The Pyongyang mission occupied a central location on the left bank of the Taedong River that runs through Pyongyang. Then and now, in two completely different worlds, the place has been the center of the city’s identity and culture.
The mission was one of many mission stations located throughout Korea, and it was unique in being one in which all denominations and nationalities lived and worked. The American Presbyterian and Methodist Churches arrived in Korea as separate northern and southern denominations, divided since the Civil War, and they worked as four distinct churches in separate parts of Korea. Canadian and Australian Presbyterians worked in their own regions in the far northeast and far southeast parts of the country. Pyongyang, the “Jerusalem of the East,” was a city where all denominations and nationalities lived together and cooperated, as they did in Jerusalem itself.
The mission began in 1895 with one building, this small Korean-style house. The founders of the mission, Revs. Samuel Moffett, William Swallen, and Graham Lee, made it their first residence and headquarters in Pyongyang.
The first churches and other mission buildings were the same as the traditional Korean structures around them. Shown here are Second Central Presbyterian Church of Pyongyang and its congregation in the early 1900s.
Schools were among the first priorities of the mission. Korea had no formal education system before the arrival of American missionaries, and in Seoul, Pyongyang, and elsewhere, mission schools were the first access to education available to the common people. The mission started a private instructional program in 1897, then a formal middle and high school in 1900. There were schools for both boys and girls, introducing education for women from the beginning. The schools were magnets for families all over northern Korea. This photo from circa 1910 shows the mission’s school for boys, which Kim Il Sung attended as a teenager during that period.
In 1905 occurred the foundation of the Pyongyang mission’s crowning institution, Union Christian College. The first four year college in Korea, pre-dating the first four year college in Seoul (Chosun Christian College, now Yonsei University) by a decade, Union Christian College was a multi-disciplinary university with programs in the sciences, agriculture, English, music, and other subjects, instructed by a faculty of Americans and Koreans. The “Union” name reflected its foundation by a union of all Presbyterian and Methodist churches in Korea.
By the 1930s, Union Christian College had a large campus with modern American-style buildings, and its student body was from throughout Korea, north and south.
Also founded in 1905 was Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Its name, like that of Union Christian College, reflected its unification of multiple denominations, with all American, Canadian, and Australian Presbyterians represented. Its first instructors were Revs. Moffett, Lee, and Swallen, who had arrived in Pyongyang to found the mission a decade earlier, and it graduated its first class of Korean clergymen in 1907.
Like Union Christian College, Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary occupied a modern American-style building by the 1930s.
The American clergymen, professors, and other members of the mission lived in houses around the mission. Shown here are American mission residences (marked on the map at the top) on Namsan Hill, just south of the mission, circa 1921. A church event is being held on the field below the hill.
The Protestant clergymen and laymen of the mission had families and children, so a school for children of the mission was founded in 1900. This photo shows its teachers and students in front of their schoolhouse in 1912. It eventually became a premier school for American expatriates in Asia, with many students from the families of American missionaries and businessmen in China and Japan.
The American-led world in Pyongyang described here ceased to exist during the Second World War era, but as mentioned earlier, its location continues to occupy a central place in the identity and culture of the city. Today it is the location of the main monuments of the ruling family of North Korea. The hill where American missionaries once lived now holds the Grand People’s Study House, the central library of the North Korean regime’s ideology. The field below the hill now is Kim Il Sung Square, familiar worldwide as the site of North Korea’s military parades and other outdoor spectacles. Few people anywhere in the world know what preceded these monuments to themselves of North Korea’s ruling family.
The current skyline of Pyongyang west of the Taedong River. The location of the mission was in the exact center of this photograph.
All photographs of the Pyongyang mission are from the Presbyterian Historical Society. The map is part of a 1946 U.S. Army map that was a translation of a Second World War era Japanese map. The photographs of Kim Il Sung Square and modern Pyongyang are from Wikimedia.