In Korea’s turbulent path toward independence and nation building, there were foreign nationals who stood steadfastly by the Korean people, although their contributions have been largely overshadowed by those of Korean patriots. The Korea Herald, in partnership with the Independence Hall of Korea, is publishing a series of articles shedding light on these foreigners, their life and legacies here. This is the seventh installment. ― Ed.
Horace G. Underwood with his wife
On the grounds of Yonsei University stands a statue of Horace G. Underwood, the university’s founder who is still revered by many Koreans for his three decades of dedication to Korea.
The statue, erected by Koreans over 10 years after his passing in October 1916, has an inscription that reads: “All will ponder the life of who painstakingly aided the faith and wisdom of the Korean people. The growth of his deeds each day deepens our thought, and we have poured copper in order to seek his likeness with our meager efforts. Who says the doctor lived to fifty-seven? The doctor remains firmly here.”
As if to symbolize the travails of Korea’s history, the statue was removed by the Japanese during the end of colonial rule and raised again in 1948, to be destroyed in the Korean War and raised again in 1955.
Yet, Underwood‘s legacy continued throughout the turbulent times, carried on by his descendants who helped develop Korean society, religion, politics and education for over 100 years, and still today.
The campus of Yonsei University in Seoul(Independence Hall of Korea)
Underwood’s 30 years in Korea
Horace Grant Underwood was born in London in 1859 and moved with his family to the U.S. the year he turned 12. After graduating from New York University, he attended the Dutch Reformed Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1884, and after his ordaining as a pastor was appointed as a missionary to Korea.
Arriving in Jemulpo (now Incheon) in April 1885, Underwood established an orphanage called the Kuse School in 1886. In 1887, he founded Korea’s first organized church, the Saemunan Presbyterian Church, and began a series of missionary tours starting that year, including an evangelical tour in the North during his honeymoon with his wife, Lillias S. Horton Underwood, in 1889.
From the year he entered Korea, he taught physics and chemistry at Jejungwon and published “A Concise Dictionary of the Korean Language” in 1889. In 1902, he established the John D. Wells Academy for Christian Workers and changed its name to the Kyungshin School in 1905. In 1915, he founded Kyungshin College, which later became Yonhi College, the precursor to Yonsei University.
He died on Oct. 12, 1916.
The Underwoods' graves in Yanghwajin Foreigners' Cemetery in Seoul
A key figure in early missionary activities in Korea
Underwood was a missionary dispatched by the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., and his most important duty was evangelizing the Christian gospels to Koreans. In 1887, Underwood sent a letter to the Board of Missions as follows: “The first church on Korean soil was founded last Tuesday evening. Fourteen have registered, and another has registered last week.”
Underwood did not rest there, and from that year on went on missionary tours in the North, baptizing 30 Koreans in his third tour in 1889. At the time, Underwood was issued a passport by the American legation under the condition that he would not evangelize or baptize during travel, so the baptism ceremonies were held in Manchuria.
Underwood’s passionate ministry of the gospels earned him a reputation with Koreans saying, “Dr. Underwood has lit a blaze in this frozen land.”
Underwood held a few principles for realizing the faith of Koreans. The first principle was establishing a “self-reliant church,” meaning self-reliant in terms of human and material resources, and the second was maintaining a nondenominational ministry.
At the time, Korea was divided between the Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries, and Underwood’s wish was for a unified Protestant religious order. In 1905, the resolution to form the General Council of Protestant Evangelical Missions in Korea was passed through Underwood’s advocacy.
Underwood said: “Whether we are all Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist or Episcopalian, gathering closer to Christ pushes away the discrimination and differences between us, and uniting into one will be accomplishing God’s will.”
Although his dream of creating a unified church was not fully realized, it was slightly different for educational work. The Soongeui Girls’ School founded in Pyongyang grew into a nondenominational educational institute per his wish.
Legacy in education
Although the Jejungwon, Kuse School and Kyungshin High School were all related to Underwood, his founding of a higher educational institute in the colonial period was an especially amazing feat.
This institute was the establishment of Kyungshin College in 1915, recognized as Yonhi College by the governor-general of Korea in 1917. This school embodied his ideal of a nondenominational school and emphasized the liberal arts.
Yonhi College permitted the admittance of non-Christian students and created a system in order to develop into a college. The establishment of literature, commercial, agriculture, mathematics, physics, applied chemistry and theology departments created a collegiate system for raising talents in various fields. In addition, the official recognition of its theology department established a foothold for students of all majors to receive a Christian liberal arts education.
Kyungshin College, begun as a joint union of the American Presbyterian, Canadian Presbyterian and North Methodist Churches, appointed Underwood as its first president in the YMCA Building in Jongno, downtown Seoul.
After Underwood passed away, Oliver R. Avison of the Severance Medical College became his successor, and afterwards Underwood’s son, Horace Horton (1890-1951), also known as Won Han-kyong, succeeded him. After liberation in 1945, the school’s name changed to Yonhi College and combined with Severance Medical School to become Yonsei University in 1957.
Underwood, his son Horace Horton, his grandson Horace Grant II (1917-2004), or Won Il-han, and their wives lie buried in the Seoul Yanghwajin Foreigners’ Cemetery. Underwood’s remains were interred at Union Hill in the U.S. and moved to Korea in 1999.
Professor Kim In-hoe, who was close to Horace Grant II, recalled that he would express pride in his family, saying their uniqueness “came from their spirit of education spread and planted by the courageous footsteps of strong faith and vast love while not giving up hope no matter how difficult the situation.”
By Kook Sung-ha
Curator, National Museum of Korean Contemporary History