The Legacy of Horace Grant Underwood

By Pang, Samuel Y. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, July 2015 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Horace Grant Underwood


Pang, Samuel Y., International Bulletin of Mission Research


In 1908, his twenty-third year as missionary to Korea, Horace Grant Underwood wrote The Call of Korea. For Underwood, the call was as urgent as ever. In his introduction, A. T. Pierson likened the book to Moses' silver trumpet making a "clear clarion peal." This peal still rang strong in Underwood's own questions at the back of the book, which not only exhorted fellow Christians to join him in the mission field of Korea but also showed his firm belief in the country, its people, and the work. At the head of the questions for chapter 5, "The Past and Present of Missions in Korea," Underwood wrote: "OBJECT.--to realize that this is Korea's Crisis Hour, and that the church should now take advantage of her golden opportunity." (1)

Before Korea

Horace Grant Underwood was born in London on July 19, 1859, to John Underwood and Elisabeth Grant Maire, the fourth of their six children. Horace's wife, Dr. Lillias Horton Underwood, who wrote her husband's biography, traced his vision and work for unity among denominations, nations, and peoples to his maternal great-grandfather Alexander Waugh, an influential and active pastor in London. She credited his father, a chemist and inventor, with fostering in his son a delight in the devotional life and with planting in him from an early age "an eager hope and longing for the return of the Lord." (2) John Underwood knitted the reading of Scripture, regular prayers, and evangelistic work into the daily fabric of the lives of his children, a practice that continued after his wife died, which happened when Horace was only six years old. When Horace Underwood was twelve, his father decided, because of financial difficulty, to move the family to the United States, where Horace received his education. In 1881 he graduated from New York University with a bachelor of arts and entered the Dutch Reformed (now New Brunswick) Theological Seminary at New Brunswick, New Jersey. Here his childhood resolution to become a missionary took settled form. By the time he graduated in 1884 and was ordained by the classis of New Brunswick in November, he had begun studying medicine to become a more complete missionary to India.

It was during his time in New Brunswick that Underwood first gave serious thought to Korea, finally opened to the West, where twelve or thirteen million people had not heard the Gospel. He was determined, however, to find someone else to go to Korea, thinking he was meant for India. When he could find no one willing to go, Underwood reported, "The message came home to me--why not go yourself?" Korea was called the Hermit Kingdom for good reason. Until 1876, when Japan used gunboat diplomacy to force Korea to grant access to three of its ports through an unequal treaty, Korea's treatment of foreigners was consistent: if they landed accidentally by shipwreck, they were well taken care of, but if they tried to force themselves on the Korean people intentionally, they were killed. Lillias Underwood noted that, at that time, Korea was "still very much terra incognita." All that people knew, if they knew anything, she continued, was that it was "an island somewhere near China where Jesuit priests who many years before had secretly effected an entrance had been caught, tortured and killed." (3) Citing only one reason--that the Koreans had not heard the Gospel--Underwood pestered the Presbyterian Board of Missions until they finally agreed to send him to this unknown land with possibly savage people. With a generous donation of $6,000 by David W. McWilliams, the Presbyterian Missions Board appointed Horace Underwood as "clerical missionary" to Korea. On Easter Sunday, April 5,1885, he arrived in Incheon, Korea. He was twenty-six years old, the first Presbyterian minister to enter the Hermit Kingdom. He came filled with eager hope and longing to see God's kingdom come to this land.

Early Days in Korea

Underwood's default mode of ministry was educational, whether in teaching the Gospel to Koreans or in teaching about Korea to American Christians. …

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