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My Missionary Family in Korea


A trip to Seoul last week sparked a renewed interest in my great-grandparents, who were some of the first Adventist missionaries to Korea, serving there from 1917 to 1932. Requests to my mother for family stories and research at Adventist institutions in Seoul yielded a picture of a sincere and hardworking family, who lived through historically interesting times in a fascinating part of the world. 

My grandmother was born in Korea on January 5, 1922. 

Traveling to Seoul last week, into a modern tangle of eight-lane highways criss-crossing a country crowded with high-rise apartment buildings across vast bridges and through long tunnels, with the onboard navigation system checking speed and chattering all the time, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for my great-grandfather and great-grandmother arriving to Korea by ship in 1917.

Korea today

Married just two months earlier, my great-grandfather Lyman Bowers and his bride Ella Mae Chatterton, sailed on the SS China on August 1, 1916 with a large group of missionaries bound for Asia. The Bowers went to Shanghai, where Lyman was the treasurer for the Signs Press. Less than a year later, he was asked to go to Korea. A treasurer for the mission and a manager for the press were needed, and Lyman was able to serve in both capacities. 

Lyman and Ella Mae Bowers first went to Seoul, where their two daughters were born, and then moved north to Soonan, where a mission, together with a school and press had been established by the first American missionary in Korea, W. R. Field. (Soonan is now part of North Korea, and Pyongyang’s airport is located there.) Lyman and Ella Mae Bowers served as missionaries in Korea from 1917 until 1932.

My great-grandmother, Ella Mae Chatterton Bowers

How the Adventist church in Korea began

The Adventist church in Korea had begun just over a decade before Lyman and Ella Mae Bowers arrived — started not by American missionaries, but by a Korean. In 1904, two Koreans, Won Heung Cho and Lee Sung Hyun, were on their way to Hawaii to work, via Japan. They noticed a signboard advertising an Adventist church in Kobe, Japan, and went in when the pastor invited them. Pastor Hide Kuniya had been one of the first Adventist converts among the Chinese. Though they didn’t understand each other’s language, they were able to communicate using Chinese characters, and the Koreans became convinced of the Adventist doctrines. They were both baptized in Japan. Eung Hyun Lee headed on to Hawaii s planned, but for some reason, Heung Choi Son went back to Korea. On the journey, he met a Methodist Korean Ki Ban Lim, who had considerable knowledge of Bible doctrines. Lim decided he wanted to become an Adventist, too. Back in his home of Chinnampo, he shared the message of the Sabbath with the Methodist believers.

But because Lim’s knowledge of Adventism was limited, he called for help. Thirty-six new believers in Korea wrote to the Japanese pastor, asking him to come and teach them. Pastor Kuniya arrived in Chinnampo, northwestern Korea, on August 9, 1904. He conducted Bible studies in many villages. He, in turn, called on F. W. Field, director of the Japanese Mission, who was invited to baptize 71 new converts in September 1904. Four churches were organized. 

Upon his return to Japan from this fruitful visit to Korea, Field wrote to the General Conference:

The message has spread like wild-fire….We ought to have workers located in Korea as soon as possible….We have been praying that the Lord of the harvest will send laborers to this part of the vineyard.

When he got Field’s letter, Elder A. G. Daniells, President of the General Conference appealed to the church through the Review & Herald (December 8, 1904). On September 18, 1905, W. R. Smith and his wife, a trained nurse, with their baby girl sailed from Vancouver, British Columbia, to answer the call. “We had not been told any thing about furloughs and we didn’t expect to ever see our native land again,” Smith wrote later in his memoir. Elder Smith was the first missionary delegated from General Conference.

In his unpublished memoir, which I got from my great aunt, Smith described starting up a mission and school in Soonan, Korea.

"Soonan was the name of a place along the rail road fifteen miles north from the town of Pyengyang [sic]. Soonan was not a town. It was only a village, but there were a few small stores, a rail road station, a post office and we could either telephone or send telegrams and once in five days a market was held where all kinds of native merchandise was brought to be sold. At Soonan a new company had accepted our message and when I went to visit them they were very anxious for us to come there to live. It seemed to me that it would be an almost ideal location for a school."

Smith went on to tell tales of traveling from village to village throughout Korea, mostly by bicycle, often over heavily wooded mountains. Local people entreated him not to travel at night, because of the danger of tigers.

How different Korea looks today! There are still spectacular mountains, but it’s hard to picture a land of scattered villages and roaming tigers looking at today’s ultra-modern skyscrapers and neon-signed streets.

Lyman Bowers and other pioneers remembered in books and exhibits

My great-grandfather Lyman Bowers is the first treasurer and secretary pictured in a book commemorating the history of the Korean Union Conference, published in 1984 on the occasion of the union’s 80th anniversary.

While I was in Seoul last week, I met Kwon JohngHaeng, Stewardship Director for the Northern Asia-Pacific Division. Pastor Kwon showed me the large volume of pictures from the earliest days of the Korean mission up until the 1980s. It looked like a yearbook, with rows of faces of the union’s administrators, as well as group shots and candid photographs over the years. Pastor Kwon had also been instrumental in putting together a small “museum” in the Division office in Seoul commemorating the early work of the Adventist church in Korea. He took me there to see the display of memoirs written by missionaries, some artifacts, and pictures and plaques on the walls. 

Pastor Kwon JohngHaeng at the Northern Asia-Pacific Division office

I didn’t see a picture of my great-grandfather in the Divison office, although I did see a photograph of my great-uncle, Winston T. Clark, who became president of the Far Eastern Division in 1975.

My great-grandfather Lyman Bowers, whom we called Obijee (the phonetic spelling of "father" in Korean), died in 1987, when I was 11. I remember him clearly. But I remember him as a thin, kindly old man who sat in his chair through the day. I knew he had been a missionary, but I had no understanding of the work he had done as a younger man.

Lyman Bowers' work as treasurer and school industrial manager

My great-grandfather Lyman Bowers believed that part of his job as treasurer was to train local workers to succeed him and keep the books of the church scrupulously. I grew up hearing the story from my mother about how my great-grandfather passed the work on to a Korean. According to my mother, one of the first things Lyman did as treasurer was to look for a local worker to train. He didn’t know anyone in Korea yet, so he was not sure how to choose the right person. He traveled to the Adventist school in Soonan, where he watched the students for a whole day. At the end of the day he prayed for guidance, and then chose the student who had the most purposeful walk. He told the teachers he wanted to train that student in finance and accounting, so that he could serve the church as a treasurer. The teachers then informed Lyman that he had picked their very best student. Lyman trained the Korean student in the work of treasurer, and then tested his honesty and ability by removing a very small amount of money from the cash box — such a small amount that the man could easily have made up the difference from his own pocket.  At the end of the day, the man agitatedly told Lyman that the books had not balanced and he had spent the whole day trying to find the mistake. Lyman told him he had passed the test. Later he was able to leave the books in the hands of the local Korean workers with confidence.

Ella Mae and Lyman’s oldest child Naomi was born in Korea on December 1, 1917, soon after they reached the country. Their second daughter, my grandmother Elizabeth (Betty), was born five years later in 1922. After my grandmother’s birth, Ella Mae was very sick, and when Betty was eight months old, they made the long journey home to the US so that she could recuperate. Lyman was afraid that both his wife and his baby daughter would die on the ship. After their furlough, when Ella Mae had regained her health, the family returned to Korea.

When their daughters were four and eight, the Bowers family moved from Seoul to Soonan, where Lyman Bowers became industrial manager of the Adventist school there.

The Adventist school at Soonan, knoiwn as UimYeong School

Lyman Bowers had a strong interest in making sure work was available for the students at the school, so that Adventist education would be accessible even for those who could not pay the school fees. He had started his own business caning chairs for the South Lancaster community to help put himself through school at Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts, and then was able to sell the business at a profit when he graduated with a business degree in 1913. He had a keen desire to teach others the value of work.

Lyman’s reputation was of a man who liked to get things done. According to his daughters, he used to say: “At least move in the right direction.” The feeling at the mission was, if you want a job done, ask Bowers to do it, his daughter Naomi said.

As industrial manager of the Soonan school, Lyman knew the names of all the students and had work assignments for all of them each afternoon after classes. Whatever the school needed, the students learned to do. There was a dairy, a woodworking shop for carpentry, and fields for growing vegetables. Soon Lyman started a small factory for preserving fresh vegetables where the students worked. And then, with the help of some of the other missionaries, he developed recipes for gluten and other types of protein which could be sealed in containers for a long shelf life. This food factory was the precursor of Sahmyook Foods, now one of the largest producers of soy products and health food in Korea, and wholly owned by the Adventist church. 

According to family history, the food factory was operating at a loss after its first year of operation. But Lyman Bowers did not want the mission to pay the debt on a factory he had started. So he paid the debt out of his own salary month by month. He felt the debt was a disgrace, and so did not tell anyone except the treasurer, and no one knew that he was paying off the debt out of his own pocket. After two years, when the food factory began to turn a profit, the money went straight back into the school, and Lyman never paid himself back. This anecdote was told by his daughter Naomi, and she thought that probably no one else other than her sister Betty (my grandmother) knew the story.

While I was in Seoul, a kind pastor from the south of the country, Jahng Young Tae, offered to take me and another visitor to see Sahmyook University. The Adventist school at Soonan, where my great-grandfather had worked, had been dismantled and taken south to Seoul in the 1940s. That school became Sahmyook University, the first institution of higher education in Korea, and today one of the largest Adventist universities in the world.

Aerial view of Sahmyook University today

The university was about a 45-minute drive away, located on a very impressive campus, with many beautiful buildings. Some were traditional with pillars and classical architecture. Others were modern — all glass and steel. As it’s summer vacation, the campus was quiet, without many students around. The pastor told us that a recent president had been insistent on the importance of a physically attractive campus. The pastor had arranged a visit to the university museum, which boasted exhibits on natural history and archaeology, as well as a small section about its history, and a special art exhibition. I saw pictures of the first school buildings in Soonan — buildings that my great-grandfather had probably known well.

Sahmyook University campus

My grandmother's and great aunt's memories of Korea

When I was a child, my grandparents lived with us for a year. My grandmother Betty talked about her childhood in Korea, running around the mission compound with the other children, and taught me and my siblings games they used to play. She told us that she had her sister had loved to climb trees and walk on stilts.  We noticed that at dinnertime there were lots of vegetables she didn’t eat. She told us that when she was a child in Korea, they didn’t have adequate immunity to local diseases, so they soaked their fresh vegetables in bleach water, and then boiled them for so long that they tasted awful.

My great aunt Naomi (Aunt Omi, we called her), died in 2016 at age 98. My mother spent many hours talking to her in the years before her death, and the following are some of the stories about Korea that she told. 

Every spring the Bowers family would hike through the hills to visit to a Buddhist temple with another missionary family, the Watts. The North Korean hills were beautiful in spring, covered with pink azaleas. It was a long walk, and they would take a picnic lunch that they ate beside a waterfall outside the temple. They visited with the priests and learned many things about the Buddhist faith. They looked forward to the trip every spring, and every spring the priests greeted them warmly when they came.

Three huge purple lilac bushes grew in front of their house in the mission compound in the summer, so that you could hardly see the house.

In the winter, Soonan was cold, according to my great aunt Omi.  The river ice would freeze three feet thick.  In the early spring the hospital hired a man with a bull cart to saw blocks of ice, put them on the cart, and take them to the hospital's dirt cellar in the bank of a hill.  They stored the blocks in rice straw and chaff, so they had ice most of the summer.  We could buy ice every once in awhile and make ice cream, she said.

But at least in the winter, Lyman got relief from malaria. Every summer, he was plagued by the mosquito-borne disease. 

That was one reason that, in 1932, he accepted a call to work at the Adventist press in Singapore. The family packed up their home in Soonan and went to Seoul, where they stayed with the Watts family for about a month.  (One of the Watts’ family’s grandchildren is Dwight Nelson.)

In Singapore, Lyman managed the Malayan Signs Press, and Ella Mae, who had an education degree, taught at the Malayan seminary. In 1941, the Bowers’ went to Borneo to relieve some fellow missionaries who were on furlough. While there, Ella Mae contracted malaria, and died on June 22, 1941, less than a week after she took ill.

Lyman Bowers' daughter Naomi returns to Korea

In 1937, the Bowers family had gone to the US on furlough, and their daughters Naomi and Betty began studying at Pacific Union College. In 1940, Naomi Bowers married George Munson, whose family had also served as missionaries in Asia. George Munson was pastoring in Hawaii when World War II ended, and he was asked to go to Korea as manager of the Korean Signs of the Times publishing house. He already had mission experience, but he did some training at Pacific Press in California to prepare and studied the Korean language at University of California Berkeley. George and Naomi Munson went to Korea in 1947, where they worked until war broke out in 1950. In 1951, the men were allowed back in, and in 1954 Naomi and their four kids returned. George Munson served in many church positions in Korea, and taught theology at Sahmyook University, for about 20 years. So my great aunt Omi spent most of her childhood in Korea with her missionary parents, and then she went back with her husband and spent much of her adult life there as well.

Korean Union Conference anniversary book signed by my great-uncle George Munson

Traveling to Korea for the first time brought this branch of my family history alive to me in a way it never had been before. I tried to imagine my great grandparents experiencing such a different culture and language in a world that was not globalized the way it is today. I met many Korean Adventists who professed great interest in meeting the descendent of one of the first missionaries to their country. The Korean Adventists seem to have a genuine respect for missionaries and they cherish the stories from the early days of the Adventist church in their country. The Korean Adventists began to send out their own missionaries as early as 1968, and now Korean missionaries serve in all parts of the world, supported by their churches at home. 

On the drive from Seoul to Sahmyook University

After my visit to Seoul, I have a greater appreciation of my family history, and the brave and adventurous work that my forefathers and foremothers did. It was a thrill and an honor to go where they did — although the sights I saw were things they probably never imagined. I wish I could talk to them about Korea past and present. I wish I could ask them what it was like to live in Japanese-occupied Korea between the shadows of the two World Wars. They would be amazed at the changes of a century. They probably didn’t believe the world would last into the 21st century.

Photo credits: Alita Byrd


Notes from Rachel Byrd's conversations with Naomi Bowers Munson.

Letters from Betty Bowers to her daughter (my mother) Rachel Byrd.

Ella Mae Chatterton Bowers' obituary in the Far Eastern Division Outlook in 1941. 

Light Dawns in Eastern Asia, published in Adventist World. 

More Than Conquerers. Memoir by George Munson, published by TEACH Services, Inc, 2007.

Mission of the Early Korean Seventh-day Adventist Church through the Lens of the Wangerin Collection, by Gyeongchun Choi. Published in Asia Africa Journal of Mission and Ministry, 2015.

Unpublished memoir by W. R. Smith.



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