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History of Christianity in Korea

History of Christianity in...

Christianity is reputed to have been introduced to Korea following the baptism of Lee Seung-hoon (baptismal name Peter) while he was in China. On his return to his home, he set about converting and baptizing other Koreans. About 15 years later, priests arrived, first from China and then from France. However, the long presence of local ‘lay-workers’ as opposed to foreign priests meant that Christianity was born as a grass-roots movement and consequently spread more quickly than if it had been introduced by ‘foreigners’.

Prior to 1784, Christianity had visited Korea through Christians in the Japanese military and through a Jesuit priest who worked with Japanese expatriates, but who was not permitted to proselytize Koreans. In the early 17th century, a Korean diplomat returned from China with books written by another Jesuit and introduced some of the ideas to other intellectuals, many of whom were attracted by what they perceived to be the egalitarian values of Christianity. But it wasn’t until almost two centuries later, when Lee Seung-hoon established the first Catholic prayer house that Catholicism began to truly take hold in Korean society.

During much of the 1800’s, the Catholic Church preached against what it referred to as ‘ancestor worship, but which was an integral part of Korean culture. Consequently, the church and its followers were persecuted by the government.

Protestantism followed Catholicism into Korea about 100 years later, around 1884 through the works of two missionaries from the United States, one a Methodist (Henry Appenzeller) and the other a Presbyterian (Horace Underwood).

The Catholic Church was the first public institution in Korea to officially recognize the value of the Korean-language based and easily learned Hangul (invented around 1446 in the court of King Sejong but rarely used because of the perceived superiority of Classical Chinese writing) and not only used it for its printed literature, but also taught it to Catholic children. Consequently, Christian teachings began to spread beyond the Korean elite, most of whom used Chinese. In 1887, the Bible was translated into Korea and its mass-circulation began. (For more on the history of the translation into Korean, click here.)

In the late 19th century, Protestant missionaries established Korea’s first modern educational institutions, including Ewha Womans University in 1886. The establishment of these schools and others led to a rapid increase in the number of Protestants among the common people, which in turn, grew their numbers more than that of Catholics.

Following the wave of Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries of the late 19th century, other sects such as the Church of Latter Day Saints and Seventh Day Adventists among others found a stronghold in Korea. Prior to the division of the peninsula into North and South Korea, a higher number of catholics could be found in the North with more Protestants in the South.

Christianity, especially Protestantism referred to in Korea as Christianity (excluding Catholicism) has continued to grow in South Korea and in the 1990’s surpassed Buddhism in terms of the number of adherents. Proselytizing appears to be an integral part of their religion for many Christians and Korea has the distinction of being the second highest exporter of missionaries in the world, after the United States. Evangelising their brothers and sisters in the North is an important goal for many South Korean Christians, as is spreading Christian doctrine through good works in other parts of the world, as well as the other half of the peninsula.

Among the questions asked of foreigners in Korea, sometimes as part of English-language practice, include queries about one’s age, marital status, and religion. Even though there is  an assumption among Koreans of all generations, but especially older ones,  that most Westerners, especially Americans, are Christian, some of the more fundamentalists among them feel compelled to guide us toward the ‘righteous’ path. It is not unusual to be stopped on the streets of Itaewon in Seoul (where many foreign residents live and tourists visit) or approached in coffee shops, etc. by ‘missionaries’ offering to ‘save’ us.

In 2008, tensions between Buddhist leaders and Christian government officials increased following the election of Lee Myong-bak, a declared devout Christian. In September 2008, following accusations again him and his government of discrimination and hostility toward Buddhism, President Lee expressed deep regret for any perceived bias in favour of Christians. His apology was accepted and tensions appear to have been reduced.

Both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in Korea tend to be on the conservative side. Evangelical and fundamentalist churches are well represented, while in catholic churches, women generally cover their heads with a white mantilla.

K4E Editor: Korea4Expats.com tries to ensure that the information we provide is accurate and complete, so should you notice any errors or omissions in the content above please contact us at info@korea4expats.com.

 Photo from Wikipedia of the Sorae Church built in 1895

Last Updated on 2021-02-08

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