Soojin Chung on the Christian History of Korean-American Adoption

Soojin Chung is Assistant Professor and Director of Intercultural Studies at California Baptist University. Her research interests include East Asian mission history, Christian internationalism, and women’s role in global Christianity.


For decades, Americans largely regarded East Asians as unassimilable aliens unfit for American citizenship. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first American bill banning immigration of a racial or ethnic group. Thirty years later, a Japanese and Korean Exclusion League was instilled, followed by a treaty between America and Japan agreeing to deny passports to Japanese seeking employment in the US. Hatred toward Japanese during World War II resulted in the internment of roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans.

In 1955, however, a special act of Congress allowed a white couple, Bertha and Harry Holt, to adopt eight Korean War orphans. Evangelical Christian farmers based in Oregon, the Holts ultimately inspired thousands of American families to adopt children from East Asia. Oregon Senator Richard Neuberger even hailed them as incarnations of the “Biblical Good Samaritan.” Within several decades, white Americans went from perceiving Asians as “pig-tailed coolies” to endearing children in need of American help. Christians played a pivotal role in promoting this wave of pro-adoption sentiment.

World Vision and Everett Swanson Evangelistic Association

In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. Korea was under Japanese occupation until Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in 1945. Soon after Korean gained its independence, two opposing governments split the country in two, the south supported by the United States, and the north by the Soviet Union. In 1951, North Korea invaded South Korea and war broke out. By the end of 1950, American and Chinese troops had escalated the civil war into a global conflict.

The war devastated Korea. Casualties exceeded 2.5 million people—many of them civilians, and more than 10 million people were displaced which created countless widows and orphans. By the time the war halted with an armistice in 1953, Korea was one of the most destitute nations in the world.

Disturbed by the horror of the Korean War, Robert Pierce and Everett Swanson founded World Vision and the Everett Swanson Evangelistic Association (ESEA, now Compassion International) in 1950 and 1952 respectively. Before their overseas missionary work, Pierce and Swanson had been local pastors and itinerant evangelists. Their two pioneering ministries introduced the remote “adoption” of impoverished orphans by allowing Americans to financially support children on monthly basis and played crucial roles in transforming the image of Korean orphans from waifs and strays to beloved sons and daughters.

Many of World Vision and ESEA’s pamphlets included notes handwritten by children, such as “thank you” in broken Korean accompanied by “this is your child in the Orient” in large font. Sponsors were given an opportunity to “adopt” either a boy or a girl orphan and would receive a picture of their child, a brief biographical note, and the child’s footprint. World Vision produced numerous posters and pamphlets with the slogan “World Vision has a Korean orphan for You!” A pamphlet promoting the sponsorship program read, “You too can become the ‘dear my sponsor’ to whom they can write their touching little letters of gratitude and whose name they will remember as they say their goodnight prayers.” Pierce proclaimed that despite the physical differences between races, all children needed love.

Moreover, Pierce and Swanson helped conservative Christians integrate evangelism with social action by grafting evangelism with humanitarianism. Both World Vision and Compassion International emphasized that the foremost objective of their efforts was to bring young people to Christ. Their partnerships with orphanages were guided by evangelism, and prayers permeated their educational activities. The children themselves attended regular worship services and received ongoing discipleship.

Pierce established the “Little Shepherd Movement” which prioritized spiritual growth through Bible study and Scripture memorization. The orphanages collaborated with local Korean churches to bring spiritual guidance to more than 9,000 orphans. Pierce stated that the pictures of the children represented not just the need of individuals, but the need of humanity for hope in Christ. “By the end of the 1950s, World Vision was committing 79 percent of its annual budget to orphans, spending more than $425,000 to care for about 13,000 children,” stated a CT book review of God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism. “Child sponsorships became a major part of World Vision’s fundraising and a core part of the organization’s identity.”

Harry and Bertha Holt

During his recruitment tours for World Vision’s child sponsorship program, Pierce screened documentaries telling the stories of Korean war widows and orphans. Among those in the audience were Harry and Bertha Holt. In her book The Seed from the East, Bertha Holt described the film’s account of the mixed-race babies as something that “forever changed our lives.” At that time, GI babies born between Korean women and American servicemen faced a triple stigma: they were deemed fatherless and racially “impure” children of prostitutes. Many Korean mothers tried to hide the mixed-race children as long as possible, but some abandoned their children.

The Holts aspired to do more than sponsor these children. “More and more I found myself wishing we could bring some of the Korean orphans into our home where we could love and care for them,” wrote Bertha. “I kept reminding myself that to continue this sort of planning was like living in a fantastic dream, but the dream continued to grow.”

She went on to write that her dream was confirmed as divinely inspired when Harry also expressed the same urge. He said that he could not erase the pictures of the orphans from his mind, and his burden would not go away. Harry declared that he would have no peace until he went to Korea to adopt mixed-race orphans. Bertha concluded, as she heard Harry repeat almost the identical things she had been meditating on all throughout the week, that God was “working in their hearts,” and that “only God could bring about such a miracle.”

The Holts viewed their work as a sacred duty. Harry recalled that whenever there was any doubt about his mission and calling, he reminded himself that God was with him. “The enemy was giving me a good working over. He seemed to say, ‘what are you doing out here away from home? You are nothing but a farmer and not a very good one at that,’” he wrote. But Harry’s doubt gave way when he shook his Bible open:

Out of all the wonderful Word of God, I had my thumb pointing to these words, in Isaiah 43:5,6 and 7: ‘Fear not for I am with thee…I will bring thy seed from the east…bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him.’

Isaiah 43 became the foundation for Harry and Bertha Holt’s theology of adoption, and Bertha used the phrase “seed from the east” as the title of her book. In another book, Bring My Sons from Afar, Bertha wrote that while previously they had considered “I will bring thy seed from the east” and “bring my sons from afar” the same command, they both discovered that the two sentences were not the same—according to her, “I will bring” was a promise from God; “bring my sons from afar,” in contrast, was a command, not a promise.

These convictions led the Holts to petition for a special bill to permit the adoption of eight foreign children. The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 only allowed 4,000 orphans to enter the US for adoption until 1956 and restricted the adoption of foreign orphans to two per family. After Harry Holt wrote a letter to Senator Neuberger, he and his fellow Oregon senator Wayne Morse introduced the bill in the Senate. Oregon representative Edith Green introduced the bill in the House, and after both chambers approved, President Eisenhower signed the “Holt Bill” in 1955.

On his personal expense, Harry Holt flew to Korea for the first time in 1955 and visited numerous orphanages with World Vision. He traveled by bus into remote rural areas to find children who would meet the health standards of the US immigration service. In October of the same year, Harry and Bertha Holt brought 12 children to America —eight for their family and four for three other families. The following year, they founded the Holt Adoption Program. Now Holt International Children’s Services, the organization has placed around 50,000 Korean children in American families since 1956.

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Source: Christianity Today