From Ontario to Pyeongyang, James Hall answers God's call

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

From Ontario to Pyeongyang, James Hall answers God's call

The grave of the Reverend William James Hall lies close to the crest of a hill along the northern banks of the Han River.

Odd to find him here, for the reverend doctor was Canadian, a countryman of mine. He grew up in the same small Ontario town (population 1,000) as my grandmother, near to where I grew up. My great grandparents probably knew him personally. Yet here he is, in distant Korea.

"Jimmy" Hall was born in 1860 in Glen Buell, and raised in Athens, Ontario. It is a hilly place, wild with lakes and rivers, settled by Irish of every persuasion about two centuries ago.

Jimmy was a sickly child, in an era when illness was unforgiving. Several times he nearly died. He probably could not play the carefree sports that other boys knew. He must have spent much of his childhood in solitude.

But in sickness and solitude, Jesus called to Jimmy Hall, when Jimmy was 14. And he swore, if he lived, he would do something useful.

Naturally enough, for one who knew sickness well, he chose to be a physician. He studied at Queen's University, as I did, then at New York's Bellevue Hospital, a pioneering public hospital of that day and still today.

In his spare time, Jimmy prepared himself for missionary life, growing in his Methodist faith. He met his wife, Rosetta, working in the slums of New York's Bowery.

Together, they decided to go to Korea, where the need was greatest. In 1891, they left for Pyeongyang, to be its first resident Protestant missionaries.

The morning after they arrived, a crowd gathered. None had ever seen a foreigner before; they were especially curious about the Halls' newborn son. By evening, the yard was choked with the curious. The Halls declared an open house, and let the visitors enter in groups to see the strange foreign madonna and child.

The governor was alarmed at this foreign presence. That night, the mission was stoned. At dawn, someone told Dr. Hall that all people who were known to have spoken with him had been imprisoned and were being tortured.

It was an unfortunate introduction for the Halls to life in Korea. Nevertheless, they persevered. The prohibition against interacting with them was eventually lifted; although it remained illegal in Pyeongyang for some time to accept any writings from foreigners.

Within three years, the Halls founded Pyeongyang's first hospital, first Western-style school and first church.

Then, in September 1894, the climactic battle of the Sino-Japanese War swept over their mission station. Dr. Hall tended to casualties. But in the fields of corpses, disease was everywhere. His weak flesh gave out. Terribly, inexplicably ill, he struggled back to Seoul, over many mountains and few roads, for treatment. It took days. Fellow missionaries there diagnosed dysentery, malaria and typhus.

The Reverend William James Hall, M.D., died at sunset, Saturday, Nov. 24, 1894. He was 35. His wife, in Pyeongyang, was pregnant with their second child.

Dr. Hall was buried where he died, 13,000 kilometers from Athens. Perhaps he died dreaming of his boyhood home, among wild lakes and rivers, as I sometimes dream.

I knew nothing of Jimmy Hall growing up in Ontario, even though I might have rubbed shoulders with his descendants; son Sherwood, the miracle baby of Pyeongyang, still lived in the Athens area in 1980. Yet here, almost unnoticed, was a life of great sacrifice and heroism. Here was sainthood.

To visit the grave, exit Hapjeong station (line Nos. 2 and 6). Walk towards the Han River with the subway line and bridge to your right. The Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery appears on your right after 300 meters. Dr. Hall's gravestone is at the top of the low hill facing the river.

Stephen Roney, formerly of the Seoul Mystery Tours, teaches at University College of the Cariboo. Visit

by Stephen K. Roney

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)