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Captains, Doctors, Missionaries – How Protestantism Reached Korea

Kapitän Murray Maxwell
Captain Murray Maxwell (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The first Protestants to arrive in Korea were Dutch sailors. In 1623 Jan Janszoon Weltvree landed along with two other seamen. He started a family and remained in Korea until his death (after 1666). These Dutch sailors do not seem to have left any traces of their faith however.

First came the seafarers

The Protestant mission in Korea did not begin until the nineteenth century and initially sought to distribute the Bible in Chinese and Chinese religious writings. The first Protestant to give a Bible to Koreans was probably the British captain Murray Maxwell, who visited the west coast of Korea with Captain Basil Hall in 1816. In 1832 the first Protestant missionary set foot on Korean soil, the Lutheran pastor and missionary to China, Karl Gützlaff. The German Gützlaff spent three weeks travelling along the west coast, handing out religious treatises, New Testaments and Bibles, learnt Korean script – and made the locals acquainted with potato farming and wine growing. 

Koreanische Bücher
Korean Books ((Foto: TongRo_thinkstock)

The second Protestant missionary was also a European: the Welsh ordained Congregationalist Robert Jermain Thomas. In the autumn of 1865, 33 years after Gützlaff’s mission, he spent an initial two and half months on the west coast, handed out Bibles and religious writings in Chinese script and learned the basics of the Korean language. In the Korea of the time that was by no means a safe undertaking; the kingdom had largely closed itself to influences from abroad. Foreigners were forbidden to enter the country and Christianity, at first represented by Catholics, was banned and persecuted. When Thomas returned to Korea in the summer of the following year, sent by the USA to persuade Korea to open up, once more the timing could hardly have been worse: shortly before his arrival Korea had begun drastic persecution of Christians. His ship was set on fire before it could dock in Pyongyang and the entire crew was killed.

Vernacular Korean Bible translation 

The development of the first Protestant communities can be traced back to the work of two Scottish missionaries to Manchuria, John Ross and John MacIntyre. Ross came into contact with Koreans at a market close to the Korean border in 1873. These Koreans sought him out repeatedly in subsequent years and took an active interest in Christianity. Together with these men the Scottish missionaries in Shenyang (China) translated the New Testament into Korean, using the Hangeul alphabet, which could also be understood by the common people. Some of the translators were baptised from 1879 on, and can be considered the first Protestants in Korea on record.

Between 1882 and 1887 the first individual gospels appeared in Korean, followed by the entire New Testament. Chinese writings were banned in Korea, so the translators smuggled in the Bible texts and distributed them among the people. As a result of their work, the first small Protestant communities were formed in Korea, first in the far north of North Korea, in Euiju (in 1882, today the area corresponds to the Sinuiju Special Administrative Region, planned as a Special Economic Zone), and later further south in Sorae and Seoul (Saemunan district, both in 1887).

North American missionaries dominate

In 1871 the persecution of Christians ended and gradually greater religious freedom was permitted. While the Protestant mission had been begun by European missionaries, it was mainly North American Protestants who took the initiative once Korea became open to the West in 1882. Their work initially centred on the capital city Seoul. The first Protestant missionary living in Korea was the Presbyterian Horace Newton Allen, who worked as a doctor at the American embassy. He gained the trust of the royal family and thus paved the way for the mission.

Karl Gützlaff
Karl Gützlaff (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1885 the first ordained missionaries arrived, the Presbyterian Horace Grant Underwood and the Methodist Henry Gerhart Appenzeller, who were officially there on medical and educational business. Although missionary work was forbidden, they began to evangelise immediately.

The individual interests of the various Protestant denominations hindered the founding of a common church, however. The Presbyterians had a particularly successful mission strategy centred on John Nevius. After the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 Presbyterianism also gained a lot of followers, aided by the growing dependence on Japan. Many Koreans saw in Christianity the only hope for their country. Pyongyang developed into a centre of Korean Protestantism and from 1907 on experienced a huge Protestant awakening that quickly took hold of the country as a whole.

Although Korea lost its political autonomy in 1910, the Protestant Churches grew to hold more than 360,000 members by 1939. Due to increasing repression and the impact of the war the number of Christians had sunk to 200,000 by 1945. Following liberation from Japanese rule in 1945 and the partition of the country that went with it, many Protestants fled the North for South Korea, particularly during the Korean War of 1950–53. This strengthened Protestantism in the South, while it was suppressed in the North, where it has been forced underground to this day.

Rapid growth thanks to “Prosperity Gospel”

In the South, Protestantism experienced rapid growth, especially after the beginning of industrialisation and urbanisation in the 1960s. This was mainly due to Prosperity Gospel and its message of material blessing. Since the 1990s however this growth has reached its limits. While the number of Protestants has stagnated at approximately 8 million or 16 per cent of the population, the Catholic Church and Buddhism are experiencing a strong upsurge in followers. At the same time, Protestantism is divided into around 200 – mainly Presbyterian – denominations. Hence calls for qualitative growth and reformation are getting louder. Indeed, Protestantism in South Korea has many similarities with the Catholic Church in the time of Martin Luther. It will be interesting to see what impact the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation has in Korea. It can be expected that here the country’s small Lutheran Church, which came to Korea via the USA as late as 1971, will play an important role.