The crowning institution and pride of the Presbyterian mission in Pyongyang was Union Christian College. Founded in 1905, it was the first four year college in Korea, preceding by a decade Seoul’s Yonsei University, the oldest surviving college in Korea. Open to Korean Christians of all denominations, it was a magnet for students throughout Korea, north and south, the sole source of higher education in Korea for a decade and one of Korea’s leading colleges for another 23 years. Its rise and eventual end was central to the history of the American and Christian presence in Pyongyang.
Samuel Moffett and William Baird, in the 1932 Union Christian College yearbook
The founders of Union Christian College were Samuel Moffett, who had founded the mission 10 years earlier, and William Baird, who had been in Korea since 1891 and had started the Pyongyang mission’s schools in 1897. The mission schools, which included schools for boys and girls, added a middle school and high school in 1900 and were given the name Sungshil (“Revering God Through Truth”) Academy in 1901. Moffett and Baird began the college as a multi-disciplinary institution with programs in the sciences, agriculture, English, music, and other subjects, instructed by a faculty of Americans and Koreans.
Early photo of Union Christian College, from the west wide of the campus
1928 view of the east side of the campus
Union Christian College occupied a campus in the southwest quadrant of the Pyongyang mission compound. Initially in a few buildings in an empty area on the outskirts of the city, after two decades it occupied a complex of modern buildings identical to those on American college campuses, with the city grown around it.
1933 view of the campus, looking northwest
“College” at dead center marks the location of Union Christian College, in the 1940s
The students and faculty of Union Christian College in 1933. College president George S. McCune is seated at the center of the second row, wearing a white suit.
The Korean and American faculty were led first by William Baird, who passed away in 1931, then from 1927 by George Shannon McCune. A Presbyterian missionary in Pyongyang since 1905, McCune had been the superintendent of Presbyterian schools in Pyongyang in 1905-08, served as superintendent of Union Christian College in 1908-09 during a one year furlough for Baird, and in 1909-21 served as principal of the Presbyterian school in the heavily Christian city of Sonchon, where resistance to Japanese rule by Christian Korean nationalists led to Japanese death threats that forced him to leave Korea. He returned with the approval of the Japanese authorities in 1927 to serve as president of Union Christian College.
Map of the home regions of the Class of 1933
The students of Union Christian College numbered approximately 100 at the school’s peak in the 1930s and were from every region of Korea. In the Class of 1933, half were from Pyongyang and the heavily Christian area to the north of the city, but almost a quarter were from the southeast around Taegu and Pusan, and students represented every region including the island of Cheju-do.
Student life at Union Christian College included a variety of activities in addition to academics. Religious activities were of course a significant part of life, and others included clubs for social events, music, sports (more about sports in a later installment), and literature.
Graduates of Union Christian College embarked on lives as some of the first Koreans with higher educations. At a time when Korea had an agrarian society, kept in a state of backwardness with limited access to education by the colonial administration of the Empire of Japan, Union Christian College was an American institution that started Korea on the path to becoming one of the best educated societies in the world. Future leaders of Korea emerged from graduation ceremonies like this one, under the cross banners of Union Christian College.
The buildings of Union Christian College also performed valuable roles aside from their main functions for the school. As some of the largest and most modern buildings in Pyongyang, they were essential spaces for many types of activities. Here, the school gymnasium, the college’s largest building, hosts a gathering of hundreds for a Bible conference in 1933.
College President George S. McCune
Union Christian College did not survive to its 35th year, however, forced to close by political developments that made the school’s continuation impossible. It began in early 1936, when the Imperial Japanese administration in Pyongyang demanded that college president George McCune lead the student body in Shinto ceremonies honoring the Emperor of Japan, and McCune refused, deeming such an act to be contrary to one of the most fundamental of religious principles, the worship of a false god in violation of the Second Commandment. The Imperial Japanese authorities responded by stripping him of his credentials to teach and placing him under virtual house arrest. Deprived of his purpose and liberty in Korea, he left in March 1936. The college closed in 1938 when the Presbyterian Church decided to close all of its schools in Korea, following McCune’s example and refusing to compromise its religious principles.
Union Christian College never returned to Pyongyang, barred from returning after the end of the Second World War by the Soviet Union and the Communist regime that it installed, but a new college using its Korean name emerged in South Korea after the war. In 1954, Korean Presbyterians founded a new Sungshil College in Seoul. Today it is Soongsil University, which continues the lineage of the original college in Pyongyang. It is a link to the American and Christian past in Pyongyang of which few if any Americans are aware.
Part II – The Union Christian College Campus
Part III – Union Christian College Sports
Part IV – George S. McCune