The Australian Presbyterian Mission was established in Busan, South Korea in the early 1890s by three women missionaries: Belle Menzies (1856–1935), Bessie Moore (1863-1956) and Agnes Brown (1868–1954).
Belle Menzies, from Ballarat and later the aunt of Sir Robert Menzies, had arrived in October 1891, sponsored by the newly-formed Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union and was followed by Bessie Moore from Daylesford and Agnes Brown, also from Ballarat.
Isabella Bird Bishop, the 19th-century adventurer and travel writer, visited the Mission in 1894 and described their living conditions:
The mud walls were concealed with paper, and photographs and other European knickknacks conferred a look of refinement. But not only were the rooms so low that one of the ladies could not stand upright in them, but privacy was impossible, invasions of Korean women and children succeeding each other from morning to night, so that even dressing was a spectacle for the curious …
Their mission work consisted of holding daily meetings for worship, classes for religious instruction, providing medical aid, and organising Sunday school classes. They also took to ‘itinerating’ to surrounding villages, sometimes travelling hundreds of kilometres on foot or by pony, to conduct meetings in private homes. They took instruction themselves in the Korean language so that they could effectively communicate with the local people.
The women missionaries were not able to baptise converts, and were involved in a demarcation dispute with Rev. A Adamson who arrived in May 1894:
Miss Brown … went to Ulsan some time in May last and had some meetings there. One day after her arrival Mr Adamson also appeared on the scene without – as far as we can find out – having been called by the people there. Miss Brown on the Sunday following informed him that the ladies looked upon this work as theirs, which fact Mr A. acknowledged. Still he took more or less complete charge there presumably on the ground that Miss Brown being a lady had nothing to do with the formation of catechumen-classes or congregations of inquirers.
This extract from the journal of Rev. Gelson Engel (who arrived in October 1900) reveals his more tolerant attitude. He acknowledges their teaching and language skills which he relied on to undertake his own ministry, for example:
Having with Miss Brown’s assistance translated the two baptismal services from Dr Hodges ‘Manual of Forms’, I was able to conduct the whole service myself.
In October 1895, the Busanjin Ilsin Girls’ School opened with Belle Menzies as its first Principal. She later wrote of her belief that ‘to elevate a nation the wives and mothers must be educated’. It was in fact the first girls’ school in Busan. By 1905 there were 85 girls enrolled in the school. Today, a plaque for ‘Busan Monument No. 55’ outside a two-storey Western-style brick building constructed in 1905 (which replaced the original straw-thatched house) records the school’s foundation and history.
The pioneer women missionaries, Belle Menzies, Bessie Moore and Agnes Brown, all had long careers in Korea. Belle Menzies retired in 1924 after 33 years of service, Bessie Moore in 1919 with 27 years’ service, and Agnes Brown, having married Rev. Gelson Engel in 1907, finally retired from missionary work in 1937 after a record 42 years of service.
Edith Kerr (who served as a missionary in Korea 1921–1941) writes:
to these … ladies who itinerated the hard way before the advent of motor vehicles or trains and who by the witness of their dedicated lives and by their faithful teaching did so much to commend the gospel and Christian way of life to Korean people of Pusan and its environs, too high a tribute cannot be paid.
Prepared by Maggie Shapley (Australian National University Archivist – and great grand daughter of Clara and Rev Gelson Engel)