New Horizons

President Wilson and Early OP Missions

Danny E. Olinger

Woodrow Wilson had impeccable Presbyterian credentials. His father, the Rev. Joseph Wilson, served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. His mother, Janet Woodrow Wilson, was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Woodrow Wilson studied at two Presbyterian schools, Davidson and Princeton. He married Ellen Louise Axson, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, at the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia. He taught at Princeton and then served as its president until becoming the governor of New Jersey and then the twenty-eighth president of the United States.

Although he was modernist in theology, Wilson's Presbyterian connections extended to those who would be involved in and around the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He was acquainted with J. Gresham Machen. Machen's mother, Minnie Gresham Machen, had grown up in a Presbyterian home in Macon, Georgia, where the Gresham and Wilson families knew each other well. In the early 1880s, the friendship was rekindled when Wilson entered graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where the Arthur and Minnie Machen family resided. Later, when Gresham attended Princeton Seminary, he had an open invitation to dine at the Wilson home.

Wilson also knew Princeton Seminary professor Geerhardus Vos. When Geerhardus and Catherine Vos were married in 1894 at Princeton, their first social visitors were the Wilsons. This is stated by Bernardus Vos in a letter to theologian Roger Nicole, although Bernardus was quick to add that his father was never a fan of Wilson's foreign policy as president.

Following World War I, Wilson put forward his League of Nations proposal that was eventually incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles. Although the League of Nations was established, it was not supported by the United States Congress. The lack of American participation in the 1920s crippled the League, but it was not put on its deathbed until a series of events in the 1930s. The first blow was in 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria and eventually established the client state of Manchukuo. Japan then withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933. The second blow was in 1935, when Italy invaded fellow League member Ethiopia in violation of the League's basic code. The third and fatal blow occurred in the summer of 1937, when Japan and China skirmished at Marco Polo Bridge and started the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Missionaries to War-Torn Lands

During that summer, the Committee on Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church of America (renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1939) became operational, and the OPC's connections with Woodrow Wilson and his legacy became more apparent. In June, the Committee hired as its first general secretary Charles Woodbridge, whose mother just happened to be Wilson's first cousin. But, more than that, the first OP missionaries appointed were ministering in the very lands involved in the military struggles in the 1930s that had brought the Wilson-originated League of Nations to an end! Egbert Andrews, Henry Coray, and Bruce Hunt and their families were appointed to serve in Harbin, Manchukuo (Manchuria). Richard Gaffin and his family were stationed in Psingtao, China. Malcolm Frehn and eventually Heber McIlwaine (originally in Harbin) went to Tokyo, Japan. And within a few years, the next country where the OPC sought to send a missionary—Clarence Duff—was Ethiopia. The four nations where military conflict brought down the League of Nations were the very four places abroad that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church took the gospel of Jesus Christ. The church believed that true healing and peace were found only in the person and work of Christ, and standing by that conviction it supported missionaries who risked all as ambassadors of the one whose shed blood is the only hope of the world.

This was no easy feat. The OPC began during the Great Depression and was severely lacking in fiscal resources. Organized on June 11, 1936, with barely fifty congregations, nearly all of which had to gave up their church buildings in order to join the new church, the OPC had the gospel to share and little else. During its first year of operation (June 9, 1937, to May 27, 1938), the Committee on Foreign Missions received $6,503 to support its seven missionary families. The Committee had a balance on hand of $425 when the summer of 1938 started. Then news came on June 27 that the Court of Common Pleas of the City of Philadelphia had ruled that the new church could not use the name Presbyterian Church of America because of its similarity to Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

From an earthly perspective, the future of the new church seemed dubious. And even more doubtful was the prospect that this church would continue to support missionary activity in some of the most strife-ridden, war-torn areas in the world. The church could not afford to appeal the ruling of the Court of Common Pleas, and it called the Fifth General Assembly on February 9, 1939, where the name Orthodox Presbyterian Church was chosen.

At this point, it would have been easy for the young church to say that it could not take on the demands of missionary activity abroad until it was more established. However, the founders of the OPC knew that the Great Commission demanded taking the gospel to the nations without delay, and it was blessed with a godly, fearless band of missionaries who loved Christ and his church. This was seen particularly in the Far East, where Orthodox Presbyterian missionaries faced overwhelming obstacles from a worldly perspective, with political disturbances and international upheavals all around them.

By 1940, Japan had overrun the portion of China where the OP missionaries were laboring. The political unrest caused the Committee on Foreign Missions to keep Mr. McIlwaine and the Gaffins in the United States following their furloughs. The Corays were brought back in 1941, but Mr. Andrews, the Frehns, and the Hunts remained. The Japanese government placed restrictions on missionary activity in its own land and in Manchukuo, and Japanese Emperor Hirohito delivered an edict demanding obedience to Shinto shrines. Adamant that Korean Christians in Manchukuo and Japanese-occupied Korea not submit to such idolatry, Hunt openly opposed the government-imposed regulations and encouraged Korean Christians to stand for Christ.

Bruce Hunt imprisoned

Hunt's refusal to bow to idols did not escape the attention of the local authorities. On the morning of October 22, 1941, while the Hunts were feeding their children, policemen entered their house to place Bruce Hunt under arrest. Since the police were not rushing him out of the house, Hunt gathered his family together for devotions centered around the singing of Psalm 46, "God is our refuge and our strength, in straits a present aid, and therefore though the earth remove, we will not be afraid." After he read a Bible passage and prayed with his family, he was taken away for interrogation.

Hunt eventually was placed in a cell ten feet by twenty feet with twenty-four other prisoners, mostly non-Christian criminals. The only open space was next to the hole in the floor that served as a toilet. After four days of interrogation, Hunt was moved to solitary confinement in an even smaller room. Thinking how he could testify about Christ to those who would be placed in the cell after him, Hunt determined to carve Bible verses on the walls. Using the metal tip of his shoelace, he wrote John 3:16 in Korean letters: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Taken to a new cell, he repeated John 3:16 and added Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." He also began the Ten Commandments, but by then his fingers were badly cramping and he had to stop.

On the forty-fifth day, Hunt was finally told of the charges against him and was brought before a judge. The judge pressed Hunt on his refusal to submit to the Law for the Control of Religions. Other Christians, said the judge, had no problem bowing at the Shinto shrines. Why then did he refuse? Hunt replied that he was sadly aware that this was the case, but that the actions of others did not make it right. The judge then replied that in Japan the emperor was considered deity, and he inquired if the emperor also needed to believe in Jesus. Without hesitation, Hunt said, "Yes, I believe the Japanese emperor must believe in Jesus to be saved. He is a mere man and as such, according to the Bible, he is a sinner like the rest of us and in need of salvation."

The exchange continued between Hunt and judge throughout the day until the trial was ended. Hunt had little hope of release, but was stunned with the verdict. The judge declared that Hunt was without crime and should be released. The day of release was December 5, 1941. Hunt traveled through the night of December 5 and caught up with his family on December 6. Despite his ordeal and the great suffering he had endured, Hunt believed the gospel had to go forth in Harbin more than ever. However, the next day, December 7, brought the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the consequent declaration of war between the United States and Japan. On December 9, Hunt was arrested once more, this time not as a Christian, but as an American.

A Long Road from Ethiopia to Eritrea

At the same time Hunt was going through multiple imprisonments, Clarence Duff was seeking to plant a church in the northern Colorado mining town of Oak Creek. Previously he had labored eleven years as a Presbyterian missionary in Ethiopia, but was expelled from the country with his family in October 1938 by the Roman Catholic Italians. Returning to America, he immediately joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and sought a place to labor.

Not knowing what to do, Duff turned to fellow Presbytery of Philadelphia member Ben Male, who had taken a call in Denver. They formed a plan for Duff to take the gospel to the place with the highest crime rate in Colorado, the mining community of Oak Creek, even though neither of them knew a soul there. With a commitment of $3.90 per month from Male, and an additional pledge of $35 per month from the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, Duff and his wife Dora and their two small children headed in a camper to Oak Creek. Once in the town, Duff approached the local VFW lodge to see if their side hut could be used for church meetings. The VFW said they could use it, as long as Duff paid for the coal to heat the hut, a cost of $2 every six weeks. Undaunted, Duff started the work in the fall of 1941 and expressed great thankfulness in the pages of the Presbyterian Guardian for the progress of the mission, with conversions and added members. No mention was made of the fact that the giving during worship had been $1.41 from late September through mid-December.

In January 1942, the British defeated the Italians and helped to restore the Ethiopian government of Haile Salassie. Hearing the news, Duff contacted Foreign Missions general secretary Robert Marsden about the possibility of returning to Ethiopia as an OP missionary. The Committee on Foreign Missions quickly agreed and appointed the Duffs as the first OP missionaries to the continent of Africa. World War II was still raging in the Atlantic Ocean, making travel nearly impossible. Travelling by himself, Duff secured transit across the Atlantic (twenty days), spent a month in Lisbon, sailed around the Cape to Portuguese East Africa (thirty-six days), landed in Lourenco Marques (twelve days), sailed north in the Indian Ocean with and without convoy at night (eighteen days) before arriving at Djibouti, and took the railroad to Ethiopia. However, upon arriving at the border of Ethiopia, British forces denied him a permit of entry.

While saddened, Duff was not undone. Word had come to him about the gospel going forth in Ethiopia through two young men he had brought to Christ, Shigutei and Sabiro. Seeing great gifts and interest in Christ from the young boys who had served as the mission's cook (Shigutei) and extra helper for the household (Sabiro), Duff had discipled them in the faith throughout the middle part of the decade. When he knew in 1937 that the Italians were soon to kick him out of the country, Duff and other leaders in the mission and Gudeilla church ordained Shigutei and Sabiro by prayer and the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Shigutei and Sabiro were authorized to examine those making a credible profession of faith in Christ and to proceed to baptize them. Despite the Italian hostility to non-Catholic worship, Shigutei and Sabiro witnessed endlessly about Jesus Christ and started planting churches. By the end of 1941, the Lord had blessed their labor, as sixty-seven churches had been established with thousands of professing Christians. Later, the total would grow to over two hundred churches.

Barred from Ethiopia and with a heart for the gospel's spread elsewhere in East Africa, Duff petitioned Marsden for permission to start OP missionary activity in the neighboring country of Eritrea. By 1945, Charles Stanton, Francis Mahaffy and family, and Duff's own family were with him on the field in Eritrea spreading the gospel.

In Asia, Hunt remained imprisoned until he was released in a prisoner exchange in August 1942. After the end of World War II, he returned to his missionary labors as an evangelist at the Korean Seminary in Pusan. The postwar Korean church was badly divided. The church included those who had bowed down to the Shinto shrines during the Japanese captivity and those who had not. Having been influenced by modernist teaching, the majority often sought to bypass discipline. Hunt sided with those who sought reconciliation through the biblical means of repentance and discipline. Eventually two different presbyteries at Pusan were formed—one liberal and the other conservative, and by 1951 a new Presbyterian church based upon the Bible was founded.

Thus, from a church with a handful of missionaries and virtually no monetary resources—very much unlike the Presbyterian Church of Woodrow Wilson's day—the gospel went forth to the nations and many believed. This history of OPC foreign missions gives evidence that things which are impossible with man are possible with God. Truly, "to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12–13).

The author is general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education. New Horizons, May 2011.

Return to Formatted Page