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Dong Suk Kee (1881–1971) converted to Christianity while working as a laborer on a sugar plantation in Hawaii after leaving a career as a bureaucrat in the royal government of Korea. After studying theology at Northwestern University, he worked from 1914 to 1927 as a pastor of the Northern Methodist Church around Seoul and in Manchuria as well as participating in anti-Japanese independence movements. He then studied in the United States (1927–1930), encountering the Restoration Movement at Cincinnati Bible College and soon moving toward the Churches of Christ. Upon his return to Korea, he pioneered the Churches of Christ throughout the country.
The oldest of five children, Dong Suk Kee was born April 6, 1881, during the last years of the Chosun Dynasty, the eighteenth year of the reign of King Gojong. His father, Dong Ju Hong was a twenty-third generation member of the Dong family line, and his mother came from the Samchuk Kim clan. He was born to the Dong-ssi clan in Hamgyeong Nam-do Province, Bokchung-gun Region, Leegok-myeon County, Chori Area (also known as the Dong-ssi Village), Sang Ham-jun, which now lies in North Korea. (The phrase Dong-ssi denotes a village “with many members of the Dong family.”) The Dong clan had an excellent reputation in the region of Leegok-myeon and the wider province of Hamgyeong Nam-do.
The village’s thirty families lived a traditional farming existence, with the Dongs being a respectable middle class family. Their rice fields supported a modest but comfortable lifestyle. The family faithfully practiced traditional Confucian rites and counted Confucian scholars among their ancestors. Suk Kee received the customary education for boys in the village school. There he learned to copy the ancient texts, all in preparation for the civil service examinations that could give entry to a life away from the farm. He was tall and multitalented, intelligent, confident, and adventurous. Though he occasionally got into trouble for his mischievous behavior, he earned the respect of both teachers and fellow students. Because his father was open-minded in his approach to parenting, Suk Kee found that his opinion mattered, even when he got into trouble in school. His father accepted his behavior while also expecting much from him.
Still, the growing boy felt dissatisfied with his education and grew restless in his limited settings. He began to seek new academic and career opportunities beyond the village. He took opportunities to visit the cities to find adventure.
In 1894, aged thirteen and without parental permission, he traveled to the city of Hanyang (now Seoul) to discover new horizons. Upon his return home, the Dong clan tried to cure him of restlessness by instructing his parents to arrange a marriage for him. His father eventually bowed to the clan’s persistent demands, matching Suk Kee in the winter of 1897 to a fourteen-year-old bride, Kim Emme, from the Kimhae Kim clan. They met for the first time on their wedding day. Years later, he noted that he knew nothing of her previously, and indeed knew nothing of girls at all, since in traditional Confucian teaching, boys and girls should be kept separate after age seven. He adopted the topknot as the sign of the married man. His sense of adventure and curiosity remained untamed, however.
In 1899, he decided to leave the village in order to find a political job in the national capital Hanyang. He mortgaged his parents’ property and left home with the money, planning to return home a success. It was a period of great political turmoil, as Japanese influence grew over a Korea whose government was corrupt and always teetering on the brink of collapse. Government offices, including provincial governorships, were for sale, and Dong Suk Kee also purchased a newly established office position at the Gwangjaewon National Hospital, a health care center for the poor (including prisoners).
He held office at Gwangjaewon on an interim basis until October 1902, when his appointment was made permanent. The person who sold him the office kept asking for more money, however. After he refused to pay, that supervisor harassed him and eventually fired him from the position. Worst of all, the lender to whom he had mortgaged his parents’ property foreclosed on the loan, forcing his father to sell his farmland to pay off the debt. Disgraced, the young man could not return home. Years later, he reflected:
I wanted to become a governor, so I went to Hanyang with that hope. Because of that desire, I tried to get a position. I understood that I had to spend a lot of money to get such a position. I was only 19 years old when I got a government job. But after that, my parents had to sell their rice field to pay back the money I borrowed. It’s our custom that a father has to pay the debt a son borrows. Because people know my father sold the land to pay off his son’s debts, I could not borrow more money from anyone. I didn’t want to be a tenant farmer. I could not return home, and I could not stay in Hanyang.
His concern about what was happening led him to take a job as a physical laborer in order to raise money to repurchase his parents’ land for them. A diligent person, he tried to do even the smallest jobs in the best possible way.
Through his associates, he heard rumors of labor recruiting for sugar plantations in Hawaii. He saw an announcement of a program of the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) for immigrants to work in Hawaii, offering perfect weather, a place to stay, and long-term, year-around work for farmers, as well as legal protection. The salary of $15 dollars per month covered six days of work per week, with Sundays off. Fuel, housing, water, and healthcare were free. Most importantly, the program offered tuition-free education in English. (The 1903 migration marked the first wave of Korean immigration to the United States.)
The HSPA was led by Charles R. Bishop, who had been deputed to recruit laborers from Korea. During that time, Korea had experienced successive crop failures, outbreaks of cholera, and apathy on the part of officials more interested in buying and selling offices than in helping the populace. They used growing amounts of public money for unnecessary festivals. After Bishop came to Korea to recruit workers, he met the longtime Presbyterian medical missionary (and United States Minister to the Korean court) Horace Allen. Allen helped Bishop obtain the permission of King Gojong to recruit workers. The Soo Min Wan, or Department for Migrating People, helped the recruits obtain appropriate visas, despite which fewer farmers volunteered than had been anticipated.
To fill the quotas, Horace Allen next recruited George H. Jones, a missionary of the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and pastor of the Naeli Methodist Church in Inchon, to be a spokesperson for the recruiting drive. He proved successful in the role with an effective speech: “It is God’s will to invite the people of Chosun, who are not well known in the world, to be immigrants to the most beautiful land of milk and honey.” Many more responded, with Christians making up a disproportionate percentage of the recruits.
The Life of the Immigrant
A year after the first Korean arrivals in the United States, Dong Suk Kee debarked in Honolulu from the Japanese ship America Maru on January 9, 1904, along with 88 other Korean immigrants. For Dong Suk Kee, this new life offered the twin attractions of sufficient pay and the opportunity for free schooling in English. He saw the opportunity to study as a gateway to an unknown world. To fulfill his personal dreams, he had left all his family without telling anyone about his plans. As he later reflected, “If I had gone back to my home, I would have had to be a tenant farmer. I had the chance to go to Hawaii. I was 23 when I arrived in 1903. So I went to Hawaii.”
Soon he found, however, that the life before him differed greatly from the promises made by the recruiters. The employers treated the Korean workers like prisoners or animals. Workers had no right to talk back to their overseers, and their self-respect was often crushed. Dong Suk Kee reflected again:
In the announcements, they said there was no winter here. It is always sunny, and you can make a lot of money. It was a paradise on earth. But every day except Sunday, we had to labor from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The daily wage was 50 or 60 cents. After work, you slept in the sort of tent only soldiers can sleep in. You had only one blanket. The overseers practiced racial discrimination. On a 100 degree day, you had to cut sugar cane with a knife. Hard labor. Back pain. Whenever you tried to rest, the overseer came by on his horse and cracked his leather whip on your back. Everybody had a nametag with a number, and they always called you by your number rather than by your name. Every morning we got up at 4:30, ate boiled rice, and got to the bus station by 5:00. During work, you weren’t allowed time to stretch your back or smoke. The luna, or overseer, treated you like a cow or horse and called you just by your number.
This condition was hard, but Dong Suk Kee accepted the fact that he could not change the situation. The gross salary of $15 or 57 won per month saw deductions to repay money borrowed for the trip over, as well as other expenses. The migrants often found themselves homesick and full of regret. They also succumbed to various diseases. The unfairness of their treatment led the workers to a decision to slow down their work and rest whenever they could.
Dong Suk Kee, however, decided that he would do his best, even in an unjust situation. He believed, as he later said, that heaven helps those who help themselves.
From Laborer to Minister
Adopting such an attitude, he was able to ignore overseers and landowners as he confidently worked hard at whatever assignment came to him. He realized that his employer was a sincere Methodist who treated his workers more respectfully than other owners did. After working about nine months, in September 1904, he heard from the owner an unexpected proposition: “Mr. Dong, you are a very diligent and truthful person. Other people try to have enough rest. I notice that you work twice as much as others do. So I’ve been carefully watching you. I feel sorry for the others, so I just cover my eyes. But you stand out.” He continued that Dong had more potential than being a laborer, and asked him what favor he could do for him.
At first Dong did not know how to respond, but he calmed himself and thought carefully as he tried to put his thoughts into words. He concluded, “I don’t know how to thank you. I don’t know how to have what I want since I’m only an immigrant. However, since I came here, I have decided that, no matter how hard things are, I will not give up my dream. Western education is what I want.”
His employer smiled with enthusiasm and offered to become his protector and mentor, as well as to back his studies financially. “Believe me—I will help you with everything as you study.” Because of his employer’s special offer, Dong Suk Kee was able to change his status from farm laborer to friend. He could fulfill his purpose in coming to Hawaii after only ten months. Before leaving Hawaii for the mainland, however, he had a very important experience. He began to have Christian faith. The preacher of the Northern Methodist congregation in Hawaii, one Dr. Waterman, baptized him by sprinkling late in 1904. He left the Territory of Hawaii in October.
Dong was impressed by the Christian teaching of grace and love. He wasn’t sure about the implications of faith in Christ, and later decided that his reasons for accepting baptism were inadequate. He saw a kind person, and concluded that becoming a Christian was not a bad idea. Conversion came out of curiosity more than conviction. As Dong himself put it later, “Of course I did not know anything about real baptism. I didn’t believe in heaven. I just wanted to be a clean, moral person.” After his baptism, he left Hawaii and traveled to Nebraska, entering the Central School in Omaha. He studied there from 1905 to 1909, taking middle and high school courses to prepare for college. After he finished there, his patron gave him an affidavit of support. With that and Waterman’s certification of baptism, he entered the Department of Law at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
Meanwhile, during his time in the United States, the Japanese occupied Korea, taking control of the judiciary and prison systems. On June 24, 1910, they issued a statement assuming authority over the police as well. On August 22, 1910, Korea was formally annexed to the Japanese Empire.
At Northwestern, Dong Suk Kee met Paul Grove, a student in the theology department (Garrett Biblical Institute, now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary). That meeting marked a turning point in Dong’s life, though he himself did not realize it at the time. Grove dreamed of being a missionary to Korea. One day, out of the blue, he asked Dong, “Brother Dong, I am Grove. Korea is known as the Hermit Nation, which is a Japanese colony. I have been praying and have decided to go there. I don’t yet have an answer from God, so I don’t know if my dream will be fulfilled. So that’s why I’ve come to you. Please pray that my dream will come true, so I can be a missionary to your country. I will appreciate that.” After hearing that Grove, a foreigner, had such a dream, Dong wondered what he could do for his own country and its future. He appreciated Grove’s attitude and felt ashamed of his own.
Dong prayed for him. One day, Grove came to him happy. “Brother Dong,” he said, “God has answered our prayers. I have permission to go to Korea as a missionary. Thank you, brother!” Receiving an answer to prayer stimulated Dong Suk Kee’s sense of calling, which led to a decision to become a minister. Right away, in 1911, Dong changed his course of study from law to theology. In June 1913, he received the BD degree.
Reflecting on his change of fortunes, he noted:
While I was working for nine months on a sugar plantation, I was becoming a Christian. I got rid of my bad habits of smoking, drinking, and gambling. That was hard. When I was home growing up, I never heard about the Gospel or spreading the Gospel. Right before I went to the United States, I was sprinkled by a Methodist preacher, Dr. Waterman. When I was in San Francisco, the earthquake and fire happened. During that time, I really converted. I believed what the Bible said. I did not know completely about the truth. I came to study at Northwestern, which is where Methodists came to study. I learned only about Wesleyanism. I received the BD degree from Garrett Theological Seminary, and I came back to Korea in 1913.
The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 had brought him to a realization of God’s existence and the limitations of human life. That realization led him to embrace God’s word as a guide for life. Even the most advanced science could not prevent earthquakes, a fact that led him to conclude that God was alive and powerful.
Dong’s mentor and former employer heard the delightful news of his graduation. He and other members of the Methodist Church (North) invited him to accept a pastorate in the United States. His mentor asked him, “Why can’t you work as a pastor in the Northern Methodist Church in the United States? If that is too much, how about going to graduate school, and after you get a doctorate, why not be a professor? If you want to go to graduate school, I can sponsor that too.” In spite of his sponsor’s earnest questions, Dong could not answer immediately. He spent time in prayer before reaching a decision, concluding at last that he could not ignore his own people. Korea was a Japanese colony, and its people were suffering. Therefore, he believed that God willed him to do mission work in his own country. After deep thinking, he explained carefully to his patron his decision to return to Korea. Though disappointed, his sponsor respected the decision and encouraged him. “When you change your mind, let me know,” he concluded.
On October 16, 1913, Dong found himself back in Korea. Newspapers that day reported his arrival aboard the SS Persia, a ship sailing from San Francisco to East Asia. Ten years after leaving as a farm laborer, he returned with an education as a pastor in the Northern Methodist Church, a community that had entered Korea twenty-eight years earlier with American church planters.
Early Ministry as a Methodist Pastor in Korea
As soon as he arrived in Korea, Dong went to visit the Methodist Church (North) missions office to register as an evangelist. The Methodist mission office sent him as a traveling evangelist to the Wonju Area in Gangwon-do. This ministerial duty as a Methodist preacher marked a great change of status from his last job as a farm laborer on a sugar plantation in Hawaii. As a circuit rider he traveled throughout a mission district as a colporteur carrying tracts or books.
During his time as a circuit rider, very few Korean evangelists had studied overseas. Most of the power in the Methodist Conference in Korea lay with the American missionaries, so Dong’s Western education brought pride to Koreans, who placed high expectations on him.
Six months after Dong Suk Kee’s return, in June 1914, he attended the seventh annual conference of the Korean Northern Methodist Church. At that conference, the attendees collected 471 won for the Baejae Middle and High School (Baejae Hagdang), of which 100 won came from Dong himself. (This was the first private secondary school in Korea.) Thirteen evangelists were accepted as students in the school. More importantly, Dong was ordained as jibsa moksa (provisional pastor) along with An Gyung Lok, entering full-fledged ministry. After receiving his ordination, he was sent to the Jaemulpo (now Inchon) area. After that, the Naeli Gyohae Church named him its sixth minister, in which role he served from June 1914 to April 1917. The church grew through his strong evangelistic efforts, and he remodeled the church’s sanctuary and parsonage. The church also operated the Yanghwa Hagdang, a modern elementary school system, whose playground he helped expand. While pastor of the Naeli Church, he also was deeply engaged in Christian education through the operation of the Yanghwa School. In 1917, partly through his work, the school added Yanghwa Yuchiwon or Preschool, one of the first in Korea.
Also during his time as evangelist there, in 1916, he decided to visit his hometown of Bukcheong and his family after a long absence. His family and friends had assumed he was dead, having already practiced the annual rites for dead ancestors for him. However, his arrival as a successful, good-looking pastor elicited a happy welcome from his family and townspeople.
Dong Suk Kee was happy to see them but also wondered where his wife was. He heard from his parents that since he had disappeared, they had assumed he had died, and so they had arranged for their daughter-in-law to marry a single man in the next village. Unfortunately, the new husband had sickened and died, and so she was a widow living alone. Dong Suk Kee was speechless at the news. He locked himself in his room, praying for a new start as a married couple. Since he had an American degree and was now an evangelist, he could have married someone else of higher status if he wanted. However, he did not feel free to do so because of the New Testament’s prohibitions of divorce (Matt 19; 1 Cor 7). So he decided to visit his wife, blaming himself for her desperate situation. Dong thought, “I cannot ignore my poor wife.”
So he went to visit his wife without warning. She, however, doubted his intentions. He knelt in front of her and begged her forgiveness for deserting her. He wanted to touch her scars with the love of Christ. “I want to accept you as my wife. Let’s go together.” The two of them said goodbye to their relatives and traveled back to Inchon. After she came to Inchon and the parsonage at the Naeli Church, they began a life like that of newlyweds.
At that time, Dong decided to make his wife the same offer that the owner of the sugar plantation had made him. He told her: “Honey, I will help you study from the beginning, from elementary school to the college level. The owner of the sugar plantation did that for me, and I want to become your supporter. I will support you so you can receive a modern education and become a new woman. I will support you in that. Trust me, and believe in me. Don’t worry about it. I want you to do your best to study hard.”
So at the Methodist conference of April 9, 1916, Dong was promoted to jangno moksa. A year later, in April 1917, at the tenth Methodist conference, he resigned from Naeli Church and took up the pastorate at Gyungsung Mapo Samgae Church in Seoul, remaining there until June 1918. While there, Dong Suk Kee also served as a professor at the Hyupsung Seminary, whose president was then Robert Hardy, a missionary and the school’s second president.
During the June 11, 1918, Methodist conference, Dong was reassigned from the pastorate of the Samgae Church. After that, he became the eighth evangelist of the Namyang Church in the Namyang area of Suwon, south of Seoul in Gyeonggi Province. At the same time, he rode circuit as an evangelist to churches in Osan and Jaearmni.
The March 1 Independence Movement
The March 1 Movement of 1919, a protest against the abuses of the Japanese occupying government, involved a number of associates of Dong Suk Kee. Pak Hi Do, pastor of the Gyeongsong Central Church and YMCA official and later one of the thirty-three signatories of the Korean Declaration of Independence, and Kim Sae Won, a teacher at the Sam-il School in Suwon, were leaders of the movement in the area. Dong Suk Kee often discussed the independence movement with both of them. On January 20, 1919, the Ichuneup Church in Gyeongi-do had an evening revival meeting, at which Dong was the speaker. Pak Hi Do visited him there. After finishing his speech, Dong went with Pak to his room and had the following conversation: “It is time. The American President [Woodrow Wilson] has pointed out the right to national self-determination. It is time for us to be independent also. We really need to be careful. We had better not be stupid or careless.” Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” had advertised the right of each nation to decide its own fate free from outside interference.
Having lived ten years in America, Dong Suk Kee could understand American newspapers and had contacts with foreign officials. Because of his contacts, he was often tasked with leading the meetings of independence movement supporters. On Saturday, March 1, 1919, at 2:00 in the afternoon, activists declared Korea’s independence at the Taehwagwan Restaurant. Dong arrived an hour and a half late because he did not know that the venue had been changed from Tapgol (Pagoda) Park, the original location. By the time he arrived, the thirty-three leaders of the movement had left, but a student from Gyungsin School, Jung Jae Young read the declaration of independence. After that, the students marched shouting Daehan doklip manse, “Long Live Korean Independence.” (From the Korean word for “Long live,” manse, came one of the names of the movement, the Manse Undong.)
At that time, Dong Suk Kee came through Daehan Gate with the demonstrators. They passed out pamphlets as they marched among the major city gates of Seoul, sharing them with officials at the American and French embassies as a way of seeking international help for their movement. We do not know when the Japanese arrested Dong Suk Kee, but it is known that the police interrogated him.
During the March 1 Movement, the Jaearmni Church in Gyeongi-do was one of the most damaged by Japanese reprisals. When the church heard on March 15 that their circuit-riding pastor had been arrested, members began meeting by torchlight each night on a hill near the church, joining in the calls for independence.
On April 5, many church members gathered in the Balahn marketplace to listen to lectures by the youth group. The crowds cried out “Long Live Korean Independence” in front of the nearby Japanese police station. At the time, the chants spread to the marketplace as well. The surprised police officers attempted to control the crowds, beating them with their clubs. One person, Kim Sun Ha, was killed. The police bayoneted her in the belly. She died with the call for independence on her lips.
Ten days later, on April 15 at 2:00 p.m. in Suwon, a Japanese officer named Lieutenant Arita led a platoon of the military police of the 78th Regiment to the Jaearmni Church. They explained that they had come to apologize for hurting the protesters at the Balahn marketplace, especially Kim Sun Ha. “Therefore,” they said, “everyone who is a male above fifteen years old should go into the church sanctuary and have everyone gather there. If everybody gathers there, I will apologize to them.” The group believed him, and so the twenty-one male Christians of the church entered the sanctuary, whereupon the police nailed the doors shut, soaked the building in gasoline, and set it ablaze. They fired their weapons into the building as well, as the women begged for their husbands’ lives. The Japanese soldiers killed the women as well, burning their bodies afterwards. They then burned thirty houses of church members. The soldiers also executed six members of the nearby Gojuri Catholic Church and burned their bodies.
The missionaries heard about these unspeakable atrocities and reported them in the Western press. For example, the Canadian medical missionary Dr. Frank Schofield visited the Jaearmni area on April 17. He took photographs of everything there, including the bodies strewn everywhere. He transported the corpses by cart to a public cemetery and buried them near its entrance. He then wrote “A Report on the Japanese Army Atrocities in Suwon” and sent the document to America so the whole world could know about the massacre.
Dong Suk Kee’s whereabouts are unclear for the weeks after March 1, 1919. He apparently was not detained immediately after the marches, because he slept one night at the home of Professor B. W. Billings of Yonhi Junior College (now Yonsei University). W. A. Noble, an official of the Northern Methodist Church, met him on March 4, and later that night the secretary of the American Bible Society, Mr. Back, also met him. On March 14, however, he was interrogated and detained at the Gyungsung District Court Inspection Office for violating the national security laws. Therefore, his movements between March 5 and 13 are now obscure. In any case, he was sentenced to seven months of penal servitude followed by three years on probation. He was also forced to resign from the Jaearmni and Namyang Churches.
During the eight years after his release in November 1919, he served in pastorates of the Methodist Church in both Korea and Manchuria. His appointments included Ichon (1919–1920), the Chungyang Gongju area of Chungchunnam-do (1920–1922), and Yonggotop in Manchuria (1922–1927). In Chungyang, he built the congregation’s first building, founded a middle school for girls in order to improve their condition, began a music program associating the church and the community, and contributed to the Joseon Minlip Daehag Seolip Undong (Movement for the Foundation of Korean People’s Schools), a society for promoting the establishment of indigenous Korean universities.
During this time, the Dong-a Ilbo, a major Korean newspaper, reported that Dong Suk Kee and his church actively participated in the March 1 Movement, leading to constant surveillance by the Japanese police. The newspaper reported that on September 16, 1921, the Hong Song police arrested Dong Suk Kee and detained him briefly. The harassment prompted him to leave Korea and travel to Manchuria as a missionary.
During his five years in Manchuria, Dong Suk Kee represented the Northern Methodists and played a prominent role in working out a comity arrangement with the Presbyterians. He also established the Yongdong School inside the Yonggotop Church serving Korean immigrants in Manchuria, who would not otherwise have received a good education. He wanted to give students a good sense of Korean identity and self-discipline so as to equip them for self-reliance.
An unusual aspect of his work in Manchuria comes to the fore in his statement at the eighteenth church conference in 1925. He asked, “Is infant baptism biblical or unbiblical?” He requested an answer. He also asked, “If you are not an ordained minister or evangelist, can you baptize or conduct a funeral? Why has the Korean Church forbidden evangelists from doing these things if they’re not fully ordained?” The conference agreed to allow each congregation to decide freely on the issues. This may have been the moment at which Dong Suk Kee began asking the questions that inspired his move toward the Restoration Movement and the Churches of Christ.
Church of Christ Missionary
After this time, Dong Suk Kee felt empty in a corner of his heart, despite his success as a Methodist missionary. After meditation and prayer, he concluded that while trying to find political independence from Japan was important, mental and spiritual independence as a Christian were even more important for Koreans. “Above all,” he said, “I have to clear myself spiritually so as to lead others to be spiritually clear. But my spiritual life is very weak. Therefore, to recharge my spiritual life, I have to look for opportunities quickly to overcome my weak spirituality right away. I need to look for opportunities to recharge.”
He felt that he urgently needed an opportunity to recharge by going to graduate school. In 1927, he resigned from his work in Manchuria and registered as pastor of the Chongdong Church. In November of that year, he arrived in the United States. The December 29 issue of the Shinhan Minbo newspaper of San Francisco reported that, “about ten years ago, he received the BD from Northwestern University. Until about a month ago, he was doing mission work. But he has now traveled to Wisconsin after passing through the port of Seattle. He is visiting the Wisconsin churches to report on the state of the Korean churches.”
Soon after his arrival in America, he began searching for an appropriate Methodist graduate school. While looking, one day in August 1928, he discovered Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary, operated by the Christian Church. His reasons for matriculating there are obscure. In any case, for the first time he studied about the Restoration Movement. This was the first time he had thought about the nature of the early church established in Jerusalem. He later reflected on that opportunity to study: “I didn’t have any plan and didn’t expect to study at Cincinnati. I truly believe this was God’s plan. This school taught the Bible truly, as we teach it in the Church of Christ. At that time, they used the instrument, unlike the Church of Christ. But as I look back, I think God was leading me to go back to Korea and be dedicated as a leader in the Restoration Movement in order to start the Church of Christ there.” Dong Suk Kee concluded that the Restoration Movement emphasized the Bible’s sole authority, the primitive church, and a movement toward unity. He concluded that the Church of Christ was the only true church and so was nondenominational.
While he was studying at Cincinnati Bible College from September to December 1928, Dong Suk Kee was immersed by a Christian Church pastor named Trumph. The date and place are not known, however. After he was baptized, Dong Suk Kee resigned his ordination from the Korean Methodist Church. He then became a pastor in the Christian Church and a convinced member of the Restoration Movement. On January 15, 1930, the headquarters of the Korean Northern Methodist Church announced his resignation from the church’s ministry. He was officially removed from its roles.
Dong Suk Kee received a BA from Cincinnati Bible College in June 1929 and the MA in June 1930. His MA thesis was entitled, “The Early History of the Restoration Movement in the United States.” Its eight chapters traced the work of Stone, Campbell, and their contemporaries.
As a student at Cincinnati, he had engaged in several disputes with professors and fellow students. However, he returned to Korea carrying the recommendations of the Churches of Christ in America. He decided to go home as an independent missionary of the Restoration Movement. As he explained his actions, he concluded that churches were not made by people’s rules but must rest on the foundation of the New Testament. He would speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it is silent. So he decided to go home, but worried about the return to Korea as an independent missionary. He decided to raise money for his work by visiting Christian Churches in the American South. While doing so, one day in Montgomery, Alabama, Church of Christ preachers named T. B. Thompson, F. A. Decker, and C. M. Pullias engaged him in a biblical discussion. After the discussion, Dong Suk Kee concluded that since the New Testament was silent about the use of instrumental music, he ought to abandon its use. That was a new conclusion for him.
At this time, Dong Suk Kee decided that the silence of the Bible constituted a strong denial of the validity of an action or idea. His interlocutor Thompson, however, pushed Dong further, begging him to meet other Church of Christ leaders. As Thompson put it, “Brother Dong, you should go to the Central Church of Christ and David Lipscomb College in Nashville, Tennessee. I will contact them so that when you go there, I want you to meet Sam Peterman, C. R. Brewer, and H. L. Calhoun.” With Thompson’s help, Dong Suk Kee traveled to meet those leaders and fellowshipped with them. Through them, he learned about the principles guiding the Church of Christ. These leaders explained their understanding of the nature of the primitive church as revealed in the New Testament. Dong Suk Kee decided that the Church of Christ was closer to the primitive church than the Christian Church was.
Later he reflected on that time: “I went to Alabama and met T. B. Thompson and F. A. Decker. Up till then, I had never thought about instrumental music in worship. After that, I gave up using instrumental music in sincere worship. Worshiping God in truth and spirit with a pure heart led me to give up everything outside of the New Testament.” He wrote back to his friends in Cincinnati to withdraw himself from Christian Churches and announce his adherence to the Churches of Christ. After changing his status to being a minister in the Churches of Christ, he headed back to Korea, requesting help from American congregations in his efforts.
Churches of Christ in Tennessee who heard of his decision agreed to help him. The Waverly-Belmont Church of Christ in Nashville became his supporting church, collecting money from several congregations to help him. The churches saw him as a native Korean missionary coming from an oppressed Japanese colony and serving the suffering and persecuted Korean people. Through this process, Dong Suk Kee became the first missionary appointed by Churches of Christ to serve in Korea.
After this he severed ties with both Methodist and Christian Churches. He returned home as a Church of Christ native Korean missionary. Thus, his plan to do extension education through Cincinnati Bible College had recharged him. After his trips through the southern United States, he arrived in San Francisco on October 15, 1930, and sailed for Korea on the Hasama Maru on October 18. He had accomplished his purpose in coming to the United States. He joyfully anticipated his return to a new mission field. He was grateful to God for accompanying him on his journey.
According to a newspaper report in the Shinhan Minbo (October 16, 1930), he said:
The Waverly-Belmont Church of Christ and the 12th Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville, the Catoma Street Church of Christ in Montgomery, Alabama, as well as other churches and friends sent me to preach the Gospel in Korea. I am grateful to God for that. I am able to return to Korea because of their help, and I have enough money to go. My Lord will call the Korean people through my lips: “come to me, and I will give you rest. And I will build my church.” I can only say things like that because God is with me.
The newspaper continued to quote him: “I want to establish a free church (a Church of Christ) and be dedicated to mission work.” It also claimed that “Dong wanted to buy a car and take it with him to Korea. Dong was planning to leave October 18, 1930.” It is more likely that he wanted a bicycle, however, since one of his students, Yang Suk Moon, later reported that, “Pastor Dong Suk Kee, when he returned to Korea, brought a bicycle and rode it to evangelize. Wherever that bicycle could reach, a Church of Christ was established, one at a time.”
After he arrived in Korea, he started his ministry in the Bukchung area, his hometown, in the province of Hamgyeong-do. He did so because his involvement in the March 1 Movement (Sam-il Undong) made it difficult for him to work in the major cities. He went instead to his own village of origin and the immediate environs. He taught his wife first, and then his relatives and friends about his concepts of the New Testament church. Twenty were baptized as he founded the Hamjeon congregation, the first Church of Christ in Korea. The first baptisms took place in winter, requiring him to break the ice on the streams in order to carry them out.
From the time of his return to the liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, Dong Suk Kee founded seven congregations in his home province, far from Seoul. Thus the center of the Restoration Movement before the Korean War lay in what became North Korea. The churches usually met in houses converted into sanctuaries. In June 1935 he returned briefly to Nashville, preaching at the Waverly-Belmont Church of Christ, his sponsoring congregation. During that time he met Kang Myung Suk, who had recently earned the BD at Vanderbilt and was preparing for the Methodist pastorate. Dong confessed to Kang that during his own time as a Methodist pastor he had merely taught Methodist doctrine for 14 years. After his conversation with Dong, Kang was immersed following the church service, committing himself to being a missionary of the Churches of Christ in Korea.
After 1945, Dong Suk Kee moved to Seoul, where he began the Naesudong Church. He also founded three other churches in the south. He traveled again to the United States in early 1950 but was trapped there by the onset of the Korean War in June of that year. While in the United States, he preached to about 150 Korean soldiers at Fort Benning, Georgia, and baptized 28. Meanwhile, American soldiers stationed in Daegu, Korea, wrote the elders of the 16th and Decatur Church of Christ in Washington, DC, to call for American missionaries to be sent to Korea. In 1954, Haskell Chesshir and Dale Richeson and their families joined Dong as church planters in Korea.
Dong Suk Kee retired in 1966 and passed away in 1971 in California at age 90. Twenty-five years after his death, President Kim Young Sam recognized him as an activist in the Independence Movement. His life had taken many turns, and along the way he had helped create a church movement whose legacy continues to this day.
His sincere and honest character showed through all his actions. He always sought to follow the Bible as he understood it, feeling free to change his mind and actions based on his growing understanding of Scripture. For that reason, he could gain an audience for his “back to the Bible” message even among his former colleagues in the Methodist Church. He fought for Christian unity, emphasizing weekly communion and baptism as marks of the primitive church. Training ministers in partnership with the Americans, he sought to build a sustainable church planting movement. The idea of speaking where the Bible speaks and remaining silent where it is silent attracted him and his hearers. Almost ninety years after the beginning of the Churches of Christ in Korea, that model remains compelling.
Works by Dong Suk Kee
Some of these works were collected by Kee Joon Seo, “Suk Kee Dong and His Pioneer Work in Korea, 1930–1949,” Research Paper, Harding Graduate School of Religion, Memphis, TN, 1977. The current list is revised and expanded.
“The Early History of the Restoration Movement in the United States.” MA Thesis, Cincinnati Bible Seminary, 1929.
“The New Work in Korea.” Gospel Advocate 73 (September 3, 1931): 1106–7.
“Korea, its People and Religions.” Gospel Advocate 73 (September 7, 1931): 1138–39.
“Two Churches Organized and Over Fifty Baptisms during First Year: First Annual Report of Work of S. K. Dong in Korea.” Christian Standard 67 (January 16, 1932): 66.
“Number of Converts in Two Churches Await Baptism in Korea: Korean Letter.” Christian Standard 67 (June 4, 1932): 555–57.
“From the Field.” Christian Standard 67 (July 30, 1932): 746.
“A New Church Established in Korea: Second Report of the Church Established in Korea.” Christian Standard 68 (January 4, 1933): 4.
“Twenty-one Baptisms in Korea.” Christian Standard 68 (November 18, 1933): 932.
“Korea Mission Scene.” Gospel Advocate 77 (January 3, 1935): 18–19. [Photographs of Dong’s work.]
“Korea a Fertile Field.” Gospel Advocate 77 (March 28, 1935): 305.
“The Church in Korea.” In Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures 1951, 102–10. Austin, TX: Firm Foundation, 1951.
“Korea.” In The Harvest Field, 1947, ed. Howard L. Schug and Jesse P. Sewell, 267–85. Athens, AL: Bible School Bookstore, 1947.
“A Personal History of S. K. Dong.” Unpublished typewritten MS, October 1959.
“God Works for Man through Man.” Unpublished typewritten MS, n.d.
“Korea Calls.” Unpublished typewritten MS, n.d.
Jae Ryong Seo is the Director of the Church of Christ History Institute and Minister at Sejong Church of Christ in South Korea. He has studied at Korea Christian University (ThM in History of Theology) and Kangnam University (ThM in Practical Theology; PhD in Church History), where he also taught church history. He has recently published books (both published by the Church of Christ History Institute in South Korea) on Dong Suk Kee and Kang Myung Suck, ministers who laid the foundation of the Churches of Christ in Korea during the twentieth century.
† The following article is mostly a translation and revision of chapters 1–10 of Seo Jae Ryong, 90 Nyeon Ae Bal Ja Chi, vol. 1, Dong Suk Kee (The Footsteps of 90 years, vol. 1, Dong Suk Kee) (Seoul: Church of Christ History Institute, 2018); published by the author’s permission.
1 Duk Hee Lee, Korean Passengers Arriving at Honolulu, 1903–1905 (Honolulu: Center for Korean Studies, University of Hawaii, 2004), 47.
2 Dong Suk Kee follows the lunar calendar when dating his arrival to November 22, 1903. He also reports his age in the Korean style, with the first months of life counting as year 1.
3 In the Methodist Church, there were two levels of minister: jibsa moksa (provisional pastor) and jangno moksa (regular pastor).
4 This information comes from police records about Dong made during the arrests after the March 1 Independence Movement in 1919. Under interrogation, Dong had admitted that he was a professor under Hardy at the seminary.
5 Dong-a Ilbo, September 20, 1921, and September 27, 1921.