The Bruce Hunt Story


On December 6, 1941, Pastor Bruce Hunt was released from jail by the Japanese—after all, Japan was not at war with the United States—but within 24 hours, all that would change, both for Rev. Hunt and for his wife Kathy and their children. Different denominations took the lead in evangelizing different nations, but seldom has a missionary effort borne as much fruit as Presbyterianism has in Korea, which for many years has been an exporter of missionaries. What follows is the story of one missionary who refused to abandon his calling, despite the onset of World War.

In the late 80s, I was sitting in the living room of a man whom I had just met along with the elders of the congregation of which he was part, and also with a fellow Presbyterian. My compatriot was a Korean American who served as a missionary for the denomination to Korea. At the time, I was pastoring a Presbyter-ian church in Los Angeles County. Our church had a second building on its property, and a Korean congregation had asked to rent that building for its worship services. We needed to identify their theological position before we answered. The problem was, I spoke ab-solutely no Korean, and they spoke so little English that communication deeper than “hello” was difficult, at best.
My fellow pastor was visiting the presbytery while on furlough, and I asked him for help. He carefully explained to me that in the oriental cultures, a straight forward question which could re-quire a negative response could be insulting, so we would have to ask our exploratory theological questions in such a way as to allow the responder to save face (or “Chae-myun”). He said that I should let him take the lead.
Here I was in a room full of men of a completely alien culture, who were speaking in a language that I did not understand. I heard quiet questions, and apparently guarded answers, until my friend asked a question which I will not try to recount. I saw the Korean elders look at each other and speak in almost reverent terms, and obviously acknowledge a comfortable answer. I looked at my pastor friend who said quietly “I just asked if they knew Bruce Hunt. They do, and they are O.K.”
In the Orthodox Presbyter-ian Church, (the branch of Presbyterianism where I served), we all knew who Bruce Hunt was. In my childhood we had been asked to pray for the missionaries to Korea: the Hards, the Hunts and the Spooners. I knew that Bruce Hunt was the senior missionary on that field, and that he had grown up in Korea.
As I sat with these men, I remember thinking that I should go home and read For A Testimony, Bruce Hunt’s memoirs.
His testimony begins before his birth.
In 1893, the first American missionary to arrive in Pyengyang (now North Korea) was the Rev. Samuel Moffatt. By the following year, he was preaching to a small congregation there. In 1901, Dr. William Blair arrived to assist. Shortly thereafter, the Rev. William Hunt arrived as well. His son, Bruce, was born June 4, 1903.
In 1904, the Russo-Japanese war broke out, and the Japanese stationed troops in Korea as part of their strategy against Russia. When the war ended in 1906, the Japanese simply did not leave. The Korean people did not welcome the military presence or its influence.
The Koreans turned to the Gospel strongly beginning in 1907, in what has been called “the Korean Pentecost”. This strained the relations between the Japanese military and the Korean citizens.
In 1910, the Japanese annexed Korea with the approval of Washington and London. They then began to enforce their religion, the worship of the Sun God and the descendent on earth, the emperor of Japan. The people were required to worship at the emperor’s shrine. To refuse was punishable by imprisonment and death. Thus, the church, which had so recently turned to Christ, was tested with a persecution which continues today.
The persecution and the tacit approval of the governments in Washington and London left the fledgling church with no one on earth to protect them. The persecution became more pervasive and many Koreans fled the north to cross the border into Manchuria. But, on September 18, 1931, the Japanese, in spite of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, invaded Manchuria and quickly subdued it. While the League of Nations condemned the conquest, there were no efforts to force retreat. The Japanese, in an effort to legitimize their conquest of Manchuria, placed Henry P’u Yi1 on the throne . He was the infant emperor of China replaced by the founding of the republic of 1905. The persecution now expanded to Manchuria. The Koreans who wanted to flee had nowhere to go.
Rev. William Hunt had stayed in Korea, but Bruce had returned to the United States for schooling. He first attended Wheaton College, then Rutgers University, graduating in 1924. Then he studied at Princeton Seminary, graduating in 1928. He was ordained by the Presbytery of New Brunswick that same year. Bruce, now the Reverend Bruce Hunt, was a commissioner to the first Orthodox Presbyterian General Assembly, June 11, 1936. He was sent out under the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions that same year, and served that board until 1938 in Manchuokuo, Manchuria. He came under the Orthodox Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in 1938, when the Independent Board departed with the Bible Presbyterian Church in the split from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He went to Harbin Manchuria at that time.
On July 7, 1937, the Japanese invaded China. The death of Sun Yat Sen in 1935 had left a vacuum in the leadership of the republic, and the factions of Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse-Tung (Republican and Communist) were unable to cooperate on a defense. There were words of anger from the western powers over the events, but Claire Chenault’s American Volunteer Group (The Flying Tigers) was almost the only military response. The Japanese were not restrained, like Hitler in Europe was not stopped, and it showed.
From 1938, Rev. Hunt was increasingly under pressure from the Japanese because of his stand against the Shrine worship requirement for the indigenous Asians under Japanese rule. The pressure became persecution which began with the ringing of the doorbell of their home October 22, 1941.
“Before we knew it, the house seemed filled with policemen. There must have been six or seven. Three were Japanese and appeared to be in charge; the others were Chinese and Korean.
“I invited them into our parlour. Officer Pak, a Korean policeman with whom I had had previous dealings, then read a warrant to me. I did not follow all that he said, but it was clear enough that I was under arrest and that I should go peaceably or be taken by force.”2
Only the timing was a surprise. Since 1936, and especially since 1938, Bruce had openly opposed the Japanese government’s attempt to control the church and to force emperor-worship on Christians. He had been questioned previously and threatened with arrest. He had been tailed and denounced in the newspapers. Many of the Christians with whom he worked were already jailed, and his children had asked “Daddy, why aren’t you in prison?” Kathy (Mrs. Hunt) then began to lay out the clothing that her husband would likely need. It was not the first time these preparations had been made.
At the same time, another couple, Dr. and Mrs. Roy Byram, were also arrested. Since they lived in the other half of the duplex, the police were split up, but the logistics were simple. They were taken downtown to the prosecutor’s office. Interrogation continued off and on until after dark that night. “It was after dark when we were herded into a car and driven to the silent, red brick, city jail where so many of our Korean friends had suffered. It was only three blocks from our house but it could well have been another world so far as we were concerned.”3
The cell was a 10 foot by 20 foot room with high cement walls. It was entered by passing through a three foot high door. The floor was already covered by 24 other men. With no room to lie down to sleep, Bruce Hunt spent the night sitting with his back against the end wall. The floor was well polished by having 24 men sitting and lying all over it, and a small wooden trap door covered the toilet which stank even when the lid was down. His place was the lowest, next to that toilet.
After the guard was gone and Bruce had taken his “seat”, his cell mates began to question him. They found it hard to understand why someone would be willing to risk such incarceration for any religious conviction, but there was some status in their eyes in that the conviction involved resistance to the Japanese emperor worship.
Morning was announced, not by sunlight, but by a shout from one of the guards. It was followed by a parade of the 25 men to the toilet. The rest of the sanitary provisions were two five gallon water cans, one for “flushing the toilet and the other to be shared for all other cleansing.” Breakfast was a small bowl of rice with a few soy beans.
After four days in this prison, Bruce and the Byrams were transferred to another prison, this time in Antung just across the Yalu River from Korea. Here the accommodations consisted of a six foot square ten foot high cell with a door on one side, and a low window on the opposite side which looked out on a denuded cabbage patch and a high brick wall. It was solitary confinement. There were no distractions. Breakfast, a bucket of water for the toilet and for all washing, four walls to pace between, the unchanging scene out of the window; pacing took one half hour. Now what? Dr. Byram had mentioned during their transfer travel, that he had seen Bible verses in Korean on the wall of his first cell. Perhaps, Bruce thought, he could write several too. Ah… the problem, he had no pencil. However, a broken shoelace tied back together before he had been arrested, allowed the removal of the metal tip of the shoe lace still left the shoe useable and the missing tip unnoticed. Several hours were used to scratch John 3:16 into the plaster. It was harder than he first imagined, but he completed it.
However, shortly after finishing, he was moved to another cell. The cell was no different than the first, except that there was no verse on the wall. The remedy was to do it all over again. This time he added other scriptures. Sore fingers forced the cessation of the work for day one. What about day two? There were still more hours to endure in day one. The loneliness and feelings of helplessness threatened to try his patience and quell his trust in Christ. He went back to pacing and began to formulate a song;

Give thanks! Give thanks unto Jehovah!
For He of kings is King.
Let every nation, race, each tongue and tribe,
Unto Him praises bring.
He rules the earth with power and righteousness;
The waves obey His will.
Give thanks! Give thanks unto Jehovah!
Your work of praise with joy fulfill.
He feared that his short memory would fade too quickly to remember what he had written, so a small coin buried deep in the pocket of his overcoat, and missed by the search of the guards, gave him a better tool for writing on those plaster walls, but it lasted for only a day.
The next morning the guard saw the writing, and the tool was confiscated. All writing on the walls was prohibited. Interrogation followed, and it would continue frequently, but without a pattern. It usually involved a Japanese interrogator and a Korean translator. The Japanese would not lower themselves to speak Korean, and they assumed that no American could speak Korean. The questioning would usually go “Who made this country?” (the desired answer was “Ameratsu” the Sun Goddess of Japan). Bruce refused to give that answer, using instead, the Korean word for the God of the Bible. Exasperation on the part of the interrogator would follow. The questions would run to different subjects, “Don’t you want to go home?” To this Bruce’s answer always returned to “I believe that Jesus sent me here to minister to His church, and I want to be where Jesus wants me.” Again exasperation would be the interrogator’s response.
Bruce’s answer was, in fact, true, but was prompted by a statement which he had frequently heard among the Christians of Manchuria: “It is easier for you Americans, because you can go home, but we have nowhere to go.”4 That statement came in the context of facing this persecution. Many missionaries had gone home under the pressure of Japanese persecution over the years from the Japanese annexation until now. Bruce had determined not to go home and leave the Korean church to suffer alone. His answers frustrated the interrogators because Japan and the United States were not yet at war, and there was nothing the Japanese interrogators were allowed to do which might betray the Japanese intention to declare war.
It was because of this policy that Kathy and the five children were able to receive the salary sent from the United States. This enabled them to continue to live, if not in comfort, at least together. The church and the U.S. Counsel in Harbin aided them as well. The Japanese hinted at threats of harm, starvation, and arrest, but no such threats materialized.
As Bruce’s song grew, he would compose and pace, singing to memorize the new words. It seemed crazy, he thought, to those who could hear him, but it did pass the time in praise.

Give Thanks! Give thanks unto Jehovah,
For He is He that is.
Unmade and uncreated God is He,
And ne’er beginning His.
Before all time and to eternity
Jehovah God is He.
Give Thanks! Give thanks unto Jehovah,
Give thanks! He reigns eternally.
Bruce’s trial began one morning at ten without warning, and finished mid-afternoon with the promise of a verdict by 5 PM. The verdict came at 5:30, and left as many questions as it gave answers. He and the Byrams were found to be without crime, but given two years of suspended sentence. They were released Saturday, December 6, 1941. They were to be deported the following Tuesday, but the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred Sun-day morning beginning the involvement of the United States in WWII.
Bruce was then rearrested and sent to prison, this time in Harbin which was closer to his home. For the next six months the incarceration became harsher. There was less food and less hope of being spared execution, for Americans had become the hated enemy. There was more evidence of execution of Christians for refusal to worship at the Emperor’s Shrine, and Bruce feared that such would also happen to him. His concern grew for the safety of Kathy and the children. Again in God’s providence, the war was going well for the Japanese, and Manchuria was increasingly more ignored in the war effort. So Kathy and the children were able to be cared for by the church, and they were even brought to the street of the prison to be able to see daddy and be seen by him through the cell window.
The ordeal ended with the finality of deportation on June 1, 1942. The family was transported “home” by neutral ship to Africa, then by a U.S. flagged vessel across the Atlantic to the states.
After the war, in 1946, Bruce Hunt returned to Korea, but because of the political division of North Korea and South Korea, he was not allowed into the north, but was only allowed to go to the south. He ministered there until 1976, when he retired to Abingdon, Pa., where he continued to preach, especially to Koreans, until he was called to his real home in 1992.
The work of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Korea continued until Dr. Yong Son and his wife, Marylou, retired in 2001, who spent much of their labors in the Missionary Training Institute in Seoul. This school prepared Koreans to serve overseas as missionaries, bringing the testimony of Bruce Hunt and his work in Korea full circle. The men I met in the living room that day were Korean missionaries ministering in the U.S.

Photos courtesy of Westminster Theological Seminary, PA, with kind assistance from Eric Bristley.

1 Robert T. Elison, Prelude to War: World War II (Time-Life Books, Alexandria Virginia, 1977) 133
2 Bruce Hunt, For A Testimony (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1966) 13
3 Ibid., 17
4 William Blair and Bruce Hunt, The Korean Pentecost (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977) 95