A Work of Love: Horace Underwood and the Formation of White Korean Christianity

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats



Christianity in South Korea has long been touted the one success story in Asia, dubbed the “Korean miracle,” whose traction and trajectory of explosive growth are unanimously traced back to the Protestant missionaries who arrived in numbers at the end of the nineteenth century. Among them, one monumental figure towers over all: the Presbyterian Reverend Horace G. Underwood (1859-1916), widely considered the single most important and influential western missionary ever to set foot on Korea, in large part due to his extraordinary sacrificial love for the nation and the people of Korea.

As such, his theology and practice of missions represent a work of love from the missionary par excellence of Korea, who missiologically operated out of best intentions and overwhelming love for the natives. However, as this dissertation critiques, it is a work of love compromised by his racial imagination, not incidental to his missiology but at its core. Specifically, this dissertation theologically examines how race manifests and functions in Underwood’s missiology as a multifaceted pseudo- or anti-Christology. Hence, the story of Underwood is one in which his theology of mission problematically operated out of a thick and dynamic racialized Christology, even as he imagined he was espousing and performing the very teachings of Jesus, making it all the more ironic and tragic. At the core of such a false and faulty “Christology,” whiteness, with Underwood himself as its white masculine exemplar, as racially constructed and stabilized, unrelentingly seeks to usurp the Person and the Work of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. In this way, race as an anti-Christology with the white masculine posing as Christ functions as the missiological basis for his formation of a de facto white Korean Christianity.

The dissertation deconstructs and critiques Underwood’s racialized Christology in two parts. In Part I, I argue that Underwood’s missiological approach in making Koreans known through a comprehensive and comparative racial characterization presupposes a racialized doctrine of creation, whereby the white body, in lieu of Jesus, is deemed the revelation of full humanity (Chapter 1). What is more, in this doctrine, the white body positions itself also as the definitive judge of all humanity, and through its “all-seeing, all-knowing” judgment, the white body creates humanity anew, which in Underwood’s case meant re-creating Koreans as racialized modern subjects with a subjectivity posed to perform whiteness. As such, whiteness arrogates for itself Christ’s divine roles as the Judge and the Creator (Chapter 2).

In Part II, I shift to the heart of Underwood’s missiology: his racialized soteriology. I show that his argument for the missionary investment in Koreans is predicated on a racialized doctrine of salvation, which designates the white body, as opposed to Jesus, as the very incarnation of the elect, the very image of the saved (Chapter 3), along with the nation, as opposed to the church, as the body politic of the elect, with the emerging American empire the very image of the elect nation (Chapter 4). Moreover, in his racialized soteriology it is the white body who is the savior or the one electing, in place of Jesus, the true Elected One and Savior. Here, his racialized doctrines of creation and salvation come together in his re-creation of Korean religious subjectivity for the sake of saving the nation and the people of Korea. In this way, Underwood helps to establish a vision of racial nationalism for Korea that continues to shape the interaction between Christian practice and nationalist goals of well-being and progress in whiteness within Korea and in other parts of the world.


Doctor of Theology




Cho, Kyong Rae (2018). A Work of Love: Horace Underwood and the Formation of White Korean Christianity. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/20195.


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.