Harold A. Oberg (aka Oh Byeok) went to Korea as a missionary in 1909 and served as the president of the Chosen Union Mission (CUM) for 16 years from 1922 to 1938, leading the development of the Korean Adventist Church.
Harold A. Oberg, born June 20, 1884, in Oregon, the United States, accepted a call to the Korean Mission in 1909 while attending Walla Walla College. C. L. Butterfield, who entered Korea in 1908 as the superintendent of the Korean Mission and recognizing the potential for Korean missionary work, asked the General Conference to send five missionaries.1 He appealed that the country needed not only evangelists but also education and accounting experts. Upon receiving the request, the General Conference dispatched Rufus Conrad Wangerin and Theodora Scharffenberg Wangerin as evangelists and Harold A. Oberg as an accountant in 1909. The following year, in 1910, Howard M. Lee arrived as an educational leader.2
Ministry in Korea
Oberg reached Korea in mid-November 1909. As soon as he arrived, he assumed the role of secretary and treasurer. William Smith, the first Adventist missionary to Korea, had previously held the positions. However, Oberg took over the responsibilities because Smith had gone to the United States in May 1909 to attend the General Conference Session in Washington, D.C., and returned in October to lead missionary work in the Wonsan region.3
In February 1910, the Korean Adventist Church divided the entire area of Korea into four mission areas (Central, West, South, and East Coast area) and selected their headquarters (Seoul, Soonan, Kyungsan, and Wonsan) and the missionaries for each region. Oberg became director in the Central region, headquartered in Seoul.4 In addition, at its first general meeting held in August of that year, the Korean Mission separated Seoul from the Central area (Gyeonggi-do and Chungcheong-do) and entrusted Oberg with the responsibility for Seoul. As a result, he served as the director of the missionary work in Seoul, along with his position as secretary and treasurer of the Korean Mission.5 The second annual meeting, held in 1911, assigned Byung-Ryong Kim and Seok-Young Kim as ministers in Seoul area, and Oberg worked with them.
By 1915, his role had changed. In April 1910 church leadership appointed B. R. Owen as secretary and treasurer of the Korean Mission, and Oberg became editor of the mission’s monthly magazine and secretary of the mission’s book and tract society.6 A Korean publishing program had begun at Soonan in 1908. After moving the publishing house to Seoul in 1909, the Korean Adventist Church published a monthly magazine called Secheonsa Gibyul (Three Angels Messages) starting in 1910.7 Oberg now had the responsibility of editing it.
From May 1 to 14, 1915, the first Asian General Meeting convened in Shanghai, China, where 12 South Korean delegates, including Butterfield and Oberg, attended. Leadership at the session ordained Oberg and Wangerin as pastors.8 Thus, H. A. Oberg became one of the five ordained expatriate missionaries in Korea, along with Smith, Butterfield, Dr. Riley Russell, and Wangerin. By now Korea had a total of seven ordained pastors, including two nationals, Moon-Guk Cheong and Keun-Eok Lee.
In February 1917, A. G. Daniells, president of the General Conference, elevated the Korean Mission to the Korean Conference in recognition of the Korean Adventist Church's fastest rate of growth in Asia. Subsequently, C. L. Butterfield became president of the Korean Conference with H. A. Oberg vice-president.9 In addition, Pastor Oberg continued as secretary of the conference’s book and tract society, and his wife as secretary of the Sabbath School Department. Then in September of that year Soonan Industrial School began a two-year theology course with Oberg as one of its instructors.10
By 1919, the Korean Conference became the Chosen Union Mission (CUM). The Korean Adventist Church organized the West Chosen Conference, the Central Chosen Mission, and the South Chosen Mission at the first general meeting of the CUM in May 1919. The CUM then elected officials to head each mission, appointing Oberg as the director of the South Chosen Mission.11 During this period, the South Chosen Mission included Jeolla-do, Gyeongsang-do, and a part of Chungcheong-do, with its headquarters located in Gyeongsan, Gyeongsangbuk-do. Pastor Oberg would take charge of missionary work along with such pastors as L. I. Bowers, Yeon-Mook Kim, Tae-Hyun Choi, and Moon-Guk Cheong.
Two years later, in June 1921, the second general meeting of the CUM replaced the managers of the local missions, appointing Oberg president of West Chosen Conference.12 The following year, C. L. Butterfield, the superintendent of the CUM, became president of the Saskatchewan Conference in the United States, and Pastor Oberg assumed the role of superintendent of the CUM.13
The third general meeting of the CUM took place in Soonan in June 1923 and elected a new slate of leaders. It also appointed Harold Oberg's wife, Elsie (Graham) Oberg, secretary and treasurer.14 However, two years later, in 1925, Mrs. Oberg returned to the United States because of ill health. As a result, church leadership appointed Edward James Urquhart, who had visited Korea in 1916, as CUM’s acting superintendent, and L. I. Bauer, who had visited Korea in 1917, assumed the role of secretary and treasurer.15
Back in the United States, Oberg served as a pastor at the Western Washington Conference, but was reappointed as the superintendent of the CUM in the spring of 1928.16 On January 24, 1930, a fire broke out in the publishing house and destroyed both it and the conference headquarters building. In order to rebuild, Pastor Oberg, as the superintendent of the CUM, worked closely with the Far Eastern Division (FED). On February 20 of that year, the president of the FED came to Korea and discussed the reconstruction of the publishing house and the headquarters building that had collapsed in the fire. In April of that year, Oberg, who attended the executive council meeting of FED held in Shanghai, appealed for the support of the world church for the restoration of the building. After securing the finances, he completed the construction in December 1930. Through this process, the Korean Adventist Church overcame the crisis and erected several better buildings (headquarters offices, publishing house, and church).17
In the 1930s, the financial situation of the Korean Adventist Church plummeted in the wake of the global economic depression. Therefore, Pastor Oberg had no choice but to adopt tight fiscal policies from 1931 to 1933 by trimming the conference’s budget and cutting staff salaries. Receiving emergency aid from the General Conference, he carefully budgeted it.18 Despite this situation, he actively supported evangelistic activities such as holding a large-scale evangelistic series in Seoul.19 In 1933, the church restructured the organization of the local missions, subdividing their territories from three larger missions to five smaller ones (West Chosen, Central Chosen, North Chosen, Southeast Chosen, and Southwest Chosen).20
In May 1935, during the nineth general meeting of the CUM, Oberg followed the model of the General Conference and held a ministerial training meeting before the session. To do so, he published an article by L. E. Froom in the Church Compass. In it, Froom explained that the two ministerial training meetings held during 1934 in St. Louis and Philadelphia had provided a great opportunity to share the vision of missionary work. After introducing the article, Oberg held a week-long ministerial training meeting before the general session. During it, he led morning prayer periods to inspire the ministers with faith and missionary awareness.21 On May 11, the session held a ceremony to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Korean Mission.22
After the general meeting, on July 4 of that year, Pastor Oberg returned to the United States for his sabbatical. Pastor Urquhart, president of the West Chosen Conference, became the superintendent of the CUM.23 At this time, the church faced a crisis due to controversy over shrine worship at Soonan Industrial School. The incident had caused the leaders of the Korean Adventist Church, including Pastor Urquhart, great distress. After a sabbatical in the United States, Oberg attended the General Conference Session in San Francisco during May 1936. There the delegates assigned Pastor Urquhart, who had served as acting superintendent of the CUM, to the Philippines. Oberg returned to Korea and again served as CUM’s superintendent, being re-elected in April 1937.
The Korean Adventist Church faced many difficulties during that year, including a persistent financial problem. In addition, the international situation was extremely confusing, with Japan plotting the Sino-Japanese War following the Manchurian Incident. Oberg made great efforts to overcome the crisis of the church. However, the general meeting of the FED held in January 1939 elected him secretary and treasurer of the Japan Conference and R. S. Watts became superintendent of the CUM.24
Harold A. Oberg, who served as a leader for 30 years, was recognized as a well-mannered and democratic person.25 He died at Portland, Oregon, U.S.A., on June 30, 1948. He left to cherish his memory his wife, Elsie, and three children (Dr. Stanton Oberg of Camp Cooke, California; Harold Oberg of Houston, Texas; and Jeanette [Oberg] McGhee of Portland. Oregon).26
Butterfield, C. L. “Training in New Recruits.” ARH, April 21, 1910.
Butterfield, C. L. “First Magazine Campaign in Korea.” ARH, May 30, 1911.
Church Compass. June 1919; July 1923; July 1928; March 1933; June 1935.
Daniells, A. G. “The Korean Conference.” ARH, May 3, 1917.
Evans, I. H. “Our Work in Korea.” ARH, January 14, 1909.
Evans, I. H. “Our Work in Korea.” ARH, November 24, 1910.
Hall, O. A. “Chosen Union Biennial Meeting.” ARH, October 1, 1925.
Lee, Yung Lin. A Comprehensive Study in the History of the Adventist Church in Korea. Seoul: Sunmyung Cultural Press, 1968
Oberg, H. A. “Evangelistic Advance in Chosen.” ARH, January 28, 1932.
“Oberg, Harold A.,” obituary. ARH, August 26, 1948.
Oh, Man Kyu. History of One Hundred Years of Korean SDA, 1904-1945. Seoul: Korean Publishing House, 2010.
Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1916.
Yanghwajin Institute. No Bigger than Their Loves. Seoul: Hongsungsa, 2015.
Yu, Young Soon. “The Work and Anecdotes of Early Missionaries.” Church Compass, March 1970.
I. H. Evans, “Our Work in Korea,” ARH, January 14, 1909, 16.↩
Man Kyu Oh, History of One Hundred Years of Korean SDA, 1904-1945 (Seoul: Korean Publishing House, 2010), 105, 106.↩
Yung Lin Lee, A Comprehensive Study in the History of the Adventist Church in Korea (Seoul: Sunmyung Cultural Press, 1968), 42.↩
C. L. Butterfield, “Training in New Recruits,” ARH, April 21, 1910, 13.↩
I. H. Evans, “Our Work in Korea,” ARH, November 24, 1910, 9.↩
Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1916), 145.↩
C. L. Butterfield, “First Magazine Campaign in Korea,” ARH, May 30, 1911, 16.↩
Yung Lin Lee, 48.↩
A. G. Daniells, “The Korean Conference,” ARH, May 3, 1917, 13.↩
Man Kyu Oh, 157.↩
Church Compass, June 1919, 6.↩
Man Kyu Oh, 201.↩
Yung Lin Lee, 54.↩
Church Compass, July 1923, 9.↩
O. A, Hall, “Chosen Union Biennial Meeting,” ARH, October 1, 1925, 16.↩
Church Compass, July 1928, 32.↩
Man Kyu Oh, 239-241.↩
Church Compass, March 1933, 3.↩
H. A. Oberg, “Evangelistic Advance in Chosen,” ARH, January 28, 1932, 9.↩
Church Compass, June 1935, 16.↩
Ibid., 40, 41.↩
Yung Lin Lee, 67.↩
Yu, Young Soon, “The Work and Anecdotes of Early Missionaries,” Church Compass, March 1970, 18.↩
“Oberg, Harold A.,” obituary, ARH, August 26, 1948, 20.↩