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History of Christianity in Korea

History of Christianity in Korea:


From Its Troubled Beginning to Its Contemporary Success




            Only about two percent of the Asian population is Christian, and while Christians are to be found in virtually every Asian country, it is South Korea that has witnessed the most spectacular and historically significant Christian expansion, particularly over the past three decades, the period of the country's remarkable modernization.

            Since the introduction of Catholicism in 1784, followed by the arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1884, Christianity has proceeded to become--after Buddhism--the largest religion in the country. Today about one third of South Korea's 45 million people are Christian--11 million Protestants and 3 million Roman Catholics.

Since the early 1960s, when South Korea's Christians scarcely topped the one million mark, the number of Christians, particularly Protestants, has increased faster than in any other country, doubling every decade. By 1994, moreover, there were over 35,000 churches and 50,000 pastors, making the South Korean church one of the most vital and dynamic in the world.

            In reviewing the history of Korean Christianity, we note certain peculiar circumstances of Korean history: Korea's long history of vulnerability to Chinese and Japanese control, Japanese colonialism and the Korean War, afforded Christianity a unique opportunity to offer a compelling salvation ethos and promise of both personal and national empowerment.

            We also note that the profound social structural developments that marked the modernization process in Korea following WWII provided a cultural opening for the "selling" and "reception" of a Christian worldview that harmonized with the industrial transformation of the society.

            In view of this, this paper starts with an overview on the origins of Christianity in Korea, focusing on the initial impact of Western missionary efforts, which began in earnest in the middle of eighteenth century. Thereafter I will draw special attention to how the shifting fortunes and misfortunes of the Korean people conditioned their receptivity to Christian evangelization.


Catholic Beginnings

            There is no record either of missionaries or of any organized body of Catholic believers in Korea before the middle of the eighteenth century. However, there are traces of contact with Christianity as far back as 1592--many members of the invading Japanese armies of Toyotomi Hideyoshi were converted Christians (Min, 1982: 4044).

One of the Japanese generals in charge of the invasion force was Konishi Yukinaga, an ardent Roman Catholic who was accompanied on the campaign by a Jesuit priest. During their short stay, the Japanese Christians seem to have performed their duties only amongst the Japanese soldiers, and there is no evidence to suggest that their stay had any lasting effect on the Korean populace.

            It was not until the latter part of the eighteenth century that a small number of Koreans were first introduced to Catholicism. Around 1770, a Korean envoy to China, Chong Tu-won, brought back to Korea Matteo Ricci's Tianzhu [The True Doctrine of the Lord of Heaven] (G. Lee, 1988: 17-18).

            A group of literati called Shilhak scholars studied the Catholic literature with hopes of learning about the Western civilization. In 1783, the Shilhak scholars asked the son of an ambassador to China, Yi Sang-hun, to visit the Catholic missionaries in China and to absorb all he could about this Western religion.

Yi sought out the priests in Beijing, who were more than happy to give instruction on Catholicism, and was baptized in the process (Paik, 1971: 31). Upon his return in 1784 with the books and articles on Christian doctrine, which was given to him by the priests in Beijing, Yi distributed the Christian literature to the Shilhak scholars. Soon they began to discuss their newly found religion among friends and neighbors, thereby laying the foundations of the Catholic Church in Korea.

            These men, in fact, assumed certain priestly functions, including the sacrament of baptism. Despite the suspicion that their new religion and new way of life drew upon them from the general populace, they abandoned all "pagan" rites, and preached Catholicism openly, instructing their converts in the catechism and giving them Christian Baptism (J. Kim and Chung, 1964: 18). This aspect of the history of Christian missions is noteworthy, because it was the Koreans themselves who initiated and performed many functions of the church. Choe Chinyoung (1972: 91) writes:

            One of the most interesting chapters in the history of Catholicism in Korea concerns its origin. Unlike many other lands, where the Christian religion was first brought by foreign missionaries, in Korea, it began with a kind of "self-study" (self-directed study) of Christian literature by the natives.

            The rapid spread of Catholicism among an intellectual circle was not, however, without opposition (C. Chung, 1971). Most intellectuals and government officials were against the new religion, believing that it was a threat to the basis of a Confucian society. They thought that many elements of Christian doctrine conflicted with the basic ethical and ritual principles of Confucianism. (5)

            The most controversial issue at the time was the question of chesa, the time-honored rituals of ancestor worship (see K. Ch'oe, 1984; J. Lee, 1985, 1988). The Catholics considered ancestor worship to be an act of idolatry prohibited by God in the First Commandment. Accordingly, the instruction from the Bishop in China was that Christians must not participate in those rites. This not only caused many Koreans to avoid Catholicism, but also provoked government persecution: the refusal to perform chesa resulted in imprisonment or death.

            Christianity commands ultimate loyalty to God. This uncompromising feature of the "prophetic" religion of the West brought about its official condemnation by the Confucian government, and this basic anti-Christian policy was to last to the next tragic century of the Catholic movement in Korea (C. Chung, 1971: 71).

In spite of the government persecution, the Catholic Church grew impressively, increasing its membership from four thousand in 1795 to ten thousand by 1801. Hopes of continuing growth, however, were dashed by the deaths of Prime Minister Ch'ae Che-gong (b. 1720) in 1799 and of King Chongjo in the following year, both of whom had been tolerant of Catholicism.

            Because the son of the latter, King Sunjo (1800-1834), was a minor, his mother ruled in his place as the Queen Regent. One of the first things she did in her capacity as the Queen Regent was to issue an edict ordering adherents of the "evil learning" to be treated as being guilty of high treason.

            Catholicism was popular among many prominent members of the politically ousted "Southerners" faction that was considered subversive by the ruling authority at the time. The edict associated Catholicism with many hideous "crimes", including the suspension of traditional custom, destruction of morality, the abolition of ancestor worship, heresy, the use of magic spells and incantations, and subversive anti-state activities (C. Chung, 1971: 73). The Shinyu persecution of 1801 was the result of this edict, taking the lives of at least three hundred Catholic martyrs and leading to more than a thousand arrests (Min, 1982:68-7 1).

The Catholic Church from 1810 to 1910

In the decade following the Shinyu persecution, the church went underground, successfully avoiding conflicts with the court. In the second decade of the nineteenth century, however, there were random outbreaks of localized persecution in many southern parts of Korea.

            The most severe one was the Ulhae persecution of 1815. Mostly confined to the southern Kyongsang-do province, the main targets were Catholic refugees who had fled from the Shinyu persecution (Grayson, 1985: 77). These refugees lived in the remote mountainous regions of this province, but their prosperity at a time of general famine and hardship aroused the jealousy of the neighbors, and the former’s adherence to Catholicism provided the motive for the latter's attack. Hundreds of Catholics were massacred.

            The Chonghae persecution of 1827 was the government’s next main attempt to suppress Roman Catholicism. Similar to the Ulhae persecution, the Chonghae persecution was confined mostly to one area--Cho11a-do province--but was shorter and less harsh than the former. In spite of the continuing persecution, church leaders in Korea made numerous requests to the Bishop in Beijing for a resident priest in Korea.

Although Chinese churches themselves were troubled by a shortage of priests, it was able to send a Chinese priest, Father Liu Fangchi, in 1831. During the next five years, moreover, several French priests joined Liu's ministry, thereby forming the most formidable Catholic presence in Korea thus far.

            An equally significant development at the time, at least from the perspective of the Korean church history, was the sending of three young Koreans to Macao for studies in theology, of whom two became the first native priests, Kim Tae-gon (1822-1846) and Ch'oe Yang-op (1821 - 1861).

            Yet another persecution. Kihae in 1839 restrained the expansion of Catholicism. The court seemed to have been most concerned about the presence of illegal foreigners, i.e., the missionaries, and such a suspicion resulted in the proclamation that not only prohibited any further teaching of Catholicism, but also gave the government a free reign in expelling and persecuting the Catholics.

            Over two hundred Catholic Christians died from this persecution, including a French bishop, two French priests, and numerous church leaders. Despite the persecution, the Catholic Church still continued to grow, mainly through the efforts of lay assistants to the French priests. Accompanying a priest or travelling alone, these men visited virtually every area where Christians were known to live, hearing confessions and carrying out the mass.

            The growth of the Catholic church at this time was also indirectly aided by the ascension of King Ch'o1jong (1849-1863), who was tolerant of the new doctrine due, at least in part, to the conversion of his family, notably his father-in-law, Kim Mungrin, to Christianity. In 1857, the Bishop in Beijing reported to the Vatican that there were 15,206 Catholics in Korea, showing clearly that the church, in spite of severe persecutions, grew steadily over the years.

            After the death of King Ch'oljong in December of 1863, a minor succeeded the throne for the third time in the nineteenth century, heralding yet another dark period for the church. In place of Yi Myong-bok, his father ruled as the Prince Regent, Taewon'gun (1820-1898), who carried out the last and most severe persecution against the Catholics from 1866 to 1871.

            Departing from the internal, political motives of previous persecutions--i.e., Christianity's threat, real or imagined, to the Confucian-based society, and the prominence of Christianity among the politically ousted faction--what marked the latest persecution was that the problems which prompted it were due to external pressures on Korea at the time.

            With the collapse of the central power in China and Japan' s opening to the West in the 1850s, the Western influence in Korea was imminent and unavoidable. In fact, between 1866 and 1871 Korea faced invasions from three military powers: the Russian Empire, France, and the United States. In particular, the Russian Empire, which was able to remove Chinese from the northern side of the Amur River by 1860, moved southward, vying for a stranglehold on the Northeast Asian coastline (Yu, 1984: 38-39).

With the impending Russian invasion in 1866, two Catholic leaders suggested that the Taewon'gun should consult the French Bishop--who was still a secret resident--on the proper course of action, i.e., forming a triple alliance between England, France and Korea. The Prince Regent seemed open to this suggestion at first, but the anti-foreign (or anti-Christian) faction in the Uijongbu (State Council) prevailed and the bishop was eventually executed in March of 1866, marking the beginning of the Great persecution which lasted until 1871.

            The Persecution of 1866 alone took a toll of over eight thousand martyrs, almost half the total of Catholic adherents in the country at the time (by then, there were eight foreign clerics in the country and more than 18,000 believers). Because of numerous coastal confrontations between Korea and the Western powers during that period, Christianity became identified with the Western "gunboat diplomacy", and foreign Catholic missionaries, who were residing illegally in Korea, were perceived by the government as agents of foreign powers.


            In addition, the government was keenly aware of the situation in China where numerous political insurgencies had been associated with the alien religion. The extreme persecutions thus continued unabated until 1871, coming to an end only when Taewon'gun was removed by the Uijongbu on December 22, 1873 and King Kojong became the king in his own right.

            From the beginning, the reign of King Kojong was troubled by a series of internal and external conflicts. Factionalism in the royal court, the growing presence of the Western powers, the increase in the Japanese economic and political strength in Korea, dire poverty in the countryside, rampant corruption among government officials and rebellions in many parts of Korea seriously undermined the stability of the government and the whole of Korea (C. Kim and Kim, 1967). These troubles did, however, allow the Catholic Church a bit more freedom from persecution.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Catholicism enjoyed significant gains in Korea. In 1877, for example, education for the priesthood of Koreans was reactivated, leading to the ordaining of ten Koreans by 1900. In 1888, the printing of the Bible, prayer books and missals was transferred from Nagasaki, Japan to Seoul, allowing the church to meet the ever-increasing demands for Catholic literature.

            In July of 1888, moreover, the sisters of the Communaute Saint Paul de Chartres arrived in Korea to care for orphans and for the aged, and four Korean women joined the order to participate in the care, thereby becoming the first Korean nuns. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church had not only penetrated every part of Korea, but had also spread to some regions of Manchuria, China, where many Koreans lived.

            While the increasing Japanese dominance in Korea during the first decade of the twentieth century could have seriously undermined the propagation of Catholicism, a neutral attitude of Catholic churches--which inclined more toward a passive acceptance of the impending Japanese rule--allowed the latter to sustain their growth. For example, by the time of the official annexation in 1910, there were sixty-nine churches, seventy-one priests including fifteen indigenous clergy, forty-one seminarians, fifty-nine sisters and more than seventy-three thousand believers.

            That was an impressive increase from the 1900 figure, which showed that the Catholic churches had forty-one churches, fifty-two priests and over forty thousand believers. These figures, how small they might be in absolute numbers, are remarkable, particularly in the light of severe persecutions of the church for over a hundred years, during which about ten thousand Catholic followers were martyred.





Protestant Beginnings:

The Beginning of the Protestant Church, 1884-1890

            The first foreign Protestant to reach Korea was Nagasaka, a Japanese Christian who landed in Korea as an agent for the National Bible Society of Scotland in Tokyo. Reaching the southern port city of Pusan in June of 1883, he distributed bibles written in Chinese and Japanese, as well as portions of the Gospel and other religious tracts written in Korean (Paik, 1971: 57).

            The support for such a missionary work came from missionaries in Japan who became acquainted with the ever-increasing number of Koreans who were there as foreign students. The openness of the young progressive Korean intellectuals to Western ideas, and their desire to acquire Western knowledge prompted the missionaries to view Korea as a fertile ground for missionary work.

            Nonetheless, the major impetus for missionary work in Korea came from the United States. At the height of missionary expansion in Asia in the late nineteenth century, Korea emerged naturally as a fertile ground for missionary efforts, especially as an extension of China and Japan mission fields. The first evangelistic agencies to begin missionary work in Korea were the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church and the Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States.

            These two organizations started their work simultaneously in Korea, operating their missions side by side and cooperating to some degree. In 1884, the Presbyterian Church appointed Dr. Horace N. Allen as the first missionary to Korea, while the Methodist Church appointed Dr. and Mrs. W.B. Scranton, his mother Mrs. Mary Scranton and the Rev. and Mrs. Henry Appenzeller as the first missionaries to Korea in the same year.

            In September of 1884, Dr. Allen arrived in the Korean capital, thereby becoming the first Western missionary to enter Korea. Soon after Dr. Allen arrived in Korea, a significant event took place which would have a profound impact on the missionary work in Korea. The Kapshin Chongbyon (Coup d'Etat of 1884)9 left Prince Min near death when he was set upon and brutally slashed. Dr. Allen was called in when Min was near death and his meticulous care over three months saved the prince’s life.

            This incident gave the royal court great confidence in Western medicine and trust in an American alliance, prompting the court's greater hospitality towards the missionaries. As a consequence, Dr. Allen's petition for the establishment of a hospital using Western medicine was readily granted by the Korean government. The first general hospital was opened on April 10, 1885, bearing the name Kwanghyewon.

Over the next decade, missionaries from several mission bodies arrived in Korea --Presbyterian (Northern branch) in 1884, Methodist Episcopal (North) in 1885, Canadian Baptists in 1889, Church of England in 1890, Presbyterian (Southern branch) in 1892, Canadian Presbyterian in 1893, and Methodist Episcopal (South) in 1896--adding to both the physical and spiritual presence of Christianity.

            There remained, however, a degree of hostility towards foreigners and the foreign religion during this period, for which the Catholic Church was largely responsible. Besides its close ties with the French legation, the church decided to build a cathedral on a site close to both the royal palaces and Chongmyo, the shrine built in dedication to the royal ancestors. Upon learning of the design, the king courteously requested the church to change the site and to choose any other place in the city, but the latter utterly refused to yield and laid the foundations of the cathedral.

            The church’s refusal to change the site, prompted largely by the French missionaries' confidence in the backing of their own government and the support of their close ally, Russia, led to a decree in May of 1888 that prohibited the propagation of Catholicism. While this check was .mainly directed against the Catholic Church, it had a great impact on the Protestant community, adding to Koreans' general hostility toward and fear of foreigners and their teachings.

            Immediately following the interdict, for example, some political agitators spread rumors which nearly resulted in riots against all foreigners. It was rumored that foreigners were paying Korean gangsters to kidnap children to eat, as well as to use their eyes for producing photographs (Paik, 1971: 156).The situation was so volatile that even parents carrying their own children were attacked on the presumption that they were abducting the children of others.

            Because of such lingering restrictions against the teaching of the "evil learning," therefore, direct evangelization of the populace was not possible; hence, institutional work--i.e. medical and educational work--preceded evangelism. The missionaries provided many vital medical services which would not have been available otherwise, particularly for the poor and women.

            The missionaries were also quick to get involved in education. Knowing the Koreans' zeal for education and their openness to Western ideas, and hoping to enable illiterate Koreans to read the scriptures and religious tracts, the missionaries, of whom Mr. Appenzeller was the first and most prominent, set about the establishment of schools. The fact that even the King endorsed their plan made them all the more eager.

After the founding of the first boys' school in 1886, the Paejae Haktang, a school for young girls was founded, followed by the opening of more schools in many parts of Korea. The Methodist undertaking at first, Presbyterians soon established schools of their own, adding much needed resources and helping to keep up with the demand.

            Besides their involvement in medical service and education, another conspicuous characteristic of the early Protestant missionary work was its adoption of the Nevius Method. Named after Dr. John L. Nevius (1829-1893) of Shan Tung China, the method emphasized self-support, self-propagation, self-government and independence of the church (Rutt, 1900; Clark, 1930, 1937).

            While this "method" was not popular neither in China nor in Japan, it was widely accepted by the missionaries in Korea after Dr. Nevius visited Seoul in 1890. It laid great stress on the church’s self-determination and on the need for natives to carry on the evangelical work. This was obviously in stark contrast to the method of the Catholic Church, which relied almost exclusively on the leadership of Rome.

The Expansion of the Protestant Missionary Work, 1890-1910

            In the midst of troubled times in Korea during the 1890s--i.e., the Peasant War of 1894, the murder of the queen and the external threats from China, Japan and Russia-more missionaries arrived in Korea, coming from the Church of England, the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in Australia, the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States, and the southern Methodist Episcopal Church. Independent mission efforts further added to the burgeoning missionary efforts. For example, the mission body of the University of Toronto YMCA sent three missionaries to Korea: James S. Gale, and Dr. and Mrs. R. A. Hardie (Ion, 1990, 1993; Scott, 1970).

            The newly arrived missionaries, together with the earlier arrivals, established new mission stations, new schools and small hospitals, including those specializing in women's care, in many parts of Korea. They also actively pursued the translation of the Bible and other literary works into the Korean language. Hospitals and schools thus became invaluable evangelistic tools for the missionaries during the first two decades of their arrival.

            The beginning of the twentieth century in Korea, which was marked by the increasing Japanese dominance, was also a period of impressive growth for Protestant churches. In parallel to the Catholic counterparts, the stated policy of Protestant churches toward the impending Japanese rule was neutrality, and this neutral attitude, which inclined toward a passive recognition, allowed the missionaries to expand in evangelistic activities, including educational and medical work. Missionary schools continued to perform strongly, attracting more and more students and gaining recognition.

            The demand for education was so overwhelming that schools had to be established all over Korea. By 1910, in fact, missionaries had founded about 800 schools of various grades, accommodating over 41,000 students, which was about twice the total enrollment in all Korean government schools. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the church was in charge of the only complete educational system in Korea at the time--only the church provided education from primary to college level. Complementing the importance of the missionaries' involvement in education was the latter's intimate link with Korean nationalism, particularly in light of the impending Japanese domination.

            As Grayson (1985:112) notes, "Christians took a lead in the establishment of these schools which became the first link in the chain which bound together Korean nationalism and the new religion." Keeping abreast of the expansion in education, medical works were also extended. Dispensaries were now in operation practically all over Korea and the first medical college, the Severance Union Medical College, was established in Seoul in 1904 with the specific aim of educating qualified Koreans in Western medicine.

            Within the Protestant church itself, intra-denominational and inter-denominational cooperation and coordination became very active during this period. Common hymns were sung, and a church newspaper was jointly issued. A movement for the establishment of a formal indigenous church was launched in 1901 when two Koreans were ordained as deacons by the Methodist churches and when the Presbyterians established Union Theological Seminary in the same year.

Two great events in the Korean church history before the Japanese annexation were the Great Revival of 1907 and the "Million Movement" of 1909-1910, which arose in the midst of great despair (Rhodes, 1935: 280-292; A. Clark, 1971: 159-166). Poor living conditions and the imminent loss of independence induced an emotional wave which swept over the whole Korean church.


            As nation-wide efforts for a speedy mass evangelization of the country, the Revival of 1907 and the "Million Movement" not only had a profound impact on the propagation of Christianity but also offered an outlet for the expression of Korean nationalism. Most Christians entered into the campaign with an unparalleled enthusiasm, making vigorous efforts to make the watchword a reality, and these revival movements set the tone for later evangelical movements.

The Church through the Political and Social Unrest of Twentieth Century Korea

The Japanese Colonial Period, 1910-1945

            The Korean churches entered a new era when the Japanese annexed the nation in 1910. Although the Japanese administrative policy toward the churches was seemingly friendly at first--precipitated, at least in part, by the government's recognition of the importance of Christian support to the success of Japanese rule--it gradually developed into an open policy of oppression and hostility.

            The new government seemed to have perceived Korean churches to be an organization, if not the only establishment, of Koreans capable of resisting its rule. In addition, the Japanese authority generally assumed that the missionaries were in Korea as political agents of the Western power and that Korean Christians associated with them were paid agents of the same foreign power {A. Clark, 197 1: 187).

            A more compelling reason for the change in its policy, however, was the prominence of Christians in the independence movement and Christianity's association with the rise of Korean nationalism. Two events that forged the link between Christianity and Korean nationalism were the Conspiracy Trial of 1911 and the Independence Movement of 1919 or Samil Undong.

            The Conspiracy Trial involved the outlandish claim by the new government that it had uncovered a plot to assassinate the Japanese Governor-General in Korea at the time. In early 1911,124 Koreans were arrested--all of whom were suspected of involvement in the independence movement-and 123 were brought to trial. Although most of them were acquitted, the fact that ninety-eight of the men were Christians left a strong impression in the minds of the Korean people, establishing the Korean churches and Christian leaders as defenders of Koreans' national aspiration.


            The Independence Movement of 1919 was also noted for the prominent role of Christians, especially Protestants, as its organizers and leaders: nearly half of those who signed the Declaration of Independence--15 of 33 signers--were Christians. The salience of Christians in the movement was further noted in the figure of those imprisoned for participating in the demonstration: over 22 per cent of the total or 2,087 out of 9,458 were Christians (Yi, 1991: 349).

            This was all the more astonishing given the fact that Christians comprised only about 200,000 or 1.3 per cent of the total population of 16 million at the time. As a leading organization of the demonstration, churches became special targets of Japanese military reprisals. Forty-seven churches were burned down, and hundreds of Christians perished in the demonstration, while thousands, including women, were subjected to imprisonment and torture (Min, 1982:311,313). The brutal suppression of this demonstration and the prominence of Christians among those persecuted thus produced a strong link between Christianity and Korean nationalism.

            Besides such a blatant brutality, more subtle oppressive measures were also brought against the Korean churches in the first decade of the Japanese occupation (Moffett, 1962: 69). New medical provisions in 1913 made it very difficult for missionary physicians to procure licenses to practice in Korea.

            The Japanese government also demanded that the churches report on the content of their teachings means of propagation, and the qualification of ministers. In addition, all private schools were required by law to register in the department of education, allowing, in effect, the government to censor text books, define qualifications of teachers or close schools at will. The Japanese government also stipulated that the teaching of religion, i.e., Christianity, and the practice of religious services were not to be allowed at school.

The Shinto Shrine Controversy and Japanese Oppression

            Relatively liberal and more tolerant policies toward Korean churches during the 1920s, which were prompted largely by international pressures that condemned the Japanese brutality toward the independence movement of 1919, drew to a close in 1931 when Japan embarked upon its imperial quest in Asia.

            What marked the beginning of Japan's ambition was the "Manju Sabyon (Manchurian Incident)," in which hostilities between Japanese and Chinese soldiers in Manchuria resulted in the former's occupation of the area. For Japan, the creation of its own state of Manchuko placed Korea in a very strategic place with respect to communications, the defence and economies of the Japanese empire.

            Furthermore, after Japan began a total war against China in 1937, Japan was determined to establish the peninsula as its own secure base on the Asian mainland, for Korea was the key to Japan's thrust into Asia, providing the direct overland route into Manchuria and China. Japan thus attempted to assimilate Korea and its people vigorously and relentlessly through the policy of "Japanization" in order to incorporate them as part of the Japanese empire.

            For Koreans, this period marked the beginning of "Dark Age" which lasted until the liberation in 1945. Under the banner of war, the Japanese governments confiscated at will materials, buildings and facilities belonging to Koreans and conscripted virtually all available male and female workers to be sent to war camps. Under the Japanization program, the use of the Japanese language was strictly enforced, while the Korean language was thoroughly suppressed.

            All Koreans were required to abandon their traditional family names and adopt Japanese ones. Because admission to government schools and employment were virtually impossible without the Japanese style name, about 80 per cent of the Koreans changed their family names by September of 1940. The names of churches were also ordered to be changed to bear Japanese titles.

            Of many measures of the Japanization program, however, it was the Shinto shrine issue that became the most challenging and controversial problem for the church (K. Lee, 1966; S. Kim, 1991). From the early 1930s the Japanese nationalists had a vision of conquering the Chinese mainland and the continent, and they realized that they needed not only an army but also a faith. They found that faith in Shintoism, popularly known as the worship of the Japanese emperor as the divine descendant of Amaterasu, the sun-goddess, cultivating its usefulness as "an agency of political and military control" (Holtom, 1963: 168).

            To bind the whole empire into a loyal and dutiful force for the Asian conquest, Japan attempted to impose this faith on all of its people, even the Koreans. Accordingly, the Japanese government in 1935 ordered all educational establishments, including Christian schools, to participate in Shinto shrine ceremonies (Rhodes and Campbell, 1964: 140). Shinto shrines were instituted in every town, and schools were ordered to enforce students' participation at Shinto ceremonies.

            While the missionaries refused flatly to allow students and teachers at Christian schools to attend Shinto rituals, the pressure and harassment by the government upon the churches---e.g., the expulsion of prominent missionaries and educators, such as Drs. George McCune and Samuel Moffett, in 1935--became more and more difficult to resist. After strong protests, the Methodists, the second largest denomination in Korea at the time, and then the Presbyterians, the largest Protestant group, decided involuntarily to Comply with the government order.

            This "official approval" of participation in shrine ceremonies by the most influential and the largest Christian denominations in Korea undoubtedly provided a powerful ideological justification for the suppression of any other resistance against Shinto shrine worship.

            Besides imposing obeisance to Shinto shrines, the Japanese authorities also tried to "Japanize" the church by restructuring the church organization and by manipulating the elections (Grayson, 1985:118-120, Shearer, 1966: 69-79). As F. A. McKenzie (1920: 212), a correspondent to the London Daily News, noted, "a strong effort was made to Japanize the Korean churches, [in order to] to make them branches of the Japanese Churches, and to make them instruments in the Japanese campaign of assimilation."

            Examples from the history of Methodist Church illustrate this point. After the death of the first Methodist Bishop Yang Jusam, Chong Chunsu succeeded with the help of the Japanese authorities. Following a visit by the Japanese Methodist Bishop Abe, a reform plan to "Japanize the Church" was formally implemented. The plan not only called for the union of the Japanese and Korean Methodist churches, but also recognized the teaching of Shinto and military instruction in the seminary. All foreign sources of funding were refused and foreigners were removed from positions of authority. With further reorganization, the puppet bishop virtually became the dictator of the Methodist church by 1941.

            In the following year, moreover, an unchecked authority was used to place twelve of the most prominent clergy on the inactive list for their anti-Japanese activities. More outrageously, a Methodist church in Seoul was refurbished as a Shinto shrine. In the end, the puppet leadership of the Methodist churches passed resolutions which declared the breaking of ties with Western churches, leading to, in effect, the firm establishment of Japanese Christianity in Korea.

            The Japanese authorities also attempted to undermine the strength of other denominations by removing foreign missionaries from authoritative positions and by deporting them subsequently from Korea (Shearer, 1966: 77-79). Beginning around 1937, the Japanese authorities even began a campaign warning Koreans not to have contact with foreigners--anyone who had a contact with foreigners was considered a spy and faced a possible prosecution.

            By late 1940, the situation had become so inimical that it was almost impossible for Koreans to be seen associating with foreigners without police harassment. Consequently, nearly ninety per cent of the missionaries left Korea by Christmas of that year. The remaining missionaries were harassed incessantly by the Japanese government. For example, two missionaries were given ten-month’s sentences for removing Shinto house-shrines from the homes of Korean Christians.

            When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941, the remaining missionaries, including 67 Roman Catholics, were imprisoned, only to be released as exchange civilians in April, 1942. During the war, the Japanese authorities became most hostile to Korean churches. The churches were by then completely under Japanese control, for the former could not even hold meetings without police permission.

            The government frequently interfered with church affairs, citing any activities as excuses to imprison church leaders and Christians. The government also ordered the placement of portable Shinto shrines in churches and used many church buildings as lodging for soldiers. This strict policy against the church owed in no small part to the appointment of Koiso Kuniaki, an ardent Shintoist and militarist, to the position of governor-general of Korea. Under his direction, the new administration freely arrested and tortured pastors for failure to make obeisance at Shinto shrines.

            During Kuniaki's tenure, for example, three thousand Christian leaders were imprisoned for professing faith that was considered anti-Japanese, and as many as fifty of those incarcerated suffered martyrdom, primarily through mistreatment in prisons. In 1943, moreover, the new administration completely suspended three Korean denominations-the Holiness Church, the Seventh Day Adventists, and Fenwick's East Asian Christian Church--for their emphasis on the Second Coming. The governor-general seemed to have believed that the return of Christ insinuated an end to the Japanese empire (Moffett, 1962: 75).

            On July 29, 1945, about a month before the end of the war, all the Protestant churches were given an order to eliminate denominational distinctions and to create the united Korean Japanese Christian Church. A few days later large numbers of church leaders were arrested, but released on the day of the Japanese surrender, August 15, 1945. It was learned later, however, that the Japanese army was actually ordered to execute them on August 18 of the same year, out of fear that these Korean Christians will have aided the allies in an attack on Korea (Moffett, 1962: 76; Blair, 1957:111).


The Liberation, the Korean War, and Divided Korea, 1945-1960

            With the defeat of Japan in World War II came the liberation, but the celebration was short-lived owing to international intervention in Korean affairs. The agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to participate jointly in the surrender of the Japanese army in Korea split the country into two opposing sides.

            With the U.S. force in the south and the Soviet counterpart in the north, the two camps became deadlocked over the type of government Korea should have. Besides the struggle between the two Super Powers, Korea was already faced with immense internal problems, including the rehabilitation of the economy which had been thoroughly exploited by the Japanese and the absorption of the nearly two million returnees from China and Japan.

            In the "divided" Korea, the experience of the churches in North and South Korea was markedly different, except for the nation-wide bitter disputes between those who collaborated with the Japanese and those who resisted. In the north, the newly established communist government did not appreciate the prominence of Christian leaders in local politics, nor the creation of Christian political parties--i.e., Kidokkyo Sahoe Minjudang (the Christian Social Democratic Party) and Kidokkyo Chayudang (the Christian Liberal Party). As with the Japanese authorities, therefore, the communist government in the north came to see the churches as a threat to its rule.

            The first clash between the two sides occurred in March of 1946 when the government forbade the planning by local churches to hold the first commemoration of the 1919 demonstration for independence. Thereafter, the communist government deliberately conducted all their important affairs on Sundays to interfere with church activities. Amidst protests from the Joint Presbytery, the communist government also created a counter organization called the Kidokkyo Kyodo Y6nmaeng (the Christian League) in 1948, to which all church leaders were required to belong.

            Other counter church organizations were soon founded at every level of the state administration, and by 1950, virtually all the church workers who did not join the league were arrested. Shortly before the outbreak of the Korean War, many Christians would escape to the south, but many of those who remained were arrested and executed en masse.

            Although the situation in the south was more amicable, the religious circumstance was equally complex. With the new found religious freedom, the missionaries, who had been absent in Korea since 1941, started to return. There was, however, strong disagreement regarding retainment of the Japanese-imposed structure of church union. Confrontations between the Japanese "collaborators" and nationalists would trouble the church in the south for many years thereafter, leaving the church divided permanently. Subsequently, there emerged many separate Methodist and Presbyterian bodies.

            Far more tragic than these disputes among the churches, however, was the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950 (see Foot, 1985; Hastings, 1987). For the Korean churches, the three-year war proved to be the most appalling sequence of events that outweighed the persecutions suffered by the Catholics during the nineteenth century. The communists singled them out as being anti-Communist and as sympathizers of the American imperialism; hence, tens of thousands of Christians perished, many of whom were imprisoned and systematically killed.

            While the Korean War left deep emotional scars in the minds of Korean Christians, the period immediately following the war provided the most opportune time for evangelization. Foreign aids, amounting to hundreds of million dollars annually, poured into Korea from "Christian countries," particularly the United States, further fuelling Koreans' favorable perception of Christianity. In addition, the Catholic and Protestant mission-related agencies brought into Korea millions of dollars worth of relief supplies, ranging from food and clothing to medicines, which were distributed to needy families (Moffett, 1962:134).

            They also set up hundreds of feeding stations where a daily hot meal was provided. Other relief works included the operation of widow's homes, orphanages, the amputee rehabilitation, the tuberculosis control and the post-polio project (A. Clark, 1971: 266-295). The relief efforts of the Korean churches, which happened to be the only national relief agencies that operated actively and effectively, allowed them to attract local attention that was far beyond what it would have received under normal circumstances.

            Many of those who first became aware of the church through its charitable work later took great interest in its doctrine and were converted. The mission bodies' relief supplies and their relief programs, therefore, became a "badge" of charity and compassion for Christianity. Roy Shearer (1966: 211), a noted historian of missionary work in Korea, wrote:

...following the war, American churches sent massive relief supplies to war-stricken South Korea, and many persons joined the church in thankfulness for this material help .... The material help American Christians gave to the people in their time of need did serve as an example of Christ's love, and many recipients of this aid responded to that love and became Christians.

The "Conversion Boom" Period, 1960s-1990s

            The recovery from the war during the 1950s was followed by the expansion of the churches' involvement with the society in the 1960s. Church organizations became more active in undertaking various social services, providing material aids and spiritual guidance to the poor and the disprivileged. Furthermore, the Korean churches as a group became an active democratic force in Korea, and church leaders themselves, particularly the Catholics, moved to the forefront of the movement for democracy.

            Just like their counterparts under the Japanese rule, a large percentage of those arrested for anti-government activities in South Korea during this period were Christians, further adding to the popular notion of Christianity as the champion of the people and of justice. By 1969, moreover, the Korean churches sent missionaries to Japan, Taiwan, Bolivia and Pakistan, and sent clergymen to serve the Korean communities in the United States, Canada, Brazil and other countries in South America and Southeast Asia.

            In the 1970s, the Bible was newly translated for common use by both the Catholic and Protestant churches--the New Testament in 1971 and the Old Testament in 1977. Another significant development was the increased emphasis on the role of mass communication in evangelical work. The Christian Broadcasting System (C.B.S.), which was founded in 1954, established stations in major cities all over South Korea. Broadcasting Christian music and dramas, as well as church-related news, the station became a leading means of evangelism in South Korea.

            Programs of industrial chaplaincy and army chaplaincy---established by both Catholic and Protestant churches in the 1950s--became more prominent during the 1960s and 1970s. Within factories and mines, industrial chaplaincy was established to spread Christianity among ever increasing number of industrial workers. By placing a worker-evangelist or a worker-priest in the workplace amongst the workers, the program allowed evangelistic work to be carried out in an informal, natural setting.

            With the burgeoning Korean economy and concomitant increase in the industrial labor force, industrial chaplaincy became one of the most important areas of evangelical work. The role of chaplains' corps in the armed forces became equally important. Military service has been mandatory for men in South Korea since the end of the civil war, and numerous studies showed that many soldiers converted to Christianity during their military service. The army religion survey of 1955, for example, showed that fifteen per cent of the total army population was Christian, which was an increase of ten per cent in four years (A. Clark, 1971: 255).

            Reflecting the churches' salience in social services and effective propagation during this period was the conspicuous increase in membership. From 1957, when South Korea's Protestant population numbered only about 800,000, the number of Protestants nearly doubled every decade. For example, in 1968 the membership climbed to 1,873,000, only to rise to 5,294,000 in 1978.

            The 1980s were no less remarkable for the Protestant church: the membership grew from 7,637,000 in 1981 to 9,076,000 in 1986. Keeping abreast of the success of the Protestant church, the Catholic church also roughly doubled every decade, from 285,000 in 1957 to 751,000 in 1968, and from 1,144,000 in 1978 to 2,009,194 in 1986.

The exceptional growth that marked the 1960s and 1970s continued unabated throughout the 1980s. By 1981, for example, there were 2,353 Catholic and 23,346 Protestant congregations, and total membership had increased to 9,076,788 (Grayson and Grayson, 1983: 219). Christians thus comprised about twenty-five per cent of the total Korean population (roughly 39 million) in 1981. Furthermore, by 1985 there were 26,044 churches and 40,717 pastors, making South Korea one of the most dynamic "Christian success" stories in the world.

            Today about one third of South Korea's 45 million people are Christian--11' million Protestants and 3 million Roman Catholics. South Korea now boasts a church with the largest congregation in the world--the Central Full Gospel (Pentecostal) Church in Seoul--with over 500,000 members and a pastoral staff of over a hundred. The church holds multiple services each Sunday and broadcasts a domestic radio and television ministry.

            Another notable church is Yongnak, which began as a North Korean refugee congregation that had over 60,000 members and 22 ordained pastors in 1986. In Seoul's Youido Plaza, the public square which is the main site for mass rallies, Christian crusades often draw crowds of over a million. In August of 1984, for example, the Protestant centenary celebration drew about 3.5 million Christians to a number of rallies to hear sermons by prominent Christian leaders, including Dr. Billy Graham.

            The Catholic Church has also experienced an impressive growth since the Korean War, and a monumental event for Korean Catholics in recent memory was the bicentennial mass in 1984, at which Pope John Paul II canonized 103 martyrs from Korean Catholic history.

            Presbyterians are the largest Christian denomination with over three million members. Other denominations include Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Holiness, Church of Christ, Anglican, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, Salvation Army, and Nazarene. Most denominations operate their own seminaries to train their clergy, and many also have schools at all levels and colleges.

            Churches and related institutions are now mostly independent of missionaries' influence and are very actively involved in the daily lives of Koreans, justifying their role as the "leading" religious force. Keeping abreast of the "Koreanization" of Christianity, Korean theologians are attempting to develop their own theology or theologies.

            For example, minjung shinhak, literally meaning theology of the people, which is a form of liberation theology with a Korean slant, has become a very important theological tradition in South Korea. Similarly, in an attempt to make Christianity genuinely Korean, church service or mass, hymns, instruments accompanying hymns and even church buildings are being actively "Koreanized" by theologians and clergymen. All these suggest the strength of Christianity as a cultural and social force in contemporary South Korea.


            Given this brief overview of the history of Christianity in Korea, the question still remains: What are the social, historical and cultural factors that account for the remarkable growth of Christianity in South Korea? While this question was not the main crux of this paper, some of the factors that facilitated the dramatic church growth in South Korea were suggested.

            First of all, the rise of Christianity in South Korea is intimately related to the profound discontent and despair felt by the masses, prompted by centuries of dire poverty, social marginalization and oppression.

            Second, people's identification of Christianity with the independence movement during the Japanese colonial period fostered the public's favorable view of the new religion.

            Third, the Korean churches' unparalleled relief efforts after the Korean War galvanized many Koreans to convert.

            Fourth, rapid social changes that were spurred by the processes of industrialization, modernization and urbanization generated culture shock among the masses, many of whom turned to Christianity as an alternative belief system that can ameliorate their feelings of anxiety.

            Fifth, the churches' active role in both the labor movement and democratic movement has also appealed immensely to the Korean people. Korea's major historical events, therefore. All have served as key turning points in favor of the growth of Christianity in South Korea.

            In future studies, a full explication and proper understanding of this unique phenomenon will necessarily draw upon Max Weber's celebrated "elective affinity" principle, which he employed so effectively in tracing the complex interrelations between an emerging capitalist order and the rise of Protestantism.

As an analytical framework, elective affinity mandates attending to the congruence between "appeal" and "reception", i.e., fitting together both the message and the audience. In this particular case, three lines of connection or "affinity" are of decisive importance: the religious-cultural; national traumas and the long years of personal suffering and hardship; and industrial modernization and the need for modernizing values.

            Indeed traditional Korean folk culture provided several important "contact points" with Christianity, allowing for the ready translation and adaptation of Christian beliefs and principles in Korean form. It can be also noted that certain peculiar circumstances of Korean history--i.e., Korea's vulnerability to Chinese and Japanese control, colonialism, the Korean War, etc.--allowed Christianity to strike deep roots in the spiritual sphere of the South Korean society.

And finally, the profound social structural developments that marked the modernization process in Korea following WWII provided a cultural opening for the "selling" and "reception" of a Christian worldview that harmonized with the industrial transformation of the society.

            This paper thus suggests that any successful attempt to explain the remarkable expansion of Christianity in South Korea must recognize that this Christian "success story" is owed to multiple factors: a profound discontent and despair; the highly effective strategies and tactics of the missionary and church organizations; charismatic leadership; a religious ethic that possessed a strong affinity with Christian teachings; and parallel motifs in Korean folklore and Christian aspirations. It is all of these elements taken together that account for the comparative durability and success of a missionary religion in South Korea.


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