From Persecution to Prevalence - Christianity in Korea

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The history of Christianity in Korea is generally considered to start in the 17th century - much later than Confucianism or Buddhism - yet today, there are more believers of the Christian faith than any other organized religion in Korea. The history of the introduction of Christianity to Korea is unique in that it was initiated by Korean scholars who took an academic interest in Christianity as a teaching of Western civilization, rather than by Christian missionaries proteselyzing in Korea.

After the Qing invasions (1636-7), Joseon bureaucrats who had been sent to Qing China began to take interest in Western civilization, and began importing and academically studying Catholic literature from China. In 1758, Catholicism was officially outlawed by King Yeongjo. Christian ideals of egalitarianism and worship of a single god – rather than one’s ancestors – were considered a threat to Joseon’s Confucian society. Despite this, in 1784, Joseon’s first believer, Yi Seung-hun Peter, was baptized in Beijing and shortly thereafter churches were secretly formed in Joseon. In 1801, 1839, 1846 and 1866, there were multiple large-scale persecutions of Catholics resulting in the death of over 10,000 Catholics around the country – including nine French missionaries. Of these martyrs, 103 were canonized as saints in 1984, with 124 more beatified in 2014 – making Korea 4th in number of Catholic saints.

Shortly after the opening of Joseon’s ports in 1876, Protestant missionaries began to enter Joseon. In 1884, Joseon’s first Protestant church was established by Seo Sang-ryun in Hwanghae-do Province (present-day North Korea) and Horace N. Allen, a Protestant missionary, entered the country as an American diplomat and physician. Shortly after his arrival, Allen saved the life of the nephew of Queen Min.King Gojong took an interest in Western medicine, appointed Allen as his personal court physician, and supported the establishment of the first modern medical facility in Joseon (which eventually became today’s Severance Hospital at Yonsei University). In 1885, more American missionaries came to Joseon, such as Horace G. Underwood (founder of Chosun Christian College, which later became Yonsei University), Henry G. Appenzeller (founder of Paichai Boys School and the first Methodist church in Seoul – Chungdong First Methodist Church), and Mary F. Scranton (founder of Ewha Girls School, which later became Ewha Womens University). In addition to introducing Western medicine and schools, the missionaries worked on the translation of the Bible from Chinese characters to the Korean alphabet, hangeul. The acceptance of Protestantism also led to more freedom for Catholics, who built Myeongdong Cathedral around this time, which was the largest building in Korea at the time of its construction.

Today, about 30% of South Koreans consider themselves Christian – among which around one-fourth are Catholics and three-fourths are Protestants. Koreans view Catholicism and Protestantism as separate religions – largely due to their vastly different histories in Korea. The rapid adoption of the Christian faith in Korea despite having been introduced much later than Confucianism and Buddhism is partly because Christianity, as an embodiment of Western civilization, played a key role in Korea's modernization, industrialization, and democratization movements in the later half of the 20th century. Today, Korea is home to many megachurches, such as Yoido Full Gospel Church which has the largest congregation in the world with some 480,000 members, and churches play a key role in Korean communities abroad. South Korea also ranks second in the number of missionaries sent overseas (after the U.S.).

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