Only in Korea?
Overview: Chapter 2, Only in Korea, gives a brief religious history of Korea and aspects which may have aided in Korea being one ot the most successful Christian growth stories of this century.
Korean people are a distinct people with their own culture, their own phonetic alphabet, and a history of over four thousand years. The year of 2000 AD is the Korean year of 4333. Today, Korea is a modern nation with more people actively professing Christianity than all other religions combined. This small, Asian country of over forty million people called South Korea contains not only the largest Christian Church in the world, an Assemblies of God Church, but also the world's largest Churches in the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations. Due to the phenomenal growth of Christianity during the last hundred years and the size of some of the Churches in Korea, many Christians speculate as to what might have caused such great results and as to those aspects that might be peculiar only to Korea. To understand the environment in which Christianity has found such a bountiful harvest, the religious and cultural background of the country requires a critical inquiry with a view of it's uniqueness. Observing the possibility of Christianity borrowing aspects from other religions, or syncretism, is also necessary. If this borrowing is related to the growth, it would reduce the desirability of copying their growth.
The earliest defined religion is shamanism, often called the original religion in Korea. Shamanism is not only the oldest but also the longest surviving religion as people still practice it today. Shamanism is considered an animistic religion as it involves the belief that rocks, trees and everything in nature possess spirits. The shaman's role is to control the evil spirits and often, to cast them out. Shamanism represented a god of fear to the people, who would pay the shaman to help them against the spirits. Many people have the opinion that shamanism has a very important relationship to Church growth in Korea. Although shamanism is not an organized religion, it is one of salvation through a higher being, a religion which holds that a person has no power in himself but needs help from a higher being.
The detractors of the shamanistic influence accuse shamanism of everything from 'seed-faith' and a 'holy-roller' type of religion - to being responsible for allowing women in ministry. In spite of the lack of organization, shamanism, which first appeared in the early centuries following the time of Christ, is still very present today. In Korea, the 'higher religions', Buddhism and Confucianism, have long been decadent and the vacuum was filled to some extent by shamanism.
To detect the present of shamanism requires only an awareness. In addition to the many shops located in Korea that sell beautiful rocks placed on stands, I experienced a direct example of shamanism one day by observing two affluent, 'Christian' couples in their thirties stopping to get a drink of water from a fresh spring coming out of the rocks below a falls in Chejudo. One of the wives, while enduring the embarrassment and kidding of the other three, placed two coins on a rock above the spring, stepped back and bowed slowly and deeply three times with her hands folded in an act of shamanistic worship. Shamanism will be present until Christianity forces it out with sound teachings. At the rate of growth in Korea, that day will come soon. Dr. Han, a Presbyterian and the president of ACTS Seminary in Seoul, states that although "the zeal, dedication and enthusiasm of Korean Christians are very similar to extreme shamanistic practices, the Scriptures reveal that God's people throughout the ages demonstrated a similar devotion".
Although Buddhism came to Korea around 300 AD from China, it didn't actually reach dominance until it became the state religion during the Koryo era, from 935 to 1392 AD, often referred to as the "Golden Age of Buddhism in Korea". If Buddhism was of significant benefit to the spreading of Christianity, there would be greater stories of missionary success in other Buddhist countries. In reality, syncretism, the mixing of religious practices, may be going the opposite direction today due to the strength of Christianity in Korea. Today, Buddhists in Korea are beginning to imitate the Christian forms of worship, organizing Sunday Schools, singing hymns and wearing modern clothing.
Confucianism was brought into power by the Yi Dynasty. As might be expected, the Yi Dynasty went to great lengths to diminish the influence of Buddhism, the newly defeated state religion. In 1456, they made a decree to forbid Buddhist monks from entering into the capital city of Seoul. During the Yi Dynasty, the people of Korea developed intellectually while remaining a hermit nation opposed to the influences of the outside world due to centuries of oppression by their neighbors, China, Russia and Japan.
During this dynasty, the Korean people received from King Seijong in 1446 a valuable national asset - the Korean phonetic alphabet. It is worth noting that among the many preparations the Lord appears to have made for the opening of Korea to the Gospel was this system of phonetic writing in which the first Gospel in Korean was printed. This creating of a simple written alphabet is related to the Confucian era in that this was a period of intellectual emphasis. At the time of the introduction of Christianity, the people of Korea had inherited a Confucian respect for good literature, which gave them interest in reading a 'new' book called the Bible. A related event shortly before the creation of the alphabet was the invention of the printing press with movable type, approximately two hundred years before it was invented in Europe. The alphabet, known as hangul, almost appears to have been given to the Koreans for the spreading of Christianity four centuries later. It's very simplicity worked against it's acceptance in the beginning, because the scholars who had spent years learning the intricacies of the Chinese classic writing had a vast contempt for the new system of writing. An expression of their contempt is reflected in the common attitude that "even a woman could learn it". As a result, hangul was largely neglected until the coming of the first non-Catholic missionaries in 1884.
The elements of the Confucian religion were mostly intellectual with the only religious aspect worthy of concern being that of ancestor worship. By the time Christianity arrived, ancestor worship was the only actual religious element remaining. I had an opportunity to observe this element while attending the funeral of a ninety-one year old man, who had been a senior deacon in Dr. Cho's Church in Seoul prior to moving to Inchon. On Sunday, after performing the Christian funeral service at the mountain side grave site, the Korean Associate Pastor walked down the road about thirty feet and visited with two men while pretending to ignore what was happening at the grave. Meanwhile, one of the men in the family placed a plate of food, chopsticks, a glass of liquid and a large bottle on the edge of the grave. Then, a few feet below the mountain grave, five Christian women, who were the only ones dressed in all white as members of the immediate family, knelt on the ground in a row and cried loudly for about ninety seconds. An English speaking Army Captain, who was the son of one of the women in white, confirmed that this was a Confucian rite. He pointed out, as if attempting to minimize the situation, that the wailing ceremony did not last near as long as it used to. The following Thursday, I inquired about this during an interview with Pastor Choi, the Senior Pastor of the Church in Inchon which conducted the funeral. Although unaware that it had happened, Pastor Choi responded, "Actually, it is illegal in the Church, but it is a matter of having heirs that are both Christian and non-Christian present. It is a sad story where a family's faith is not united, but less than two out of ten families still have this problem." Earlier in the interview Pastor Choi had been discussing his desire for everyone in the city of Inchon to be converted to Christianity, so he smiled and continued, "So, we will eliminate the problem with more conversions." In 1983, the catholic Church in Korea published a book in honor of their two hundredth anniversary and a visit from the Pope, who canonized 103 Korean martyrs. In this book there is a picture of a burial dish with the name of the first baptized Korean, Sung-hun Peter Yi, who was martyred in 1801. His grave was lost but rediscovered in 1981. This dish helped to confirm the grave site. The presence of a plate in a Christian grave in 1801 may indicate some Confucian influence on relatives present but such practices are not syncretized into Christianity.
As Christianity arrives, God is uniquely blessing Korea. The Confucian inspired hunger for literature as mentioned previously helped prepare the Korean people for the introduction of Christianity. In 1784, a Korean layman was baptized in China and returned to Korea with some of the Scriptures, which he translated into Korean and other religious items and he started Churches. This layman, Sung-hun Peter Yi, was used by God to bring Christianity to Korea. This gives Korea the distinction of being the only country in the world throughout the history of Christianity where the Catholic Church was started not by foreign missionaries but by local laymen. Within seven years, persecution began primarily due to Christian guidance that resulted in an unacceptable heresy for Koreans - they stopped offering sacrifices to their ancestors. This offense was of major proportions and resulted in a death sentence in 1791. The only other reason noted in Korean history for such severe persecutions was that in 1801 a Korean wrote a letter to the Pope that fell into government hands. The letter was urging that armies and fleets be sent to Korea to force the Korean government to grant religious liberty. This letter and the opposition to ancestor worship resulted in Christians being treated as traitors. Most of the persecutions during the first hundred years of Christianity in Korea resulted in the Christians being beheaded. Today, there are two places in Seoul that are known to be locations where tens of thousands of Catholics were beheaded. The majority of the martyrs were women who preferred to be beheaded rather than renounce Jesus Christ.
This background of martyrdom is in some way related to the strength of the Korean Church today. One Presbyterian, Dr. Rhodes, refers to this period as "abundant proof of the sterling qualities in the Korean character that so many tens of thousands were faithful unto death". The beginning of Christianity in Korea had an impact on all Koreans even though Christianity was almost completely wiped out by bloody persecution. In this part of the body of Christ, some claim they had over fifty thousand members prior to the arrival of the first Catholic missionary. A Korean Catholic priest, Rev. Kim, stated that "the more Catholics were martyred, the more people became Catholics". However, by the time non-Catholic missionaries began to arrive in 1884 there were said to be only 17,577 Catholics left. Today it is estimated that there are over a million Catholics in Korea.
Slowly, the attitude of tolerance began creeping in when a treaty of friendship and commerce was signed with the United States in 1882. The persecution of the Catholic missionaries and people was primarily directed toward France. Not only did the United States never receive disfavor as did European countries that had in-depth involvement with Korea's old arch enemies of China, Russia and Japan, but after the Second World War when Koreans were liberated from the Japanese and after the Korean War of the early fifties when they were liberated from the Communists, the United States actually received a savior type status.
Before American Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries arrived on the same boat in Inchon in 1884, they were able to stop in Japan on the way and obtain copies of the Bible in the Korean language. As Christianity grew to ninety thousand by the turn of the century and slowly left the Korean persecutions behind, it encountered new persecutions from the Japanese during the first half of the twentieth century. The Japanese tried to eradicate Korean culture and history even to the point of making Koreans use Japanese names and having only Japanese teachers in schools. In 1930 , the Japanese began to push worship of Shinto shrines on Christians. Refusal often resulted in jail terms.
The 1919 Independence Movement is widely known as resembling the nonviolent resistance movement of India under Mahatma Gandhi. It was started with a national independence declaration given to the Japanese and signed by thirty-three patriots of whom Christian ministers and laymen were in the majority. After the traitor accusations toward Christians during the previous century, this erased any doubt as to the loyalty of Christians as Korean patriots. Although many Christian leaders were thrown in jail and several churches were burned, the Presbyterian Church which was the largest denomination in Korea only suffered a slight decrease in 1919. The Presbyterian Church had an increase in 1921 and is still the largest denomination in Korea.
Persecution became strong again in the late forties and early fifties from the Korean communists. There were mass executions of Christians and many churches were burned, some with the worshipers still inside. Two stories of persecutions during the Korean War have become a blessing to all Christians.
First, is the story of Dr. Kim Joon Gon, who saw his wife and father murdered before his eyes. He was beaten and left for dead. During the next three months, he narrowly escaped death twenty one times. After the Holy Spirit touched his life in a major way, God led him to risk his life by going to the Communist soldier who murdered his family and forgiving him and telling him about Jesus. That former Communist became an elder in a South Korean Church and Dr., Kim, the national director of the Korean Campus Crusade for Christ, was the organizer of the 1974 Billy Graham Crusade, which had over one million people in attendance every night. He also organized the 1980 World Evangelism Crusade, which had crowds of over two million people. This beautiful story of Dr. Kim risking his life to show love and forgiveness is an integral part of Korea's Christian heritage.
The other famous persecution story is about Rev. Son, of the city Yusoo, who spent seven years in prison for opposing shrine worship, which resulted in having his two sons expelled from Japanese school during this time. In 1948, there was a two day communist uprising in the community during which the local Communist held a trail and executed both brothers for refusing to give up Christianity and accept Communism. After peace was restored, the city brought to trail the student who killed the two brothers. Rev. Son forgave the student who killed his sons and went to the military commander and obtained his release. He took the boy into his home and raised him as his son and as a Christian. Eventually, the boy went into ministry. This account of Christian forgiveness has tremendously blessed the Korean Church.
God, in the fullness of time, has developed the Korean people in a manner that has resulted in one of the strongest Christian Churches in the world. Having only one language with one of the simplest alphabets in Asia is definitely an advantage for Korea. Dr. Hong, president of the Methodist Seminary in Seoul for twenty five years, presents a typical Korean viewpoint when he says, "We strongly believe that we are now chosen people of God and that we are under the special providence of God."
A major revival occurred in Korea in 1907 when the Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries united in their efforts. In response to the suggestion of the missionaries, hundreds of Korean Christians agreed to spend one hour each day in prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This resulted in an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Christianity throughout Korea. One of the most beautiful results is an intensity in prayer that is still present in most Christian Churches in Korea. A Methodist missionary described the first recorded instance of united prayer in 1907 by stating the following, "Spontaneously, as though under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, a murmur of audible prayer arouse from a thousand lips, gradually growing in volume until it filled the Church. The remarkable thing about it was that it produced no confusion and their voices united like the notes from some great instrument of music."
Yes, God has uniquely blessed the Korean Church to be a blessing to the whole world. These blessings are already bearing fruit to the rest of the world. Truly, God is the same everywhere.
For the title page and contents, Chapter 1 Setting the Stage, Chapter 2 Only in Korea?,
Chapter 3 Winning a Country for Christ, Chapter 4 Prayer That Moves Mountains,
Chapter 5 The Weapon at Work, Chapter 6 How Cell Groups Work,
Chapter 7 100 Days in Inchon, Appendix: Written Interview Comments