The Legacy of Mary Scranton

Andrea Kwon


Mary Scranton was an American missionary to Korea, the first missionary sent there by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS) of the Methodist Episcopal Church. During her more than two decades of service, Scranton laid the foundations for the WFMS mission in Seoul and helped to establish the wider Protestant missionary endeavor on the Korean peninsula. Her pioneering evangelistic and educational work, including the opening of Korea’s first modern school for girls, reflected Scranton’s commitment to ministering to and with Korean women.

One distinctive aspect of early Protestant missions to Korea was the predominance of American representation. From their entrance in the 1880s and into the twentieth century, missionaries from the United States, particularly from the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches, composed the overwhelming majority of the Protestant community serving on the peninsula. Although figures such as Horace Allen, Horace Underwood, and Henry Appenzeller are now familiar names in the historical literature on Korean Christianity, comparatively less recognition has been given to the women missionaries who lived and worked in Korea, and to the roles they played in pioneering what was to become a much celebrated—and complex—mission field.

Among the first group of American missionaries to go to Chosŏn Korea was Mary Scranton. A native of Massachusetts and a long-standing member of the Methodist Episcopal Church (North), Scranton was already in her fifties but a first-time missionary when she arrived in the peninsular kingdom in 1885. She was buried there more than two decades later, after witnessing one of the most tumultuous eras in modern Korean history. Best remembered as the founder of Ewha Haktang, Korea’s first modern educational institution for females, Mary Scranton—or Dae Puin (“Great Lady”), as some called her—made vital contributions to a formative period of Korea missions.[1]

Background and missionary appointment

Mary Fletcher Benton Scranton was born on December 9, 1832, in Belchertown, Massachusetts, a small manufacturing town known chiefly in the mid-nineteenth century for its production of carriages and wagons. She had a strong family background in Methodism—her father, brother, and nephew were all ordained ministers—and became a Christian herself at the age of twelve.[2] As a young girl, Mary attended public schools and later entered the Norwich Female Academy in neighboring Connecticut. In 1853 she married an iron manufacturer named William Scranton, and together they had one son, William Benton Scranton, before the elder William died in 1872. Thus widowed at forty, Mary eventually followed her son westward and settled in Ohio. She could not have known how much farther the coming decades would remove her from her roots in New England.

Though Mary Scranton may not have originally envisioned a life overseas, her involvement in the church led to a keen interest in foreign missions. Prior to her appointment to Korea, she served as a conference secretary for the New York and New England branches of the Methodist Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS). The WFMS had been founded in 1869, when a group of women gathered at the Tremont Street Church in Boston to organize a female mission agency. Compelled by a duty “to send out single ladies as missionaries to women in heathen lands,” as one founding member described it, the WFMS sought to establish an organization that would function independently from the male-run, parent Methodist board.[3] By the mid-1880s the Tremont circle had burgeoned into a veritable enterprise: with nine regional branches, several thousand auxiliaries, and more than ninety thousand in membership, the WFMS was on its way to becoming the most prominent US women’s mission society of its time.[4]

Female participation in American foreign missions was not new. Since the movement’s beginnings in the early nineteenth century, women had rallied behind the cause both as workers abroad and as advocates at home. In the decades following the Civil War (1861–65), however, their presence reached unprecedented heights. Dozens of new female mission agencies were established by the turn of the century, as women created extensive networks buttressed by activities at the local level. Such growth reflected the broader momentum foreign missions were gaining in the post–Civil War years, but women also saw themselves as bearing a special burden for the evangelization of women around the world. As the inaugural issue of Heathen Woman’s Friend stated, “Dear Sisters! Shall we not recognize, in this emergency, God’s voice as speaking to us—for who can so well do this work as we? Does it not seem as though the responsibility were thus laid directly upon us?”[5]

Mary Scranton doubtless shared those sentiments, but in the 1880s her role in the movement took a surprising turn. In the fall of 1884 Mary’s son, a graduate of Yale College and a medical doctor, was appointed as the Methodist Church’s first missionary to Korea. Mary was close to her only child, and after learning of his assignment, she decided to accompany him as a family member. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the WFMS then invited her to go to Korea as one of its own agents. She later said of her acceptance of the request, “The call of my son . . . was a call to me also.”[6]

In one major respect, however, Scranton differed from the more typical WFMS missionary candidate: her age. At fifty-one years, Scranton fell outside the WFMS’s standard window, which was between twenty-two and thirty, and bore a closer resemblance to the organization’s often married leaders at home than to the single, younger representatives sent abroad. Even so, the age rule could be suspended if the candidate possessed such characteristics as “a thorough intellectual training” and “a remarkable ability for Christian work”; to the WFMS, Scranton indeed proved a worthy exception. Her prior involvement in the society displayed examples of “Christian usefulness,” and though her commitment to the foreign missionary life had come in an unexpected way, she was confident of a personal calling to the work.[7]

These qualities aside, Scranton’s appointment to Korea would have been unusual without her educational background. Like many of her missionary colleagues, she was highly educated for her time and thus represented a small segment of the nineteenth-century American population. For the WFMS, education was not only a necessary qualification for candidates but also a significant element of women’s goals in mission. If the mantra of social progress underlay much of the new enthusiasm the movement attained in the post–Civil War decades, for many female missionaries like Scranton, it would have included the imperative to “uplift” women and girls through educational work. This priority would be reflected in Scranton’s earliest efforts after landing on the Korean peninsula.

Arrival and early years

Mary Scranton reached Seoul, the capital of Korea, in the summer of 1885, only three years after the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392–1910) had entered into its first treaties with Western nations. While native Catholic communities had existed in the kingdom since at least the late 1700s, Christianity remained an officially banned teaching, and over the previous century there had been a series of bloody persecutions. Protestant missions were a recent addition—the first permanent missionaries to the peninsula, the American physician Horace Allen and his wife, Frances, had taken up residence only in 1884. When Scranton arrived the following year, she joined the handful of Protestant missionaries living in the capital, all of whom belonged either to the American Presbyterian or Methodist boards.[8]

Like her colleagues, Scranton was aware that a proscription against Christianity existed in Korea, though, as she was to discover, not all the missionaries agreed on how to interpret that law. Scranton herself initially adopted a watchful stance. Recalling her early days in Seoul, she later explained that “we were counseled by our United States representatives to use the utmost caution in manner and speech.”[9] A recent coup attempt had exacerbated tensions on the peninsula, and in response the American legation had urged the missionaries to act with discretion. “Nothing remained, therefore, for us to do,” Scranton remembered, “but to win hearts . . . and acquire the language. Both of these under the circumstances proved difficult.”[10]

In the meantime, Scranton focused on establishing a base for the WFMS. Shortly after her arrival she secured property on the west side of the capital, in the same vicinity as the US legation and the other missions. There she hoped “to have a home and a school” and anticipated the latter would receive “plenty of applicants.”[11] That expectation was quickly challenged. Scranton opened her school for girls in mid-1886, yet only a few pupils chose to enroll, prompting her to admit that “at first we [missionaries] were regarded with great suspicion.”[12] The following year, however, the Korean government granted recognition to the school by conferring upon it the name of Ewha Haktang (“Pear Blossom School”). This favor reflected a broader interest by the Chosŏn leadership in promoting modern medical, educational, and other institutions as part of an ongoing program for reform.

As Scranton acknowledged, the government’s approval gave Ewha an important symbolic status, and within several years, attendance at the school increased from three to more than twenty students. Most of these first students were poor; the seclusion of females in Korean society, especially those belonging to the upper class, again forced Scranton to adjust her expectation of enrolling girls from elite backgrounds. Local conditions also convinced her of the need for medical work, and early on she entreated the WFMS to send a missionary physician to Seoul. Her determination was realized in 1887 with the appointment of Dr. Meta Howard, who under Scranton’s guidance opened a hospital for Korean women, the first of its kind on the peninsula. Like Ewha Haktang, the hospital received royal recognition through the granting of its name, Bogu Yeogwan (“House for Many Sick Women”).[13]

Scranton served as head of Ewha Haktang for approximately five years, during which time she and Louisa Rothweiler, another WFMS missionary who had joined the school, initiated a curriculum that included algebra, geography, and English. Though as an educator Scranton drew upon assumptions about Western-style learning, she rejected the notion that the students must conform wholesale to foreign methods or ideals. “We would emphasize,” she summarized, “as has always been done in the past, that our school is, first of all, a school to make Korean girls better Korean girls.”[14] In the spring of 1890 Ewha added its first Korean instructor, Yi Kyŏng-suk. A Christian convert and the daughter of a scholar, Yi taught reading and writing in the Korean vernacular (ŏnmun), as well as classes in the Chinese script (hanmun).[15] The latter, which was considered the preserve of educated males in Korea, became a regular course of study at Ewha.

Yet, life at the school, Scranton reported, was “not all of a secular character.” Despite the illegality of Christian teaching, in 1888 Scranton began holding Sunday school meetings, where students gathered for Bible study. “Our girls have learned to pray,” she wrote that autumn, “not only in our little Sunday-school and week-day opening exercises, but in their own rooms, in their own tongue and in their own way.”[16] If in Scranton’s view the education of Korean females held intrinsic value and, as she asserted, was necessary “for the most speedy advancement of the country,” her vision for Ewha was also fundamentally tied to the aim of spreading the Gospel.[17] It was evangelistic work, in fact, that received much of Scranton’s attention for the remainder of her time in Korea.

Evangelistic work

Scranton returned to Korea in 1892 following a brief furlough for her health to recuperate. She had experienced serious illness at times during her first years in Seoul (at one point her physician son even feared for her life), but throughout her service Scranton exhibited a remarkable tenacity in the midst of health difficulties. Her association with Ewha Haktang continued after she rejoined the WFMS mission, and in subsequent years she went on to found several other girls’ schools in and around Seoul.

Over time, however, her interest gravitated toward serving among Korean women. In 1894 Scranton made her first “evangelistic tour”—a trip outside the capital and into the country. She took special note of the physical conditions of the homes, resolving afterward that she would “preach salvation from dirt, as well as salvation from sin, for the two must go together.”[18] Here again Scranton’s mission approach, like that of her contemporaries, could embody an interlacing of evangelization with ideas about social uplift. Although Scranton’s views regarding change in Korean society were not radical, she departed from certain patriarchal conventions by advocating, for example, not only Korean women’s greater access to literacy but also their active participation in evangelism.

Indeed from the start, native Bible women were instrumental in the WFMS’s outreach on the peninsula and in Korea missions as a whole. This partnership was partly a result of pragmatic reasons, but Scranton also appreciated the dedication and strategies exemplified by the women, whom she regularly commended in her reports home. “Much of the success of the work,” she wrote in 1896, “is due to their faithful labors.”[19] As Scranton explained, the Bible women supported by the WFMS were few in number but shouldered numerous duties: making house-to-house visitations, caring for the sick, serving as catechists, and providing other Christian instruction. They also carried out much of the evangelizing efforts in the countryside, at times covering circuits of more than one hundred miles by foot.[20]

While Scranton believed in the importance of itinerating and made several country journeys of her own, the majority of her evangelistic activities were concentrated in Seoul, where she found the work “so great and so absorbing it has seemed impossible to leave it.”[21] The Korean government’s prohibition of Christianity remained in place, but by the mid-1890s missionaries considered the edict a dead letter and had begun to pursue wider, more public methods of evangelism. Scranton built upon her earlier attempts at sharing the Gospel with Korean women through Sunday services and weekday gatherings. As interest in these meetings grew, she also sought new avenues for contact, including opening her home daily to anyone who wished to visit. “The gates are open at all times,” she wrote, “and every woman who so desires can come for instruction any day in the week or any hour in the day.”[22] Predicting only a small response, over the following year Scranton received more than three thousand visitors, some of whom had traveled miles to the capital from outlying districts.

Central to Scranton’s endeavors was her focus on biblical education and other forms of Christian training. Such training, she thought, could foster among the women not only individual “growth in grace” but also the knowledge and the opportunity for witnessing to others.[23] As the pioneer WFMS missionary to Korea, Scranton had no precise blueprint for what this work might entail, and she used both informal and formal settings to encourage studies ranging from the harmony of the Gospels to Old Testament history. Even after the WFMS established more systematic training for Korean women over the next decade, Scranton continued opening her home for instruction. “A few women have recently commenced coming to my room . . . for the study of Romans,” she reported in 1905. Here, as in other areas of her work, Scranton undertook the task with her usual modesty: “I agree perfectly with Peter when he said that some of the things written by ‘our beloved brother Paul’ were ‘hard to be understood,’” but when the women request “to be taught, what can we do but to try to do it?”[24]

Through her emphasis on native female participation, biblical study, and the cultivation of personal, everyday relationships, Scranton helped lay the foundations of women’s evangelism in Korea. She was pivotal in establishing the first Methodist churches in Seoul, as well as in forming and supervising organizations such as the Epworth League. The missionary Anna Chaffin later noted that it was “the much beloved Mrs. Scranton” who also “laid the cornerstone for the training of Bible women” and who assumed charge of the first Methodist Female Bible Training School.[25] Scranton was frank about some of the frustrations she faced as a missionary, in particular what she felt should be stronger support for Korea from individuals at the home base. At the same time, she evinced a bold optimism about the future of the Korean church, even as political conditions on the peninsula turned increasingly ominous.

Final years

The final years of Mary Scranton’s tenure coincided with the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) and the imposition of protectorate rule in Korea by Japan (1905). This conflict was the second fought on Korean soil by imperialist rivalries and set Korea on a path ultimately leading to the loss of its sovereignty. These years, not coincidentally, also marked a period of tremendous growth in Korean Protestantism. Though still a small proportion of the overall population, the membership of the Protestant church more than quadrupled between 1900 and 1910, leading some observers to declare Korea a “miracle” of modern missions.[26] The WFMS mission itself expanded from Scranton as its sole representative to more than a dozen female missionaries working at churches, hospitals, schools, and Bible institutes across several stations. Scranton did not live to see Japan’s takeover of the peninsula in 1910 or to witness the oppression Korean Christians faced under the colonial regime.

In some ways Mary Scranton had been an unlikely member of the pioneer group of Protestant missionaries to Korea. Yet, from the mid-1880s onward, she was a mainstay of the Christian movement there and for a quarter of a century stood as an example for her fellow workers through her leadership, wide-ranging efforts, and commitment to service. Scranton’s understanding of social progress accorded with her times. In contrast to attitudes in the West about the supposed backwardness of Asian societies, however, Scranton advocated the dignity of Korean females by highlighting not only their intellectual capabilities but also their devotion as believers. Her writings from the field reveal both a sensitivity to cross-cultural engagement and a candid, heartfelt love for the Korean people.

A few years before her death, in what was to be her final return to the peninsula after another bout of illness, Scranton spoke of her desire to continue in her commission. “I give thanks and praises to the Almighty God,” she said, “‘who reclaimed my life from destruction,’ and who has granted me a little longer space in which to work for Korea.”[27] In the summer of 1909 Scranton suffered a stroke that left her blind and unable to speak. She died in Seoul several weeks later on October 8, 1909, at the age of seventy-six, and was buried at the Yanghwajin Foreigners’ Cemetery. Today a statue of Mary Scranton can be found on the campus of Ewha Womans University, successor to Ewha Haktang and at present the largest women’s university in the world.

Selected bibliography

Writing by Mary Scranton

1889 “I Hoa Haktan, Seoul, Korea.” Heathen Woman’s Friend 20 (January): 173–74.

1890 “A Section of the Foreign Settlement, Seoul, Korea.” Heathen Woman’s Friend 21 (March): 221–22.

1896 “Woman’s Work in Korea.” Korean Repository 3 (January): 2–9.

1897 “Among Women of City and Country.” Korean Repository 4 (July): 294–97.

Writings about Mary Scranton

Choi, Hyaeweol. “Women’s Work for ‘Heathen Sisters’: American Women Missionaries and Their Educational Work in Korea.” Acta Koreana 2 (July 1999): 1–22.

Ewha Womans University Archives, ed. Ewha Old and New: 110 Years of History (1886–1996). Seoul: Ewha Womans Univ. Press, 2005.

Khalifa, Reela, and Sook-young Park. “Mary F. Scranton (1886–1890) and Louisa C. Rothweiler (1890–1892).” In Footsteps across the Frontier: 120 Years of Globalization at Ewha Womans University. Ed. Heather A. Willoughby, 31–50. Seoul: Ewha Womans Univ. Press, 2007.

Lee, Kyung-Lim Shin. Pear Blossoms Blooming: The History of American Women Missionaries at Ewha Womans University. Seoul: Ewha Womans Univ. Press, 1989.


  1. Mary Scranton’s biographical file is located at the United Methodist Archives and History Center—General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church, Madison, NJ (henceforth GCAH). For her account of the founding and early work of the WFMS mission in Korea, see M. F. Scranton, “Woman’s Work in Korea,” Korean Repository 3 (January 1896): 2–9. Secondary sources that feature Scranton are relatively few. Interested readers may refer to Reela Khalifa and Sook-young Park, “Mary F. Scranton (1886–1890) and Louisa C. Rothweiler (1890–1892),” in Footsteps across the Frontier: 120 Years of Globalization at Ewha Womans University, ed. Heather A. Willoughby (Seoul: Ewha Womans Univ. Press, 2007), 31–50; Hyaeweol Choi, “Women’s Work for ‘Heathen Sisters’: American Women Missionaries and Their Educational Work in Korea,” Acta Koreana 2 (July 1999): 1–22; and Kyung-Lim Shin Lee, Pear Blossoms Blooming: The History of American Women Missionaries at Ewha Womans University (Seoul: Ewha Womans Univ. Press, 1989).
  2. “The Roll Call,” Mary Fletcher Benton Scranton folder, microfilm ed. of the Missionary Biographical Reference Files, 1880s–1969, GCAH.
  3. Frances J. Baker, The Story of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1869–1895, rev. ed. (Cincinnati: Curts & Jennings, 1898), 17.
  4. “Home Work,” Sixteenth Annual Report of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the Year 1885 (Columbus: Ohio State Journal Printing Establishment, 1886), 6, microfilm ed., GCAH.
  5. “Appeal to the Ladies of the Methodist Episcopal Church,” Heathen Woman’s Friend 1 (May 1869): 1. On American women’s mission theory, see Dana L. Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Macon, GA: Mercer Univ. Press, 1996).
  6. “The Roll Call,” Scranton folder, GCAH.
  7. “Requirements of Missionary Candidates,” Sixteenth Annual Report, 113–15.
  8. A small, native Protestant community did exist prior to the 1880s, primarily in the northwestern region of the peninsula. On the beginnings of Protestantism in Korea, see Kyoung Bae Min, A History of Christian Churches in Korea (Seoul: Yonsei Univ. Press, 2005); L. George Paik, History of Protestant Missions in Korea, 1832–1910 (Pyeng Yang: Union Christian College Press, 1929).
  9. Scranton, “Woman’s Work in Korea,” 2.
  10. Ibid., 3.
  11. “Korea,” Sixteenth Annual Report, 48; “Korea,” Seventeenth Annual Report of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the Year 1886 (Boston: Joseph W. Hamilton, 1886), 46, microfilm ed., GCAH.
  12. “Korea,” Seventeenth Annual Report, 47. Educational work began in the home of Scranton’s son and was later moved to the completed school building.
  13. Meta Howard, “The W.F.M. Hospital in Seoul, Korea,” Heathen Woman’s Friend 21 (January 1890): 173–74.
  14. “Korea,” Twenty-Seventh Annual Report of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the Year 1895–1896 (Boston: Miss P. J. Walden, n.d.), 80, microfilm ed., GCAH; L. C. Rothweiler, “What Shall We Teach in Our Girls’ Schools?” Korean Repository 1 (March 1892): 89–93.
  15. Yi later became a Bible woman under the auspices of the WFMS. See “Autobiography by Mrs. Drusilla Yi,” in Victorious Lives of Early Christians in Korea: The First Book of Biographies and Autobiographies of Early Christians in the Protestant Church in Korea, comp. and trans. Mattie Wilcox Noble (Seoul: Christian Literature Society of Korea, 1927), 13–24. This collection was originally compiled and written in Korean by Noble, who subsequently translated it into English.
  16. M. F. Scranton, “I Hoa Haktan, Seoul, Korea,” Heathen Woman’s Friend 20 (January 1889): 174.
  17. Scranton, “Woman’s Work in Korea,” 4.
  18. “Korea,” Twentieth-Fifth Annual Report of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the Year 1893–1894 (Boston: n.p., n.d.), 65, microfilm ed., GCAH.
  19. “Korea,” Twentieth-Seventh Annual Report, 79.
  20. M. F. Scranton, “Tal Sung Church, Seoul, and Su-Won and Kong-Chu Circuit,” in The Korean Work of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1897–1898 (papers presented to the Fourteenth Annual Meeting of the Korea Mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Seoul, August 15–September 1, 1898, n.p., n.d.), 5–7, microfilm ed., GCAH.
  21. “Korea,” Twentieth-Ninth Annual Report of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the Year 1897–1898 (Boston: Miss J. P. Walden, n.d.), 91, microfilm ed., GCAH.
  22. “Korea,” Twentieth-Eighth Annual Report of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the Year 1896–1897 (Boston: Miss J. P. Walden, n.d.), 89, microfilm ed., GCAH.
  23. “Korea,” Twenty-Seventh Annual Report, 77.
  24. M. F. Scranton, “Evangelistic Work, Mead Memorial Church, Seoul,” in Reports Read at the Seventh Annual Session of the Korea Woman’s Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Seoul, June 23–27, 1905 (n.p., n.d.), 8, microfilm ed., GCAH.
  25. Anna B. Chaffin, “Women’s Bible School,” in Fifty Years of Light: Prepared by Missionaries of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Commemoration of the Completion of Fifty Years of Work in Korea (Seoul: YMCA Press, 1938), 17.
  26. Samuel Hugh Moffett, “Protestants and New Beginnings in Korea (1865–1905),” in A History of Christianity in Asia, vol. 2, 1500–1900 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007), 528–53.
  27. Scranton, “Evangelistic Work,” 11.

This is the author-accepted manuscript. The fully-published article can be found here.

Andrea Kwon, The Legacy of Mary Scranton. International Bulletin of Mission Research,  42 (2), pp. 162-170. Copyright © 2018 by the Author(s). Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.

Andrea Kwon, a lecturer at Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA, teaches courses in US history and Asian American studies.

Date: 01 Jun 2018

Gathering: 2017 Seoul

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