1933 Pyengyang (old spelling) mission group photo in front of Pyongyang Foreign School
An American community lived and thrived in Pyongyang for 47 years, from 1895 to 1942, numbering in the hundreds at its peak and leading the largest Christian community on the mainland of Asia. Their mission occupied a prominent location in the center of Pyongyang, then and now, and was home to the first university in Korea, schools for all ages, the city’s leading church, its first hospital, and a school for foreigners that was a magnet for Americans, British, Canadians, Australians, and others from Korea, China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia. “The Jerusalem of the East” was its nickname for being the Asia-wide center of the Presbyterian Church, then and now the largest in Korea. Yet it was quickly forgotten during the Second World War and disappeared into complete obscurity, as Pyongyang became known to Americans solely as the capital of the North Korean state.
The American-style buildings of Union Christian College in Pyongyang in the 1930s
The same view of the current Pyongyang skyline, with the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel (left)
That an American past in Pyongyang ever existed is difficult to believe because North Korea has erased it almost completely, and those who write history in the United States have erased it even more completely. The Americans of Pyongyang departed and returned to the United States during the Second World War era, and the North Korean regime demolished and replaced the buildings that they left behind many years ago. That regime at least minimally acknowledges that they existed, with its anti-American propaganda including stories of American missionaries who once lived there. In the United States, they are practically nonexistent. Academic historians have completely omitted them from their histories of Korea, perhaps finding them to be an inconvenient truth that would disrupt a standard political narrative that begins in 1945. The American past in Pyongyang exists now only in obscure church archives and the memories of a few members of that community who are still alive, who have rarely shared their stories with anyone.
Revs. William Swallen and Graham Lee, looking like Old West desperadoes with shotguns, and Rev. Samuel Moffett about to start their trek from Seoul to Pyongyang in 1895
This forgotten story began 123 years ago, when three young clergymen ventured north from Seoul to establish the first permanent American presence in Pyongyang. The first American Christian missionaries had arrived in Korea in 1884, and during a decade of establishing themselves in Seoul they had occasionally visited Pyongyang 120 miles away. In 1895, Presbyterian clergymen Samuel Moffett, William Swallen, and Graham Lee rode from Seoul to Pyongyang on horseback (no railroad existed then in Korea) to establish a mission. They ventured to Pyongyang at a time of chaos, in the aftermath of a war that Japan and China fought in Korea in 1894-95 that included a battle for Pyongyang in September 1894 and guerilla warfare by Koreans fighting to drive out foreign invaders.
West Gate Church, the main Presbyterian church of Pyongyang, in the 1920s
The Presbyterian mission in Pyongyang soon became the center of the most heavily Christian area of Korea. It had a nationwide impact on the rise of the church in Korea as the starting point of a mass wave of conversions in 1907 called the Great Pyongyang Revival. By 1910, there were over 60,000 Christians in the Pyongyang area, making it the most heavily Christian city on the mainland of Asia.
American Presbyterian Mission Annual Meeting in Pyongyang, 1910s
The American community that established itself in Pyongyang, under the rule of the Empire of Japan from 1910 onward, soon built and presided over an array of educational, religious, and cultural institutions that placed it at the center of life in Pyongyang and made the city a hub of activity throughout Asia. Their presence endured until the withdrawal of most Americans from Korea in 1940, with war between the United States and Japan expected, and the final deporting of the last Americans in Korea in early 1942, after the start of war. The posts that follow will describe many aspects of their lives and the world that they created.