by Micah Meadowcroft
Yi Seung-hun was baptized in 1784.
Peter Lee, as he became called, returned to Korea from a diplomatic mission to Beijing accompanying his father, the country’s first convert, bearing books and items of devotion. A Silhak Confucian teacher had asked him to learn more about the faith they read of in the writings of Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China. The theology books had circulated among Korean academic elites for almost two centuries, receiving extensive critical commentary, and the Silhak, or ‘practical learning,’ Confucians were sympathetic readers of the Christian texts, particularly for its emphasis on human equality before God.
Peter Lee’s transmission of what he had learned from the Beijing Catholic community led many of the Silhak school to embrace Christianity, and prayer houses were established throughout the country. The church grew, but in 1801 Lee and many of his fellow early converts were martyred. The Hermit Kingdom persecuted the Korean Catholic Church until unlocking to the outside world in the latter half of the 19th century, with the result that today Korea possesses the fourth most saints of any country in Catholicism. Presbyterians brought Protestantism in 1884, as Korea began to look west.
Professor of English John Somerville was born 70 years later in a South Korea still recovering from war. His parents were Presbyterian missionaries there. Growing the body of Christ is a family affair; Somerville’s brother married Ruth Ann Lee, direct descendent of Peter Lee. With the exclusion of furloughs, Somerville’s parents served in Korea for 40 years.
“My parents met in North Carolina in a little town with a Presbyterian conference center,” Somerville said. “Both were planning to go to the mission field, and they met during missionary training. And it worked out pretty well.”
That last line is delivered dryly, matter of factly, but with a look that gently dares you to disagree and not to grin.
Growing up on a missionary compound in Seoul, Somerville was a neighbor of the late Samuel Moffett, Jr., whose father had been one of the first Presbyterian missionaries to Korea in the 1890s. While the country was technically accessible to foreigners, and there was no need to sneak in through the sewers like earlier Catholic missionaries, Moffett, Sr., had still faced opposition to his ministry.
“When he first arrived in Ponyong a crowd chased him away, threw stones at him, threatened him, and then he went away,” Somerville said. “And then he came back and a crowd chased him away again. And I think the story is the third time they just gave up. Pyongyang, at least at that time, was known as a very wicked city. It had a reputation I think for child prostitution, among other things. Through the work of people like Dr. Moffett, by about 1910, Pyongyang was known as Jerusalem; it was a city full of churches. So, a really remarkable story of success, Korea has been. It’s one of the great missionary success stories of history.”
Today almost a third of South Koreans identify as Christians, according to Pew Research. That is a larger population percentage than any religious affiliation other than “none,” which claims 46 percent. In 1900, Christians made up only 1 percent of the population. But Japanese occupation in 1910 through the World Wars weakened traditional Korean religion, and after the Korean War, Christianity grew rapidly in the south as the country formed and stabilized and prospered.
Korea became a divided country in 1948, as the first freezes of the Cold War drove the post-VJ-day Soviet Union and United States to support rival governments reflecting, or at least representing, their respective ideological commitments. North Korea, supported by the Soviets, invaded the South on June 25, 1950, and was heavily reinforced by the Chinese. The United Nations quickly responded and a U.S.-led coalition reinforced the southern position. The war lasted three years, one month, and two days as dominion of the peninsula swung back and forth. On July 27, 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement ended the conflict — though no formal peace has still yet been declared — and created a demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel.
Growing up in Seoul, Somerville had the chance to watch the progress of South Korea. After the war, in 1954 the new country was devastated, and, even as 40,000 American troops and other United Nations soldiers stationed there kept peace in the larger region, the country underwent revolutions, coups, and unrest.
The legitimately elected president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, became increasingly autocratic and authoritarian as the country’s and his position’s stability were threatened. In 1960, university student demonstrations led to the April 19 Revolution and Rhee’s resignation.
“The government collapsed and a new government was put in place — within a couple years there was a military coup,” Somerville said; South Korea was ruled by martial law until the late eighties and suffered two more coups. “Our house was a couple of miles from the capitol, so as a first grader or a second grader I had a first row seat to a revolution. Lots of tear gas in the air, demonstrations. It was pretty exciting.”
Exciting, and seemingly normal.
“I think for a long time I assumed most kids saw that sort of thing. How close did I come to the action? On the compound where I lived there were two houses, ours and the Moffetts’, the Moffett house, the back of their house was set up a little bit above the street, maybe 15 or 20 feet above the street. We could stand there by the fence, we would, and watch demonstrations.” Staring into the middle distance Somerville’s already soft voice gets a little softer, and there is maybe the hint of upward twitching in the corner of his mouth. “And one day we were watching university students protest something and we heard coming from down the street this noise, and it was riot troops in full riot gear just moving like Darth Vader, a whole bunch of them, and the students running. That was cool.”
Despite many close encounters with civil unrest, Somerville and his family were never harmed. Of course, as a child, his understanding of the significance of the situation was limited, but as he grew up in the country through high school, he joined his parents in living with the knowledge that North Korea could take advantage of the instability and invade.
One night while vacationing in a cottage overlooking a beach by the Yellow Sea where missionaries went, he woke at the sound of gunfire. In the morning Somerville’s family learned that a North Korean ship had tried to send infiltrators ashore in the next cove and there had been a firefight with South Korean Shore Patrol. A family friend found a body washed up on the sand.
“You knew the whole thing could blow up at any time.”
But, even with episodes like that, the presence of military men and equipment everywhere, and knowledge of his uncle Severn’s death in the Korean War, Somerville joined boys everywhere and played at soldiery.
“I loved playing army, for years that was my game of choice,” he said. “And so for birthdays and Christmas, my parents would give us military gear, black market, not weapons. All of us boys had helmets, which were genuine army helmets, packs, mess kits, trench shovels, and trenching tools, army belts, canteens, all of it the real stuff that they bought for us. I remember one year we got C-rations, which were the old version of the MREs which I guess were Korean war stock, I don’t know, but I thought it was so cool. And in C-rations back then you’d get like a little tin of beef stew and maybe a cracker or two, maybe a cookie or some kind of fruit, and always a little pack of cigarettes, back then they were pushing cigarettes on the troops, I didn’t smoke them, but they were in there and I thought they were pretty neat.”
The point of playing was simple: Us versus Them, and elaborate deaths. There were no politics, no nations, no realism despite the real equipment. Sometimes, however, reality overran them.
One day Somerville and his friends were on the Presbyterian compound when workers digging the foundation for a new girls’ school stopped and gathered round the hole. And when they joined the watchers and looked in they saw the workmen had uncovered the skeletons of two American soldiers killed in the war, still wearing their dog tags.
There were other occasions. Around 1963, a decade after the war:
“I don’t remember ever volunteering to do anything in the garden, but for whatever reason I was spraying water from a hose onto the plants, and I was spraying a really strong column of water at the soil and I turned up a bullet, and I think within another minute or two I turned up another bullet. Seoul was the scene of a lot of urban fighting during the war. The city was pretty much destroyed. And so here was evidence that fighting had occurred on the land where we were.”
That kind of invasion of the past into the present, living with history, reminds Somerville of a line from William Faulkner’s 1936 Civil War novel Absalom, Absalom!
“There’s this passage where we read, ‘in the south history is the bullet in the dining room table.’”
The bodies in the yard, the bullets in the garden, are the South Korean lead-punctured table.
Being the child of missionaries had its own tension between distance and imminence, but to place and culture instead of time and history.
“There’s a long history of, traditionally, missionaries living on separate compounds, little neighborhoods, pretty much just houses, with a wall around them,” Somerville said. “You hear people talk about the advantages and disadvantages of that. The disadvantage is to say, ‘Oh, OK, we want to keep ourselves separate from the people,’ and it sounds terrible. I think for me growing up it was a great benefit. You’ve heard I’m certain that kids who grow up on the mission field sometimes have real trouble adjusting to life when they come back to the states. I think if I had been further immersed in Korean society, it would have been very hard for me.”
Like Faulkner and the reality of war, a literary figure helps make sense of the set-apartness of the missionary kid’s life too. The late poet Wilmer Mills, who visited Hillsdale in 2010, grew up from age two to ten in the Amazon, where his parents were Presbyterian missionaries and farmed. Mills had dinner with Somerville’s brother and sister-in-law, Ruth Ann née Lee.
“My brother said, ‘within minutes we understood each other,’ because my brother has had some of that same struggle coming back from the mission field,” Somerville said. “More so Wil. He just grew up like a native in Brazil and the next thing you know he’s back in the United States. So I think for me growing up on a compound was helpful long term. It’s not that we avoided Koreans or didn’t go out into the community, but it’s kind of a refuge.”
The missionary community did have its own kind of diversity.
“When the Protestant missionaries came over to Korea, one thing they did is they divided Korea up into regions, so American Baptists were given responsibility for this part of the country, over here were united Presbyterians, then Australian Presbyterians,” he said. “I wasn’t a missionary, so I don’t know the ins and outs of the relationships among the different missions, but I think there tended to be general harmony. You know there are personalities and there would be doctrinal differences, but the church we attended was not Presbyterian or Baptist or Methodist, but a mission church. One Sunday we might have a sermon from a Baptist missionary, next week it might be an Anglican, a British Anglican missionary who was an amazing guy, Richard Rut, and then Presbyterian, or whatever.”
Somerville credits the ecumenical spirit of the mission church he grew up in with inspiring his own ecumenicism.
“I’m very much Presbyterian, but I’m willing to look past a lot of things, unlike some people.”
Somerville left South Korea in 1972. His parents remained. He said his father, though now back in the United States, seems in some ways more Korean than American. His concerns are Korea’s, not concerns for American society or politics.
“He was very involved in human rights issues when he lived there in the seventies because he had students or knew students who were in prison without virtue of a trial because they said something against the government,” Somerville said. “He knew pastors who were in prison. And as a foreigner he had some freedom.”
That freedom was limited, as the expulsion of a fellow missionary illustrated. Somerville’s father caught the government’s attention with his actions.
“My dad, we know, was on a list that the Korean CIA had,” he said. “Our phone was tapped. For him it was an outgrowth of his faith. If you see an injustice, if you see people tortured, imprisoned without benefit of law, you should do something. This happened after I had left, but one day my father got a visit from the chief of police in the city where I’d lived and a man from the Korean CIA, and they said, ‘We have some serious things we need to talk about with you,’ so they sat down in the living room. While they were talking my mother went to the back of the house and began packing their suitcases because she was sure he was going to be kicked out. He wasn’t, and when they left the house the CIA guy walked ahead, and the Chief of police turned to my father and winked at him and said, ‘You’re going to be OK.’”
Somerville’s father was OK, and today the South Korean church is vibrant. Pew says levels of government restrictions on religion are lower than in the United States, and South Korea sends more missionaries around the world than any nation other than the U.S.
More than two centuries later, Lee’s are still baptizing and being baptized. They’re Presbyterian now, too, not just Catholic. Timothy Lee, father of Ruth Ann, direct descendent of Peter Lee, first Korean Christian, co-officiated with Somerville’s father the baptism of their grandson, Walter.
“He’s a great guy. He lives in Honolulu now.”
Micah Meadowcroft is a senior studying history. He is a member of the Dow Journalism Program.