Christianity in Korea



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. The impact of Christianity on Korean culture has been considerable, and is partly responsible for a steady decline in the membership and influence of Buddhism, Shamanism and Confucianism, which have traditionally had deep roots in Korean culture. South Korea has also emerged as a major missionary-sending nation, second only to the United States: in 2000 there were 10,646 Korean 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 (조용기목사), Senior Pastor of the great Yoido Full Gospel Church (여의도순복음교회) - reputedly the largest in Christendom - have attained world-wide influence. The 1984 visit by Pope John Paul II marked the first canonization ceremony to be held outside of Rome and the largest number ever to be canonized at one time. This ceremony gave Korea the fourth largest number of Catholic saints in the world.

Unless otherwise stated, all references in this article to "Korea", "Korean people", and "Korean Church" after 1945 apply to South Korea only. Prior to the Korean War of 1950-53, two thirds of the country's Christians lived in the North, but most subsequently fled to the South, [1] and to this day a repressive Communist government hostile to all religions continues to rule North Korea. It is not known how many Christians remain in the North.

Early failures: 1593-1784

Korea was not always a haven for Christians. 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. [2] A decade later, however, the Korean diplomat Yi Kwang-Jong (이광정) returned from Beijing carrying a world atlas and several theological books written by Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China. [3] Ricci's books provoked immediate academic controversy; early in the seventeenth century, Yi Sugwang (이수광) (a Court scholar) and Yu Mong-in (유몽인) (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

It may be worth noting here that during the period when Korea was closed to foreigners there was an extremely high number of martyrdoms of Koreans who were helping Catholic missionaries.One of the most famous is Andrew Kim, who was beheaded at the age of 25.

Academic sympathy - the Shilhak School

Some scholars were, however, more sympathetic to Christianity. Members of the Shilhak (실학) ("Practical Learning") school were greatly attracted to what they saw as the egalitarian values of Christianity. [4] 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. [5] An 1801 study indicated that fifty-five percent of all Catholics had family ties to the Shilhak school. [6] 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 (평양 - now the capital of North Korea) by Yi Sung-hun (이성헌), a diplomat who had been baptized in Beijing. In 1786, Yi proceeded to establish a hierarchy of lay-priests. [8] 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, [9] whom they called Hwan-in (환인) or Hananim (하나님). According to an ancient myth, Hwan-in had a son named Hwan-ung (환웅), who, in turn, had fathered a human son named Tangun (단군) in 2333B.C. [9], [10], [11] Tangun founded the Korean nation and, so the story goes, taught his people the elements of civilization during his thousand-year reign. [12] There are several variants of this myth, one of which depicts Tangun as having been born of a virgin [13] - 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. [14] 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 (한글) 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. [15] As early as the 1780s, portions of the Gospels appeared in Hangul; doctrinal books such as the Chugyo Yogi (주교여기) 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 Apenzeller, a Methodist, and Horace Underwood, a Presbyterian. [16] 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. [17] The Presbyterian Paejae School (배재고등학교) for boys was founded in 1885, and the Methodist Ehwa girls' school (이화여자대학교|이화여자고등학교) 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

But 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, [18] and a systematic campaign to eradicate all traces of Korean cultural and national identity was attempted. In 1938, even the Korean language was outlawed. [19]

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 (천도교)religion, fifteen of the thirty-three signatories happened to be Christians [20] - many of whom were subsequently imprisoned. 1919 also saw the establishment of the predominantly Catholic Ulmindan (울민단) ("Righteous People's Army") [21] - a pro-independence movement, and the establishment of a China-based government-in-exile by Seungman Rhee (이승만), a Methodist. [22] 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. [23], [24] 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; the situation is analogous to the proverbial chicken and 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 (세종대왕), [25], [26] was little used for several centuries because of the perceived 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 be taught to read it. [27] Protestant churches, too, made literacy in Hangul a prerequisite for admission to Holy Communion. [28] Female literacy also rose sharply; women had traditionally been excluded from the educational system. [29]

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 (음) and the Yang (양) - which held that the universe is governed by complementary 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-Christian 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, [30] children were totally subservient to their parents, [31] 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. [32] 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. [33] The diffusion of Christian values also contributed to the social emancipation of women and children. [34], [35] 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. [36] Arranged child marriages, and the neglect of daughters (who, in Asian society were often regarded as less "desirable" than sons) were prohibited. Nonetheless, it must be recalled that in "Christian" societies of previous centuries, for instance in medieval Europe, such rights of individuals, women, children, and the like, were also much more limited than those of the West of recent centuries. Thus it is not completely inappropriate to compare the Korea of that former time to the West before the Renaissance.

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 (민중) Theology. Based on the "Image of God" concept, but also incorporating the traditional Korean doctrine of the Han (한) (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 (김영삼) and Kim Dae-jung (김대중) subscribe to Minjung Theology. [37] 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 (박정회) 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. [38]


Christianity finally became established on Korean 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) [39] 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, and this vision necessarily encompasses North Korea. Furthermore, with a possible economic and political collapse of the North Korean regime looming, the South Korean churches are developing contingency plans to mobilize both spiritual and humanitarian resources to aid the North.

See also


Numbered references

[1] Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk, Operation World, Carlisle, Cumbria, and Waynesboro, GA., 2001, p.p. 387-390.

[2] CHOI Suk-woo, 'Korean Catholicism Yesterday and Today', Korean Journal XXIV, 8, August 1984, p. 4.

[3] KIM Han-sik, 'The Influence of Christianity', Korean Journal XXIII, 12, December 1983, p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p.p. 6-7

[5] Ibid., p. 6

[6] KIM Ok-hy, 'Women in the History of Catholicism in Korea', Korean Journal XXIV, 8, August 1984, p. 30.

[7] CHOI Suk-Woo, p.p. 5-6.

[8] National Unification Board, The Identity of the Korean People, Seoul, 1983, p.p. 132-136.

[9] Seoul International Publishing House, Focus on Korea, Korean History, Seoul, 1983, p.p. 7-8.

[10] The Identity of the Korean People, p.p. 132-136.

[11] Ilyon, tr. HA Tae-hung and Grafton K. Minz, Samguk Yusa, Seoul 1972, p.p. 32-33.

[12]-[13] Marguerite Johnson, 'The Culture', in Pico Iyer (ed.) 'An Ancient Nation on the Eve of a Modern Spectacle: SOUTH KOREA', Time CXXXII, 10, September 5, 1988, p. 48.

[14] Focus on Korea, p.p. 7-8.

[15] CHO Kwang, 'The Meaning of Catholicism in Korean History', Korean Journal XXIV, 8, August 1984, p.p. 20-21.

[16] Colin Whittaker, Korea Miracle, Eastbourne, 1988, p. 133.

[17] Andrew C. Nah, A Panorama of 5000 Years: Korean History, Seoul, 1983, p. 81.

[18] Whittaker, p. 62.

[19] Ibid., p. 65.

[20] Ibid., p. 63.

[21] CHOI Suk-woo, p. 10.

[22] Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 23, Danbury, Conn., 1988, p. 464.

[23] CHO Kwang, p. 11.

[24] Whittaker, p. 65.

[25] Merit Students Encyclopedia, Vol. 10, New York and London, 1980, p. 440.

[26] Whittaker, p. 34.

[27] CHO Kwang, p.p. 20-21.

[28] Whittaker, p. 40.

[29] KIM Ok-hy, p. 34.

[30] CHO Kwang, p.p. 16-18.

[31] Ibid., p.p. 18-19.

[32] KIM Han-sik, p.p. 11-12

[33] CHOI Suk-woo, p. 7.

[34] CHO Kwang, p.p. 16-18.

[35] Ibid., p.p. 18-19.

[36] Ibid., p.p. 16-19.

[37] Michael Lee, 'Korean Churches Pursue Social and Political Justice', in Brian Heavy (Ed.), Accent III, 3 Auckland, May 1988, p.p. 19-20.

[38] Kessing's Contemporary Archives, London, 25 April, 1980, p. 30216.

[39] J. Earnest Fisher, Pioneers of Modern Korea, Seoul, 1977, p.p. 65-74.


CHO Kwang, 'The Meaning of Catholicism in Korean History', Korean Journal XXIV, 8 (August 1984).

CHOI Suk-woo, 'Korean Catholicism Yesterday and Today' Korean Journal XXIV, 8 (August 1984).

Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 23., Danbury, Conn., 1988.

Fisher, J. Earnest, Pioneers of Modern Korea, Seoul, 1977.

ILYON, tr. HA Tae-hung and Mints, Grafton K., Samguk Yusa, Seoul, 1972.

Johnson, Marguerite, 'The Culture' in Iyer (ed.), 'An Ancient Nation on the Eve of a Modern Spectacle: SOUTH KOREA, Time, CXXXII, 10 (September 5, 1980).

Johnson, Patrick, and Mandryk, Jason, Operation World, Carlisle, Cumbria, and Waynesboro, GA, 2001.

Kessing's Contemporary Archives, London (25 April 1980).

KIM Han-sik, 'The Influence of Christianity', Korean Journal XXIII, 12 (12 December 1980).

KIM Ok-hy, 'Women in the History of Catholicism in Korea', Korean Journal XXIV, 8 (August 1984).

Lee, Michael, 'Korean Churches Pursue Social and Political Justice', in Heavy, Brian (ed.), Accent III, 3, Auckland (May 1981).

Merit Students' Encyclopedia, Vol. 10, New York and London, 1980.

National Unification Board, The Identity of the Korean People, Seoul, 1983.

Seoul International Publishing House, Focus on Korea: Korean History, Seoul, 1983.

Whittaker, Colin, Korea Miracle, Eastbourne, 1988.

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