First let's look at some of Korea's history before we explore the history of the Korean church. Korean history dates back to 2333 B.C. to the reign of the first king, Tangun. There is still an ancient altar that you can see today on Mt. Marisam, on the island of Kangwha.
Korea has had many Kings and rulers over its long history and has been influenced in some way or another by China, Mongolia, Japan, America and others. Korea is a peninsula that has Siberia to the north, China to the west, and Japan to the east.
Korea is similar in size with Minnesota, from top to bottom it's about 600 miles, and it averages about 170 miles in width. The main part of Korea is full of hills and mountains, and it has almost 3500 islands that are scattered around it. In the southern part of Korea the weather is mild with not to cold of winters, but in the north the climate is similar with Minnesota, or southern Canada.
INFLUENCE OF A VARIETY OF RELIGIONS OR PHILOSOPHIES
Korea has had, over its long history, influence from three different religions; Buddhism, Confusianism and Shamanism or spirit worship. The one that has been around the longest and is still practiced today is Shamanism. In short non-Christian Koreans believe in many different spirits and they seek mediums (women known as "moodangs" and blind men known as "pansoos").
Dr. J.S. Gale saw that their belief in spirits attracted many Koreans to the Gospel. They liked the episodes in which the demons in the Gospel were on the run and they wanted to find out about a religion that had the power to do this.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
In my visits to Korea I saw that even today many believe in these same traditions, such as paying someone to ask the spirits about their future and about relationships with family and friends. Still today, on certain memorial days, they set a table of food for the spirits of their dead ancestors, and they bow down to these spirits and the table of food. Also they visit the graves of dead relatives and place food and alcohol on the ground next to the grave and then they bow to the spirit of the dead relative.
LONG HISTORY: LEE PYUK'S ROLE
I thought that the Korean church history was only a little over one hundred years old, but after reading works such as History of the Korean Church by Allen D. Clark, I realized that there was contact with Christianity as early as 1592. Under the rule of Hideyoshi, a Japanese general in charge of the campaign was Konishi, who was a Christian. Needless to say the results of any conversion in a war like situation produced little or no results.
In 1777, some Korean scholars got together for a ten day retreat to study Confucius and Mencius. Among the things they talked about and studied were several Catholic books which had come from Peking. As they read and discussed these books, one man, Lee Pyuk, was convinced that in these books were the answers to all the things that were not clear to him. He started to follow the teachings in these books and he kept the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th of each lunar month holy, praying morning and night on these days.
After several years of study and practice Lee Pyuk started to share his thoughts and burdens with others. One of his friends that Lee Pyuk had showed the way to the Truth, Lee Sung Heun, was appointed to go to the embassy in Peking. On his trip to Peking Lee Sung went to the Catholic priests. The priests baptized Lee Sung Heun, and sent him back with books, crosses and other things. After studying these books carefully, Lee Pyuk, began to share his good news with his friends among the nobility, and influenced many, and the gospel spread.
DENYING ANCESTOR WORSHIP LED TO PERSECUTION
As the number of the followers of Jesus began to grow, the new church in Korea sent messengers to Peking for answers about various things. One of the issues was ancestral worship, an important part of Korean life. Seeing things from afar, the Catholic Bishop forbade the Christians to take part in this kind of worship, and because of this there was a mass exodus from the church. People thought that this position of the church leaders attacked the very core of Korean beliefs. Yet, some chose not to follow the traditions and burned their ancestral tablets and didn't carry out the usual worship. Some anti-Christian noblemen, however, had them arrested and this started the time of persecution of the followers. Some four hundred well-known Christians were publicly martyred and it is believed that there were many more killed.
Even today among the college-age students and others this issue of ancestral worship is debated and many are challenged and unsure how to handle it.
Over the next one hundred years or so, many were persecuted and still many others were being martyred. In spite of the persecution, in 1855, the body of believers was said to be over 13,000.
When I was in Korea I had a chance to visit the memorial place for the martyred, and next to that is the cemetery for the missionaries that had served and died in Korea. Both these are in Seoul along side the Han River.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
Most Christians, when I asked them about the history of the church, told me that when seven French missionaries were martyred in 1866, major revival spread throughout Korea.
Some Christians thought that the French priests could help the relations with France and England, to help protect Korea from aggression of Russia along the northern border. The Korean Council of the State decided against the idea and had the priest and all Christians arrested. They were tortured and finally executed along the Han River, the same place many were martyred in 1839. The number killed was in the hundreds, and some have said that the Han River was red with the blood of the Saints. As late as 1901, some six hundred Christian were killed on Cheiju Island. Later, Tai Wun Kun, the king, who had been persecuting the church, died on Feb. 22, 1898, at the age of 88. Some say before his death, he was filled with much remorse because of what he had done to the Christians, and he ordered that sacrifices be made to their souls. His wife, Princess Mary, before she died, was baptized secretly in the night by Bishop Mutel. At the time of their deaths, even under such great persecution, there were about 60,000 believers and growing daily.
THE CATHOLIC INFLUENCE, AND THE PROTESTANT ENTRY
Most of the early church growth was by Catholic influence and helped to open the country and make the work of the Protestant movement easier and, in some ways, harder.
Carl A. F. Gutzlaff, a Protestant missionary serving in China, went as interpreter on a British ship "Lord Amherst" in 1832. The ship traveled along the coast of Korea, giving Gutzlaff a chance to give out Chinese Bibles, two of which were sent to the king along with the request to do trade with Korea. Robert J. Thomas, another missionary in China, met two Catholic Christian refugees from Korea in 1865. They showed they were Christians by the rosaries and crucifixes hidden in their cloaks. Thomas went with these men to Korea, and was for a short while on the island of Paik Yun Do, off the Whanghai coast.
Rev. John Ross and Rev. John McIntryre were missionaries in Manchuria and in 1873 went to the "Korean Gate", where there was an annual market held between China and Korea. The first year no one was willing to help them, but, when they returned the second year, they found some Koreans willing to help them and this was the beginning that made possible the translation of the whole New Testament.
ROLE OF MEDICAL MISSIONS
In the late 1800's, there was a calling and desire for missionaries in Korea. As it is written in Matthew 22:14, many are called, but few are chosen. I also have heard that many were called at this time, but few made themselves available to go. Many were seeking mission boards and were asking for people to be sent to Korea, but, because of the challenges and difficulties, no one was answering the call. This is similar to what see today in the cry for help to many Muslim parts of the world. We hear of people being killed for the cause of Christ, we are touched, but fearful to put ourselves in the line of fire. Some few did answer the call, and because Korea was not open to missionaries they went in by means of medical and educational routes.
One of the first to enter Korea was Dr. Horace N. Allen and his family. Dr. Allen was asked to care for Prince Min Yong Ik, nephew of the Queen who had just returned from the embassy to Washington. The Prince was lying on his death bed and for three months required constant medical attention before he was out of danger. This built a friendship with the King and Queen and helped open the way for missionary work in Korea.
Some, with the help of the Korean government, built hospitals, and some help to bring modern education. As early as 1883, a school for interpreters had been opened by the government. A couple of young men were interested in learning medicine (Korean culture is very much into healing the body, seeking assistance from a medium), but they first needed to learn English. (So as it was then, even today, many Korean's desire very earnestly to study and learn English.) These hospitals and school helped the purpose and the reason for the fulfillment of which they were started -- winning Korea for Christ.
The first Sunday church service was held on June 28, 1885 with just the missionaries and their families. In the beginning the missionaries didn't now the Korean language and grammar well enough to teach. Moreover, the government's attitude was not favorable towards Christianity. For this reason sharing of the Gospel was not easy and the church grew slowly. As they were praying for God to give them some souls that next year, the missionaries remembered how long it took to see their first convert in areas like China, which was seven years, and in some parts of the world much longer.
EARLY PROTESTANT BAPTISMS: THE ROLE OF THE JAPANESE CONVERTS AMONG THE KOREANS
It didn't take long for God to answer their prayer and on July 11, 1886 the first Korean they baptized was Noh, Tosha. The church was still restricted against sharing the Gospel with Koreans, but not to the small amount of Japanese living in Korea at the time. Two of these Japanese came to the Lord, one in 1886, and the other in 1887, and shortly after their conversion started to share with their Korean friends. About this same time, other missionaries that were in other parts of Korea, were starting to see fruit. Believers were gradually being added to the body and they were coming from different places and from the relationships that had been established.
Most of the relationships with these new Korean Christians came by the work of the schools and by medical missionaries. When the Christian medical doctors traveled around to different cities in Korea, they found that some were believers for a couple years and wanted to be baptized. In 1894, a local preacher, Kang Chai Hyung, who had carried on church work and a boys' school that became the first Methodist school in Korea.
METHODS OF EVANGELISM
In 1894, Korean Christians built the first chapel in Inchun. This church by 1895 had 22 full members and 25 probationers, and they had separate services, one for the men and one for the women. In this church was much emphasis on personal evangelism; members visited homes and whole families were coming to Christ. This kind of evangelism is still going on today, and I see now why Korea has so many faithful believers, not just in Korea but around the world.
When I was at YWAM in Canada I met many Koreans, and I learned that in the main training center for YWAM, University of the Nations in Hawaii, they serve kimshi at meals because there are many Koreans attending school there. Kimshi is a side dish that is served at most every Korean meal, kimshi is vegetables, (mostly bakchoy), pickled in red hot pepper paste and other ingredients. Today, it is said that there are more Koreans in the mission field than Americans, and their number is ever growing.
INTERESTING MISSION POLICIES
In the early 1900s, other mission organizations like Seventh Day Adventist Mission, Oriental Mission Society, and Salvation Army started work in Korea. Because Korea is such a small country and because mission groups wanted to avoid competition and duplication of work they looked for some basis of cooperation. Out of this cooperation came some "Mission Policies." These policies put focus on the middle class, not upper class, and on women because of their influence on their children, and translation of the Bible as well as many others.
One of the most important things I saw from the effots of these early missionaries was that they tried to encourage every Christian to study the Bible and to share what they have learned with others. The believers were encouraged to grow in their faith and to follow under the best available local leadership. These local leaders were encouraged to take turns with each other, leading worship and teaching what they learned from the Bible. This kept them studying on their own and growing in the knowledge of the Word of God.
To keep these new leaders from getting off track, once a year or more, there was a Bible study conference for ten days. Which soon lead to Bible teachers going from place to place teaching by day and having evangelistic meetings in the evenings. Not long after, Bible Institutes were opened for the teaching of anyone who wanted to learn more. Some of these Bible Institutes are still run today.
As the body of believers was growing, it was impossible for missionaries to visit every place more than once or twice a year. This is when "helpers" would fill in to help teach the churches, and in doing this they trained leaders and future missionaries. From these "helpers" came future pastors, because at the time the only ordained ministers were the missionary men, and no seminary had been started as of yet. The churches were growing and, as they grew, the places to worship were designed according to the needs of each local congregation.
DEVELOPMENT OF SOUND DOCTRINES
As the churches grew so did the need to follow sound doctrine. The two main issues were ancestral worship and plural marriages. A questionnaire was sent out to the Christians of the surrounding area for their opinion, and their unanimous vote was that these things should not be done by Christians. I think we can all learn from this way of making decisions, because if the missionaries were to have made the decision it would have been looked upon by the Koreans differently.
Today I see the same Question about ancestral worship discussed among the younger Christians and I want to tell them not to get involved in ancestor worship, but it is not my decision, it's theirs, and we need to pray and trust in the Holy Spirit to lead them.
In sharing the Gospel anywhere in the world we will have challenges and new Christians will misunderstand or can be misled, and Korea was no exception. One of the things I see that is important to the effective spread of the word God is the translation of the Bible. Early translation of the Bible was not easy but by 1900, the New Testament was complete, and by 1910 the Old Testament was added. It was important to the missionaries to distribute these Bible so that every one could read and understand for themselves. Just like everywhere in the world some people can't read, but we know God has other ways of sharing with the less able.
THE MIRACLE FROM THE HAND OF GOD
I have seen with my own eyes the love of Christ in Korea. Today, the number of Christians is in the millions and growing. Once when I was in Korea, a man came up to me and found out I was a Christian. He asked me how Korea, in such a short time (about 150 years), was filled with so many Christians. Only God could do such a miracle! It still amazes me today when we visit Korea, we see and feel the passion the church has to share the love of Christ with others. I see it in the church we attend in Korea, I see on the streets where people are evangelizing, and I see it in the hearts of many through their love for others.
God is not finished with Korea, as he is not finished with America or anywhere else in the world. It still amazes me, every time I think of Korea, and how many have come to Christ, and how truly faithful they are. I know that only God, in His great mercy and love, could be the one to do this. To Him be all praise and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
The sources used:
Main source: History of the Korean Church, by Allen D. Clark, published in the Republic of Korea by the Christian Literature Society of Korea, Seoul, Korea.