Former Princeton Seminary Professor Samuel H. Moffett Dies at 98


Samuel H. Moffett, a former professor at Princeton Seminary, died Feb. 9 at the Windrows retirement community in Plainsboro. He was 98.

Moffett, an influential Christian missionary and accomplished scholar of Christianity in Asia, was a beloved professor at schools in both Korea and North America.

He was born in Pyongyang, Korea  in 1916 to Samuel Austin Moffett and Lucia Fish Moffett. His father was a pioneer missionary to Korea, arriving there on his 26th birthday in 1890 from Madison, Indiana.

After attending elementary and high school in Korea, Moffett came to the United States to continue his education. He graduated summa cum laude from Wheaton College in 1938 with a classics major, received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton Seminary in 1942, and was awarded a doctorate in religion from Yale University in 1945. In 1942 he married Elizabeth Tarrant, whom he had met while in school at Wheaton.

In 1947, Moffett moved to China and joined the faculty of Yenching University in Peking, and in 1949 he moved to the faculty of Nanking Theological Seminary in Nanking. In 1951 the Chinese government expelled Moffett from the country. He returned to Princeton Seminary as a visiting lecturer from 1953 to 1955. During his time in Princeton, his wife Elizabeth died after a struggle with cancer.

Moffett moved back to Korea in 1955 to serve as a missionary. In 1956 he married Eileen Flower, whom he had come to know while she was a student at Princeton Seminary. For the next 58 years, Sam and Eileen Moffett were partners in teaching and research.

The Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Seoul, Korea hired Moffett in 1959. He taught there until 1981, serving as dean of the graduate school from 1966 to 1970 and as co-president of the school from 1970 to 1981. He was also the first director of the influential Asian Center for Theological Studies and Mission.

Princeton Seminary President J.I. McCord persuaded the Moffetts to move to Princeton in 1981. Moffett was installed as the Henry Winters Luce Professor of Ecumenics and Mission, a position he held until 1987. In their retirement years in Princeton, the couple remained active in research and publishing.

Moffett wrote several important books, including a seminal history of mission work “Where’er the Sun.” His two-volume “History of Christianity in Asia” became the standard work in the field.

The Moffetts joined several other former missionary colleagues on a week-long historic visit to Pyongyang, in 1997 arranged by the Eugene Bell Foundation. It was Dr. Moffett’s first and only return to the place of his birth and upbringing.

Moffett served on countless boards during his life and held a number of important positions with organizations serving the church in Korea, North America, and around the globe. He was the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, including the prestigious Peony Medal, awarded by the government of South Korea. In 1977, Moffett was named a distinguished alumnus of Princeton Seminary. Eileen Moffett was recognized as a distinguished alumna in 1997, making the Moffetts the only couple in the Seminary’s history to have each received this honor.

Moffett’s voluminous letters and papers have been donated to the Princeton Theological Seminary Library, which plans to digitize the collection and make it available online to scholars and researchers all over the world.

Moffett is survived by his wife, Eileen, by his youngest brother, Thomas F. Moffett, of Louisville, Kentucky, by two sisters-in-law, Joanne Hackett (Paul) and Maridean Bennett (Bill), twenty-one nieces and nephews, many grand nieces and nephews, several great grand nieces and nephews, and numerous cousins, all of whom he delighted in. He was preceded in death by two older brothers, the Reverend James M. Moffett and the Reverend Charles H. Moffett, and a younger brother, Dr. Howard F. Moffett. James had been a Presbyterian pastor in the United States, Charles a missionary to India, and Howard a medical missionary to Korea for 46 years.

A memorial service will be held at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton. The date and time will be announced soon. In lieu of flowers, gifts in honor of Moffett may be made to the Samuel H. and Eileen F. Moffett Scholarship Fund of the UP Foundation (P.O. Box 24441, Los Angeles, California 90024), or to the Princeton Theological Seminary Library Korea Room. The Korea Room celebrates the extraordinary relationship between Korean Christians and Princeton Seminary in which Moffett played such a key role.