Over the past few decades, the world has witnessed the dramatic growth of the Christian faith in South Korea. Almost a third of the population professed to be Christian in the year 2000, and Seoul, the capital, contained eleven of the world's twelve largest Christian congregations. (North Korea, on the other hand, has a repressive Communist government hostile to all religions. Prior to the Korean War of 1950-53, two thirds of the country's Christians lived in the North, but most subsequently fled South. It is not known how many Christians remain in the North, if any; therefore, all references in this article to "Korea", "Korean people", and "Korean Church" after 1945 apply to South Korea, unless otherwise stated). Second only to the United States, South Korea has emerged as a major missionary-sending nation; in 2000 there were 10646 Protestant missionaries in 156 countries, along with a large but undisclosed number of Catholic missionaries. A number of Korean Christians, including Dr David Yonggi Cho, Senior Pastor of the great Yoido Full Gospel Church - reputedly the largest in Christendom, have attained world-wide influence.

Early Failures: 1593-1784

It was not always so. Christianity was finally established on Korean soil (in 1784) only after nearly two centuries of frustrated efforts, and it was not until the Twentieth Century that the Christian presence became numerically significant. Why then, after such an unpromising start, has Christianity finally been so widely accepted in Korea, when this has not happened in nearby Japan and China? To answer this question, it is necessary to assess the cultural, political, and historical developments that set the Korean people apart from their neighbours. This leads on to a second question: What effect has Christianity had on Korean society over the past two hundred years?

The first known Christian presence in Korea was Father Gregorious de Cespedes, a Jesuit priest who arrived in Korea in 1593 to work among Japanese expatriates, but was not permitted to proselytize Koreans. A decade later, however, the Korean diplomat Yi Kwang-Jong returned from Beijing carrying a world atlas and several theological books written by Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China. Ricci's books provoked immediate academic controversy; early in the seventeenth century, Yi Sugwang (a Court scholar) and Yu Mong-in (a cabinet minister) wrote highly critical commentaries on Ricci's works. Over the ensuing two centuries, academic criticism of Christian beliefs continued unabated.

Underpinnings of Christian Growth

Academic Sympathy - the Shilhak School

Some scholars were, however, more sympathetic to Christianity. Members of the Shilhak ("Practical Learning") school were greatly attracted to what they saw as the egalitarian values of Christianity. Advocating a social structure based on merit rather than birth, Shilhak scholars (who were often bitterly opposed by the establishment) saw Christianity as providing an ideological basis for their beliefs. Thus, when Catholicism was finally established in 1784, there was already a substantial body of educated opinion sympathetic to it - which was to prove crucial to the spread of the Catholic faith in the 1790s. An 1801 study indicated that fifty-five percent of all Catholics had family ties to the Shilhak school. It is apparent, then, that the first important factor which facilitated the growth of Christianity is that there was already a substantial minority within the educated elite that was sympathetic to it.

Lay Leadership

A second important factor is that Christianity in Korea began as an indigenous lay movement, and was not imposed by a foreign ecclesiastical hierarchy. The first Catholic prayer-house was founded in 1784 at Pyongyang (now the capital of North Korea) by Yi Sung-hun, a diplomat who had been baptized in Beijing. In 1786, Yi proceeded to establish a hierarchy of lay-priests. Although the Vatican later ruled (in 1789) that the appointment of lay-priests violated Canon Law, the fact remains that Christianity was introduced into Korea by indigenous lay-workers, not by foreign prelates.

Parallels in Korean Tradition

Thirdly, the Korean churches were able to use and build upon Korean tradition. Unlike the Chinese or Japanese, the Korean people had an essentially monotheistic concept of a Creator-God, whom they called Hwan-in or Hananim. According to an ancient myth, Hwan-in had a son named Hwan-ung, who, in turn, had fathered a human son named Tangun in 2333B.C. Tangun founded the Korean nation and, so the story goes, taught his people the elements of civilization during his thousand-year reign. There are several variants of this myth, one of which depicts Tangun as having been born of a virgin - although this may be a later Christian embellishment. Some modern theologians have even attempted to explain the Christian concept of the Trinity in terms of the three divine characters in the Tangun myth. Although only a myth, it psychologically prepared the Korean people for the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The ability of the Church to graft Christian theology onto existing beliefs has continued to be a crucial factor in its growth.

Use of the Korean Alphabet

Fourthly, Christian use of the Korean language and the easily-learned Hangul script enabled the faith to spread outside the elite (among whom the literary language was Chinese). More will be said about Hangul later, but it should be noted here that the Catholic Church was the first organization to officially recognize its value. As early as the 1780s, portions of the Gospels appeared in Hangul; doctrinal books such as the Chugyo Yogi in the 1790s, and a Catholic hymnary around 1800.

Protestantism and the Founding of Modern Educational Institutions

Protestantism was introduced into Korea in 1884 by two Americans: Henry Apenzella, a Methodist, and Horace Underwood, a Presbyterian. Emphasizing the mass-circulation of the Bible (which had been translated into Hangul between 1881 and 1887 by the Reverend John Ross, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary in Manchuria, the Protestant pioneers also established the first modern educational institutes in Korea. The Presbyterian Paejae School for boys was founded in 1885, and the Methodist Ehwa girls' school followed a year later. These, and similar schools established soon afterwards, facilitated the rapid expansion of Protestantism among the common people, and in time enabled the Protestant faith to overtake Catholicism as the leading Christian voice in Korea.

Idenfication with Korean Nationalism

Probably the single most important factor leading to the eventual widespread acceptance of Christianity was the identification forged by many Christians with the cause of Korean nationalism during the Japanese occupation (1905-1945). In this period, the Korean people suffered greatly; seven million were exiled or deported from their homeland, and a systematic campaign to eradicate all traces of Korean cultural and national identity was attempted. In 1938, even the Korean language was outlawed.

On May the First, 1919, an assembly of thirty-three religious and professional leaders passed a Declaration of Independence. Although organized by leaders of the Chondogyo religion, fifteen of the thirty-three signatories happened to be Christians - many of whom were subsequently imprisoned. 1919 also saw the establishment of the predominantly Catholic Ulmindan ("Righteous People's Army") - a pro-independence movement, and the establishment of a China-based government-in-exile by Syngman Rhee, a Methodist. But the real catalyst that linked Christianity with the patriotic cause in the eyes of many Koreans was the refusal by many Christians to participate in the worship of the Japanese Emperor, which was made compulsory in the 1930s. Although this refusal was motivated by theological rather than political convictions, the consequent imprisonment of many Christians strongly identified their faith, in the eyes of many Koreans, with the cause of Korean nationalism and resistance to the Japanese occupation.

The Impact of Christianity on Korean Society

Christianity has played an important role in Korea's transformation from a feudal to a modern society. The effects of Christianity cannot always be neatly distinguished from the causes; a helpful illustration is that of the chicken and the egg - which comes first? Any one effect that Christianity may have on society may cause more people to accept or reject the faith in future. So, while a distinction between causes and effects may be helpful for the purposes of clarification, one should realize that such an analysis may be overly simplistic.

Education and Literacy

The early impact of the introduction of Christianity on education has already been mentioned. The promotion of the phonetic and easily learned Hangul script, through the dissemination of Christian literature and through the network of schools established by Christian missions, resulted in a sharp rise in the literacy rate. Hangul, although invented as far back as 1446 by scholars in the court of King Sejong the Great, was little used for several centuries because of the percieved cultural superiority of Chinese. The Catholic Church was the first organization to officially recognize the value of Hangul, and Bishop Berneux (martyred in 1866) commanded that all Catholic children by taught to read it. Protestant churches, too, made literacy in Hangul a prerequisite for admission to Holy Communion. Female literacy also rose sharply; women had traditionally been excluded from the educational system.

Economic Effects

The economy is another area in which Christian "geomentality" has been an influential factor for change. Traditional Korean thought was permeated with the Taoist-Confucianist concept of the Yin and the Yang - which held that the universe is governed by complimentary opposite forces which must be kept eternally in equilibrium. Such thinking is not conducive to developments which interfere with what is perceived as the natural order. Judeo-Chirstian teaching, by contrast, gives man dominion over nature (Genesis 1.26; Psalm 8.6-8). South Korea's dramatic economic growth over the past three decades may be linked in part to the growing influence of the Christian view of ecology. There were, of course, other factors, too - the massive inflow of American capital has also been instrumental.

Social Relationships

But perhaps nowhere have Christian values had a more revolutionary effect than in the area of social relationships. Traditional Korean society was hierarchically arranged according to Confucian principles under the semi-divine emperor. Women had no social rights, children were totally subservient to their parents, and individuals had no rights except as defined by the overall social system. This structure was radically challenged by the Christian teaching that all men are created in the "Image of God" (Genesis 1.26-27) and the implicit worth of every individual. Closely lined to this concept was the emphasis on the right to own private property. Christians also regarded the emperor as a mere man as much subject to God as were his own subjects, and were taught to regard the authority of God as being above that of the emperor. The diffusion of Christian values also contributed to the social emancipation of women and children. From its inception in 1784, the Catholic Church permitted the remarriage of widows (not traditionally allowed in East Asian societies), prohibited concubinage and polygamy, and forbade cruelty to or desertion of wives. Catholic parents were taught to regard their children as gifts from God, and were required to educate them. Arranged child marriages, and the neglect of daughters (who, in Asian society were often regarded as less "desirable" than sons) were prohibited.

Minjung Theology and the Human Rights Struggle

The Christian concept of individual worth has also found expression in a long struggle for human rights and democracy. In recent years, this has taken the form of Minjung Theology. Based on the "Image of God" concept, but also incorporating the traditional Korean doctrine of the Han (a word with no accurate English translation, but denoting a sense of inconsolable pain and utter helplessness), Minjung Theology depicts the Korean people themselves as the rightful masters of their own destiny. Emphasizing nationalism as well as human rights, Minjung Theology appeals increasingly to both right and left in Korean society. Two of the country's best known political leaders, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung subscribe to Minjung Theology. Both men spent decades opposing military-led governments in South Korea, and were frequently imprisoned. Kim Young Sam, a Presbyterian, and Kim Dae Jung, a Roman Catholic, each later served terms as President of the Republic after democracy was restored in 1988.

One manifestation of Minjung Theology in the final years of the Park Chung Hee regime (1961-1979) was the rise of several Christian missions, such as the Catholic Farmers Movement and the (Protestant) Urban Industrial Mission, which campaigned for better wages and working conditions for agricultural and industrial workers. Seeing such movements as a threat to social stability, the government arrested and imprisoned many of their leaders. This struggle coincided with a period of popular unrest which culminated in the assassination of President Park on October 26, 1979.


To summarize, Christianity finally became established on Koran soil only after nearly two hundred years of constant setbacks. Beginning as a lay-movement among Shilhak scholars who saw Christianity as an ideological catalyst for their egalitarian values, the faith managed to assimilate, and be assimilated by, Korean culture, through its ability to make effective use of existing traditions. The distinctly Korean nature of the Church was reinforced during forty years of Japanese occupation by virtue of the imprisonment of many Korean Christians who refused to participate in Japanese emperor-worship. This stand enabled Christian leaders to depict their faith as being no longer a "foreign" religion.

Looking Ahead

South Korea's transition from forty years of authoritarianism (interrupted only once, in the short-lived Second Republic (1960-61) to a more liberal, democratic regime in 1988, left Korea's churches facing a new challenge. Their strong stand for human rights and democracy had been a significant part of their appeal to the Korean population, and had helped facilitate the exponential growth of many churches in the 1970s and early 1980s. The coming of democracy, which made Christians a part of the establishment as never before, left many Christians feeling that the Church had become a victim of its own success, as freedom and prosperity led to widespread complacency and a loss of the churches' "cutting edge." Church growth tapered off, for the first time in decades. In the early years of the twenty-first century, however, many Christians have found a renewed determination to evangelize the nation, with the bold goal of establishing the Korean Peninsula as a bastion of Christianity on the Asian mainland. This vision necessarily encompasses North Korea. With a possible economic and political collapse of the North Korean regime looming, South Korean churches are developing contingency plans to mobilize both spiritual and humanitarian resources to aid the North when the doors to that closed land finally open.


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Postscript: I originally wrote this as an essay for a university course in 1988. I first published it, with minor updates, on Wikipedia in 2004. In this version, I have changed the formatting, but the basic text is hardly changed. It is close to the original essay that I wrote – without the edits made by others you may have seen on other websites such as Wikipedia.

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