Thousands of returned missionaries recently gathered at Utah Valley University to celebrate a historic Church anniversary in South Korea. It was no ordinary reunion. The many attendees had served under the leadership of 53 mission presidents over the course of six decades.
It was 60 years ago — in 1956 — that the first group of Mormon missionaries arrived in South Korea and began sharing the message of the restored gospel. Since that time, legions of Latter-day Saints have answered a call to labor in the Land of the Morning Calm.
While they may have left the mission field, Korea remains forever in the hearts and prayers of many returned missionaries.
“I miss Korea every single day,” said Lauren Bell, who returned home to the United States a few months ago after serving in the Korea Seoul Mission. “The Koreans are wonderful people — so kind and welcoming.”
Sister Bell’s words echo the sentiments of the first group of members who taught the gospel to the Korean people in the early 1950s. At that time, Korea was a nation at war. There were Melchizedek Priesthood holders living in South Korea, but they wore the uniform of the U.S. military.
LDS servicemen such as John Nash were fighting in the Korean War. Many would gather together on Sundays to partake of the sacrament, receive religious instruction and enjoy the fellowship of other members. Several Koreans were drawn to the message of the gospel and joined in their servicemen’s meetings.
In a short documentary presented at the recent mission reunion, Brother Nash spoke of the members using the Articles of Faith to teach their Korean guests about the gospel. The Book of Mormon had not yet been translated into Korean and there were few teaching resources. Still, many Koreans developed testimonies and desired to join the Church. In 1952, amidst the awful backdrop of war, the first Koreans were baptized.
Two years later, Elder Harold B. Lee of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited Korea. His meetings with LDS servicemen and the small but growing group of Korean members left him certain that the country was ready for full-time missionaries.
Around that same time, in an opposite hemisphere, a Korean-born graduate student at Cornell University named Kim Ho Jik joined the Church after befriending a Mormon student. After finishing his studies, Dr. Kim would return to his native land and become a pioneer for the Church in Korea.
Dr. Kim felt a divine charge to preach the gospel in Korea — to “feed the Lord’s sheep” in that Asian nation. He would play a pivotal role in opening doors for future missionary work and become a hero for Korean Mormons to this day.
“I owe him a great deal,” said Elder Han In Sang, an emeritus General Authority Seventy from South Korea, in an interview included in the documentary. “He is a great example.”
In 1955, President Joseph Fielding Smith, then president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, dedicated the nation of South Korea, organized the Korea District and called Dr. Kim as the first district president.
The Church in Korea was forever changed in April 1956, when a pair of missionaries from the Northern Far East Mission — Elder Don Powell and Elder Richard Detton — were assigned to Korea. Several other missionaries soon joined them and the work commenced in full.
That historic moment would highlight the opening chapter of the Church in South Korea. The missionaries and members have faced many challenges, but the work has moved forward. The Book of Mormon was published in Korean in 1967 and, 17 years after the first missionaries arrived in Korea, President Spencer W. Kimball organized the country’s first stake on March 8, 1973. Eight years later, on Dec. 14, 1985, President Gordon B. Hinckley, first counselor in the First Presidency, dedicated the Seoul Korea Temple.
“I count one of the great experiences of my life the times that I have spent with our Korean friends,” said President Hinckley in the anniversary documentary.
Today, there are four missions and over 85,000 members in South Korea. Recent returned missionaries such as Sister Bell believe the next 60 years in Korea will be defined by many more historic moments.
“I would envision [the growth],” she said, “coming through the Korean youth.”
[email protected] @JNSwensen