Latter-day Saints know that revelation and prophecy have foretold the spread of the gospel throughout the world in the latter days. Few realize, though, how clearly this has been manifest in Korea. Not a single Korean national was a member of the LDS Church until 1951, but today, little more than a generation later, South Korea has fourteen stakes and a temple.
Much of this growth must be attributed to the work and influence of modern-day pioneer Kim Ho Jik.
Born 16 April 1905 in the province of Pyongan-Pukdo (now part of North Korea), Kim Ho Jik moved south as a teenager to attend school in Suwon, a farm town south of Seoul. He graduated from Suwon Advanced Agricultural and Forestry School in 1924, then earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Tohoku University in Japan, graduating in 1930. His comparatively advanced education allowed him to rise quickly to positions of influence. After his return to Korea, he became president of Sukmyeong Women’s University. Then, in 1946, he was appointed director of the Suwon Agricultural Experimentation Station.
Kim Yeon Jun, a former colleague and now president of Hanyang University in Seoul, remembers that “the thing [Kim Ho Jik] seemed most concerned about was finding ways to improve the quality of life for Koreans.”1 Kim Ho Jik focused his research on ways to improve nutrition in the Korean diet.
But he longed to learn more about the latest theories and discoveries in agriculture. American scientists who worked with him at the experimentation station encouraged this desire, pointing out that Korea desperately needed well-educated leaders in science and education. Syngman Rhee, president of South Korea, wanted to send him to America to learn more efficient ways of feeding their country’s malnourished population.2 So Kim Ho Jik made plans to enroll at Cornell University in New York, which had one of the world’s top graduate study programs in nutrition.
A yearning for education was not the only passion that filled his heart as he journeyed to the United States in 1949. Since his youth he had been interested in religion and had investigated several churches. None had satisfied his lingering spiritual hunger. As a boy, he had dabbled in Cheon-Do Kyo (The Church of the Heavenly Way), a Korean religious movement. He studied in a Buddhist monastery. In 1925, he joined a Protestant church and became an elder in that organization.
Han In Sang, an early LDS convert in Korea and now director of the regional Presiding Bishopric Office in Seoul, recalls: “Dr. Kim had great faith in orthodox Christian concepts, such as Jesus Christ as the Savior, but he had some dissatisfaction with other aspects of the Protestant churches—the theological confusion and the false doctrines, like predestination.”3 The sudden death of his third son in 1935 had deepened Kim Ho Jik’s longing for spiritual satisfaction.
Long before he came to America, he believed in the Spirit of God and sought its guidance. His faith served him well just before he left his homeland, when he felt compelled to sell his stately home, his cars, and his other possessions. He gave the cash raised from these sales to his wife and children to live on. To critics of this apparently purposeless act, Kim Ho Jik replied only that the Spirit had instructed him to do so.4
A few months after he arrived in America, the reason became clear. War broke out with the North Korean invasion of June 1950. Bombs destroyed his former home, and the South Korean government confiscated all autos for use by the military. But Kim Ho Jik’s family remained financially secure in his absence.
Kim Ho Jik hoped the Spirit would help him find the “true church” in America.5 While he completed a doctoral degree at Cornell, he attended meetings of various churches in and around Ithaca, New York. But the answer he was seeking lay at his very doorstep.
The Korean educator shared an office with Oliver Wayman, a doctoral candidate in physiology. Like his office companion, Oliver Wayman was older than most of the other graduate students. He also happened to be a Latter-day Saint.
The two men became good friends. Their wide-ranging discussions, however, did not include religion—until one day shortly before Brother Wayman was to leave Cornell, when his Korean friend asked if he had any literature about his church.
“I have never seen you smoke or drink,” Kim Ho Jik told Brother Wayman. “I have never heard you use vulgar language or profane the name of God. You work harder and longer hours than any of the others, but I have never seen you here on Sunday. You are different in so many ways. I wonder if you would tell me why you live as you do?”6
Brother Wayman gave him a copy of The Articles of Faith by Elder James E. Talmage. Kim Ho Jik read the book within a week. “He told me it was the best book on the gospel he had ever read and that he believed it thoroughly,”7 Brother Wayman recalls. Given a copy of the Book of Mormon, the Korean read it quickly and reported to his American friend that he believed it to be the word of God. It was, he said, more complete and easier to understand than the Bible.8
Though Kim Ho Jik responded favorably to LDS doctrine, he still believed his Protestant church could reform itself from within by incorporating some of the teachings of the LDS Church.9 He began to attend the local LDS branch but also continued to attend his Protestant meetings.
On Brother Wayman’s last day at Cornell, he was making the rounds to say good-bye to friends when Kim Ho Jik approached him. Brother Wayman felt impelled to ask the Korean why he had decided to leave his homeland and family to study in the United States. The Korean scholar responded that he needed the new knowledge in nutrition available at Cornell for the benefit of his people.10
Then, Brother Wayman recalls:
“I bore my testimony … and told him that it was my opinion that the Lord had moved upon him to come to America … in order that he might receive the gospel and take it back to his people in preparation for a great missionary work to be done there. … I informed him … that if he refused to do the work the Lord had for him, … another would be raised up in his place.”11
Brother Wayman never saw Kim Ho Jik again, but he left New York “sure that the Spirit which touched me when I bore my testimony to him touched him at the same time. I could see a change in his expression.”12
Kim Ho Jik’s outlook had indeed changed. He continued to study the gospel avidly, but now with an eye toward baptism. Don C. and Geneal Wood, Seneca District missionaries who taught him, recall, “As soon as we would begin any type of review with Brother Kim, he would hold up his hands and say emphatically, ‘No, no, I have already accepted that. Let us go on.’”13
His receptiveness endured even through a discussion of the Word of Wisdom, which the Woods feared might be difficult because of the popularity of tea in the Orient. As Elder Wood finished reading the eighty-ninth section of the Doctrine and Covenants, tears flowed down Brother Kim’s cheeks.
“Oh,” he sobbed, “if only I had known all of this when I came here. My government wanted me to find ways to feed our people properly, and without sufficient grazing lands for cattle, we did not know how to do this. My whole time studying in America has been to find ways to feed our people through the grains the Lord has always intended for us to use.”14 The tea issue was never raised; Brother Kim accepted the Lord’s health code wholeheartedly.
When the missionary discussions were completed, Brother Kim was not only ready to join the Church, but he wanted to be baptized at the same site as were Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. On 29 July 1951, in the Susquehanna River near the marker commemorating the first baptisms in the restored Church, Seneca Branch President Joseph A. Dye baptized the first Korean Latter-day Saint. As he arose from the water, Brother Kim said he heard a voice saying, “Feed my sheep, feed my sheep.” He later recorded the event in the flyleaf of his scriptures, writing below the date of his baptism: “Words given—Feed my sheep.”15
A few days before he finished his doctoral program and returned to Korea in September of 1951, Brother Kim attended the Hill Cumorah Pageant with Brother and Sister Wood. On Sunday, they attended a special testimony meeting for local missionaries in the Sacred Grove. After the meeting, Brother Kim met President David O. McKay, who was also attending the meeting. “As we walked from the grove,” Brother Wood said, “Brother Kim cradled his right hand in his left and, with his cheeks still moist, he kept repeating, ‘I have shaken the hand of the Prophet of God.’”16
Thousands of miles from the Sacred Grove, Brother Kim’s homeland was now littered with the pieces of a civilization shattered by war. Thousands had died, cities and industries had been reduced to rubble, and the homes and livelihood of millions had been destroyed. Hungry refugees lived in makeshift huts. It was in this setting that Brother Kim undertook the Lord’s errand—to feed his sheep. But he did not face this awesome task without assistance.
In South Korea, war had brought a semblance of Church organization through the worship meetings held by LDS servicemen on military bases. Brother Kim attended these meetings and began his proselyting career by inviting the servicemen, some of them former missionaries, to teach his family. They taught in English, with Brother Kim translating. He also joined these unofficial missionaries in seeking other investigators. By July 1952, there were enough Korean investigators to have their own Sunday School meetings separate from the servicemen.17
When one of Brother Kim’s former students confided that she was severely depressed and considering suicide, he told her:
“Dear sister, I know of a gospel—a wonderful gospel—capable of giving you new hope, new life. If you study it and pray to God, I promise you these things: health, happiness, joy and a desire to help others find those things, too.”18
She and her daughter were among the first four baptisms in Korea, at Songdo Beach in Pusan on 3 August 1952. The other two new members were Brother Kim’s son Tai Whan and daughter Young Sook.
His oldest daughter, Jung Sook, was baptized in a swimming pool on the Soyong Army Post in 1953. “The water was warm,” she says, “but the weather was bitterly cold. Yet I was so happy I just didn’t realize how cold it was.”19
Brother Kim invited investigators into his home for weekly cottage meetings. He translated for American Church members, and sometimes he taught the investigators himself. One Korean who attended several of these meetings heard Brother Kim say more than once that “the thing this war-torn land needed more than anything else was a spiritual rebuilding.”20
While the number of Korean converts was gradually increasing, Brother Kim also found success in his secular pursuits. He was appointed president of the National Fisheries College at Pusan, which had been inoperative because of the war. Within a few months, he had it fully functional, a feat that amazed many observers. During a celebration in his honor, Brother Kim told assembled parents and teachers, “I cannot accept any of the credit. I asked of God, and he is the one who accomplished the unbelievable.”21
Blessed with administrative adeptness and the humility to seek divine help, Brother Kim advanced quickly to other prestigious positions: dean of the College of Animal Husbandry at Konkuk University; president of Hong Ik College; chief Korean representative to UNESCO; chairman of the Seoul Board of Education; and vice-minister of education for South Korea. He also authored several highly-praised scientific publications.
The social status Kim Ho Jik achieved is significant. Says Brother Han, “It was vital that such a politically and socially powerful person be involved in the establishment of the Church in Korea. Without Dr. Kim, [it] would have been delayed for a couple of decades.”22
Indeed, approval of official legal status for the Church in South Korea appeared unlikely. “The name Mormon meant ‘heathen,’ ‘pagan,’” Brother Han recalls. LDS missionaries were not allowed in Korea because “they were not recognized … as decent Christian missionaries.”23
Brother Kim’s appointment to the Seoul Board of Education in 1956 proved fortunate, since all the city’s religious matters came under its jurisdiction. He personally took before the board a proposal for the Church’s incorporation in Korea. With his endorsement, it passed. “It was almost a miracle,” Brother Han says.24
Kim Ho Jik also put his reputation on the line to gain permission for LDS missionaries to enter South Korea, agreeing to be their financial sponsor and guaranteeing that they would do no harm to the Korean people. The first two full-time missionaries arrived from Japan in April 1956.
Brother Kim’s positive influence on the first generation of Korean Saints was perhaps equal in importance to his impact on missionary work. Brother Hart, a former president of the Korean Mission and the first Korean to serve as a regional representative, joined the Church as a high school student. In 1956, he began attending the branch where Brother Kim taught Sunday School. He remembers that “Dr. Kim was the unofficial patriarchal figure and spiritual leader for all the Korean Saints. His integrity was a great strength to new members and investigators. We would think, ‘If Dr. Kim says he accepts this principle, we don’t need to worry about his truthfulness or his sincerity.’”25
“Even though he was the vice-minister of education, he would mingle with us teenagers,” Brother Han adds. “No one would expect something like that in Korean society. A man in his kind of position in the government would never do things like that with lay citizens, especially people as young and poor as we were. But he … was not ashamed to be with his brothers in the gospel, regardless of age, race, social rank, title, or whatever.”26
Brother Kim’s rapport with young people proved valuable, since so many of the new Korean members were high school or college students. Rhee Ho Nam, another early convert who went on to serve as a mission president and regional representative, comments, “His whole purpose became to teach these young future leaders of the kingdom of God in Korea.”27
His former pupils say much of Brother Kim’s most effective teaching was through example. “Korean society was rough immediately after the war,” says Brother Han. “Every day you could walk home, since there was not much public transportation in those days, and in more than half of the houses you passed, you could hear noisy quarrels between hungry wives and their drunken husbands. But Dr. Kim was living a heavenly life—there are no other words for the way he treated his wife and his family.”28
Kim Ho Jik once told a group of Korean Saints, “I wouldn’t care if I had to give up my life, or my money, or my title, as long as I could be with my Savior.”29 If any of his listeners doubted his sincerity, the events of his life proved his commitment to serving God.
Once, for example, the Korea Broadcasting System invited him to lecture on a topic in biology during a nationwide broadcast. “During the entire ten minutes he was on, he talked only about the Church,” says Park Jae Am, a supervisor in the Presiding Bishopric’s regional office in Seoul. “It was just like he was talking in his Sunday School class.”30
Brother Kim also made a memorably bold statement of dedication to his faith in an episode that almost seems drawn from the Book of Daniel. Korean President Syngman Rhee decided one Sunday that he urgently needed to consult with his vice-minister of education. After searching for several hours, the president’s secretary found Kim Ho Jik teaching his Sunday School class. Brother Kim refused to leave until he finished his lesson. President Rhee, notorious for his harshness, was irate. But Brother Kim calmly explained that he considered nothing more important than his Sunday School assignment and that he felt obliged to finish it before responding to the president’s summons. President Rhee patted Brother Kim on the shoulder and said, “Well done.”31
Brother Kim resigned his national post in July of 1956 “because I wished to dedicate more time and energy to our Church.”32 He had been president of the Yurak-Dong Branch, and he had become the first Korea District president in 1955, holding that position until his death. His work included translating several pieces of Church literature from English into Korean.
Brother Kim represented Korea at a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization meeting in India in August of 1959. Shortly after his return home, he met with Rhee Ho Nam, who noted that Brother Kim looked tired. Brother Kim replied that he had felt ill during the FAO conference and was anxious to return home so he would not die in India.33 Less than a month later, on August 31, he died of a stroke.
During Brother Kim’s funeral, “the presidents of nearly every university and college in Korea came around to pay their respects,” says F. Ray Hawkins, a missionary in Korea during the late 1950s. “Every single one of those men said that Brother Kim had personally, more than once, invited them out to church and had discussions about the gospel.”34 Brother Hawkins’s observation suggests a fitting epitaph: though he walked among the elite, Kim Ho Jik’s prestige was to him a mere tool for building the kingdom of God.
His service in the Church lasted only eight years, but his impact on its establishment in Korea is immeasurable. He was an exemplar of a new kind of Mormon pioneer, the kind who takes the gospel into new lands where the word Mormon is essentially unknown and the name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not yet been heard.