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The Missionary Class of 1927

Published Date: March 2, 2023

By Robert A. Danielson

While it was founded in 1923, in its earliest years Asbury Theological Seminary essentially operated as a part of Asbury College. It was housed in the Morrison Building, which was built for the Seminary, but College students took classes from Seminary professors, and the few true graduates of the Seminary were those who earned the Bachelor of Divinity degree from Asbury College. In 1926, Asbury Theological Seminary was created as a separate legal entity, but it was not until 1939, when issues of accreditation were raised, that Asbury Theological Seminary separated itself completely from Asbury College. In 1941 the Morrison Building was traded for the Asbury-Talbot Inn (currently the Larabee-Morris Building), which housed the entire Seminary, including the small library in the basement.

For the first few years, the Seminary had only a few graduates (one student in 1924, two in 1925, and one in 1926). It was not until 1927 that the first class of an appreciable size graduated- the first class to go through the entire curriculum. This class contained five graduates. Among them was Asbury Seminary’s second woman graduate (the first, Faith Miriam Scull was the sole graduate in 1926) and the Seminary’s first two international students. But what is most interesting about this class was their missionary service. All five of these graduates participated in mission work after graduation. As such a special class, their stories deserve a bit more attention.

The first of the class of 1927 was Wan Yu Chang from Peking (Beijing), China. While there is little information on Chang’s life and ministry (his birth and death dates are unknown), the Journal of the North China Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church from 1938 records that Wan Yu Chang was an elder in the church and an instructor at Peking Academy, one of the largest Methodist mission schools of its day. He is also recorded as having taught a course at Peking Theological Seminary on “Organization of Religious Education in the Church and Home” (1). What is interesting to note is that this conference was held just 10 months after the Marco Polo Bridge incident which the Japanese Empire used to begin an invasion of China that would lead to World War II. Chang does not appear in any more records. It is quite possible that he may have been Asbury’s first missionary martyr, dying in the subsequent war, or religious persecution in the following Communist Revolution. He might have died as a refugee fleeing the war, or lived out his faith quietly under communism. We simply don’t know. But his mission service in the Methodist Church in China leaves a quiet reminder for today’s graduates about being faithful in difficult circumstances.

The second graduate of 1927 was Eugene Ambrose Erny (1899-1987) from Chicago, Illinois. Erny is perhaps the best-known name on this list of missionaries (2). He graduated from Asbury College in 1925, but then continued on for his Bachelor of Divinity degree. He would also attend New York Biblical Seminary, but worked as an evangelist and singer with the Asbury Quartet in tent revivals with the encouragement of H.C. Morrison through the 1920s. In 1930, he went with the singing group, then a trio, to Korea. They met Lettie Cowman, the leader of the Oriental Missionary Society (OMS) who invited them to attend the annual convention of the Japan Holiness Church, led by Juji Nakada (often referred to as the “Dwight Moody of Japan”). This trip continued to China, and ultimately India, and Erny met his future wife, Esther, an OMS missionary in China. The Ernys spent nine years in China with OMS, and then in 1941 relocated to work in India. There they were initially hosted and worked with E.A. Seamands and his sons, David and J.T. In 1949, Erny was chosen to become the fourth president of OMS and would lead that mission organization until 1969 for 20 years. During this time OMS grew rapidly and expanded in Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, becoming a major holiness presence in modern missions.

Ellen Keller (1903-2009) of Snyder, New York was the third graduate of the missionary class of 1927 (3). After graduation, she entered further training with the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) in New York. In 1931, she completed language training in Belgium and France before taking a position as a CMA missionary teacher in Kinkonzi in the Belgian Congo. She remained there until 1947, when she returned to the United States to lead a Christian school in Flushing, New York. She ultimately retired to Florida, and died at the age of 105 in 2009. In the transcript of an interview with Keller in 1993, she was asked what were some of the most important things which helped shape her faith. She responded, “Well, my family, my Christian family, the pastors that I’ve had in Churches, the professors that I’ve had in Asbury. I remember definite times when the Lord blessed spiritually there in classes. It was just like the Holy Spirit would fall upon us and we’d all go down on our knees and pray in the middle of a class, and such men of God who taught us, and the great revival we had there once that lasted for a couple days. You can think of so much.”

At first glance, Raymond Zenus Newton (1893-1959) from Alabama, who was the fourth member of the class of 1927, seems to break the missionary mold. He was studying for the ministry when he was drafted in 1917 to be a young soldier who fought in France in World War I. He returned home to be discharged in 1919 and take up residence in Somerset, Kentucky as a pastor. He married his wife, Maude, a teacher and the daughter of a pastor in 1924 in Washington State. He ended up retiring in 1959 in the Methodist Conference in North Carolina. But digging a little deeper, it is revealed that right after leaving Asbury in 1927, this young man went with his wife to serve as a missionary with the Methodist Episcopal Church in Nome, Alaska from 1927 to 1931, where they would have a son in 1929. Nome, Alaska at this time was a frontier town. A rapid city had emerged from the Gold Rush of 1898, but by 1918 the gold deposits had run out and the area was under a territorial government. In the time Newton was a pastor/missionary in Nome, the population had dwindled, funding for education and social programs was low, and the city was largely made up of indigenous people who were discriminated against and often poor. Nome was still relatively isolated with only occasional connections by plane, and complicated with bitterly cold winters. After serving for five years in Nome, Newton served in the Pacific Northwest Methodist Conference before moving to North Carolina. He died shortly after his retirement in November of 1959 in Burlington, North Carolina.

The final graduate of 1927, was Kenichi Tsuchiya (1883-1969) from Oiwake, Nagano-ken, Japan (4). Along with Wan Yu Chang, Tsuchiya was one of the first international students to graduate from the Seminary. Tsuchiya arrived in the United States in 1907 in Seattle and worked to pay off the debts of two Japanese friends. After that he fell into gambling and drinking for two years. In 1917, Tsuchiya had a conversion experience in an evangelistic meeting of the Japanese Christian Church in Seattle. He entered Asbury College in the Fall of 1922. After graduating from Asbury Seminary in 1927, Tsuchiya completed a Ph.D. at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. By remaining in Kentucky for this additional work, he was able to meet with Holiness leader Juji Nakada (5) at Asbury, when Nakada was returning from a visit to Brazil, and Tsuchiya decided to return to Japan with Nakada. Tsuchiya’s story is a complex one, but of significant importance for the Holiness Movement in Japan. In 1930, Dr. Tsuchiya joined the Holiness Church of Japan and then became a professor at the Tokyo Bible Training Institute. In 1933, theological divisions led the five professors of the Tokyo Bible Training Institute, including Dr. Tsuchiya, to split from Nakada forming the Japan Holiness Church while a minority remained with Nakada in the Holiness Church of Japan. On April 18, 1942 the first bombing of Japan by Doolittle’s Raiders from the United States occurred (6). In the aftermath of this attack, leaders of the Japanese Holiness Movement were arrested for suspected violation of the Maintenance of Public Order, and Dr. Tsuchiya was part of this group. Essentially, the arrest was due to the refusal of Holiness churches to perform national Shinto rites in honor of the Emperor of Japan. This led to the Holiness churches of both groups being closed under an Illegal Association Measure in 1943. In 1944, Dr. Tsuchiya and eleven other leaders were sentenced. Dr. Tsuchiya was sentenced to one year in prison, but this was suspended in place of three years of probation. In 1945, World War II ended, and in October of that year, the Religious Bodies Control Law was repealed, allowing the Holiness churches to re-emerge. In 1950, at the age of 67, Dr. Tsuchiya founded Tokyo Covenant Church in two rooms in his house (7). As a church planter, he became the senior pastor, a position he held until 1960 when at 77 he turned over leadership to his son, Junichi Tsuchiya, who would lead the church from 1960 to 2014, and would be involved in writing and translating books, including a work on John Wesley, into Japanese.

It is a testimony to the founders of Asbury Theological Seminary that all five members of the first full class of the Seminary went out into the mission field. China, Japan, India, the Congo in Africa, and the indigenous peoples of Alaska were all touched by the global reach of Asbury’s mission to spread Scriptural Holiness throughout the world. Challenges of war, hardship, and religious persecution should remind and inspire those of us here today of the importance of our work as a theological seminary for the glory of the Kingdom of God.


  1. The Official Journal of the North China Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, The Fortieth-Fifth
    Session 1938, p. 236.
  2. For details on Eugene Erny’s life see This One Thing: The Story of Missionary Leader Eugene Erny by Ed Erny (OMS
    International, Inc.: Greenwood, IN) 1991.
  3. Special thanks to Lora Bryant of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Archives for sending scans of Ellen Keller’s
    missionary file to help write this article.
  4. Special thanks to former Asbury student, Takanori Inoue for his help in researching key aspects of Dr. Tsuchiya’s
    life in Japan and helping to communicate key elements of Tokyo Kabenanto Kyokai: Souritsu-sha Tsuchiya Kenichi-
    shi no Ayunda Dotei [Tokyo Covenant Church: Journey of Rev. Kenichi Tsuchiya] by Ayako Tsuchiya (Tokyo
    Kabenanto Kyokai [Tokyo Covenant Church]: Tokyo, Japan) 2021. He also helped with research from Tokyo
    Kabenanto Kyokai Senky 70 Shunen Kinenshi [The Memorial Publication for the 70th Anniversary of the Mission of
    Tokyo Covenant Church] edited by Tokyo Kabenanto Kyokai [Tokyo Covenant Church] (Tokyo Kabenanto Kyokai
    [Tokyo Covenant Church]: Tokyo, Japan) 2021. See also The Oriental Missionary Society Holiness Church in Japan,
    1901-1983 by John Jennings Merwin, D. Miss. Dissertation for Fuller Theological Seminary, 1983.
  5. Juji Nakada was a co-founder of the Oriental Mission Society and also founder of the Japan Holiness Church.
  6. It is interesting to note that another famous Asbury Seminary alumnus, Jacob DeShazer, was a part of the famous
    Doolittle Raid.
  7. This information is from the Tokyo Covenant Church website: which
    was accessed December 7, 2022.

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