Won Yong Ji was born in 1924 in a small remote mountain village known as Ga-Rae-Gol in what is now North Korea near the Manchurian border. "His grandmother and parents were well-disciplined people under the influence of Confucian teachings" in a region that was also influenced by Buddhism. Christianity was almost unknown to his village. Later his family moved to a larger town named Chaeryung. At age 16 Won Yong "by chance found a book on The Great Work of Martin Luther." At age 17 he was baptized at a Presbyterian church in Chaeryung. In 1944 the Japanese army drafted him into a "Searching Air Unit" to provide support for anti-aircraft positions around Tokyo. He returned to Korea in 1945, but fled south to Seoul in 1946 after Russia began occupying North Korea. While in Seoul he enrolled at Han-Kook Theological College and Seminary. Befriended by US airmen at Kimpo Air Base, he was given a scholarship to come to America to study. While sailing across the Pacific, a Lutheran serviceman cabled his mother to meet Won Yong's ship. She introduced him to her Lutheran pastor in Olympia, WA in April 1948. He studied in San Jose, CA until he enrolled at Concordia Seminary in 1950. After graduating with a B.A. and B.D. In 1952, he studied education and languages at Valparaiso University for one year. He returned to Concordia Seminary in 1953 and completed his STM, studied in Heidelberg in 1955-56, then completed his Th.D. at Concordia Seminary in 1957. He was then called by the LCMS as a missionary to Korea with a one year leave of absence to serve as assistant pastor at Jehovah Lutheran Church in St. Paul, MN. He was a missionary to Korea from 1958-68. "Dr. Ji was very involved in the initial establishment of Lutheranism in his native land. He was the founder of the theological training program that has now become Luther University & Seminary" (LTU's Newsletter, 2007).
Dr. Ji served as Secretary for Asia with the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, Switzerland from 1968-75. From 1975-78 he served as a consultant and full-time staff member to the Department of Missions (Missionswerk) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria, Neuendettelsau, Germany. There he began translating Luther's Works into Korean.
He was called to the faculty of Concordia Seminary in 1979 to teach Systematic Theology after serving one year as a Visiting instructor (1978-79). He retired from his full-time teaching position in 1997 at the age of 73. He continued to teach part-time in his emeriti status for a number of years past that. While at Concordia Seminary, he regularly returned to Korea for teaching, preaching, lecturing, and research. He spent nearly 3 months at LTU's campus in the fall of 2006 before he had a stroke in February 2007. Since then he has lived in his home with his wife Kay, until his death at age 88.
In his autobiography (2004, Heritage Foundation) By the Grace of God I am What I am, Dr. Ji said (p. 332): "I have gladly and proudly called myself a "life-long student of Martin Luther."" By 2004, he had translated 6500 pages of Luther's works from German into Korean, a 12 volume set. He also translated the Book of Concord and Walther's Law and Gospel. He authored numerous journal articles and several other books including a History of Lutheranism in Korea.
Dr. Won Yong Ji
Today on campus we had a memorial service for a retired professor who died on December 31st. He had a stroke in 2007 from which he had never fully recovered so I never had him for class. Dr. Won Yong Ji came to America from what is now North Korea. He found Christianity in a place (Korea) where it was nearly unknown and then found the Lutheran church. If that wasn't remarkable enough, he went on to become a humble giant in the church. He brought what he learned back to Korea and helped establish the Lutheran Church of Korea and a Lutheran Seminary. He didn't stop there, he also translated a number of volumes of Luther's Works into Korean as well as the entire Book of Concord. He did all of this while traveling between Korea and the United States, teaching, speaking, and writing in both places. From all I've gathered, he was quite a remarkable person. Here's the biography that was printed in the service folder today:
My name is Tom. I'm fascinated by the ways that people, ideas, current events and theology interact with each other.