South Korea is awash with evangelical Christianity.
This once resolutely shamanistic and Confucian country now seems to have more churches than corner stores. From miniscule, storefront chapels to the biggest church in the world, the skyline of every major city is ablaze with neon crosses. Evangelical Christians proselyte house to house, distribute pamphlets and church-emblazoned tissue packets on street corners, and cycle through town blaring sermons and homilies through bullhorns, urging you to either accept Jesus, or be prepared for the Devil’s wrath below. It is very rare to spend more than a few days in Korea without being preached to.
“We think of Korea as the Second Jerusalem,” says Hong Su Myeon, an older volunteer at Somang Presbyterian, a megachurch in Gangnam. He says Korea is leading a wave of evangelization around the world.
At the same time, Hong says, “It’s true that [a lot of] Christianity is corrupt. But there are a lot of hidden true pastors working hard, and their passion for God is why we are so successful in Korea.”
What can be most surprising to a visitor to Korea is that only 29 percent of the population actually identifies as Christian – about three-quarters Protestant, one quarter Catholic. But their zeal is so enormous that it overshadows the 23 percent who are Buddhist, and the 46 percent who say they have no religion at all.
“It is kind of amazing” how zealous Korean Christians are, says Dr. Hwang Moon-kyung, Professor of History at the University of Southern California. “They give you the impression that South Korea is a very religious country when in fact it isn’t. But the ones who are religious tend to be very fervently religious.”
Up From Persecution
It is one of East Asia’s greatest historical riddles – how did this small, divided country go from being a place where Christianity was just a footnote – barely one percent of the population in 1900 – to one that produces more missionaries than any other country in the world, bar the U.S.
No one would have predicted Christianity’s success in Korea 200 years ago. Catholicism was first introduced in the 18th century by returning Confucian scholars from China, but they saw it more as an academic interest. It was the direct arrival of French and Chinese Catholic missionaries in the early 19th century that set off the first round of missionizing. But Korea’s rulers were having none of it.
“For its first 75 years [the Catholic church] underwent the most horrendous persecution, comparable really to the history of the early church,” says Dr. James Grayson, professor of Modern Korean Studies at the University of Sheffield. Murder, torture, and massacre were all directed at early Christians by the Joseon Kings, who saw the church’s teachings of equality before God as a direct threat to their power.
At least 8000 Catholics were killed, and many have since been canonized, giving Korea the fourth largest number of saints of any nation. In 1984, John Paul II canonized 103 all at once.
Explaining and Resisting a Tumultuous World
It was the arrival of Protestantism in the 19th century that changed everything. By this point the Joseon kings were fast losing power, their Chinese protectors were in decline, and an ascendant Japan, America and Russia were all eyeing the Korean peninsula. The country needed whatever grace God could give it.
Protestantism arrived mostly from American missionaries, like Horace Allen and the Underwood family (famous for their typewriters), who built the schools, hospitals, and universities the kings didn’t. Christians were reputed to treat peasants with respect, as opposed to the scorn poured on them by the traditional nobility. The Bible was translated into Hangul, the simple phonetic writing system, rather than only into Chinese characters, which most people couldn’t read.
Christianity became a source of resistance, especially to Japanese colonial rule, which began in 1910 and was famously brutal. Though not all churches were anti-Japanese, many were.
“There was no other hope for Koreans at that time,” says Dr. Andrew Park, professor of Theology and Ethics at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. “They couldn’t depend on China, Russia, Americans, any other country. There was no help. Only God alone, they were so desperate.”
Grayson says that annexation provided a link between nationalism and Christianity. “The Korean church has never had to answer questions about association with Western imperialism, because imperialism in Korea was Japanese.”
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SOURCE: The Diplomat