First Korean Member of the Church

Kim Ho Jik (16 April 1905 – 31 August 1959) was the first Korean convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and was a key figure in opening South Korea to missionary work of the LDS Church. Kim was also vice-minister of education in the administration of South Korean president Syngman Rhee.

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.

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.  He studied in a Buddhist monastery. In 1925, he joined a Protestant church and became an elder in that organization.

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.

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

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. ” 12

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

Membership History in Korea
Year     Membership
1954     64
1964     1,800
1975     9,000
1983     28,795
1990     59,000
1999     71,166
2008     81,251

Kim returned to Korea in 1952. He was appointed vice minister of education by South Korean president Syngman Rhee. Other positions Kim held after his return to Korea were a professorship at Hongik College, dean of animal husbandry at Konguk University, and the vice chairmanship of the Seoul City Board of Education. Kim also served as president of the National Fisheries College at Pusan. Kim was also a member of the Korean National Academy of Arts and Sciences.[2]

Kim’s children, Kim Tai Whan and Kim Young Sook, were among the first four people baptized into the LDS Church in Korea on August 3, 1952.[4] Kim baptized his other two children, Kim Chun Sook and Kim Shin Hwan on January 3, 1953.[5]

On August 2, 1955, Kim was set apart as the president of the Korean District of the LDS Church by apostle Joseph Fielding Smith. Among those influenced by Kim’s leadership of the church was Han In Sang, who became a general authority of the church.[6] Kim held the position of District President when he died.

In about 1970, Kim’s widow, Pil Kun Park, joined the LDS Church.[5]

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