Jung-Sook Lee, PhD ’97, thought she had found her life’s calling when as a college junior she decided to become a missionary.
It was South Korea at the dawn of the 1980s. The country was experiencing a dramatic growth in Christianity following a turbulent period of war with North Korea in the 1950s and, before that, decades of Japanese colonial rule.
“We Koreans went through a lot of suffering,” Lee said. “It was felt that when we go into the mission field, we carry the memories of those difficult days and can serve as an example to others.”
But unforeseen events took her in an entirely different direction.
Lee ultimately earned a doctorate at Princeton Theological Seminary and became both a prominent scholar of the Protestant Reformation and an academic leader who has served as president of a graduate university in Seoul.
She spoke and was honored as a Distinguished Alumna at the Seminary's 2021 reunion, an all-virtual event held May 10-12.
After graduating Ewha Womans University in 1982, Lee pursued a Master of Divinity degree at Asia United Theological University with the intention of becoming a missionary. But the program that was to take her to Pakistan was cancelled. Her professors then stunned her by suggesting she pursue a doctorate in the West.
“I had to go and pray about it,” Lee said. “During my prayers, the thought dawned on me that maybe I just wasn’t ready to be a missionary. I had a theological degree, but what would I do with that in the mission field?”
So she set off for America, beginning her studies at Drew University.
That plan also changed. The scholar she was working with died suddenly. And around the same time, Lee met the noted Princeton Seminary professor Jane Dempsey Douglass, who was speaking at a conference.
“It was an enlightening moment when I heard a woman speaking about church history,” Lee said. “I introduced myself and asked if I could come down to Princeton to speak with her and she said, ‘Yes, please come.’’’
Lee soon switched to Princeton Seminary, studying the Reformation under Douglass and Elsie Anne McKee, with a focus on the 16th century theologian John Calvin.
This, again, was not what she had expected. Lee initially felt more drawn to the writings of Martin Luther. But as she drilled down on Calvin’s momentous years in Geneva, she began to understand him as an extraordinarily effective minister who helped everyday Genevans understand the essence of the Reformation.
“It was his preaching ministry that actually won people’s hearts,” Lee said. “Once you know him in such a way, you start to hear him differently.”
In 2002, Lee joined the faculty of Torch Trinity Graduate University, where she went on to become the first woman president. She was also the first woman named as president of the Church History Society in Korea — an honor she is particularly proud of because Jane Dempsey Douglass was the first woman president of the American Society of Church History.
These days Lee is busy teaching as well as serving in leadership roles with the Asia Theological Association and the Congress for Calvin Research. She also leads a book group for her students that focuses on Calvin’s masterpiece, Institutes of the Christian Religion.
This work speaks to her students, who feel an acute sense of crisis over the global pandemic and growing political polarization in Korea and around the world.
“Calvin’s utmost desire is to show how the Holy Spirit can help us maintain our faith no matter what happens in the world,” she said. “Life can be tough, but we can maintain our integrity in the Lord.”
On May 10, Jung-Sook Lee delivered a lecture at Reunion 2021. Click to watch.