Christianity in Korea - Asian Studies Association (2023)

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Christianity in Korea - Asian Studies Association (1)

The Republic of Korea is unique in terms of religion in that, despite a high level of ethnic homogeneity, there is no single dominant religion.1And although more than half of Koreans do not profess any religion, many still engage in religious activities, such as consulting a shaman or offering incense and food to their ancestors. But among those with a religious affiliation, Christianity is the most popular, which is quite remarkable considering that its rise on the peninsula was initially met with fierce persecution. This article provides an introduction to Korean Christianity, with a focus on Catholicism and Protestantism, and provides an overview of its history and contemporary practice, as well as the challenges facing this religion today.2

A Brief History of Catholic Christianity in Korea

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All religions are naturally shaped by history, but this is particularly true of Catholicism in Korea. Koreans were introduced to Catholicism in the early 17th century through books on "Western learning" that were translated by Catholic missionaries to China and their Chinese collaborators. Koreans could easily read the classical Chinese in which these books were written, and although they were interested in the technology, science, and mathematics they contained, they rejected their religious message. This began to change in the late 18th century when a Korean scholar, Peter Yi Seung-hun (1756–1801), traveled to Beijing as part of a tribute mission where he received baptism. He would baptize many Koreans, and the movement would quickly spread beyond scholars to include women and commoners, so that when a Chinese missionary named James Zhou Wenmo (1752–1801) arrived in Korea in late 1794, there were already several thousands of Catholics there. Women like Columbia Kwang Wansuk (1760–1801) became important leaders of the Catholic Church, while men from humble beginnings like the butcher Hwang Ilgwang (1757–1801) testified to Catholic teachings on spiritual equality, declaring that there were two heavens, one after another. death and another in the midst of an ecclesial community in which everyone was respected. However, Catholicism's foreign connections that the government fears would encourage rebellion, and Catholic rejection of ancestral rites has led to violent state-sponsored persecution of Catholics. While the first persecutions were typically small-scale, killing only a few hundred Catholics at most in the mid-1860s, the rise of Western imperialism and consequent foreign pressure on Korea led to others that would kill thousands, including French missionaries, severely damaging. a community that never exceeded 23,000 at the time.3 Although Catholics came to enjoy tolerance with the country's opening up, Korean Catholics lived on the fringes of society, forming what was called a "ghetto church" that avoided political society and focused on salvation in the next life, until the middle of the 20th century.4

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A Brief History of Protestant Christianity in Korea

Although there were attempts by Protestant missionaries to enter Korea in 1832 and 1866, sustained contact and conversion would not occur until the last quarter of the 19th century. Overseas Koreans in Manchuria came into contact with Protestantism through Scottish missionaries such as John Ross (1842-1910) and smuggled Korean translations of the Gospels and then the entire New Testament into Korea before the first resident missionary, the Methodist Horace Allen (1858-1932). , arrived in 1884. Officially, Allen was a physician to the American legation, as it was feared that open missionary work would lead to persecution. The following year, Presbyterian Horace Underwood (1859–1916) entered the peninsula as the first ordained Protestant minister. He would help establish Yonsei University, and he and Allen would work together to organize Severance Hospital. In fact, Protestant missionaries targeted such medical and educational institutions not only because they considered them intrinsically good, but also as a means of encouraging conversion and gaining state support.5

Christianity in Korea - Asian Studies Association (3)

Therefore, Protestant Christians shared not only the Gospel, but also Anglo-Protestant Western civilization. In a sense, they promised spiritual and national salvation, something many Koreans believed was necessary as Japan increasingly dominated the country, especially after their victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). In addition, Protestant missionaries followed a policy of granting a significant amount of local authority to Koreans, who were expected to support their own churches and carry out missionary work on their own, allowing them a significant amount of space to shape the Christianity according to their needs. The Korean initiative, political instability, and fear for the future of their country, combined with the hope offered by Protestant Christianity, helped lead to the Great Awakening of 1907 and the consequent increase in the number of Protestants to over 100,000. Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910 did not put an end to Protestant political and social movements. Instead, because the Japanese general government basically ran Korea as an essentially unfree military colony, religion offered a space where Koreans could speak and organize that the Japanese government had to respect or risk upsetting Britain. and the United States, whose citizens made up the vast majority. of Protestant missionaries. Thus, when the Movement of March 1, 1919 broke out, it was organized mainly by Korean Protestants and members of the Cheondogyo (indigenous and syncretic religion), the declaration of independence that it issued being signed by fifteen members of that religion, two Buddhist monks and sixteen protestants. Also, as pressure increased on Korean Protestants to participate in Shinto rituals in the 1930s, many resisted on religious and nationalist grounds.6

Korean Protestants also played an active role as social leaders before and during the Japanese colonial period. The rigid division of the sexes in Korea meant that missionaries, including female doctors, had to be sent to reach Korean women. These women were often role models of hope and inspiration for their Korean counterparts. And while missionary behavior may seem patriarchal to people living in the 21st century, Protestant Christianity provided church-related institutions where women could study, work, and meet in public. For example, in 1886, American Methodist Mary Scranton (1832–1910) launched the first modern public school for Korean women (Ewha Haktang, Pear Blossom Academy), and Korean “Bible Women” set out on their own to seek converts to the new religion. religion. faith. Christianity could also provide a bridge allowing Korean women the opportunity to study abroad. For example, Esther Park (1876–1910) studied at Ewha and served as an interpreter for a missionary doctor, which led her to study medicine.
in the United States and become the first Korean female doctor of Western medicine.7 Similarly,
Methodist Yu Gwan-sun (1902–1920) received an education at Ewha and ended up participating as a member
leader of the March 1 Movement, but would end up being arrested and dying of mistreatment
in prison

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Catholics and Protestants after the National Division

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The division of Korea after World War II caused serious problems for Korean Protestants, as most of the believers lived in North Korea, which gradually came under the control of a communist government increasingly hostile to Christianity. Many would flee south, supported by the United States and led by the anti-communist Protestant Syngman Rhee (1875–1965, president 1948–1960). At the time of independence, there were about 400,000 Korean Protestants, but barely ten years later, when the Protestants - many times with foreign aid and government support - energetically sought to rebuild Korea and support their faith, or more than doubled for more than one million. Rhee's increasingly dictatorial regime was eventually replaced by the even more dictatorial Park Chung-hee (1917-1979), who seized power in a 1961 coup and was president from 1963-1979. These developments helped generate theological divisions among Protestants. Conservatives generally supported the ROK's anti-communism and prioritized individual salvation, launching renewal and evangelical movements.8 These efforts more than tripled the Korean Protestant population in twenty years, from less than three million in 1967 to more than ten million. in 1987. This emphasis on conversion continues, as a 2017 survey found that Korean Protestants were seven times more likely to attempt to share their faith than Catholics and twelve times more likely than Buddhists.9 Although fewer in number, Protestants Liberals were also active, participating in and even leading social movements that sought to help peasants and workers or even political movements that directly challenged the dictatorship. Such activities found theological expression in “Minjung Theology”, which held that the minjung (masses) were the true movers of history and especially loved by God. So while the denominational divisions are important, with Presbyterianism followed by Methodism being the most popular, the theological divisions that cut across them are also significant.

Christianity in Korea - Asian Studies Association (5)

The Catholic Church also suffered persecution in the north after liberation and division, and Catholicism ceased to exist there as an organized public religion. Although it did not grow as rapidly as Protestant Christianity, the number of Catholics increased in the South, from more than 450,000 in 1960 to more than 750,000 in 1970 and to more than 1,300,000 in 1980.10 The Second Vatican Council, which, among other reforms , encouraged the indigenization of Catholicism and allowed vernacular languages ​​to be used for Mass, no doubt played a role in this growth, as Korea became ecclesiastically independent, allowing the Catholic Church in Korea to be better responsive to conditions there and participate more in society. Although generally apolitical as an institution, Korean Catholics, such as pro-democracy, human rights activist and later President of the Republic of Korea (1998-2003) Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009), were often active in progressive movements. Furthermore, in the 1970s, as the increasingly oppressive rule of dictator Park Chung-hee had a direct impact on the Catholic Church itself, religious leaders such as Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan (1922–2009) opposed the regime outright. measured, but direct. . . The visit of Pope John Paul II in 1984 to canonize 103 Korean martyrs (10 French and 93 Korean clerics), the first such ceremony to take place outside the Vatican, gave Catholicism greater visibility and probably also helped boost growth. That papal attention continued, with the visit of Pope Francis to Korea in 2014, casting the country as a Catholic success story.11

Korean Catholics are often self-consciously proud of their history, presenting their faith as one that has always fostered modernity, equality, human dignity, and democracy from the very beginning on the peninsula. In addition, what for many years was a church for the poor that was on the margins of society has become a church for the middle and upper class that has respected hospitals and universities. At the same time, the relative lack of financial scandals that have plagued Korean Protestant churches (and the sexual ones that have rocked the Catholic Church in the West) gives Catholicism a positive image in society. In addition, the Catholic Church maintains good relations with other religions. It is not uncommon to see a Catholic church carrying a banner with a message wishing Korean Buddhists a happy birthday to Buddha. Since 1997, the Catholic Church in Korea has formally issued these birthday greetings.12 Together, the Catholic Church and Catholics are generally viewed as responsible and trustworthy members of society who have contributed to Korea's development.

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Christian faith and practice in Korea today

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Korean Protestant worship tends to be conservative and traditional. Worshipers pray silently after entering the church to prepare for the service, which usually begins with a hymn. Then the entire congregation usually recite the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles' Creed and read the Bible verses aloud. There are also often opportunities for people to pray individually or together out loud. A pastor then delivers a sermon, which is usually the focus of the service. The service ends with hymns, offering, prayer and blessing. Music plays an important role in devotions. Sometimes for youth groups and young adults, contemporary Christian music is sung instead of traditional hymns.

Protestants are also known for the large size of their churches, both in terms of physical construction and membership. In particular, Korea is known for the formation of megachurches, such as the Yoido Full Gospel Church, the world's largest, located in Seoul, which started with five people in 1958 but can now have an audience of over half a million. at once. weekend Korean Protestant churches are especially visible at night in the cities, as their red neon lights illuminate the skyline. The numbers reveal that this is not just show: Protestant churches and church-related institutions considerably outnumber other religious organizations, with 55,104 Protestants in 2017, compared to 13,215 Buddhists and 2,028 Catholics.13 Protestants also run radio stations , newspapers and most religious publishers. , clinics, schools and social welfare organizations.

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A Catholic traveling to Korea from the United States or Canada will find much familiar in a Korean parish. For example, the center of parish life continues to be Mass, with various celebrations each weekend, including the Vigil on Saturday. And although the language was different, the order of the mass would be recognizable, as would many of the hymns. However, there are numerous differences. For example, the Korean penchant for singing means that the choirs are relatively larger there. Koreans typically stand during the parts of the Mass where Western Catholics kneel, and the sign of peace is a bow rather than a handshake. The collection basket is not passed around, but people line up to put reusable envelopes in the box (you can always put an empty one). Many Korean Catholic women still wear a headscarf during mass, especially in the countryside. Masses often serve specific age groups. For example, the Saturday Vigil Mass could be focused on families with young children, the Sunday morning Mass for middle-aged and older people, and the Sunday evening Mass for youth (late teens through twenties). ). Although this is perhaps atypical, in a provincial church, after the youth mass, the youth drink soju (a clear alcoholic beverage) and play with the priest in the church parking lot. This group life is important and there are a number of parish organizations for people in all stages of life. Although groups like the Legion of Mary attract both men and women, their small group meetings tend to be divided by gender.

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The parish church building is also similar, but with some differences. Some churches have large statues of Jesus that are illuminated at night on the ceiling above the front door. As land is at a premium in cities, some cities are built on high hills (where land is cheapest) and all available space is used. This, however, does not prevent the construction of Marian grottoes in a large number of parish churches. Pious Catholics entering the church normally bow towards the statue of the Virgin Mary (usually called Sŏngmonim, Holy Mother) and make the sign of the cross as they walk in front of it. Church interiors are usually relatively simple, but often include a large crucifix flanked by statues of Mary and Joseph, and possibly a Korean saint, with Fr. Andrew Kim Taegŏn (1821–1846), the first Korean priest, being particularly popular.

Christianity in Korea - Asian Studies Association (8)

The history of anti-Catholic persecution on the peninsula has led to a strong focus on the Catholic devotional lives of the Korean martyrs. For example, there is an entire order of Korean nuns, the Sisters of Korean Martyrs, dedicated to them, and special 103-day prayer sessions are held (one for each martyred saint). In addition, the geographical scope of these persecutions means that sites linked to martyrdom exist throughout the country. Some may be quite simple, containing only a plaque explaining the importance of the site, while others may include an open-air “Via Sacra Station”, a path marked with the mysteries of the rosary, a Marian grotto, monuments to martyrs ( possibly including their graves) and a gift shop. Some, like the Haemi Martyr Shrine, located in Chungcheong province, even include a large tower filled with representations of Jesus, Mary, and martyrs offering a panoramic view of the surrounding city, as well as large open spaces that allow for prayer and worship. tourism. for non-Catholics who can come and observe the beautiful foliage. There are many guides for people who want to make a pilgrimage, although the parishes usually make trips together. These pilgrimages may include saying the rosary on the bus to the venue, praying the Stations of the Cross, attending mass, and then having lunch (sometimes with soju). There may even be a playful element, as a pilgrimage one of the authors underwent included a visit to a location where a Korean historical drama was filmed and to the tombs of ancient Korean kings who died long before Catholicism came to the peninsula. . This has an international dimension, as the Vatican recently recognized a martyrs' pilgrimage route through Seoul; and UNESCO recognized the bicentennial of the birth of the first Korean priest, prompting Catholics to proudly present the cleric not just as the "Pride of Korea," but of the entire world, and as someone who supported "human rights and equality". 14


Catholics and Protestants face common problems. Korea's liberal democracy and economic development have led people to become more independent and therefore less willing to fully commit to a religious organization. Additionally, the hyper-competitive nature of Korean society means that people have comparatively little time and are less willing to spend it on religion. Other worldviews are emerging that can compete with religion. For example, changing views on sexuality runs counter to traditional Christian teachings on the subject.15 In addition, Korea's low birth rate of less than one child per woman means there will be fewer Koreans, and therefore Less Christian. Christians also face their own problems. For example, while Korean Protestants are now the largest group of religious believers (more than 20% of the population, with Buddhists just below that number), Protestantism also has the lowest approval rating, with fewer than 10% (Buddhism has more than 40% of the population). percent and Catholics about 37 percent). Younger non-Protestant Koreans often describe Protestant churches as selfish, materialistic, and authoritarian, and many take offense at what they see as overly aggressive Protestant evangelicals. expansion and spiritual salvation, and not enough to help develop Korean society. Even some Protestant Christians are turning away from their churches, leading to so-called "Canaan believers." The reverse of “Ca-na-an” in Korean means “no (an)-go (na-ca)”. These Christians accounted for 23.3 percent of the Korean Protestant population in the 2017 survey, a considerable jump from 10.5 percent in 2012. Nearly half (44.1 percent) of believers in Canaan stopped attend church because they did not want to be tied to any individual. denomination. . These Protestants still maintain their belief in Christianity and can attend Sunday services online while praying alone.17

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Christianity in Korea - Asian Studies Association (9)

There are also serious problems facing the Catholic Church. For example, while a recent government count claims there are approximately 3,300,000 Catholics (out of a population of more than 53,000,000), the Catholic Church in Korea claims to have more than 5,800,000. This discrepancy can be explained by the fact that the Catholic Church counts baptisms, while the government counts self-identifications. That would mean that about a third of people baptized as Catholic not only stopped practicing, but also stopped identifying as Catholic. Despite this, the Catholic Church in Korea is growing, but the growth rate has slowed to 0.9%. Since the year 2000, reception of the sacraments has steadily declined, and weekly Mass attendance is, according to Church statistics, only 18% of all Catholics in any given week. This is not due to a lack of priests: the number of clergy per Catholic has risen since 2000, from 1,318 Catholics per priest in 2000 to 1,089. While there are just over 3,000 priests, there are over 10,000 nuns, and many parishes will have several assigned. However, the number of women wanting to become nuns and men entering the seminary is declining.18

Korean Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, face many challenges today, perhaps the most serious changing social mores and demographic decline. However, Christians in Korea have overcome a history of persecution, colonial oppression, division, and war; and the strong foundations they have built on this turbulent history mean that, perhaps with varying levels of success, they will be able to creatively meet the challenges they face today. Change, of course, will take place, particularly as Korean Christianity becomes more global as Koreans immigrate and plant churches off the peninsula or serve in other countries as missionaries, and non-Koreans (Christians or not) migrate to the peninsula. Korea's Christian vitality, its ability to change with the times while remaining itself, means that while transformation is inevitable, Christianity, in both its Catholic and Protestant guises, is likely to remain an important part of the Republic of Korea in the years to come. . .


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