My Missionary Family in Korea

A trip to Seoul last week sparked a renewed interest in my great-grandparents, who were some of the first Adventist missionaries to Korea, serving there from 1917 to 1932. Requests to my mother for family stories and research at Adventist institutions in Seoul yielded a picture of a sincere and hardworking family, who lived through historically interesting times in a fascinating part of the world.

My grandmother was born in Korea on January 5, 1922.

Traveling to Seoul last week, into a modern tangle of eight-lane highways criss-crossing a country crowded with high-rise apartment buildings across vast bridges and through long tunnels, with the onboard navigation system checking speed and chattering all the time, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for my great-grandfather and great-grandmother arriving to Korea by ship in 1917.

Korea today

Married just two months earlier, my great-grandfather Lyman Bowers and his bride Ella Mae Chatterton, sailed on the SS China on August 1, 1916 with a large group of missionaries bound for Asia. The Bowers went to Shanghai, where Lyman was the treasurer for the Signs Press. Less than a year later, he was asked to go to Korea. A treasurer for the mission and a manager for the press were needed, and Lyman was able to serve in both capacities.

Lyman and Ella Mae Bowers first went to Seoul, where their two daughters were born, and then moved north to Soonan, where a mission, together with a school and press had been established by the first American missionary in Korea, W. R. Smith. (Soonan is now part of North Korea, and Pyongyang’s airport is located there.) Lyman and Ella Mae Bowers served as missionaries in Korea from 1917 until 1932.

My great-grandmother, Ella Mae Chatterton Bowers

How the Adventist church in Korea began

The Adventist church in Korea had begun just over a decade before Lyman and Ella Mae Bowers arrived — started not by American missionaries, but by a Korean. In 1904, two Koreans, Won Heung Cho and Lee Sung Hyun, were on their way to Hawaii to work, via Japan. They noticed a signboard advertising an Adventist church in Kobe, Japan, and went in when the pastor invited them. Pastor Hide Kuniya had been one of the first Adventist converts among the Chinese. Though they didn’t understand each other’s language, they were able to communicate using Chinese characters, and the Koreans became convinced of the Adventist doctrines. They were both baptized in Japan. Eung Hyun Lee headed on to Hawaii s planned, but for some reason, Heung Choi Son went back to Korea. On the journey, he met a Methodist Korean Ki Ban Lim, who had considerable knowledge of Bible doctrines. Lim decided he wanted to become an Adventist, too. Back in his home of Chinnampo, he shared the message of the Sabbath with the Methodist believers.

But because Lim’s knowledge of Adventism was limited, he called for help. Thirty-six new believers in Korea wrote to the Japanese pastor, asking him to come and teach them. Pastor Kuniya arrived in Chinnampo, northwestern Korea, on August 9, 1904. He conducted Bible studies in many villages. He, in turn, called on F. W. Field, director of the Japanese Mission, who was invited to baptize 71 new converts in September 1904. Four churches were organized.

Upon his return to Japan from this fruitful visit to Korea, Field wrote to the General Conference:

The message has spread like wild-fire....We ought to have workers located in Korea as soon as possible....We have been praying that the Lord of the harvest will send laborers to this part of the vineyard.

When he got Field’s letter, Elder A. G. Daniells, President of the General Conference appealed to the church through the Review & Herald (December 8, 1904). On September 18, 1905, W. R. Smith and his wife, a trained nurse, with their baby girl sailed from Vancouver, British Columbia, to answer the call. “We had not been told any thing about furloughs and we didn’t expect to ever see our native land again,” Smith wrote later in his memoir. Elder Smith was the first missionary delegated from General Conference.

In his unpublished memoir, which I got from my great aunt, Smith described starting up a mission and school in Soonan, Korea. He then told tales of traveling from village to village throughout Korea, mostly by bicycle, often over heavily wooded mountains. Local people entreated him not to travel at night, because of the danger of tigers.

How different Korea looks today! There are still spectacular mountains, but it’s hard to picture a land of scattered villages and roaming tigers looking at today’s ultra-modern skyscrapers and neon-signed streets.

Lyman Bowers and other pioneers remembered in books and exhibits

My great-grandfather Lyman Bowers is the first treasurer and secretary pictured in a book commemorating the history of the Korean Union Conference, published in 1984 on the occasion of the union’s 80th anniversary.

While I was in Seoul last week, I met Kwon JohngHaeng, Stewardship Director for the Northern Asia-Pacific Division. Pastor Kwon showed me the large volume of pictures from the earliest days of the Korean mission up until the 1980s. It looked like a yearbook, with rows of faces of the union’s administrators, as well as group shots and candid photographs over the years. Pastor Kwon had also been instrumental in putting together a small “museum” in the Division office in Seoul commemorating the early work of the Adventist church in Korea. He took me there to see the display of memoirs written by missionaries, some artifacts, and pictures and plaques on the walls.

Pastor Kwon JohngHaeng at the Northern Asia-Pacific Division office

I didn’t see a picture of my great-grandfather in the Divison office, although I did see a photograph of my great-uncle, Winston T. Clark, who became president of the Far Eastern Division in 1975.

My great-grandfather Lyman Bowers, whom we called Obijee (the phonetic spelling of "father" in Korean), died in 1987, when I was 11. I remember him clearly. But I remember him as a thin, kindly old man who sat in his chair through the day. I knew he had been a missionary, but I had no understanding of the work he had done as a younger man.

Lyman Bowers' work as treasurer and school industrial manager

My great-grandfather Lyman Bowers believed that part of his job as treasurer was to train local workers to succeed him and keep the books of the church scrupulously. I grew up hearing the story from my mother about how my great-grandfather passed the work on to a Korean. According to my mother, one of the first things Lyman did as treasurer was to look for a local worker to train. He didn’t know anyone in Korea yet, so he was not sure how to choose the right person. He traveled to the Adventist school in Soonan, where he watched the students for a whole day. At the end of the day he prayed for guidance, and then chose the student who had the most purposeful walk. He told the teachers he wanted to train that student in finance and accounting, so that he could serve the church as a treasurer. The teachers then informed Lyman that he had picked their very best student. Lyman trained the Korean student in the work of treasurer, and then tested his honesty and ability by removing a very small amount of money from the cash box — such a small amount that the man could easily have made up the difference from his own pocket. At the end of the day, the man agitatedly told Lyman that the books had not balanced and he had spent the whole day trying to find the mistake. Lyman told him he had passed the test. Later he was able to leave the books in the hands of the local Korean workers with confidence.

Ella Mae and Lyman’s oldest child Naomi was born in Korea on December 1, 1917, soon after they reached the country. Their second daughter, my grandmother Elizabeth (Betty), was born five years later in 1922. After my grandmother’s birth, Ella Mae was very sick, and when Betty was eight months old, they made the long journey home to the US so that she could recuperate. Lyman was afraid that both his wife and his baby daughter would die on the ship. After their furlough, when Ella Mae had regained her health, the family returned to Korea.

When their daughters were four and eight, the Bowers family moved from Seoul to Soonan, where Lyman Bowers became industrial manager of the Adventist school there.

The Adventist school at Soonan, knoiwn as UimYeong School

Lyman Bowers had a strong interest in making sure work was available for the students at the school, so that Adventist education would be accessible even for those who could not pay the school fees. He had started his own business caning chairs for the South Lancaster community to help put himself through school at Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts, and then was able to sell the business at a profit when he graduated with a business degree in 1913. He had a keen desire to teach others the value of work.

Lyman’s reputation was of a man who liked to get things done. According to his daughters, he used to say: “At least move in the right direction.” The feeling at the mission was, if you want a job done, ask Bowers to do it, his daughter Naomi said.

As industrial manager of the Soonan school, Lyman knew the names of all the students and had work assignments for all of them each afternoon after classes. Whatever the school needed, the students learned to do. There was a dairy, a woodworking shop for carpentry, and fields for growing vegetables. Soon Lyman started a small factory for preserving fresh vegetables where the students worked. And then, with the help of some of the other missionaries, he developed recipes for gluten and other types of protein which could be sealed in containers for a long shelf life. This food factory was the precursor of Sahmyook Foods, now one of the largest producers of soy products and health food in Korea, and wholly owned by the Adventist church.

According to family history, the food factory was operating at a loss after its first year of operation. But Lyman Bowers did not want the mission to pay the debt on a factory he had started. So he paid the debt out of his own salary month by month. He felt the debt was a disgrace, and so did not tell anyone except the treasurer, and no one knew that he was paying off the debt out of his own pocket. After two years, when the food factory began to turn a profit, the money went straight back into the school, and Lyman never paid himself back. This anecdote was told by his daughter Naomi, and she thought that probably no one else other than her sister Betty (my grandmother) knew the story.

While I was in Seoul, a kind pastor from the south of the country, Jahng Young Tae, offered to take me and another visitor to see Sahmyook University. The Adventist school at Soonan, where my great-grandfather had worked, had been dismantled and taken south to Seoul in the 1940s. That school became Sahmyook University, the first institution of higher education in Korea, and today one of the largest Adventist universities in the world.

Aerial view of Sahmyook University today

The university was about a 45-minute drive away, located on a very impressive campus, with many beautiful buildings. Some were traditional with pillars and classical architecture. Others were modern — all glass and steel. As it’s summer vacation, the campus was quiet, without many students around. The pastor told us that a recent president had been insistent on the importance of a physically attractive campus. The pastor had arranged a visit to the university museum, which boasted exhibits on natural history and archaeology, as well as a small section about its history, and a special art exhibition. I saw pictures of the first school buildings in Soonan — buildings that my great-grandfather had probably known well.

Sahmyook University campus

My grandmother's and great aunt's memories of Korea

When I was a child, my grandparents lived with us for a year. My grandmother Betty talked about her childhood in Korea, running around the mission compound with the other children, and taught me and my siblings games they used to play. She told us that she had her sister had loved to climb trees and walk on stilts. We noticed that at dinnertime there were lots of vegetables she didn’t eat. She told us that when she was a child in Korea, they didn’t have adequate immunity to local diseases, so they soaked their fresh vegetables in bleach water, and then boiled them for so long that they tasted awful.

My great aunt Naomi (Aunt Omi, we called her), died in 2016 at age 98. My mother spent many hours talking to her in the years before her death, and the following are some of the stories about Korea that she told.

Every spring the Bowers family would hike through the hills to visit to a Buddhist temple with another missionary family, the Watts. The North Korean hills were beautiful in spring, covered with pink azaleas. It was a long walk, and they would take a picnic lunch that they ate beside a waterfall outside the temple. They visited with the priests and learned many things about the Buddhist faith. They looked forward to the trip every spring, and every spring the priests greeted them warmly when they came.

Three huge purple lilac bushes grew in front of their house in the mission compound in the summer, so that you could hardly see the house.

In the winter, Soonan was cold, according to my great aunt Omi. The river ice would freeze three feet thick. In the early spring the hospital hired a man with a bull cart to saw blocks of ice, put them on the cart, and take them to the hospital's dirt cellar in the bank of a hill. They stored the blocks in rice straw and chaff, so they had ice most of the summer. We could buy ice every once in awhile and make ice cream, she said.

But at least in the winter, Lyman got relief from malaria. Every summer, he was plagued by the mosquito-borne disease.

That was one reason that, in 1932, he accepted a call to work at the Adventist press in Singapore. The family packed up their home in Soonan and went to Seoul, where they stayed with the Watts family for about a month. (One of the Watts’ family’s grandchildren is Dwight Nelson.)

In Singapore, Lyman managed the Malayan Signs Press, and Ella Mae, who had an education degree, taught at the Malayan seminary. In 1941, the Bowers’ went to Borneo to relieve some fellow missionaries who were on furlough. While there, Ella Mae contracted malaria, and died on June 22, 1941, less than a week after she took ill.

Lyman Bowers' daughter Naomi returns to Korea

In 1937, the Bowers family had gone to the US on furlough, and their daughters Naomi and Betty began studying at Pacific Union College. In 1940, Naomi Bowers married George Munson, whose family had also served as missionaries in Asia. George Munson was pastoring in Hawaii when World War II ended, and he was asked to go to Korea as manager of the Korean Signs of the Times publishing house. He already had mission experience, but he did some training at Pacific Press in California to prepare and studied the Korean language at University of California Berkeley. George and Naomi Munson went to Korea in 1947, where they worked until war broke out in 1950. In 1951, the men were allowed back in, and in 1954 Naomi and their four kids returned. George Munson served in many church positions in Korea, and taught theology at Sahmyook University, for about 20 years. So my great aunt Omi spent most of her childhood in Korea with her missionary parents, and then she went back with her husband and spent much of her adult life there as well.

Korean Union Conference anniversary book signed by my great-uncle George Munson

Traveling to Korea for the first time brought this branch of my family history alive to me in a way it never had been before. I tried to imagine my great grandparents experiencing such a different culture and language in a world that was not globalized the way it is today. I met many Korean Adventists who professed great interest in meeting the descendent of one of the first missionaries to their country. The Korean Adventists seem to have a genuine respect for missionaries and they cherish the stories from the early days of the Adventist church in their country. The Korean Adventists began to send out their own missionaries as early as 1968, and now Korean missionaries serve in all parts of the world, supported by their churches at home.

On the drive from Seoul to Sahmyook University

After my visit to Seoul, I have a greater appreciate of my family history, and the brave and adventurous work that my forefathers and foremothers did. It was a thrill and an honor to go where they did — although the sights I saw were things they probably never imagined. I wish I could talk to them about Korea past and present. They probably didn’t believe the world would last into the 21st century.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the first missionary to Korea was W. R. Smith.

Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum. Photo credits: Alita Byrd.

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Thanks Alita!! This is an intriguing look at Korea through the eyes of early missionaries! Yes, Korean tigers are real. In the six years I spent in Korea (2004-9) I had reason to be grateful for the self-sacrifice and wisdom of many Korean Adventists, past and present. And also to note the real blind-spots that were also on display among Korean Adventists. Sahmyook University, whose boundary fence formed part of the border between Seoul Metropolitan City and the neighbouring province, is certainly a beautiful campus. I was privileged to be a professor there for two years.

Thanks for this fascinating account! As a Korean MK, it was great to hear the stories and enjoy the photos.

Thank you for that narrative. I was a student missionary in Korea in 1975 when Seoul Adventist University still had a dairy farm and was a bus trip out into the country on two-lane roads. The “bell” on campus was an old aerial bomb casing and the construction was just being finished on the new Religion building which had been funded by a 13th Sabbath mission offering. Seeing the photos of the modern buildings was quite a pleasant surprise. I’m glad you got to visit and I wish to have that privilege again someday.

On the bus route back into Seoul we had to stop at a military checkpoint where a stern-faced soldier would come aboard and check IDs. I was obviously an American so I never was asked for my ID, but the college students I often was with got checked. Some of the busses had roofs too short for my just-over six-foot frame to stand erect, so I sometimes stood with my head in one of the roof vents, a sight that gave many of the local passengers a good laugh and I played along with them. I remember one day a soldier who might have been five feet tall came on the bus and when he got to right in front of me I gave him a pat on the helmet and told him, “Good boy!” My companions were mortified and for a moment I was scared when he looked up at me and angrily said something that I did not understand. I’m not sure exactly what my companions translated into Korean but the soldier understood that I was praising him and smiled. I wish you could have heard the collective sigh of relief on that bus when he stepped-off and waved for us to go on!

Yes, Brother Noel!!

Having lived in Korea for 6 years myself from 2004-2009, I have often asked myself what the difference was between a military dictatorship {in South Korea, 1945 - 1980++) and a communist Stalinist dictatorship (in North Korea, 1945 - the present).

Why did the USA and its allies, Australia included, splurge so much blood and treasure on propping up a military dictatorship?

Sahmyook University has one boundary fence that backs onto a military establishment. Down the road and around the corner, some 2 or 3 miles away from the campus is another military establishment. I assume that if the North wanted to cripple some of the military infrastructure of Seoul Metropolitan City they might do it by using a balistic missile of some description right between these two military establishments and presumably right on the campus of Sahmyook University.

Thankfully God is still in control of these things.

If being in Korea taught me anything it was some of the differences between cultures and God’s power to spread the Gospel regardless of the government. While South Korea has always had strong leaders, their support from other nations such as the US and Australia is because of both their cultural history and that the alliance gives the outside powers leverage against North Korea.

If you really think South Korea’s government is dictatorial, I would like to suggest that you read the book “Escape from Camp 14” by Blaine Harden. It is the story of a man who was raised in one of North Korea’s infamous prison camps where some estimates say up to 20% of the people are kept. Morality and family relations are so shattered that he reported his own mother for a “violation” that resulted in her summary execution. That wasn’t the worst of the story, parts of which I had to skip because they were so shocking.

I have read many accounts of escapees from North Korea and, no, life in the South is not perfect, but it is so much better that they are enormously thankful and the government there is dramatically less oppressive. At the same time they have great difficulty with personal relationships because they were taught to trust no one, yet perhaps their greatest difficulty is coming to understand that the realities of life in the South are dramatically different from what they were taught. That makes me wonder if we won’t have a similar challenge after Jesus comes and we’re surrounded by a new reality very different from the sinful world that is our current existence.

My dear Brother Noel!

I agree with you! The successive military dictatorships of the Republic of Korea however repressive they may have been in the past are not to be compared with the long night of the murderous Stalinist cult of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I am very proud of all that the people of Gwangju within the Jolla provinces did in the early 1980’s to promote democracy in the ROK.

One story! Graeme Barnett, a fellow countryman of mine and a former Sahmyook University English teacher some years ago now felt that the Lord was calling him to be a missionary to DPRK. He crossed into the said nation. Shortly he was picked up by the authorities, cast into prison, roughed up and deported. He died some months later of a brain tumour probably brought on or at least exacerbated by his treatment in the DPRK.

I attempt to be a DPRK watcher, even from this distance. Of course, we Adventists have a bona fide DPRK specialist, my friend, who is a sub-editor from the South China Morning Post.

One of my more curious memories from Korea involves one of my students at the language school in Seoul who was a member of the Korean equivalent of the Secret Service and on the presidential protection team. He arranged for me to tour the Blue House, the Korean presidential residence, where I briefly met his daughter, Pak Geun Hye. When President Pak was assassinated, my student was one of the bodyguards who was killed with him. She went on to become President, but last year was impeached and in March was removed from office.

Something that serving in Korea taught me was that nations and cultures don’t have to be the same as my homeland to survive and even thrive. Eastern Asia has thousands of years of history of strong, even dictatorial leaders. Yet the cultures have survived and adapted. While I support democracy and constitutional freedom, I find no basis in scripture for advocating that in other nations because we are called to be citizens of God’s kingdom and to call others to join that kingdom where we will have an ultimately powerful, but also loving ruler. So my question is how we can more effectively spread the Gospel regardless of government.

TInteresting! I appreciate your comments here and think you are correct. You make very significant points.

I first entered the campus of Sunchon National University by literally climbing the 6 foot high brick wall at the back of the campus adjacent to the foreigners dormitory late one evening with all my worldly possessions in tow. This was the favourite way to get there when you arrived by taxi.

Several days later I met a foreign student from the world’s newest nation, East Timor. The name of my new friend was Tino, Tino Gusmao as I learnt later. We did lots together. He told me initially that his father was a rich landowner. Later I learnt that his father was indeed the President of East Timor. Tino used to tell me what his father was doing that week. His father had been granted an honory doctorate by the University a short while before I came to the University and had thought to have his son educated there.

One day I slipped and fell on a disabled ramp at the University and completely disabled myself. I had broken both my left tibia and my left fibula. I was taken to the nearby private hospital where I was operated on after being given a spinal. My surgeon was one of the province’s finest orthopaedic surgeons, even though my city was tiny by Korean standards.

Dr Song visited me on my 5th day in hospital as he did every morning and inquired whether I would like to go to the restaurant that evening. He let me indicate my restaurant of choice for the occasion. I did not remember that the Aussie Outback Steakhouse could only be reached via a lengthy flight of stairs. So when I arrived in the back of the hospital ambulance I was hoisted onto the back of the short Korean ambulance driver and carried up the stairs and through the front door of the restaurant. My surgeon was there as promised,as were my superiors from the University. After the meal I was carried down the stairs in the same manner and stuffed back into the back of the ambulance. I shall never forget that evening.

I stayed in hospital for 15 days, presumably because the wonderful medical insurance system in Korea facilitated that. I even wrote my students final exams from my hospital bed.

Very interesting! We have the common bond of memorable adventures in a land away from our homelands.

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