Who Brought the Gospel to Korea? Koreans did. (2023)

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Get the best of CT editors, straight to your inbox!Who Brought the Gospel to Korea? Koreans did. (2)

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CWe tend to think that Christianity entered foreign lands only for missionary work. Not so in Korea. Until the late 19th century, the mountainous Korean peninsula was rigidly governed by a Confucian tradition and closed to most outsiders. Missionaries found it difficult to penetrate the reclusive nation, concentrating on larger neighbors Korea, China, and Japan. Consequently, the Koreans themselves played a larger role in the importation and subsequent spread of Christianity in Korea. Three hundred years later, Christians make up more than a quarter of South Koreans and the country is responsible for one of the largest missionary movements in the world. What was the first thing that made Christianity take root in Korea?

decline of confucianism

The spread of Christianity in China in the late 18th century made an impression on the Korean elite. Jesuit missionaries distributed philosophical and scientific literature, material that caught the attention of scholars seeking to innovate and reform the Confucian system. The application of the teachings of the Chinese sage Confucius (551-479 BC), focused on wisdom and correct social relationships, resulted in a remarkably stable society with a highly developed culture. Yet he also produced an elitist culture, resistant to the innovations of the modern world and the possibilities of Christianity, which scholars saw as a motor of Western development.

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Among those who were open to such reforms was the aristocrat Yi Seung-hun, who was baptized by a French Jesuit in a Catholic church in Peking in 1784. Upon his return to Korea, Yi baptized several fellow scholars and together they formed the first community. christian. in Corea. Today, the Korean Catholic Church is the only national Catholic church recognized as being founded by a lay community.

However, the Korean authorities refused to tolerate the performance of non-Confucian religious rituals and soon discovered the new church. The government disciplined Yi and several other aristocrats. But the host of the church, Kim Beom-u, who belonged to a lower social class, was arrested, tortured and banished. He later died from his injuries, becoming the first martyr for the Korean church.

With the government crackdown, Korea's new converts also faced pressure due to a change in Catholic Church policy. In 1790, Korean Christians learned that the Pope had prohibited converts from venerating their ancestors according to "Chinese rites". But this dereliction of duty especially provoked the ire of the Confucians, for whom the reverence of parents for children was an axiom of social welfare. Christians who openly disrupted worship were not only excluded from their families, but also risked persecution and death.

Despite these difficulties, the early Korean Catholics pressured the bishop to send them a priest (they could not celebrate Mass without one), and in 1795 they smuggled out a Chinese priest. For a time, the priest was protected from the authorities by Kang Wan-suk (Columba), a wealthy and aristocratic woman, who divorced her husband because of her evangelizing activities. Kang was part of the "Single Virgins," a community of wealthy women who either refused to marry or went against family social norms by living communally and practicing celibacy.

But Kang's status only protected her for a short time. She was tortured but she refused to reveal the whereabouts of the priest. The government later beheaded Kang, as well as the priest and many other church leaders, in what later became known as the Sinyu Persecution of 1801. For the first time, Catholicism itself was officially banned throughout the country. .

Christianity spreads throughout the country.

Despite being started by aristocratic men, the early Korean Christians understood that the church was for all people. In a society that was stratified by descent and segregated by gender, early Christian communities included women and people from different social classes, as well as caste groups. Some aristocrats who converted to Catholicism or sympathized with the faith disguised their views by caring for exiled believers, allowing them to live on land they owned in more remote mountainous areas or islands. Some of the exiles made a living as potters and street vendors who spread the faith by distributing Catholic literature and religious objects throughout the country.

The first Korean priest, Kim Dae-geon (Andrew), was ordained in 1845 after receiving religious training elsewhere in Asia. However, shortly after re-entering Korea, Kim was discovered with incriminating Christian texts and images in the Korean language. The authorities found out that he was trying to help French priests enter the country from China and he was executed.

News of incursions by Western powers and the spread of Western ideas in China increasingly alarmed the Korean government, pushing it toward further isolationism and a more aggressive suppression of Catholicism. The foreign connections of Catholics also alarmed the government, leading to further crackdowns and deaths. The last officially sanctioned persecution began in 1866, when approximately 8,000 people, or half the Catholic community, were murdered. Pope Paul II canonized 103 martyrs when he visited South Korea in 1984.

The Rise of the Protestant Church

The role of the locals in Korea's first Protestant church in the 1880s closely resembled the early days of Catholicism. In addition to starting their own churches, Korean Protestants also lobbied for Western missionaries to come in and support their work. “The seed had been sown and the field was ripe, in a way, waiting for the harvest,” wrote a foreign missionary who arrived at the end of the 19th century.

There were at least two pockets of Protestantism in Korea. One was in Ŭiju, near the modern border between North Korea and China. On a business trip to Manchuria, several young Koreans met John Ross and John McIntyre, two Scottish Presbyterian missionaries who had long been interested in Korea but were unable to enter. The group taught the missionaries the Korean language and helped them translate the Bible into Chinese. After being baptized in the late 1870s, several returned to Ŭiju and started a church there.

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The second hotbed was Sorae, on the west coast, the hometown of an early Protestant evangelist, Suh Sang-ryun (1848–1926). Suh took copies of a Korean translation of the Gospel of Luke there and began pastoring a group of Korean believers. This community is now considered the "cradle" of Protestant Christianity in Korea, a symbol of the self-sufficient, autonomous, and self-propagating nature of Korean Christianity.

In the 1880s, the Confucian order was crumbling, and Korean sovereignty was threatened not only by Western powers but also by the rise of Japan. Progressive Koreans sought to modernize the country and pushed for foreign missionaries to help with medicine and education. Some saw Christianity as the religious or ideological foundation of Western society, believing that the nation would benefit from a spiritual renewal of the people.

The first Western missionaries to officially enter Korea were Horace Grant Underwood and Henry Gerhard Appenzeller, both from the United States. Underwood, a Northern Presbyterian, and Appenzeller, a Northern Methodist, disembarked from the same ship together in 1885. Many of the first believers baptized in Seoul were from Sorae.

One Protestant progressive was Yun Chi-ho (1867–1945), an aristocrat who converted to Christianity at the Anglo-Chinese School in Shanghai while in exile after a failed coup in 1884. He explained that his desire to Getting baptized was "I hope I can... God willing, live a useful life for myself and my brothers." Yun maintained contact with the leaders of the US Southern Methodist Episcopal Church, which operated the Shanghai School. He urged them to send missionaries and also offered them financial support.

When Methodist missionaries from the south arrived in 1896, they compared Yun to the Macedonian man the Apostle Paul saw in a dream saying, "Come to Macedonia and help us." (Acts 16:9). Yun, like many future Christian leaders, saw Christianity as a new energy for national revival.

Convinced that problems such as invasions by foreign powers and social instability in Korea were related to the country's own internal weakness, Yun believed that the country's fragility could be overcome through civic morality and the transcendent power of Christianity. In 1910, Yun served as one of the representatives of the "native churches" at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, where he witnessed the great receptivity of Korea to Christianity.

Despite the efforts of Yun and others, the number of Western missionaries was comparatively low in Korea. Also, many missionaries did not speak Korean, so they relied on their Korean co-workers for evangelistic work. From the earliest days of Protestantism, colporteurs such as Suh Sang-ryun had been selling Christian literature, and since the late 1880s missionaries had hired Korean Christians as "helpers" to interpret for them, lead Bible studies, and organize churches.

In traditional Korea, male missionaries were prohibited from speaking with Korean women and from accessing thecliché, a private room for women in a Korean home. Because of this taboo, missionary wives began women's ministries, and Korean evangelists, or "Bible women," played an important role in the early spread of Protestantism. In fact, most of them were wives who had been neglected by their husbands in Korea's patriarchal society. However, they served as role models for modern women through their witness and Christian teaching, which included the principle of equality and women's rights.

One of the most renowned "women of the Bible" was Kim Gang (Dorcas; 1848-?) who later testified that "the day Jesus Christ was preached in Korea began the emancipation of women from slavery for thousands of years." . She first heard the name of Jesus at the age of 50 and was baptized and received into full membership in the church in 1899.

He remembers the day of his baptism as "the happiest day of my life." She explained that until that moment in Confucian society as a woman she had never been called by her name, only that of her father, husband or son, but when “freedom came to me,…they gave me a name, 'Dorcas' which means 'deer'. '” Living up to her name, Dorcas was given a preaching circuit of 1,500 miles of mountainous country. As she walked, she was sometimes verbally attacked, denied food by local people, and was once arrested. Despite her opposition, she Dorcas continued to evangelize Korea.

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Pyongyang's renaissance

The "Pyongyang Renaissance" or "Korean Pentecost" in 1907 was a fundamental religious movement for Korean Protestant Christianity. “Some of you go back to John Calvin, and some of you go back to John Wesley, but we cannot go back beyond 1907, when we really knew the Lord Jesus Christ,” Korean Christians told missionaries in 1913.

Although spiritual in nature, the revival cannot be understood outside the political context of the time. The struggle for power in East Asia in 1905 was gradually won by Japan, which defeated China in 1895, and Russia. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea and it ceased to exist as a separate country until the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945. The famous 1907 renaissance came at a time of crisis when the nation was losing itself.

Kil Sun-ju (1865–1935), who was ordained in late 1907 as one of the first ministers of the newly established Presbyterian Church of Korea, was the central leader of the revival. Before converting to Protestantism, he was deeply involved in Taoist ascetic practices. But as Korea entered a period of national crisis, Kil became increasingly cynical about Taoism's ability to help his country, blaming his pessimistic outlook and private spirituality. When foreign powers invaded Korea, Kil searched for another religion that was socially engaged and offered hope for the future to save the country from its fate.

Losing his sight, a Christian friend introduced Kil to Christianity and asked if he could pray to God as a father. Kil replied: "How can man call God Father?" But three days later, while he was praying, he heard a mysterious voice calling his name three times. Kil was afraid and prostrated himself, shouting: "Father God who loves me, forgive my sin and save my life!" After his conversion, Kil became a fervent Christian, church elder, and Korean nationalist leader.

The Pyongyang revival broke out at Kil's Jangdaehyeon Church after Kil publicly confessed his personal sin to church members. “I am a man of the sin of Achan,” he exclaimed, referring to Joshua 7:18, and hundreds of people followed his example of repentance and forgiveness to save their souls and the nation. Kil and others preached across the country as the revival spread to China and Manchuria. The religious movement also took on political overtones and became increasingly associated with Korean nationalism. Kil was one of the main leaders of the Independence Movement of March 1, 1919, against the Japanese colonization of the country.

The revival had lasting effects on Korean Christianity and on Korea. Indigenous Christian rituals such assagyeonhoe(Bible study meetings and Bible exam),saebyoek gido(dawn prayer meetings) andtongseong gido(collective audible prayer) were formulated as part of Protestant practice. Korean Christian leaders have led educational movements across the country with a vision of making Korea a Christian nation.

The Great Awakening transformed Protestantism from a foreign religion into a new national religion, laying the groundwork for the most notable church growth in Asia in the 20th century and positioning South Korea as a global center of Christianity.

Kirsteen Kim is Professor of Theology and World Christianity at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her numerous publications includeA history of Korean Christianity(Cambridge University Press, 2015), which she co-authored with her husband, Sebastian C.H. Kim.

Hoon Ko is a doctoral candidate in cross-cultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, researching how Korean Protestant preachers contributed to the national revival from 1884 to 1919.


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