Generation to generation

Retired missionaries Sam and Eileen Moffett help others pursue service abroad

May 11, 2010

Sam and Eileen Moffett with Professor Toh of Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary in Seoul, where the Moffetts served from 1955-1981. The school was founded by Sam Moffett’s father in 1901.

Louisville

When Sam Moffett was appointed to mission service more than 60 years ago, he didn't have to be taught the value of empowering local Christians to lead their own churches.

He learned it by observing his father, the late Samuel Austin Moffett, one of the pioneering Protestant missionaries in Korea. "Within 17 years of my father's arrival in 1890, the missionaries had turned (church leadership) over to the Koreans," Moffett says.

This strategy helped shape a vibrant Christian movement on the Korean peninsula.

The senior Moffett witnessed the Great Revival of 1907 that began in the northern city of Pyongyang. The younger Moffett and his wife, Eileen, went to Korea in the mid 1950s and saw the exponential growth of Christianity in the south that took root after the Korean War. Prior to the war, two-thirds of Korea’s Christians lived in the north.

With one-third of its population identifying itself as Christian, South Korea has more Christians per capita than any other country in Asia, and Presbyterianism is the largest Protestant tradition. "Presbyterians in Korea are like Baptists in Texas," says Sam, referring to their number.

When Sam and Eileen Moffett arrived in Korea, it was hardly the highly developed economic powerhouse that it is today. "There was only one paved highway in the city of Seoul," Eileen says. "It was the one that the military had paved, which went from the army's headquarters to the demilitarized zone. Other roads and highways had been destroyed. And some people were living under bridges."

"The average income was $80 per year," Sam adds. "There was desperate poverty."

Sam was assigned to the Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary and helped train ministers to lead the burgeoning Christian movement. The school, which was founded by Sam's father, had recently relocated from North Korea to Seoul and its students included many former soldiers from the armies of both Koreas.

Christian chaplains in the South Korean army led many soldiers to Christ, Eileen notes. "There were also soldiers from the North who had been prisoners of war and had been won to Christ in the POW camps," she explains. "They didn’t want to return to the North after the war and it almost created an international incident."

At the seminary Sam taught church history, served as dean of the graduate school, and helped start the seminary's Department of Mission. Today South Korea sends abroad more Protestant missionaries than any other country except the United States.

Sam and his colleagues emphasized the need for indigenous leadership in mission situations, echoing the methods that had been used successfully by Western missionaries in Korea. Sam's father and others learned the approach from visionary Presbyterian missionary John Nevius.

Inspired by the thinking of missiologists Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson, Nevius advocated that missionaries move local Christians toward self-government, self-support and self-propagation. Sam observes that these principles were a precursor to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s commitment to doing mission in partnership.

Sam was first appointed to mission service in China in 1947 with his first wife, Elizabeth Tarrant Moffett. They were expelled by the communist government in 1951, and Sam spent two years as a visiting professor at Princeton Theological Seminary.

After Elizabeth's death, Sam returned to mission service in Korea in 1955. He was joined by his fiancée, Eileen, the following year and the two were married in Korea.

Eileen was involved in several ministries in Korea, including serving as director of the Bible Club Movement, which created church-run schools that mainly served children whose parents could not afford public school fees. 

"They taught all of the regular subjects and also had a wonderful program of instruction in Bible knowledge and church history. They also taught some theology," Eileen says. "This led many students to become strong Christian disciples."

The demand for such schools declined as Korea became more affluent and the public schools grew. However, the program still exists on the junior high and high school levels. Since its founding by Presbyterian missionary Francis Kinsler in the late 1920s, the movement has graduated more than 1 million students, including one graduate who became a member of South Korea’s Supreme Court.

Why did Christianity grow in Korea? The Moffetts name several reasons:

  • The early establishment of indigenous leadership;
  • Limited religious opposition to Christianity;
  • A strong emphasis on Bible study, discipleship and prayer;
  • No entanglement between the mission movement and colonialism. The fact that Christianity was not associated with the Japanese who had once occupied Korea was a plus;
  • A zeal for evangelism among clergy and laity; and
  • Faithfulness to the gospel's call to both evangelism and social action.

Sam says the Koreans are "natural evangelists" who share the gospel with ease.

One day the Moffetts were driving through the countryside and stopped to buy a watermelon. After the transaction, the seller asked them in Korean if they were Christians and the Moffetts said yes. Eileen says the seller replied: "Oh, that’s wonderful, if you weren't, I was going to tell you how much you were missing."

The Moffetts retired from mission service in 1981. Sam spent six additional years as the Henry Winters Luce professor of ecumenics and mission at Princeton Seminary. He has written extensively on the history of Christianity in Asia.

The Moffetts continue to live in Princeton, N.J., and are supporting the PC(USA)'s international mission efforts with their prayers and financial gifts.

"The gospel is a joyful message and we want people to know that and have the joy and blessing of it," Eileen says. The gospel impacts eternity and also calls Christians to "help those who need help to have a good life in this world."

Sharing the good news, Sam stresses, is something "we have been told to do by the Lord himself."

So the Moffetts are working to encourage Presbyterian individuals and congregations to step up their prayer and financial support of mission sending. "The money is there," Eileen says, "if people will realize the importance of it."

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