By Roger Shapiro
It’s been 87 years since a young Methodist left California to enter Princeton Seminary with a trunkful of belongings and the promise of the use of a friend’s textbooks.
It’s been 77 years since he was on campus, yet he can clearly recall the names and locations of buildings that were here when he was a seminarian.
It’s been 83 years since he earned his Th.M., and he remembers needing permission to be excused from commencement.
And across all those years, Victor Wellington “VW” Peters (Th.B., 1927; Th.M., 1928) made his mark on the world as a missionary in Korea, a minister, a professor, an illustrator, a musician, a family historian, and a man of many, many talents.
“He is also very special for another reason,” said Rosemary Mitchell, vice president for Seminary Relations. “At 108, VW has the distinct honor of being our oldest alumnus. He has seen us evolve as a school and campus, making his perspective particularly enlightening as we head toward our Bicentennial Celebration in 2012.”
That perspective began to be shaped in the summer of 1924 at Princeton’s “Dinky” train station after a long journey from California. “I remember hauling my trunk up from the railroad station. I arrived in the evening andsomebody showed me a room in Brown Hall for me to stay in,”Peters said recently during aSkype video call from his home in Las Vegas, Nevada. While it’s a technology he has used for other interviews, he marvels at the capability; “I never imagined anything like this when I was in school.”
Once settled in Brown Hall, he quickly appreciated what Princeton—the town, the Seminary, and the university-- had to offer in the 1920s. In his 1984 memoirs, Peters’s Progress, Peters recalled his first impression. “Arriving in the historic town of Princeton, his heart is captured by its mellow quaintness andGothic dignity. The first Sunday, he awakes to the ecstatic peal of chimes.It’s as if angels were troopingdown. Many a Sunday afternoon, shadows deepen over stained glass windows while toccatas and fugues pour tumultuously from a mighty organ, as if to transport mortals up to heaven,” he wrote.
At Princeton Seminary in those days there was no Mackay Campus Center; much of the social life on campus centered around eating clubs.
“There were four eating clubs at that time: Benham Club, The Friar’s Club, Calvin Club, and The Seminary Club,” said Peters. “After arriving on campus, we spent a week at each club. Then we voted on what clubs we wanted to join and the clubs had their votes on us, also.”
The Seminary Club, which became the Warfield Club in 1927, was behind Miller Chapel on 29 Alexander Street and was Peters’s choice. “I had a good friend, Clarence Wright (Th.B., 1926), who was a year ahead of me. He told me to join the club he was in,” Peters said.
To help new students acclimate, the club required everyone to eat meals together.“The club assigned us seats once a week. That way, by moving among the four tables, we got acquainted with each other. I was a steward one year and planned all the meals,” he said.
While Peters remained a member of The Seminary Club for four years, he was only in Brown Hall for two years, moving into Alexander Hall for his senior Th.B. year and his Th.M. year.
But he didn’t just move into any room.
He was given the room directly below professor J. Gresham Machen, then the assistant professor of New Testament literature and exegesis, and one of Peters’s two favorite teachers. The other was Charles Erdman, then professor of practical theology and today the namesake of The Erdman Center.
“Dr. Machen was single. So he had permission to live on the top floor of Alexander Hall. And he had permission from the faculty to ask any student he wanted to occupy the room under his. He picked me, he said, ‘because I know you will be quiet,’” said Peters.
Machen was mostly right, until Peters was given a guitar. “I tried a piece and immediately a tap-tap-tap on the radiator told me to be quiet. So I never again played the guitar when I knew Dr. Machen was there.”
Enrolled during a major fundamentalist-modernist controversy on campus, Peters took Machen’s classes on Greek and on the origins of Paul’s religion.
“He was a clown,” recalls Peters. “He would balance his chair on two legs and that kept him busy keeping his balance. Then, with a smile on his face, he would start piling books on top of his head. And, as if nothing were unusual, he would talk to the class with books on top of his head. He made Greek classes humorous.”
Machen was known for his jokes, although Peters remembers his repertoire containing only a few that he told over and over.
“He had four jokes that he told every year. When the student body got together, always they would call on Dr. Machen. ‘We want a joke,’ they would call out. And he would sit there until they got very vociferous. He would pretend he didn’t want to tell a joke, but of course he expected to. And finally, he acted very reluctant. He would get up and say ‘You don’t want a joke.’ And there was a cry, ‘Yes, a joke.’ Then he would ask us which one. They were the same jokes every year and we learned them all.”
Erdman, on the other hand, “was the personification of politeness. Everything about him was good manners. He always did the right thing, so you never expected jokes,” said Peters, who took every class Erdman taught.
One of Erdman’s traditions was to host a Christmas dinner for students who could not get home for the holidays. Being from California, Peters never went home for Christmas. During his first three years on campus, friends took him to their homes. “But in my last year, all my classmates had graduated. I was the only one who stayed for a master’s degree and I had no invitation from a fellow student. Dr. Erdman invited me to his house that Christmas.”
That master’s year also led to Peters finding a calling that would influence him forever; he was called to serve as a missionary in Korea, a role he filled until 1941.
After completing his Th.B. in 1927, Peters was undecided about his next move. He debated teaching in Guadalajara, Mexico, and doing evangelism in Korea. But not feeling truly prepared for either, he stayed in Princeton to study Greek and the Wesleyan revival.
“In those days, Princeton brought missionaries in to lecture on various countries. In 1928, the emphasis was on Korea, and a group of missionaries spent a week on campus,” said Peters, noting that most Americans had not heard of Korea in the 1920s. “On Sunday night following those lectures, I attended Nassau Church [today is Nassau Presbyterian Church]. While sitting before the sermon, I heard a voice. It was just like a person sitting next to me who said, ‘You are going to be a missionary in Korea.’ The voice was very distinctly audible to me, but, of course, nobody else heard anything. So I immediately wrote to our Methodist mission board and told them of my divine call to Korea and asked them to send me to Korea.”
Peters went through a speedy application process that presented one minor hitch: mission board members had to interview him in Nashville, Tennessee. “I talked to the faculty and told them God had called me to Korea, but the mission board was meeting on the same day as our commencement. They did excuse me and I couldn’t attend my commencement,” he said.
The board approved Peters’s application and soon he was on a ship to Korea, “I was asleep when we first docked in the harbor. I remember waking up and looking out the port window and there was a beautiful blue harbor and a pine-covered mountain behind it. And I saw the white-clad people—all Koreans wore white in those days— and I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful or colorful. On the roofs of the houses, they were drying red peppers. Right away I saw brilliant reds, whites, and blues. I had a beautiful impression of Korea. It was an immediate love affair and I knew I would stay there the rest of my life,” he said.
Click here to read more about Peters’s Korean experience and life history.
Peters arrived in Korea unable to speak the language, yet he was able to deliver his first sermon, in Korean, within two months and he mastered the language within eight months. He was single for ten years, which he says Koreans couldn’t understand, but eventually married Hahn Heung Bok, a musician and Bible teacher, on February 12, 1938. That marriage, which included a celebration costing ten dollars, continued for sixty-one years and created a legacy seen today in four children, eight grandchildren, twenty-four great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.
Peters also created a legacy through his documentation. While in Korea, he continually wrote letters about his work and experiences, painted pictures of the country and its people, and wrote stories and poetry that captured what he loved about the country. Most of those letters were preserved in boxes in his garage. In 2006, he donated them to the University of Southern California, his undergraduate alma mater, and they are available digitally through the school’s The Rev. V.W. Peters Collection in its Korean Heritage Library.
Two of his pamphlets, Korean Sketches and Springtide, are in the Princeton Seminary library, and he will be giving the Seminary a copy of Peters’s Progress later this year.
“I shared my missionary experiences because many people were contributing to my salary and work in Korea. I wanted them to know what was happening there. My mother was the Methodist Church’s district missionary president, and she and my father traveled all around Los Angeles promoting missions. They often shared my letters to give a current picture of missions in Korea. That is one reason why it was not a hard decision to make my letters public. If one person can learn something or be changed by my writing, I am humbly thankful,” he said.
Anyone reading those letters today gets a sense of his day-to-day life, his work as a missionary, and his love of Korea. “From the time I arrived in Korea, I loved it and its people. I wanted to live as they did, and become one of them. When I moved into a small Korean home, and began to live like them, I felt comfortable and at home. When we built the Kimwha church, I designed it as a Korean building, with Korean symbols and style. Nothing of the Western style and culture was evident in it. I wanted the Korean people to feel Jesus belonged to them, and was not imported by the West,” he said.
While Peters loved Korea and planned to stay forever, his missionary work stopped in December 1941. “War was imminent. They wanted us out of Korea before the war started. Otherwise, we would be interred for the duration of the war,” he said.
He and his wife returned to Korea only once, in 1976, participating in the ninetieth anniversary of Ewha Womans University, where she was an alumna, and where Princeton Seminary trustee Sang Chang (Ph.D., 1977) is president emerita. Chang is also the first woman appointed prime minister-designate in South Korea.
Today, Peters lives with his daughter, Grace Alexander, in Las Vegas, Nevada. “While he’s lost his hearing, we are fortunate to have dad so healthy. He’s doing well for a man who is 108,” she said.