Samuel Hugh Moffett of Princeton Seminary
Writers are like hunters, I tell my students--they are searching for tracks, for sights, for smells, for sounds. They are curious about everything. They observe all things. They are questioners, they are word manipulators, yet they do not manipulate the truth. They manipulate language so that the truth of the story is revealed even more strongly. Was it Picasso who said that art is a lie that makes us realize the truth? And don’t most of us find that, at times, the treatment of color, shapes, and technique often make spiritual statements. And so it is with writing.
But let’s face it. For many eighteen year olds, writing and research is still boring compared to running down the soccer field, or watching the Red Sox or the Patriots. And I must confess, although my eighteen-year-old self is long past, when I initially began tackling a recent writing project, I wondered how long I would be able to remain invested in the piece. I was investigating a story about a young man who left his home of Llanover, Wales, in 1863, and headed for China. Initially the story seemed quite dry and without much excitement.
Yet every good story will eventually envelop the writer and this is exactly what happened to me. My research led me to England, America, China and eventually Korea. In fact the information came to me so fast and furious and from such varied sources that I could not believe anything except God wanted this written and perhaps with some urgency. Its content was anything but dry and academic and the Holy Spirit began invading my soul as I learned of the many men and women who in some way were still connected to the hero and heroine of my story, Robert Jermain Thomas and Caroline Godfrey.
The Story. It was July 21st, 1863 and many men and women were about to embark on the Polmaise, a 753-ton ship captained by W. H. Seaward and built in Dundee ten years previously. Among the estimated 300 passengers were newly-weds heading for Shanghai under the auspices of the London Missionary Society which had established a presence there since. Caroline Godfrey, had recently changed her name to Mrs. Robert Jermain Thomas. During the past seven weeks and four days the young goal-oriented Thomas was married, ordained, and commissioned for his work in China. Their unusual honeymoon plans would be crossing the Atlantic at a time when diseases such as smallpox were not uncommon. Indeed, a traveling companion, Miss Gamble, contracted smallpox during the voyage.
Caroline was from a family who lived in a large manor in Tansor, located near the famous Fotheringhay Church where nobilities such as King Richard III was born and where Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded. She was the only daughter of a family of five and was leaving her fairly aging parents. On the other hand, Thomas was ordained as a non-conformist minister, and was also the son of a non-conformist minister. Caroline and Robert were both Christian believers who were leaving the closeness and love of families to proclaim the good news of Christ’s kingdom. Thomas was reputed among his fellow students to be adventurous and also gifted in languages.
Yet, little did they, or their families, know what awaited them. Shanghai was the gateway to inland China, then, a major trading port and a British Settlement. It was one of the coldest months when they arrived in the first week of December. Temperatures boast an average high 51.1 F and an average low 36.3 F in Shanghai and in the official Shanghai Jubilee record of 1843-1893 it is documented that
“… the internal condition [of Shanghai],” was “exceedingly bad. Foreign and Chinese desperadoes infested not only the slums, but carried their depredations into the very oldest and most important parts of the British Settlement. Everyone went armed and in the newspapers of the time frequent mention is made of peaceable residents being murdered.”
Their living conditions were also difficult. They shared a home with William Muirhead, head of the affairs of the London Missionary Society, and one who had worked in Shanghai since 1847. Unfortunately, it did not take long for Thomas and Muirhead to disagree over the nature of mission. Muirhead wanted him to become headmaster of an Anglo-Chinese school on the condition that he not utter a word about Christianity. Unable to settle the disagreement with Muirhead himself, Thomas later writes to the LMS defending his position.
I refused on two grounds, or rather three,” he says.. I didn’t want the money, I wouldn’t be bound in the scope of my teaching, I couldn’t take such a step at all without consulting the wishes of the Society.
But an even more troubling situation arose. Mrs. Robert Jermain Thomas, called “Carrie” by those who knew her well, died on March 24th, 1864. It was only three months since their arrival and Thomas had left for Hankow hoping to get better accommodation for the summer months for his pregnant wife.
On the evening of Caroline’s death, Muirhead, wrote a letter to Dr. Tidman of the London Missionary Society:
My Dear Brother
In the absence of Rev. Thomas at Hankow I beg to communicate to you the sad intelligence of his dear wife’s death. It took place this morning at one o’clock, after a very few day’s illness. Her end was peace; and at times, when she was sufficiently conscious, she gave pleasing testimony of her faith in the Lord Jesus, and His preciousness to her in a dying hour. All that could be done by her medical attendant, Dr. Henderson, and a few Christian friends, was done for her in the course of her illness, and we are now left to mourn over our loss, though it be to her infinite gain. Our dear brother, Mr. Thomas, went to Hankow about a fortnight ago, little apprehending that there was any cause for anxiety on account of his beloved wife. He is not expected to return for a week or ten days. May God help him to bear the afflicting news.
Adding as an addendum:
I may state that the immediate cause of Mrs. Thomas’ death was a miscarriage. The wife of an American missionary brother died about ten days ago, and the news of her death gave a great shock to our dear sister. It did not appear in her
outward manner-----being of a “quiet and pensive disposition” but had told a friend that she thought her illness was occasioned by the above event
What a blow for Thomas. Later that year, he resigns from the LMS and is offered a position as a Customs Officer in Chefoo, which was close to Peking where his friends Joseph Edkins of the LMS and Alexander Williamson of the National Bible Society of Scotland lived. It was also in Chefoo that Carmichael, a fellow student and intimate friend at New College, had set up a medical practice. Carmichael had once worked for the London Missionary Society, but after two years had decided to work independently. At distance from the controversies and closer to those who could give him comfort Thomas would be able to process his grief and reconsider his call to serve Christ in the Orient.
It was in Chefoo that Thomas met up once more with Alexander Williamson of the National Bible Society of Scotlandand where he would meet with unexpected strangers who, unknowingly, would propel him toward his future destiny. Kim Cha-p’yong and Ch’oe Son-il were those strangers. They met Thomas at Williamson’s home. He noticed that they were wearing Catholic crosses and discovered that neither of them ever had the opportunity to read a bible. On hearing of this need Thomas was eager to meet it and with the help of Williamson planned to take the bible then available in classical Chinese script to Koreans. At this time the old Chinese and Korean language shared some characters, although it was mostly the aristocracy—the Yangban—who were literate. He resigned from the Customs and although he had not officially heard that he was reinstated into the London Missionary Society, he began, once again to become excited about working in the Gospel.
The first paragraph of a letter to the London Missionary Society describing his missionary journey to Korea reads:
January 12th, 1866
We left Chefoo on the 4th of September, on board a small Chinese junk, and arrived off the mainland of Corea on the 13th. We spent two months and a half on the coast. I had acquired, through the assistance of a Corean Roman Catholic, sufficient knowledge of the colloquial to announce to these poor people some of the most precious truths of the Gospel. They are, as a whole, very hostile to forigners [sic]; but, by a little chat in their own language I could persuade them to accept a book or two. As these books are taken at the risk of decapitation, or at least, fines and imprisonment, it is quite fair to conclude that the possessors wish to read them.
His first missionary journey was successful, so much so that the London Missionary Society who was not yet sure whether or not to reinstate Thomas as an official missionary to China, published the whole of his letter in their Journal. Alexander Williamson testified later that Thomas entertained the Korean Embassy during his tenure at Peking when he was with the London Missionary Society in 1866. His training in Wales gave Thomas the agility to meet with both the ordinary citizen and the aristocratic class with the same persuasive ease.
During this trip Thomas had worn Korean dress and barely escaped with his life after his Chinese junk was dashed to pieces by a terrible gale in Pi-tz-wo, Manchuria. On landing there, he found it occupied by rebels. But despite the situation, he spent three days distributing the scriptures and preaching the gospel. In his letter to the London Missionary Society, he recalls how, “A Mohammedan named Likwo Fa brought a copy of each kind of book I had and insisted on sending me dinners daily, free of expenses.”
His versatility enabled Thomas to meet with men of differing status and differing religions.
At this point in the story, Thomas had won my total allegiance. It was mind boggling enough that he had lost his wife and continued on serving his Lord in a country that was hostile to the Gospel. No doubt his Godly parents were influential in his Christian training that Thomas could hear the call of God on his life at such a young age. It was not easy. Yet he was persistent, faithful, and adventurous in his approach to the Gospel.
And more was to follow. I discovered that on his second missionary journey to Korea, Thomas left on what could have been either a smuggling boat, a spy-ship, or simply a trading ship. Any of them would have been forbidden in Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, who wanted nothing to do with foreigners. China was the only official country with which they would trade, yet smuggling ships were often seen along the coast. The official mandates did not always please Korean traders.
1866, the year of the Tiger, was the most cruel year of the preceding 65 years of persecution suffered by the Catholic Church in Korea. Thomas was well aware of the dangers he faced, and yet was still eager to reach the Korean people with the good news. ‘Death to the Western Barbarians! Death to all Christians!’ were the slogans shouted on the streets. Yet Thomas continued to find those who were eager to listen to the news of the Gospel and to accept literature at the risk of fines, imprisonment, or even execution.
Thomas’ sacrifice in bringing God’s word to Korea was not forgotten. An island in the wide Taedong River in Pyongyang is the site (as the Koreans term it, “Mr. Thomas’ Resting Place”) of Thomas’ grave. In 1928 Korean Christiansgathered on this sacred location to remember his life and sacrifice. They were members of the Thomas Memorial Association which had been initially established by Reverent Samuel Austin Moffett in 1910.
Despite occupation by the imperialistic Japanese forces, the association planned and built
the Thomas Memorial Church which was dedicated in 1932.
The cornerstone of this church, donated by the Scottish Bible Society in memory of their earst while colporteur Thomas, was inscribed with the word of, “The blood of the martyr…”
The church was built on the south Bank of the Taedong River in the Nak Lang Ang (white man’s area) region of the city. The area was so called because it held the graves of the caucasion members of the Sherman crew.
A large white obelisk to the honor of Kim Il Song now occupies the Thomas gravesite.
All vestiges of Korean Christianity including The Thomas Memorial Church were got rid of by the Communist leaders when they came to power.
Myth-making hailed the forebear of Kim Il Song as the orchestrator of the attack on the Sherman.
It is my belief that the attack and capture of the USS Pueblo in 1967, 100 years after the destruction of the Sherman, commemorates the historical event of repelling the “superpower of the USA” with its associated Christianity. The Pueblo is anchored at the site in the Taedong River where the Sherman was attacked A large monument is inscribed with the details of the attack and the part played by Kim Il Song’s great grandfather.
Kim Il Song’s mother was a devoted Christian. It was only when Billy Graham posed the challenging question to him in a personal meeting inquiring of his mother’s church that Kim Il Song decided to build the present Pyongyang Presbyterian Church, presenting token Christianity.
The site of the large Presbyterian Church compound established by Samuel A. Moffett, one of the early Presbyterian missionaries and others is long gone. The school that missionary children attended was commandeered by the Communists and few vestiges, if any, of this era remain in tact.
Choe Chi Hyang, a 12 year old ;boy who had received a bible from Thomas on the day of his execution, was later to be discipled by Reverend Samuel Moffett and became an elder in the fledgling Pyongyang Church.
Thomas’ executioner, Park Chun Won, recorded later that he knew he had killed a good man. He and his sons became Christians.
The government official Pak, who oversaw the attack on the Sherman, had taken the scriptures and posted them as a trophy on the wall of his house, near the Eastern Gate of Pyongyang. He was later converted and his house became the first Protestant church, known as the Nul Da Li-Gol. The Jang-Dae Hyun Church was later built on this site and became the nidus of the great Pyongyang Revival of 1907. The Communist destroyed this building and in its place erected an educational establishment.
Sacrifice of the saints is not to be forgotten. God assures us of His presence throughout time. Miraculously, the site of the destroyed Robert Thomas Memorial Church is to become the home of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). This is a daughter institution of Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, China, a Christian University built in 1992. Their excellence in teaching won the attention of North Korean president, Kim Jong Il, who has leased land for the building of PUST. One million square meters in the Nak Lang section of Pyongyang city.
Thomas’ legacy is still being written.
I now live in this young Welshman’s former home in Llanover, Wales. I am stunned to realize how mightily God uses the insignificant, the faithful, the ordinary men and women to accomplish His work.