The Korean Wesley

The Methodist connections that Henry Appenzeller T’1885 planted 125 years ago in South Korea still flourish.

By Mary Jo Patterson

Nearly 7,000 miles separate Drew’s campus from Seoul, South Korea. Yet for 125 years now the two places have been intimately connected, linked by Henry Gerhard Appenzeller, a graduate of Drew who introduced Methodism in Korea in 1887.

The young missionary had a huge impact on the country’s faith, culture and politics. Today the Methodist Church is the second-largest Protestant denomination in Korea, with 1.5 million members. But Appenzeller also set in motion a continuous loop between Drew and Seoul that’s still going strong.

Korean Methodists make regular pilgrimages to Drew and other sites associated with Appenzeller. Of the 13 Methodist seminaries in the United States, Drew’s Theological School enrolls the greatest number of Koreans (one in five Theo students come from Korea). Many Korean Theo graduates return to their native country to teach. Chungdong First Methodist Church in Seoul, the church Appenzeller founded, recently endowed a scholarship fund at Drew for Korean theology students.

“When we speak of Methodism, we think of  John Wesley, who founded the denomination. But Koreans think of Henry Appenzeller,” says Theo School Dean Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, who traveled to Seoul in June to address a conference convened in Appenzeller’s honor.

The Appenzeller story starts in 1883, when the Methodist Episcopal Church decided to open an outpost in Korea. Appenzeller, who was born in 1858, in Souderton, Pa., had resolved to become a missionary while attending college in Pennsylvania, and he applied to the church’s Board of Foreign Missions in New York. When last seen at Drew, the newly minted graduate was heading to the Madison train station, en route to ordination in San Francisco, trailed by fellow students singing hymns, according to a 1912 biography.

Because Korea had a prohibition against missionary work until 1887, Appenzeller spent his first year preparing a residence. His wife, the former Ella Dodge, gave birth to a daughter, Alice, widely reported to be the first Caucasian born in Korea. Two of the couple’s four children ended up spending much of their adult lives teaching in Korea.

Kuan says Appenzeller, representative of the late 19th-century Protestant missionary fervor gripping America, aimed to “conquer the world for Christ.” By a quirk of circumstance, the boat that took Appenzeller to Korea also carried Horace Underwood, a pioneering Presbyterian missionary. But Appenzeller wanted to do more than spread religion. He was also committed to modernizing Korea, educating both sexes and promoting the country’s political independence. Korea, known as the “Hermit Kingdom,” had just signed a treaty with the United States and was ending centuries of isolationism.

This fall an exhibit at the United Methodist Archives and History Center on the Drew campus documents Appenzeller’s work in Korea. The exhibit was conceived by Methodist Librarian Chris Anderson, who earlier this year found himself hosting two groups of Korean Methodists. The first, a contingent of 150, was retracing Appenzeller’s life, stopping at churches in nearby Green Village, where Appenzeller was a student-pastor, and in Lancaster, Pa., where he was married. The second group was from a church in Flushing, N.Y. “I started thinking, this is something we should take a broader look at,” Anderson says. “The connection between Drew and Methodism in Korea has been ongoing for over 100 years now.”

Disaster at Sea

Henry G. Appenzeller’s missionary work ended abruptly on the night of June 11, 1902, when he drowned in a steam-ship collision off the coast of Korea while on his way to a Bible translation meeting. He was 44 years old.

Eighteen other passengers and eight crew members died when their boat, churning through deepening fog, was rammed by a larger sister steamship. According to the account of a survivor from­­­­ the next stateroom, Appenzeller tried to save his Korean assistant and a young Korean girl rather than swim to safety. Although his body was never recovered, his grave stands in Yanghwajin Foreigners Cemetery in Seoul, where other early Protestant missionaries are buried.


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