37,000 students, training leaders for every sector of Korean society.

It maintains partnership with 366 universities around the world, providing a rich global atmosphere on the campus.

Korea is eternally grateful to the Presbyterians of the United States for an enlightened and modernized life better than what their forbears had for more than 5,000 years.

Song Nai Rhee, Ph.D., is academic dean emeritus of Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Ore., and a courtesy research associate in the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Oregon.