History of Missionaries in Korea

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History of Missionaries in Korea

Only about two percent of the Asian population is Christian, and while Christians can be found in virtually every Asian country, South Korea has truly blossomed as the hub of Christianity among the Asian nations.

In the years since the introduction of Catholicism in 1784, and the subsequent arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1884, Christianity has quickly grown and challenges Buddhism as the largest religion in the country. Today, about one third of South Korea's 45 million people are Christian. Of that number, 11 million are Protestant and 3 million are Roman Catholics.

Christianity wasn't an easy sale at first. The earliest recorded histories of missionaries visiting the predominately Buddhist state include tales of missionaries experiencing religious persecution, brutality, torture, and death. According to Christian tradition, it is only through the trials of one's faith that faith can truly be strengthened, knowledge of a spiritual reality assured, and blessings actualized. In keeping with this tradition, it could be argued that Korea's recent expansion to the frontlines of Christianity is due to the early sufferings of missionaries. The trials of faith experienced by Christianity's early missionaries were enough to begin the rolling of a snowball that has turned into an avalanche of great power.

In a series of installments dedicated to individual religious faiths, we will trace the introduction of religion in Korea.

Early Catholic Beginnings

Rumors about an organized Western religion first trickled into Korea during the later half of the eighteenth century. A group of literati from the Shilhak (scientific studies) movement sent a representative to China to learn all about Western civilization from the Catholic missionaries then active in China. Yi Sang-hun sought out the missionaries and in the process of becoming indoctrinated was baptized and became the first official Korean Christian.

Yi returned in 1784 and dispensed Christian books and articles among the Shilhak scholars. These men began to discuss their newly found religion with friends and neighbors, thus laying the foundation for the Catholic Church.

The first persecutions against the Catholic Church began almost immediately. Yun Chi-ch'ung Paul, one of Yi's students and a recent convert to Catholicism, refused to offer a sacrifice to his deceased mother. As a noble man and government official, it was mandatory for the traditional Confucian ritual to be performed. Other nobles, displeased with this incident, wrote the king denouncing the Catholic religion as a heresy. The king finally ordered Yun Chi-ch'ung to be sentenced to death on December 7, 1791 - the first Christian martyr in Korea.

In 1794, a Chinese priest named Chu Mun-mo Vellozo, entered Korea and started a new wave of persecution as the central government began torturing other Catholics in order to locate him,

In 1800, Queen Chong-sun, representing her 11-year old great grandson King Sun-jo, took power. She had great antipathy for the Catholics and launched yet another new persecution to eradicate them. She considered the Catholic religion a heresy to the customs and traditions of Korea.

During her tenure as leader of Korea, the Queen killed almost 300 Catholic believers and then gave an order to punish the relatives of the believers. During this time of intense hardship, Father Vellozo was martyred.

The Church had little success during the next forty years. Priests appealed to the government for permission to proselytize. Whenever some progress was made, however, persecutions would begin, and then improvements would be lost.

In 1839, the government learned of new Catholic French missionaries who were proselytizing to the people. Yet another wave of persecution began. The Catholic Church lost its bishop, the priests, and many leading lay members. The survivors escaped into the mountains. The French missionaries were beheaded after being severely tortured. Despite the persecutions, by 1860, there were 23,000 Korean Catholics.

During the 1860's, the Catholics persecution reached an all-time high. As a result, tensions between the French and Korean governments ran high. As a result, anything or anyone associated with the French were subject to persecution ? including Catholics. During those eight cruel years, more than 8,000 Catholics were killed.

Nearly one hundred years of Catholic persecution ended in 1886 with the signing of the Korea-France Treaty. It promised a certain level of tolerance among the people and government.

Protestant Beginnings

The history of Protestantism in Korea begins in 1884, when Protestant missionary Horace N. Allen entered the "hermit kingdom," as it was know. Partially expecting a similar fate as the early Catholic missionaries, Allen was surprised at the relative ease he had in sharing his message. A significant event took place shortly after Allen arrived which would have a lasting effect on the missionary work in Korea.

A political upheaval in 1884 left a member of the royal family Prince Min near death after he was attacked and brutally slashed. Dr. Allen was asked to perform Western medicine to save Min's life. Over three months, Allen worked hard and tended to the Prince who proceeded to recover. As a result, the royal courts gained confidence in Western medicine and in Allen himself. Allen was encouraged to spread his ideas among the Korean people. Missionary work began to prosper and the first general hospital was opened in 1885, paving the way for Protestantism and trust in the West.

While Allen worked to promote Christianity from the top down, other missionaries worked directly with the people. Horace Grant Underwood arrived in Korea in 1885 as the first ordained minister. Underwood spent the next three decades evangelizing Korea. He would travel deep into the Korean countryside, often walking 1,000 miles a year, teaching the people. He translated many books and hymns into Korean and became the president of Chosen Christian College in Seoul.

Over the next decade, missionaries from a large variety of Christian denominations entered Korea: Presbyterian (1884), Methodist Episcopal (1885), Baptists (1889), Church of England (1890), and Canadian Presbyterian (1893). Each denomination enjoyed a certain degree of success.

The laying a foundation for Protestantism in Korea wasn't without its difficulties, and Catholicism was largely responsible for that environment. In addition to its connection with France, the Catholics further irritated the Korean government by building a cathedral near the royal palaces and Chongmyo, the shrine built in dedication to the royal ancestors.

In addition, rumors began circulating that Westerners were paying Korean gangsters to steal children for them to eat. The rumors resulted in paranoia and Koreans became wary of their religious neighbors.

The Protestants combated these fears with an increased desire for service. Missionaries founded educational facilities. They built hospitals and general care services for women and children. Their institutions became well known and greatly appreciated by Koreans. By 1910, missionaries had founded over 800 schools and taught an impressive 41,000 students ? twice the number taught by government run institutions.

The Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 brought a new wave of persecution to the Christians. Although friendly at first, the Japanese saw the church as the only organization that could resist Japanese rule and feared the missionaries would corrupt the people's mind with Western thoughts and ideas. The Japanese burned down forty-seven churches, thousands of believers were killed, and many women were tortured.

Sentiments for the Korean struggles were felt in America as well. American Minister S. A. Beck witnessed the horrific beatings of one of his church members. He took a picture and delivered it to Nebraska Senator George William Norris. Dramatically, during a congressional hearing, Norris held up a picture of the Korean man who was beaten to death for saying, "Hurray for Korea! Hurray!" Norris asked his fellow congressmen to help prevent these atrocious acts on innocent people.

During a Korean riot against Japanese rule, 112 people were arrested of which 94 were Christians. Despite a proportionately low number of church members, the Christians were in the front fighting for equality and rights for Koreans. Christianities fight for freedom would be remembered for many years.

The persecutions were so bad and repercussions for talking to foreigners so harsh, that by 1940, ninety percent of missionaries had returned home. The remainder continued to face harsh persecutions, false imprisonment, and the possibility of death.

Missionaries' patience and diligence finally paid off in the early 1960's. Christianity played a large role in the transition period after the Korean War. Church leaders moved to the front in the movement for democracy. They church took a lead role in mending the sufferings from war and aided in people's recovery. Similar to the Christian riots against Japanese rule, the Christian church members fought for the rights of the people and for the country. Koreans everywhere correlated Christians with freedom and rights. As a result of Christianities favorable position, the religion boomed in Korea.

In 1957, church members [for protestant churches] totaled only about 800,000, but that number has doubled every decade. Today, Protestant membership is roughly 11 million. Congregations and church buildings stand on nearly every street corner. Church goers are actively involved in worship.

Looking back over the centuries of trials and tribulations, the successes of Catholicism and Protestantism are due in large part to the courage of early missionaries and believers, who, despite persecution, believed in something greater than themselves and worked to actualize their wildest dreams.

By Brant Ellsworth


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