Moffett, Samuel Austin (1864-1939)

Pioneer Presbyterian missionary to Korea

Born in Madison, Indiana, and educated at Hanover College (B.S., 1884) and at McCormick Seminary (Th.B., 1888), Moffett was one of the early Presbyterian missionaries to Korea, arriving there in 1890, six months before the decisive visit of John L. Nevius. The seven Presbyterian missionaries in Korea at the time were fully persuaded by Nevius and adapted to their fledgling work to his then controversial plan and methods. The results were dramatic. Moffett stressed two facets of the plan especially: intensive Bible study for all believers, and evangelism by all believers. Beginning in August 1890, Moffett made several excursions to the north, and three years later he moved permanently to Pyongyang, where the response to the gospel and the growth of the church became legendary. Later analyses indicate a number of reasons, apart from missionary methods, that help to account for the remarkable growth of Korean Presbyterian churches during this era, but Moffett’s contribution is indisputable.

In 1901 he began the Presbyterian Theological Seminary with two students meeting in his home. He served as the school’s president for 17 years and as a member of its faculty until 1935. When the first class graduated in 1907 and the Korean Presbyterian Church was organized, Moffett was elected the first moderator. He was the Korean Presbyterian representative at the Edinburgh missionary conference in 1910, and again at the 1928 Jerusalem Conference of the International Missionary Council. From 1918 to 1928 he was president of Soongsil College in Pyongyang. He retired in 1934 at age 70 but chose to remain in Korea. In January 1936 tension between the Japanese governor and Presbyterian leaders in Pyongyang erupted over whether students in Christian institutions should be required to participate in ceremonies at a newly erected Buddhist shrine. Moffett, then president of the seminary board, and G. S. McCune, president of the college, were issued an ultimatum. The missionaries and the U.S. board voted to close the schools rather than violate their principles. Both McCune and Moffett were forced to leave the country, and Moffett died three years later in Monrovia, California. Of Moffett’s five sons, four became ordained Presbyterian ministers and three of these missionaries, including Samuel Hugh Moffett.

Alan Neely, “Moffett, Samuel Austin,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 465.

This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

The builder of the Presbyterian Church of Korea

Before 1884, Protestants had been unable to found missions in Korea. As historian Samuel H. Moffett explained:

Protestants did not establish permanent missions in Korea until 1884. Earlier attempts had failed, for after the devastating Japanese invasion of the sixteenth century, the Manchu conquests of the seventeenth century, and Western intrusions into Asia in the nineteenth century, Korea had turned against all foreign contacts. It was known in the West as the Hermit Nation.(1)

But in 1882 the reclusive kingdom signed its first treaty with a Western country, the United States. Two years later when the first resident Protestant missionaries arrived to stay, they found themselves called upon to play a significant role in opening Korea to the world. One of these missionaries also played an essential role in building the Presbyterian Church of Korea. He was Samuel Austin Moffett, a pioneer in the evangelization of Korea.

Samuel Austin Moffett was born in Madison, Indiana, on January 25, 1864. His parents were Samuel Shuman Moffett (1823-1892) and Maria Jane McKee Moffett (1831-1912). He studied at Hanover College, Indiana, and in 1888 at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. In 1889, after being appointed a missionary to Korea by the Presbyterian Church, he departed from San Francisco on December 16, and arrived at Chemulpo, the sea-port of Seoul, on his twenty-sixth birthday. It had been five and a half years since the first Protestant missionary, Horace Allen, arrived in Korea.

The mission policy of the Presbyterians in Korea when he arrived in 1890 was one of aggressive evangelism. At its annual meeting of 1890, they voted to occupy Pyongyang in the northwestern province. After six months of language study in Seoul, Moffett left Seoul for Pyongyang on Friday, 29 August 1890.(2) He traveled by horseback for six and a half days, over a distance of some 130 miles.

Moffett found that the city of Pyongyang was beautifully located. It was on the Taedong River, twenty miles from the sea, near enough to be reached by the tides, and was accessible from Seoul through a fertile plain. Korea’s third largest city in population and in commerce, it was the capital of a province rich in minerals and timber. The people were large and seemed to be hardier, more independent and more spirited than those in Seoul. Moffett thought that it would become the most important port in Korea as soon as it was opened.

Although it was illegal to reside there permanently or to open a station, Moffett felt that the mission ought to occupy Pyongyang as soon as possible. He suggested a network of new stations centered in Seoul. He proposed that a man should reside in Seoul as the center of work and visit Pyongyang three times a year; on each visit, he would stay three or four weeks.(3) The trip would also be a chance to prove that he could live almost exclusively on Korean food and in Korean style and still keep well and strong.

The evident readiness of the people for the gospel convinced Moffett of the necessity to open new stations outside Seoul. Euiju, a border city between Korea and China, was his first choice for a new station because he was allowed to enter the city, seeds of the gospel had entered fom China, and Pyongyang could be approached from Euiju.(4)

On 25 February 1891, Moffet made his second trip to the north. The purpose of the trip was to preach the gospel to whoever he met, to study the language, country, and people, and also to look after the work that had been done on the border of China and Korea in Euiju and the Korean valley.(5) The two itinerating trips accustomed Moffett to the country and people.

Based on the experience of his two trips, Moffett made a third trip to the north in September of 1891. He was convinced that “the mission ought first to occupy Pyongyang, the capital, as the important center of the northern work and as the strategic point.”(6) After his mission trips in North Korea, at the meeting of January 23, 1893, the mission founded its fourth mission station in Korea and Samuel A. Moffett was appointed one of the missionaries who were in charge of occupying Pyongyang. In October of 1893, Moffett reported that the evangelistic work there had passed the initiatory stage and had become an established work, also that a church had begun to develop and to expand in the life of the city. He was sure that the church was being established on strong foundations, becoming self-propagating and self-supporting.(7)

When it comes to Moffett’s mission strategy, John L. Nevius’ mission method, “Three-Self Theory,” and his presence at a conference of Presbyterian missionaries held in Seoul was significant. As Samuel H. Moffett insisted:

The highlight of a meeting of the mission in the spring of 1890 had been the invited presence of a veteran China missionary, John L. Nevius, who urged the newly born mission not to make the mistake he said that some had made in China of retaining missionary control over the native converts and their churches too long. Instead, he advised, train them from beginning not only in Bible classes but also in the practice of self-government, self-support, and self-propagation. It might have seemed foolishly premature to plan a strategy of independence of a national church when there was only one tiny organized Presbyterian congregation to plan for, and a total Protestant community of little more than 300 adherents of whom only 103 were adult Presbyterian communicant members. But Nevius warned the Presbyterians, if you don’t teach self support at the beginning, it will all too soon be too late. Known as the “Nevius Plan” in Korea, and as the “Three-Self Plan” elsewhere, this was adopted by the Presbyterian mission at a time when in all Korea it could count barely a hundred communicant church members, no ordained Korean pastors and only one organized congregation. Premature or not, the Nevius method proved to be one of the primary factors in the resulting numerical dominance of Presbyterianism in Korean Christianity.(8)

Moffett was indebted to the “Three-Self Theory.” First of all, he focused on the practice of “self-government” by building the Presbyterian church and seminary in Pyongyang. The year 1900 was a milestone in the development of Moffett’s Pyongyang church as well as the entire Korean church. The church building was completed, and the annual meeting of the mission was held in Pyongyang for the first time in September, 1900. Another step toward the self-government of the church was taken at the annual meeting of the Presbyterian Council in October, 1900. Since there were two ordained Elders and several Elders-elect, the Council decided to invite ten Koreans selected by the missionaries as delegates to the Council and to conduct part of the 1901 council meeting in the Korean language. The ordained Elders were given the right to vote, along with the missionaries, but all the Koreans had the right to participate in the discussion. Moffett saw another advance for the Korean church in the Pyongyang academy. It opened on September 30, 1900, under the leadership of William Baird; there were two classes of about thirty in all.

With the permission of the Presbyterian Council, in January, 1901, Moffett started a theological class with two students. There were Chong-sup Kim and Ki-chang Bang. In 1904, the Presbyterian Council endorsed the plan of theological education being carried by the Pyongyang committee. They appointed Moffett principal of the Seminary for two years. On June 20, 1907, while its principal, Moffett, was in America on furlough, the Theological Seminary produced the first graduates. Seven men received the first diplomas granted by the Presbyterian Council for the completion of theological work.

Moffett returned from America in August of 1907. The Presbyterian Council met on September 13, 1907, and made final arrangements for the organization of the Korean Presbyterian Church. Moffett was elected moderator of the Council. On September 17, 1907, at the Central Presbyterian Church in Pyongyang, Moffett announced that the Presbytery had been constituted in accordance with the authority given by the General Assemblies of the four Presbyterian Churches whose missions were untied in Korea. He opened the first Presbytery meeting with prayer. Among the first duties of the new Presbytery was the examination of the seven men who had graduated from the seminary.(9)

The influence of “Three-self theory” was also evident in Moffett’s enthusiasm for evangelism in Korea; closely related to “self-propagation.” According to Moffett, the aim of the mission was the evangelization of the people. Therefore, the first task in the mission field was to preach the gospel and to establish the church in the “belief that the Gospel itself is the primary need of the heathen world.” For him, education, literature, science, history, civilization, and philanthropy were side issues, saying that reformation was not redemption and education was not regeneration. He insisted that the institutional development should succeed not precede the establishment of the church.(10) Jong Hyeong Lee summarized the five essential principles and six methods of Moffett’s evangelization. Moffett emphasized the convictions that “the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation and that God is able and willing to save any and all who come unto him,” and that the Gospel conveyed spiritual, not material, financial, intellectual or political advantages. In addition, he stressed that the missionary should have “a victorious enthusiastic faith in God and His message,” and spiritual life in reconciliation with God, in fellowship with Jesus Christ and in assurance of eternal life. Moffett also summarized six methods in development of the evangelistic work, which were widespread preaching through informal conversation with individuals and small groups of people, the use of the Bible as “the supernatural agency of the Spirit of God for reaching the heart of men,” the catechumenate as “one of the most effective methods and one of far-reaching influences,” the infusion of a great evangelistic zeal into the first converts and into the whole church, Bible Study Training Classes, and lastly, the development of trained helpers, evangelists, and ministers. Moffett believed that the complete evangelization of any land would be effected only through the agency of native evangelists and pastors.(11)

The “Three-Self Theory” and methods were developed, tried, and proved by Moffett and his station, and they were considered to be most effective in the evangelization of Korea. Moffett also had two major things he wanted to share with the world church in connection with the Korean church: “two of the main principles in the work of the Korean Mission – the Bible class system and self-support.” These ideas came from John Nevius.(12)

Moffett’s career coincided with the Korean independence movement and the sufferings of the Korean Church during the oppression of the Japanese military government. The immediate genesis of the independence movement was the death of Korea’s ex-emperor Ko Jong and the rumor that he was poisoned because of his refusal to sign a paper assuring the Peace Conference that the Koreans were content under Japanese Rule. The Declaration of Independence was signed by thirty-three men, sixteen of whom were Christians. The purpose of this movement was to mount non-violent demonstrations and to focus world attention on Korea in order to press Japan into giving up its colonial rule. On March 1, 1919, the demonstrations took place simultaneously throughout the country. The Independence Movement was crushed by swords and guns, leaving all the jails full of Korean patriots. Many church and mission schools were closed.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Korea was convened at the Theological Seminary in Pyongyang in September of 1919. As the moderator, Sun-du Kim, was in jail, the Vice-moderator, Samuel Moffett, took the chair. The Koreans were determined to have Moffett preside under the difficult political situation. Moffett became a witness to the movement and tried to announce the movement by sending letters to the nations in the world.

In the early 1930s, with a revival of Japanese militarism and “the spirit of Japan,” Japanese nationalists lifted their eyes to the Chinese mainland. In order to conquer the continent with a unified spirit of faith, the Japanese government revived Shintoism and established in every town in Japan a Shinto shrine which was dedicated to the Sun-goddess, Amatersu, who was believed to be the ancestor of the Japanese Emperor,. All children were required to worship at the shrine. In Korea, there had been few Shinto shrines before 1930. After the decree, Shinto shrines were erected by the Japanese government all over Korea.

At the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Korea in 1932, action was taken to advise the Japanese authorities that students of church schools would not attend the shrine worship and other ceremonies. For Moffett, the shrine issue was a most unexpected experience and trying situation. It affected the very existence of their college and academies. The Japanese government ordered all the students and teachers of the Pyongyang College and academies to attend shrine ceremonies on a definite day. They were to be marched to the shrine and bow before it. At once the Boards of Directors of these schools met to vote unanimously to close the schools. Moffett could take the strain no longer. His health became worse. In October of 1936 he left for the United States to stay there for five months to restore his health. The Pyongyang schools were finally closed in March of 1938. Other schools followed, leaving many students without access to Christian education. Otherwise, they were left to the government schools.

Samuel Austin Moffett died on October 24, 1939, at his home in Monrovia, California. The schools he had helped to establish were closed; the church he had nurtured had capitulated under Japanese pressure and its members were forced to worship at the shrines. But the seeds he had planted in Korea had taken root, and the firm foundation of faith on which he had insisted kept the Presbyterians there strong throughout the period of Japanese oppression.

Samuel A. Moffett was not only a missionary but also the father of Presbyterian Church of Korea. As a pioneer, with the seed of “Three-Self Theory,” he contributed to the formation of the Presbyterian Church of Korea through his mission policies and methods. At this point, there is no doubt that Korean church has been indebted to the life, faith, and devotion of an American missionary, Samuel A. Moffett. He was truly a spiritual father of Korean church, who loved the land and people of Korea.

By Jae Guen Lee


(1) Samuel H. Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia vol II, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005, p.528.

(2) “Biography of Samuel A. Moffett,” Seoul: the Education Department of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, 1973, p. 84.

(3) Samuel A. Moffett, First Letters from Korea (1890-1891), Seoul: Presbyterian Theological Seminary Institute of Missions, 1975, p. 27-32.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Samuel A. Moffett, pp. 41-44.

(6) Lee Jong Hyeong, Samuel Austin Moffett: His Life and Work in the Development of the Presbyterian Church of Korea 1890-1936, Richmond: Union Theological Seminary, 1983, p.58. (Ph.D. Dissertation)

(7) Ibid., 99. (Quoted from Samuel A. Moffett, “Evangelistic work in Pyongyang and Vicinity, Pyongyang Station,” October 1895, PHS.)

(8) Samuel H. Moffett, p. 536.

(9) “Biography of Samuel A. Moffett,” pp. 223-259.

(10) Lee Jong Hyeong, p. 155. (Quoted from Samuel A. Moffett, “Prerequisites and Principles,” pp. 66-68, & “Letter to F. F. Ellinwood, 22 October 1900.”

(11) Ibid., pp. 157-158.

(12) Ibid., p. 169. (Quoted from Samuel A. Moffett, “Evangelistic Work,” in Quarto-Centennial Report, Korea Mission PCUSA, 1909, p. 18).

(13) “Biography of Samuel A. Moffett,” pp. 261-311.


Digital Text

Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. The Eighty-fifth Annual Report of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America. May 1922.


Moffett, Samuel A. “Evangelistic Work.” In Quarto Centennial Papers read before the Korea Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the USA at the Annual Meeting in Pyeng Yang. Seoul: Korea Mission, 1909: 14-29.

_____. “Evangelistic Work in Pyongyang and Vicinity, Pyongyang Station,” in Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Board of Foreign Missions. Missions Correspondence: Korea, 1884-1911. Microfilm. Reel no. 179. Vol. 8. Presbyterian Historical Society.

_____. The First Letters from Korea (1890-1891). Seoul: Presbyterian Theological Seminary Institute of Missions, 1975.

_____. “Prerequisites and Principles of Evangelism,” in Counsel to New Missionaries from Older Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church. New York: Board of Foreign Missions PCUSA. 1905: 60-75.


Moffett, Samuel H. A History of Christianity in Asia vol II. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005.

Lee, Jong Hyeong, Samuel Austin Moffett: His Life and Work in the Development of the Presbyterian Church of Korea 1890-1936, Richmond: Union Theological Seminary, 1983. (Ph.D. Dissertation).

Biography of Samuel A. Moffett. Seoul: the Education Department of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, 1973, p. 84.

Rev. Samuel Austin Moffett,” at

Author unknown, “A City on a Hill in Asia”.

C. Hope Flinchbaugh, “A Century After North Korean Revival, Dreams of an Encore,” Christianity Today, January 2007 (web-only).

Korean Christianity,” John Mark ministries.