by Young Oon Kim
Korean Christianity has had a strange, troubled and yet remarkable history. As a result, there is now a higher percentage of Christians in Korea than in any nation on the East Asian mainland.
When the followers of Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople were excommunicated by the ecumenical councils of the fifth century, they fled eastward, establishing churches which thrived for many centuries in Iraq, Iran, India and China. In the year 1000 Nestorian missionaries were still at work in Manchuria and Korea. A Nestorian cross and other Christian objects dating from the eleventh century were discovered in Korea after World War II. 3 However, gradually the Nestorian Christian community was swallowed up by the unfriendly environment.
Another notable contact of Koreans with Christianity came in 1592 when Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent Japanese armies to invade Korea. Portuguese Jesuits had set up missions in Japan and won many thousands of converts to the Catholic faith. One of Hideyoshi's generals was a Christian named Konishi. After capturing Seoul, he invited a Jesuit missionary and a Japanese priest to conduct services at his army camps. They spent a year in Korea before being recalled to Japan.
The Japanese invasion was finally turned back. It is doubtful if the missionary work accomplished anything. However, hundreds of Korean war prisoners were sent to Japan and some of these became devout Catholics. When the Japanese government began to persecute Christians a few years later, several Korean Christians were martyred. From 1614 to 1629 there are public records of Korean Catholics in Japan being killed.
The founder of modern Korean Christianity was a scholarly young nobleman named Yi Pyok. In 1777 a group of Confucian scholars met at an isolated Buddhist monastery to discuss philosophy. Among the books they read were some obtained from Peking about the Catholic religion. Yi Pyok was so impressed by these Jesuit tracts that he became a Christian and set aside the seventh day of each week for prayer.
Yi talked about his new faith with a few close friends and made arrangements to learn more about the Catholic religion. The government sent a yearly delegation to the Chinese imperial court. A friend of Yi, Yi Seung-Hoon, accompanied them to Peking, learned more about Christianity and was baptized by a missionary. He came back with Jesuit books, rosaries and crucifixes for Yi Pyok who was baptized by Yi Seung-Hoon. Thus the two men were equally important in founding Korean Christianity. Many nobles took an interest in Catholicism and some notable converts were made.
Once this group had studied the Chinese books, they decided to set up their own church. One man was elected bishop and four were chosen to be priests. A house in Seoul was rented for a meeting place. When these Christians got in contact with the bishop of Peking, he told them that their priests had been uncanonically chosen and should not administer the sacraments. But he did praise their zeal and sent them more books. The Korean Catholics accepted the bishop's opinion about their priests. What upset them was the Jesuit's further order to give up ancestor worship. A few obeyed, but many lost all interest in Christianity.
The controversy over ancestor worship led to government persecution. A well known scholar and his nephew were arrested and beheaded for burning their ancestral tablets. Other Christians were imprisoned. However, the courage of the martyrs attracted many new converts. By 1794, ten years after the first baptism, there were 4000 Catholics in Korea.
The government opposed Christianity because it attacked the Confucian moral system, as the controversy over ancestor worship seemed to prove. Far worse, however, was Christianity's alleged connection with European politics. Since Catholic missions in Korea were supervised by French priests, it looked as though the new religion was a way for Western imperialists to turn Korea into a European colony. Hence, from 1794 to 1866 there were repeated efforts made by the government to uproot the religion of the "barbarian foreigners." Even so, in 1860 there remained 16,700 Catholics in Korea. When the devout Buddhist Daewongun (Regent) decided to wipe out Catholicism in his country in 1866, many high officials, the king's nurse and the Regent's own wife were Christians. Therefore, his brutal acts must be seen as a desperate attempt to preserve Korea's traditional culture and political independence.
The 18th and 19th centuries in Asia were a time of aggressive Western imperialism. Korea tried, as China and Japan had done, to protect herself by a policy of isolation. For a time Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom. Since Christian missionaries in Asia had often paved the way for European soldiers, one can now see why patriotic nationalists would fear the spread of Christian ideas. French priests were looked upon as agents of French imperialism, particularly as the French were annexing Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from the Chinese empire in those years.
The first Protestant missionary arrived in Korea in 1884. In 1876 the United States had persuaded Korea to make its first treaty with a Western nation. By this time, Korea was being threatened by Japan on one hand and Russia on the other. Fortunately for the Koreans, the American, British and Canadian missionaries who brought Protestantism to Korea were neither pro-Japanese nor pro-Russian. Quite the opposite. By building schools and hospitals as well as promoting modernization, they strengthened the nation's will to survive in a time of political peril.
For example, Horace Allen, a Presbyterian doctor, was the first resident Protestant missionary. He arrived in Seoul just before a group of reformers attempted to overthrow the government. Prince Min Young-Ik, a noted conservative statesman, had been almost fatally stabbed by the rebels. Dr. Allen was called upon to save his life. After three months of intensive care, the statesman recovered. This act won the confidence of the king and support of the queen because Prince Min was her nephew. Dr. Allen served as physician to the foreign diplomats and requested that the king establish a government hospital. This request was granted. Dr. Allen took charge of the new hospital, later became American Consul General (1897) and served as United States Minister Plenipotentiary until the Japanese started to take control of Korea in 1905. Dr. Allen's ties with the royal family greatly benefited the Protestant cause. On April 5, 1885, Rev. Horace G. Underwood (Presbyterian) and Rev. and Mrs. Henry G. Appenzeller (Methodist) arrived at Inchon; Dr. William B. Scranton and his mother (Methodist) arrived a month later and Scranton joined Dr. Allen at the hospital. Evangelistic work was actually begun by these missionaries. On September 12, 1887, the first Presbyterian church was organized in Seoul with fourteen charter members and on October 9, the Chong Dong Methodist Church was established.
A Confucian scholar named Choi, Chei Woo (Choi, Soo Oon), experienced visions, creating a popular new religion which spread across Korea. Claiming to uphold Eastern Learning (Tonghak) against the so-called Western Learning of the Catholic missionaries, Choi taught a syncretistic faith: the ethics of Confucianism, the Buddhist emphasis upon heart cleansing, monotheism, the use of candles from Catholicism and charms from shamanism. This religion was later called Chondogyo. Choi was arrested and executed, but his followers started an uprising to rid the government of corruption. Their Tonghak army marched on Seoul. China sent troops to quell the rebellion; at the same time the Japanese moved in to take control of the Korean court.
During 1894-1895 the Japanese rid Korea of Chinese influence. The old Daewongun came out of retirement and allied himself with the Japanese against his daughter-in-law, Queen Min. She was later assassinated; the king and crown prince fled to the Russian legation. When King Kojong was at last able to move back into power, he relied on Russian and French help. Japan went to war with Russia in 1904 and took control over Korea's foreign affairs in 1905. Prince Min committed suicide in despair. King Kojung abdicated two years later. Japan annexed Korea in 1910.
Christians in general and missionaries in particular became directly involved in politics during this period of social unrest. In 1888 the government issued an interdict forbidding Christian missionary work. Catholics had aroused great popular resentment because they had secretly bought land and started to build a cathedral overlooking the palace. Ten years later a Russian Orthodox church was established at Seoul which was widely interpreted as a political move. When thirty-three Korean leaders issued their 1919 Declaration of Independence, sixteen signers were Christians, fifteen were followers of Choi's Chondogyo religion and two were Buddhists. Missionaries publicized Japanese atrocities committed in Korea by the occupation officials and at least indirectly supported the cause of Korean independence until national liberation took place in 1945. At the same time, it must be noted that most missionaries and most Korean Christians tried to keep from getting embroiled in politics as best they could.
What were the indirect but real effects of Protestant Christianity upon Korean society? Because the missionaries had a Bible-centered faith they encouraged a concern for education. To be a good Protestant, one has to know how to read the Scriptures. Rev. John Ross, a missionary to China, translated the Gospel of Luke into Korean about 1883 and distributed it along the Chinese-Korean border. Mrs. Mary Scranton established the first school for girls in 1886 with only one student. However, Queen Min supported the school and named it Ewha Haktan, Pear Blossom Institute, in 1887. Rev. Henry Appenzeller opened a school for boys which King Kojong named Paichai Haktang, Hall for Rearing Useful Men; and that same year Rev. Horace Underwood 4 organized an orphanage and school as part of his missionary work.
Protestantism taught the dignity and worth of each soul. This emphasis upon personal rights tended to weaken the strong class barriers in the traditional Confucian society. Indirectly at least, missionaries prepared Koreans for a more democratic way of life.
Korean Protestantism was dominated by Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries from Britain, Canada and the United States. This meant that their religion was inspired by the stem Puritan ethic. For them, to be a Christian meant not smoking or drinking, working hard, being a responsible citizen and helping the less fortunate. A church historian has shown how this Protestant ideal corrected the abuses of the Korean social order in the late Yi dynasty. 5
Protestantism arrived in Korea at about the time that the Social Gospel and the ecumenical movement were gaining recognition in the West. Even though the missionaries were apt to be more conservative theologically than some Christians in Europe and America, they realized that Christianity involves much more than saving heathen souls from the flames of hell. For the Methodists and Presbyterians educational missions and ministries of healing were considered necessary adjuncts of evangelism and church building. Also, very early the Korean missionaries agreed upon interdenominational cooperation. Far earlier than most Western Christians they recognized that a divided church cannot restore a broken world. Hence, in spite of several tragic schisms and the appearance of many new denominations in Korea, thoughtful Christians have supported interdenominational activities. Recently, as in the controversy over civil rights, Protestant and Catholic leaders have worked together.
From 1910 to 1945 Korea was subject to Japanese domination. This was a period of considerable stress for Christians. Since Protestants had been active in the abortive 1919 Independence Movement, the Japanese considered them a disruptive and potentially dangerous faction. Presbyterians in particular opposed Japanese plans to control all educational facilities. Many Protestants were upset over compulsory attendance at certain Shinto shrine ceremonies, arguing that these were religious and not merely patriotic rites. Then there was the government order to unify all the denominations in one church, so that Christian activities could be more effectively supervised by the military occupation authorities.
Comparable to the terrible persecution of Christians during the rule of Daewongun was the Japanese persecution of Korean Christians beginning with the assassination of Marquis Ito in 1909. Ito had been Japanese Resident General in Korea and forced the abdication of King Kojong. Ito's American advisor was killed by a Korean Catholic at San Francisco in 1908. In 1909 Ito himself was assassinated in Manchuria by a Korean Protestant. According to the Japanese, a plot was uncovered to kill the new Governor General in 1910. A year later, some students and all teachers at a Presbyterian high school were arrested and tortured in connection with this plot. Finally, one hundred twenty-five men, ninety-eight of whom were Christians, were indicted and brought to trial. In spite of false evidence gained under torture, six were sentenced to prison.
Next came the brutal suppression of the 1919 Independence Movement. Since Christian leaders were involved, the military authorities turned on the churches. At Suwon, for example, the Japanese troops surrounded a church filled with believers, set fire to the building and shot those who tried to escape from the burning sanctuary. However, the Independence Movement identified Christianity with Korean nationalism and brought numerous young people into the church.
Then came World War II. Over two hundred churches were closed. More than two thousand Christians were imprisoned and over fifty died for their faith. Of the 700,000 Protestant Christians on church rolls prior to the war, only about half that number were active as the conflict came to an end.
Liberation Day, August 15, 1945, provided a brief occasion for nation-wide rejoicing. However, their joy was short-lived when it was learned that Soviet troops were being used to impose a Communist regime in North Korea. According to Dr. Samuel H. Moffett, a Presbyterian seminary professor in Seoul, the Communist attack upon organized religion took place in three stages. First, the Communists destroyed two Christian political organizations-the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Liberal Party. Second, the Communists tried to bully the church by setting up a puppet Christian League to which all church officials were required to belong. Finally, when Christian opposition persisted, the Communists tried to destroy the church. Church buildings were confiscated, pastors were imprisoned, and Christian laymen were often massacred. At least four hundred clergymen were martyred. Consequently, Christians tried to flee south for protection. After the Korean War it was estimated that one in every five persons in South Korea was a refugee from the north.
Since Rev. Sun Myung Moon founded the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity in this post-war period, it is important to note several prominent features of Korean Christianity in the 1950's:
1. The Christian community doubled in size in the post-war decade. Why did the church spread like wild-fire? Methodist seminary president Harold Hong points out how zealous the Christian laymen were. They had all the enthusiasm and dedication of the twice-born. Most conversions took place at revival meetings following a pattern begun with the great revival at Pyung-yang in 1907 which did so much to stimulate church growth in the north. Praying in unison was one of the powerful characteristics of that revival. Prayer services before dawn and intensive Bible study became a standard part of Christian life. As Dr. Hong points out, many notable preachers had also received charismatic gifts as a result of mystical experiences and some became famous faith healers.
2. The rapid spread of Christianity in the south was largely due to the influx of refugees from the Communist north. Hence the churches were zealously anti-Communist and determined to reunify the nation.
3. But after a decade of rapid expansion the mainline denominations almost stopped growing. As several sociologists have noted, Methodism, Presbyterianism and Catholicism reached a plateau and more or less stayed at that level. Part of this was due to serious divisions within the church. Presbyterians split into four groups. In 1959 an anti-World Council of Churches group of Presbyterians established a National Association of Evangelicals. These troubles forced the main Presbyterian body to stop cooperating with the World Council of Churches in order to restore unity.
4. From the earliest days Korean Christianity suffered oppression and persecution. Because of their dire situation, Protestants were especially inspired by the Biblical story of the exodus from Egypt. The Scriptures clearly taught a theology of liberation. Since God had freed the Jews from Egyptian bondage, would He not also liberate them? Consequently, Christians prayed for someone like Moses to rescue them from their oppressors. It was natural for Koreans to identify their country with the Old Testament history of Israel, whose sufferings proved its unique status in the redemptive purpose of God. Korea was, like Israel, a downtrodden people of faith. Possibly like the Jews, Koreans were being prepared for some special mission in God's providence. Korean patriotism and the Christian faith were therefore closely related. This idealistic alliance of nationalism and religion was greatly reinforced when North Korea became subjected to the harsh totalitarianism of Kim Il Sung.
5. During the Japanese occupation many Protestants also reemphasized the apocalyptic aspects of the New Testament. Christianity was seen to be a faith based upon eschatological expectancy. The book of Revelation became the most widely read part of Scripture. Thus Christians began to look forward to the Second Advent of Christ and the dawn of the messianic age. Surely that time was at hand.
6. During and after the Korean War a sizeable number of new religious movements sprang up. Some were Christian in origin and inspiration; others were not. It was a time of social upheaval and intense spiritual enthusiasm inside the established churches.
What then was distinctive about the new groups? Besides sharing the revivalistic atmosphere, intense prayer life and Bible study of many Presbyterians and Methodists, these new movements were able to conduct amazing faith cures and were unusually open to the spirit world. Consequently, they received inspiring messages of a coming new age in salvation history. Their psychic visions of the future often focused upon the unique blessings from God to be showered upon the Korean people, confirming traditional prophecies and bringing to fulfillment the Biblical eschatological promises. Unification Church was born in such a remarkable charismatic environment. For those of us who were in Korea at that time, it was natural to conclude as I did: "The long, gloomy cosmic winter has passed, and the cosmic spring for which mankind has been waiting so long has arrived. The New Age, the Cosmic Era, has begun. 7
3 A. Clark, History of the Church in Korea, 1971, p. 79. Cf. Kyung Bae Min, The Church History of Korea, Seoul (in Korean) 1972 and Tongshik Ryu, The Christian Faith Encounters the Religions of Korea, Seoul (in Korean) 1965.
4 A. D. Clark, History of the Church in Korea (1971), pp. 92-95.
5 S. J. Palmer. Korea and Christianity (1967), p. 94.
6 S. H. Moffett, The Christians of Korea (1962), pp. 76-77. 'H.S. Hong et al, Korea Struggles for Christ, Seoul (1966), p. 16.
7 Y. 0. Kim, The Divine Principles, p. 111
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