PC(USA) celebrates 130 years of Korean mission

Legacy continues around the world and in Korean-American congregations

July 24, 2015

First Christian School in Busan, Korea, 1895. Image from the papers of PCUSA missionary William M. Baird, who served in Korea from 1891to 1931.

First Christian School in Busan, Korea, 1895. Image from the papers of PCUSA missionary William M. Baird, who served in Korea from 1891to 1931.


In the 1880’s, Presbyterians seeking to engage in foreign mission work were closely monitoring diplomatic developments in Korea. As diplomatic channels opened, individuals soon began to push foreign mission boards to expand into a new mission field, and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, a predecessor body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was the first to move.

The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A agreed to Dr. Horace Allen’s request to transfer from his mission post in China to a new mission post in Korea. Since the Korean government did not yet welcome missionaries, Dr. Allen traveled to Seoul in 1884 as a physician to foreigners living in the area, establishing the first official Presbyterian outpost in Korea.

The following year—after petitioning the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.’s board of Foreign Missions three times to send him to Korea—Horace Underwood’s request was approved and he arrived in Korea in April of 1885, where he served as the first Presbyterian missionary to Korea. After serving for a few years teaching chemistry and physics at Gwanghyewon in Seoul, the first modern hospital in Korea, Underwood returned to the United States in 1891. During his furlough, he delivered an address on Korea to the Inter-Seminary Alliance for Foreign Mission in Nashville, Tennessee. Inspired by Underwood, three students from Union Presbyterian Seminary—Lewis Boyed Tate Cameron Johnson and William Davis Reynolds—applied to serve as Presbyterian missionaries.

 In 1892, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. officially established Korean mission work with the appointments of Tate, Johnson and Reynolds as the first mission co-workers. Since its foundation, the Presbyterian Church in Korea has grown to seven million members that, in turn, are sending 10,000 missionaries to 170 countries.

This legacy remains as Koreans who have immigrated to the U.S. carry this Presbyterian identity and continue to play an important role in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Over the past two decades, Korean congregations across the PC(USA) have seen dramatic growth. Today, there are more than 400 congregations with over 50,000 active members, and the Korean Emerging Ministries Office of the PC(USA) is working to develop 100 New Worshiping Communities by 2025.

During a special chapel service to celebrate the anniversary of Korean mission work, held on July 21, the Rev. Sun Bai Kim, associate for Korean Emerging Ministries said, “We, Korean American Presbyterians, have strong conviction with deep spiritual emotion and believe that we are debtors to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the gospel of Jesus Christ. God opened the door to Korea and prepared faithful Presbyterian servants of the gospel for mission to Korea. For this, we are blessed.”

Kim added, “The first Presbyterian missionaries to Korea were totally dedicated to the gospel of Jesus Christ and practiced evangelism, worked on church development, founded schools and hospitals and worked for women, children and those who were oppressed and marginalized by the injustices of poverty, classism and sexism.”

To learn more about the work of Korean Emerging Ministries and the history of mission work in Korea, please visit www.pcusa.org/korean

  1. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to your grandparents for their love for the Korean people as a Korean christian. I believe that we're the fruits of their devotion. Thank you.

    by S.R

    December 28, 2015

  2. My grandparents, Dr.and Mrs. J.Hunter Wells, colleagues of missionary William Baird, dedicated the best years of their lives to improving the lives of the Koreans. Dr.Wells was a PCUSA medical missionary to Pyongyang from 1895-1915. His patients ranged from the last king of Korea, a Korean Magistrate and missionaries in his region to thousands of poor and suffering Koreans. He wrote the first book on HYGIENE which was tranlsated into the Korean language. He operated on many blind Koreans to bring them sight. He saw the women patients first. In 1896, Dr. Wells was the chief physician and operated in the first hospital in Pyongyang, the Moffett hospital, until a larger one was built. In 1906 he became the chief physian and operated in the Caroline A. Ladd Hospital until 1915. In 1930, the Wells Memorial Dispensary, Pyongyang, was dedicated in association with the Hall Memorial Hospital as the Presbyterians and Methodists combined their medical resources. My grandmother, Lula Wells, a teacher, brought the gospel to homes in the countryside with her Bible woman and founded the Lula Wells Institute for women with special needs who could not attend the ordinary schools. Surely, the contribtions of Dr. and Mrs. J. Hunter Wells and their sincere love of the the Korean people are part of the legacy. I just received the recently discovered papers of Dr. Wells revealing personal insights into the goals and challenges of a pioneer medical missinary. Anyone interested in knowing more? Questions or commentswelcome.

    by Barbara Wells Howarth

    August 7, 2015