Pak Daeseon

Pak Daeseon  (April. 15, 1916 – April. 29, 2010)

Pak Daeseon , former president of Yonsei University in Korea (1964-1975) and an alumnus of Boston University School of Theology (Th.D., 1955), was the rare person who was able to balance academic excellence with a call to a ‘mastery of service.’ Until the end of his life, which spanned almost 100 years, he navigated through the struggles and critical moments of modern Korean history, and emerged as one of its key intellectuals through his roles as pastor, theologian, and educator.

In 1916, Pak Daeseon was born into a Christian (Presbyterian) family in the Gyeongbuk province of Korea. He was the first son among nine children and as a fourth generation Christian, it seemed natural that he would follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was a Presbyterian pastor.[1] Due to political turbulence in the Korean peninsula, Pak Daeseon’s life was filled with various social and cultural pressures. In his early years, Pak lived under Japanese occupation (1910-1945), and in middle age, he personally experienced the ravages of the Korean War (1950-1953). In the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea underwent major political upheavals as the nation struggled through a period of military dictatorships while attempting to develop its fledgling democracy and economy. Living through these difficult times was crucial in the development of his life’s activities, thoughts, and vision as a pastor, theologian, and educator.[2]

At a young age, Pak Daeseon was fortunate enough to be given opportunities to study beyond Korea. When his father was sent by the Korean Presbyterian-Methodist Union to Japan as a missionary, Pak Daeseon studied in Kwansei Gakuin Middle School (1930) and Kwansei Gakuin University (1942) in Japan. At the college, he was influenced by the academic environment of the Christian private school, and especially its motto, “Mastery for Service,” (given by Dr. C.J.L. Bates, a Canadian missionary), which was deeply inscribed in his heart. After college, he dreamed of going to America for advanced studies in theology and in 1952—in the midst of the Korean War—he was selected as a recipient of a Crusade Scholarship supported by the Methodist Church. He came to study at Boston University School of Theology to achieve his academic goal of becoming a biblical scholar. In 1955, he finished his Th.D. dissertation, “Prolegomena to a Korean Translation of the Book of Isaiah,” becoming the first Korean biblical scholar with a doctoral degree. In Boston, he gained not only his academic bona fides, he was also able to experience the “hub” of education and the foundation of American history and culture as well.[3] After graduating, he came back to Korea to teach at the Methodist Seminary.[4] In 1964, he was chosen as the president of Yonsei University, where he would be an influential theologian and educator.

Dr. Daesun Park pictured in the Boston University Yearbook.
Dr.  Pak Daeseon pictured in the Boston University Yearbook.

As stated above, Pak’s life can be characterized by his influence in the three areas of his profession: pastor, theologian, and educator. First of all, he was a committed pastor throughout his life. As he confessed in his memoirs, coming from a fourth generation Christian family, he seemed almost destined to become a pastor.[5] Not surprisingly, right after finishing up his theological training in Japan (1942), he started serving at Korean Methodist churches in the Pyeongyang area, including Pyeongyang Methodist Church (1942-1950) in North Korea under the communist government until the outbreak of Korean War in 1950.[6] Furthermore, during the war he served in the Korean army as a military chaplain for two years (1951-1952).[7] He continued to be involved in pastoral ministry while studying in Boston as he became one of the founders of the first Korean Church in Boston in 1952, with Pak serving as its de-facto principal pastor. Having personally witnessed the struggles among different Protestant denominations while serving the churches in Pyeongyang, Pak became an early proponent of the ecumenical movement. This is why Pak intentionally started the Boston Korean Church as a non-denominational congregation; instead, he wanted to place an emphasis on the union of the small number of Koreans in Boston at the time.[8]

Second, as a theologian, Pak was the first Korean biblical scholar with a doctoral degree. In 1955, he finished his Th.D. dissertation: Prolegomena to a Korean Translation of the Book of Isaiah, under the guidance of Dr. Robert H. Pfeiffer.[9] With detailed analysis, he pointed out numerous textual errors in the Korean edition of Isaiah due to using various English, Chinese, and Japanese texts instead of using the original Hebrew. By closely examining crucial passages in the prophetic text and its inadequacies, he specifically highlighted the necessity of a new translation of the book. By doing so, he was one of the first scholars to challenge Korean churches and theological scholars to engage the Bible texts in the original languages and with academic rigor. He also delved into the texts of the prophets in the Old Testament not only as a biblical scholar, but utilized the prophetic voice in his sermons, addresses, and articles regarding social justice issues such as economic equality and democracy. [10] Pak was one of the foremost practitioners and advocates of a populist, practical theology.

Lastly, his professionalism as an educator reached its height when he served as president of Yonsei University between 1964 and 1975. When he officially began his tenure in 1964, the university was in crisis. The school was struggling with conflicts within the board of trustees, which consisted of the major denominations (mainly Presbyterian and Methodist). He was given the unenviable task of reforming a system that was smudged with nepotism and divisions among the schools in the university.[11] Calling upon his twin goals of academic excellence and “mastery of service,” Pak Daeseon set out to reconstruct Yonsei University. By the time he was forced to resign by the military dictatorship that was ruling the Korean government in 1974, the university was well on its way to restoring its academic reputation and it did undergo significant administrative and social service reforms.[12] To this day, Yonsei is considered one of the top universities in Korea and this is largely due to Pak gifts as an expert educator, administrator, reformer, and leader. To the end of his life, he continued to live out the motto of “mastery of service.”




Pak Daesun. Chilli ui Koltchagi (Valley of the Truth), Seoul: Chŏnmangsa, 1986.

___________. Hanŭl esŏ chŏngŭi ka ttang esŏ chinsil i (Justice from Heaven and Truth on the Earth), Seoul: Chŏnmangsa, 1996.

___________.  A reum da un sesang (the beautiful world), Goyang: Hankook Kidokkyo Yonguso, 2005.



Park, Daesun. Prolegomena to a Korean Translation of the Book of Isaiah, Th.D. Thesis, 1956.

(Available at Theology Library Mfilm (09-0000347 ))


Articles in Media:

1. Dong-a Daily News in 1971

2. Kyunghyang News Paper in 1975.

3. Yonsei University 114th anniversary interview in 1999






[1] Pak Daesun, Hanŭl esŏ chŏngŭi ka ttang esŏ chinsil i (Seoul: Chŏnmangsa, 1996), 15.

[2] Pak Daesun, Chilli ui Koltchagi, (Seoul: Chŏnmangsa, 1986), 15-49.

[3] Ibid., 128.

[4] Ibid., 123-133.

[5] Pak Daesun, Chilli ui Koltchagi, 25-26.

[6] Ibid., 34-42.

[7] Pak Daesun, Hanŭl esŏ chŏngŭi ka ttang esŏ chinsil i, 114-115.

[8] Ibid., 150-158.

[9] Ibid., 181. The dissertation is available at Boston University School of Theology Library.

[10] In the book, Chilli ui Koltchagi (the Valley of Truth), Pak Daesun presents numerous academic articles, addresses, and journals in the paper, which are dealing with some critical issues in Korean context. For example, in his article Gongbub eul Mulgachi Jungeui reul Hasugachi (let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24), Pak Daesun highlights the necessity of the prophetic voice in Korean society, and he admits that his approach to social justice is deeply indebted to the ethical environment in Boston University and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

[11] Pak Daesun, Hanŭl esŏ chŏngŭi ka ttang esŏ chinsil i., 213, 238-254.

[12] Ibid., 431-436.

Written by: Jae Lee