Awakening Me to Research Possibilities through “Awakening the Hermit Kingdom”


Ahn, Katherine H. Lee. Awakening the Hermit Kingdom: Pioneer American Women Misionaries in Korea. 1st edition. Pasadena, Calif: William Carey Library, 2013.


Katherine Ahn’s Awakening the Hermit Kingdom: Pioneer American Women Misionaries in Korea is a comprehensive overview of American women missionary’s work in Korea between the years 1885-1907. Her methodology, as such, is just that, an overview, a comprehensive history gleaned from the archives. She uses a number of primary sources, primarily letters written by female missionaries as well as journals published by denominations at the time. She situates her story thematically and chronologically. In essence, she desires to write a history of early missionary endeavors that focuses entirely on the work done by women missionaries. It is not a particularly scholarly work, but is ‘chock-full’ of information. In her conclusion, Ahn puts forth a number of arguments as to the accomplishments, significance and successes of the women missionaries, which she believes, I think, that her work ‘shows’ although they are not explicitly argued.

Awakening the Hermit Kingdom, although a historical narrative, its audience seems geared to theological-missionary endeavors. Two reviews were from theological journals and one review was from an historical journal. All reviews remark on the work’s breadth and wide use of primary sources to weave the narrative. Michael C. Lazich of Buffalo State College, writing in the “American Historical Review” however, notes that the work lacks the rigor of academic critical analysis, something I noticed as well. Samuel Yang, in the “International bulletin of Missionary Research” is very complimentary of the book without criticism; however he does note something unique about Ahn’s work. Yang purports that Ahn insists that, more than the content of the gospel message, the way it was presented was important – that the women created a ‘space’ for communication. This is a perception that I agree with and interests me a lot. Lila Bilisky writing in the journal “Missology – An International Review” points out that Ahn never notes that the American women missionaries would have been forerunners in education and medical work in America, not to mention Korea. This is an idea that has been well documented by historians working in the field of women missionaries and was the subject of my undergraduate thesis paper over 10 years ago. Bilisky also notes that Ahn’s work is enriched by the use of articles and theses written in the Korean language. I agree with this perception, but have had a hard time getting access to them. Ahn is from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA where these theses are located. Efforts through ILLiad, as well as personal contact with a librarian at Fuller have come up empty as far as obtaining copies of these works for my research.

Three articles cited Awakening the Hermit Kingdom, according to google scholar. Two of the articles centered on Korean women. The first contains an analysis of the reasons for the success of the Korean Bible Women in their evangelistic efforts. The second article argues that Protestant Bible education for women laid the foundation for the professional education of modern Korean women. This is also an idea I am interested in exploring in terms of the significance of the work of American missionary women. Both of these articles use Ahn’s research that showed that Korean women, in overwhelming numbers, came to see what the new ‘foreign women’ looked like. Actually, this was the first time I had seen these articles so of course I went looking for them and found them actually just through a google search and then by signing into Muse journals through my affiliation with Virginia Tech. The third article that cited Awakening the Hermit Kingdom was an article on Horace Allen, a male missionary to Korea. This article just used Ahn to establish the fact that there were mission fields in other countries besides Korea at the time, a fact they could have gotten from any number of sources.

I also did a citation search following the guidelines outlined in the email from Bruce Pancek. This search, however, did not result in any citations. I have thought about reasons for the relative paucity of citations for Awakening the Hermit Kingdom especially in light of the fact that the book is going through its second release (Its first release was in 2009 and its second was in 2013) and its ready availability on the used book market. I believe it may be used as an overview of mission work in seminary classes and I believe its value is less in its argument and more in its treasure trove of endnotes and bibliographic information.

Along those lines, I too believe that I will ‘mine’ the books endnotes for information and sources; however, it also gives me an overview of the missionary work and possible entrance points for my research. I believe Ahn’s implicit ideas of ‘space’ for ministry will also become part of my analysis.

Overall, Awakening the Hermit Kingdom is a comprehensive and helpful synopsis of early work by American women missionaries in Korea and as such, is a valuable addition to my bibliography.





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