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Died: Samuel Hugh Moffett, 98, Leading Expert in East Asia Christianity

Global Christian mission should pivot to Asia's 4.4 billion people, Moffett said.
Died: Samuel Hugh Moffett, 98, Leading Expert in East Asia Christianity
Image: Courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary.
Samuel H. Moffett at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey

The renowned Princeton Seminary historian, Samuel Hugh Moffett, whose two-volume History of Christianity in Asia was completed when he was 89 years old, has died. He was 98.

“Sam Moffett had a distinguished career of teaching and scholarship in the service of the church on two continents,” Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, said. “He was a great encourager who touched the lives of thousands of students and was truly a global ambassador for the gospel.

"We lift up prayers of thanksgiving to God for his life and witness and prayers of condolence for his wife Eileen, their family, and their many friends and loved ones who are grieving his loss.” Moffett, who is survived by his wife Eileen, died Monday, Feb. 9, at the Windrows retirement community in New Jersey. A memorial service has not yet been scheduled.

Moffett published his first volume of his acclaimed History of Christianity in Asia in 1996, about 10 years after he retired. He published the second volume in 2005, at age 89. The two-volume magnum opus, which chronicles Asian Christianity from its origins to 1900, is 1,300 pages long. He also authored Whe'er the Sun (1953), The Christians of Korea (1962), The Biblical Background of Evangelicalism (1968).

In 1973, Moffett wrote “What Makes the Korean Church Grow” for Christianity Today. He said, “Bible training for the whole church, the cleansing exhilaration of the Spirit, and an emphasis on a personal sharing of the faith with others combined to set off a spiritual chain explosion in Korea…. In fifteen years from 1895, when suddenly the church in the North began to grow, to 1914, just after the [1907] great revival, the Protestant community in Korea increased from only 800 to more, than 167,000.”

In a 2006 interview with CT, Moffett said “the future of missions” is in Asia. But he also sounded a cautionary note since Asia’s population of 4.4 billion is no more than 8 percent Christian. “We’re not doing very well. Asia is more religious than any of the other continents.” Yet he said Asians perceive Christianity as an “alien” religion, even though “Jesus was born in Asia.”

In 2007, Moffett took part in a New Jersey celebration of the 100th anniversary of the famous 1907 Pyongyang revival. YouTube has a documentary, released in 2013, in which Moffett describes the revival’s achievements. But he said the Korean church came to realize that “30,000 baptisms don’t always mean 30,000 new Christians—it was in the revival that [new converts] discovered what their Christianity really meant.”

Moffett was born in Pyongyang, Korea, in 1916. His parents, Samuel Austin and Lucia Fish Moffett, were missionary pioneers. At that time, Pyongyang was referred to as the “Jerusalem of the East” due to the success of evangelism, church growth, and creation of educational institutions. His father launched the first seminary in Korea in the family home. At that time, the mission station that the elder Moffett ran was one of the largest in the world.

After graduating high school, Moffett enrolled in Wheaton College, graduating summa cum laude in 1938. Then in 1942, he received his BD from Princeton Seminary. In 1945, he was awarded a PhD in religion from Yale University. By this time, he had married Elizabeth Tarrant—they met at Wheaton.

Moving to China in 1947, Moffett served on the faculty at Yenching University in Beijing and later Nanking Theological Seminary. In 1951, Chinese communists expelled Moffett from the country after a show trial. He returned to Princeton Seminary from 1953 to 1955. During this time, his wife died of cancer. In 1955, Moffett moved to South Korea to serve as a missionary and he married Eileen Flower.

Presbyterian Theological Seminary (now Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary) in Seoul, Korea, asked Moffett to join the faculty in 1959, and he taught there until 1981. He served as dean of the graduate school from 1966 to 1970 and as co-president of the school from 1970 to 1981. He was also the first director of the influential Asian Center for Theological Studies and Mission.

After returning to the United States in 1981, Moffett was installed as the Henry Winters Luce Professor of Ecumenics and Mission at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey. He served until 1987.

One online observer said about Moffett, “Sam was a challenging professor, example in ministry and a beacon to all who care about communicating the love of Jesus to all people. There is no sense in saying “Rest in Peace”—Sam will rejoice in the presence of the Lord. The response to this great man’s passing should be to recommit to carrying out God’s mission in the world.”

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