Robert and Madeline Johnston reflect on their contribution to mission in that Asian nation.
Sahmyook University in Seoul, South Korea, traces its history back to 1906 and Uimyeong School, a humble place of learning dedicated to training Seventh-day Adventist ministers. Today, that modest forerunner has blossomed into a thriving university, rightly proud of its wide-ranging programs, highly qualified faculty, and impressive student body, currently numbering about 6,000.
Two current Michigan, United States, residents who contributed significantly to the development of Seventh-day Adventist higher education in South Korea are Robert and Madeline Johnston. At the request of Sahmyook University, the Johnstons recently completed a joint memoir of their 11 years of missionary work in South Korea (1958-1969). Most of their time there was spent teaching at Korean Union Training School. It later became Korean Union College, then Sahmyook University.
Speaking of their call to mission service, Madeline recently mused, “It would be easier if God used skywriting, but that’s not how He usually decides to work. Being sure we were led by God was a process that Bob and I each worked through in our own way.” Here are excerpts from their memoir testify of their listening for God’s direction and finding the courage and commitment to follow His leading.
As a young married couple, the Johnstons were supportive of missions but never envisioned overseas service for themselves. They felt better suited for service in North America. While teaching at the Adventist academy in Fresno, California, Robert received a letter from the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He recalls, “The letter explained that, from time to time, there was a need for people with my qualifications in the mission field, and the secretariat wanted to have my name in their files in case they needed me. I did not think it was likely that they would call me, but I felt that I should fill out the enclosed form and send it back, lest I be blocking the will of God.”
Madeline remembers looking over that blank form and saying to her husband, “We know we want to do God’s will. If we fill out this form and it is not His will for us to go, then He will block the way. But if by some chance it is His will for us to go, and we do not fill out the form, then we are blocking His will. Maybe we should fill it out, but just tell the General Conference honestly that we aren’t eager to go.”
Robert and Madeline prayed, filled out the form, and returned it. Robert suspected that the form might be filed away somewhere, which would be the end of it. “Nothing may come of this,” he told Madeline.
About two months after the arrival of that first “feeler letter,” the Johnstons received a call to South Korea.
Although initially very surprised by this invitation, the Johnstons began to consider it. Madeline had certain stipulations regarding suitable places for them to serve. She and her husband had an infant son and wanted more children. Because of complications with her first pregnancy, Madeline felt any subsequent pregnancies would require a modern medical facility and doctor.
As he began to consider the possibility of serving outside of North America, Robert envisioned postings more aligned with his linguistic skills. “Because I knew some Spanish and was, in fact, currently teaching the language, I felt that any call surely would be to Latin America.”
When they later raised the “Why Korea?” question regarding this particular call, the Johnstons were told, “We figured if Bob could learn the languages he already knew, he would be able to learn Korean, too.” The Johnstons were also reassured that South Korea offered nearby medical facilities with missionary doctors, unlike other countries with unfilled positions.
As Robert and Madeline continued to ponder the call to teach Bible in Korea, Robert did what any diligent scholar and researcher would do. He bought a book about the country. “We read it,” he recalls, “but we were still not sure that we should go there. For several weeks we held the letter, prayed, talked to friends, and tried to decide.”
Initially, Madeline didn’t see herself as “missionary material.” The mission stories that she had heard in childhood often stressed “primitive living conditions — and snakes.” Madeline explains, “I had grown up in the big city of Los Angeles, a physician’s daughter, not living in luxury but certainly not in poverty either. I had never met a snake around our house, and I had no desire to meet one. Nor did I know how to bake my own bread or live in the countryside. Surely God must have other plans for us.”
The Johnstons shared their concerns in writing with the man in General Conference Secretariat who had sent the call. He addressed many of their concerns. He also advised them to take two months to think and pray about the call.
During this time, there was a Sabbath School lesson on Jonah. Also, the Johnstons attended a youth rally one Sabbath, which significantly impacted their thinking about Korea. Elder E. L. Minchin ended his Sabbath sermon at the youth rally with a three-part appeal: first for baptism or rededication, then for openness to the gospel ministry, and, finally, for willingness to undertake foreign mission service, should the Lord call. Robert vividly remembers, “That appeal struck me like a lightning bolt because I already had just such a call in my pocket! I stood.” Madeline stood as well.
Still, some reservations remained about whether God was truly calling them to uproot their young family. Madeline shares, “We wondered: How could this be God’s will when Bob was already teaching Spanish at the academy and could have easily taught in a South American country? Was this really the voice of God, or was it just some human committee that made a mistake?”
Madeline was also concerned about the practice of missionaries sending their young children far away to boarding school. She had seen the negative effects such prolonged separations had had on some missionary families. She recalls thinking, We don’t want to do that to our son and any additional children.
Madeline and Robert prayed earnestly during those two months, with Madeline realizing, “Our work could not be effective without a love of the place and the people.” Eventually, she and Robert began to see that standing in commitment during that memorable youth rally had meant something different to each of them. Madeline explains: “To Bob, it meant he had the call in his pocket, God was asking him to go, and he was saying, ‘Yes.’ To me, it meant that yes, I would be willing to go if God called me, but I still was not totally convinced that the call was from God.”
An important signpost appeared for the couple during a particular church service where Bob had been asked to sing a solo. Madeline recalls, “He chose the hymn, ‘I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go.’ I accompanied him on the piano. For both of us, that hymn took on a special, personal meaning.”
In addition to their own prayer and soul-searching, Robert and Madeline sought counsel from trusted individuals. The resulting advice proved to be very wide-ranging. One person claimed that Korea would be a bad career move. “You’ll be forgotten if you go overseas,” he cautioned, “and you’ll never advance to the GC.” As that career trajectory had never been among Robert and Madeline’s aspirations, they fought to contain their shock at this advice.
Others shared more helpful counsel. Earlier, while serving as a dean in the women’s dormitory at Lodi Academy in California, Madeline had met and worked alongside Theodora Wangerin, a retired missionary. Madeline and Robert decided to visit her, who, with her husband and family, had served in Korea for more than 40 years. Madeline recalled spending evenings in the dormitory viewing pictures and hearing stories of the Wangerins’ experiences in Korea. Even though their mission service had included heartbreaking personal losses, Wangerin had steadfastly remained committed to the work she and her husband had begun together and which she later continued. Robert and Madeline knew that this perspective could be very helpful to them.
During their visit, Wangerin said to Madeline and Robert, “Be very sure that you are called by God, and then no matter what difficulties you may face, you will have the assurance that you are where God wants you and He will help you.”
Later, when the Johnstons’ call to serve in Korea had progressed to the medical clearance stage, an American-trained Chinese doctor who examined Madeline urged, “You go to Korea and do a good job. I cannot go back to China. You go and take my place.”
The Johnstons ultimately followed this and other wise counsel. Madeline remembers asking God to “give me the desire to go.” That prayer was answered as they boarded the plane to South Korea. What they couldn’t have foreseen, however, is that their 11-year term of overseas mission service would expand into a more-than-60-year relationship with Korea!
Upon returning home to the United States, Robert continued to enjoy teaching many Korean students in the seminary at Andrews University. He often preached and held seminars in many of the Korean churches throughout the United States. He even returned to Korea several times for shorter teaching assignments. Now, in his sixty-fifth year as a denominational worker, Robert looks back on their Korean years as the peak experience of his career as a church worker.
Robert and Madeline Johnston have no doubt that God witnessed and blessed their standing commitment that day at the youth rally, just as He heard each word and note of their musical pledge, “I’ll go where you want me to go, dear Lord.” The Johnstons readily admit that while teaching in South Korea, they also were taught. Perhaps no lesson has been more lasting than this important one: Some decisions require a leap of faith; others are made faithful step by faithful step.
This piece has been edited by Beverly Matiko.
The original version of this story was posted in Lake Union Herald.