History of Hymns: "Lonely the Boat"
By C. Michael Hawn
"Lonely the Boat"
by Helen Kim, translated by Hae Jong Kim
and versified by Hope Kawashima
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 476,
Lonely the boat, sailing at sea, tossed on a cold, stormy night;
cruel the sea, which seemed so wide; with waves so high.
This single ship sailed the deep sea straight into the gale;
O Lord, great is the peril, dangers to all assail.*
Helen Kim (1899-1970), born Kim Hwal-lan, was one of the most important Korean Methodists of the twentieth century and the first Korean Woman to earn a doctorate. Her life was devoted to the education of women within a Christian context. She began her higher education at Ewha College (B.A. 1918) in Seoul. After establishing the national YWCA in Korea in 1922, she left for the United States in 1924 for advanced studies at Ohio Wesleyan University, Boston University (M.A. 1925), and Columbia University Teacher's College (Ph.D. 1931). She returned to Korea, where she served as dean beginning in 1931, and eventually the seventh president (1939-1961) and first Korean president of her Korean alma mater.
Ewha, meaning "pear blossom," was begun in 1886 by a Methodist missionary to provide an education for Korean women comparable to that available in the United States. It is now the largest university for women in the world with over 20,000 students. Kim's service as dean and president began just before the outbreak of World War II. In spite of the hardships during the Japanese occupation of World War II and strict control by the Japanese government over the curriculum and the administration, she kept the college open. At the conclusion of the war, Ewha College became Ewha Womans [without an apostrophe] University. Within five years, the Korean War broke out. Under her leadership, the University evacuated its Sinchon campus and set up a temporary campus in Puson (Buson), South Korea’s second largest city, on the southeast tip of the country further from the military threat.
While serving as president of the University, Dr. Kim served as an official government spokesperson, serving in the administration of President Syngman Rhee as a director of the Office of Public Information (1950). The same year she became the founder and editor of The Korean Times, an English-language newspaper, still an active source of news, www.koreatimes.co.kr. For a description of her work with The Korean Times, see www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2012/12/117_97671.html.
Following the armistice that ended the Korean conflict, she led the rebuilding of the University campus, adding schools, departments, and a hospital. The University grew from 900 students and a handful of programs following Korea’s independence at the conclusion of the Second World War to more than 7,000 students in seven colleges and 35 divisions at the time of Dr. Kim’s retirement in 1961.
A leading Methodist educator and world Christian spokesperson, Helen Kim was a delegate to numerous international gatherings including the International Missionary Council and the World Council of Churches. She also served as an ambassador-at-large to the United Nations and participated on the world councils for many international and ecumenical organizations, including the YWCA and the Red Cross. The World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women sponsors the Helen Kim Memorial Scholarship, focusing on "Leadership Development Training for Young Women." The site notes that the scholarship is named for "Helen Kim, a young Korean woman who had a noble, Christ-inspired vision of a world sisterhood. She dreamt of a time when women would work together 'to promote peace and better conditions in the whole world.'"
"Lonely the Boat" is based on the narrative of Jesus' stilling the storm found in Mathew 8:23-27 and two other gospels. The original Korean text was translated by Hae Jong Kim (b. 1935), the first Korean United Methodist bishop (1992-2005), in 1980, appearing for the first time in its current form in the United Methodist Asian hymn resource, Hymns from the Four Winds (1983), with music composed by Korean composer Dong Hoon Lee (b. 1945) in 1967. Lee’s music, though harmonized in a Western style, draws upon the lilting 6/8 meter found in many Korean folk songs.
Written in Korean in 1921 during the thirty-five-year Japanese annexation of Korea, the English text acknowledges this shameful reality veiled in the metaphors of a "lonely boat" (Korea) that is "tossed on a cold, stormy night" in a "cruel sea which seemed so wide, with waves so high."
Just as Christ calmed the storm and brought safety to those in the small craft, God’s "powerful and great" hand is "firmly in control" and will bring "peace to my lone soul" (stanza four).
This important hymn in the history of Korean Methodism is a gift to the world church. In this post 9/11 world, "Lonely the Boat" still offers comfort and hope to a world full of war and terrorism. Reared in an occupied country, Helen Kim understood the value of freedom. She is quoted on the Columbia University website: "Freedom is not just a word here, not just a concept taken for granted. Its meaning is in the air we breathe, in our thoughts, in our hearts."
**© 1987, 1989 The United Methodist Publishing House.
Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.