Christianity in Korea : nationalism, identity and church growth

John Roxborogh  

I. General History

After centuries of isolation, Japanese influence in Korea developed from about 1876 onwards with Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. During this period of colonial rule Korean culture and Korean nationalism were ruthlessly repressed.1 After World War II the Americans and the Russians set up occupation zones in the more rural south and the more industrialized north respectively.

There was a local Communist government in the North from 1948 but war broke out in 1950 when it tried to reunite the country by force. As the Russians were not part of the Security Council of the UN at this time they were not able to veto the UN involvement with the US resisting the invasion of the South. The war further embittered and divided the Korean people. There is strong nationalism and mutual distrust. The Korean War ended in July 1953 and both sides remain in armed readiness. That the ruler of the North is easily portrayed as a character out of comic book does not mean that he should not be taken seriously. The North has been responsible for acts of international terrorism, but the human rights record of the South also leaves much to be desired although some efforts at improvement have taken place in the last few years. The situation of tension and division breeds its own sense of stress and this is reflected in many things.

The churches of the North have practically disappeared though limited contacts with other countries have been possible for political showcase reasons. These should not be despised even if they should be recognized for what they are. Christianity in the South has boomed and it is difficult not to ask questions about how this is related to the social and political situation of the country. Presbyterianism has flourished like nowhere in Asia, or anywhere else in the world since the 16th century in Holland and Scotland. Methodism and Catholicism are also strong.

Some factors are obvious candidates for examination. Korea has suffered from invasion, but the invaders of note were other Asians - the Japanese, and not a Western country. Hence Christianity is not usually seen as anti-Korean. It is not associated with colonialism, instead it is identified with nationalism because of the way in which Christians suffered along with everyone else during the time of Japanese occupation.2 (It would be interesting to note whether any of this applied to any of the occupied areas of China.) The repression by the Japanese was related to their "Emperor-Deity system in striking contrast to the constitutions in Western countries where the Christianity provided the basic principle" and to the fact that Christians refused to take part in compulsory Shinto worship because it was contrary to the First Commandment.

It is also very significant that the North is anti-Christian, and to be Christian is associated with being anti-Communist (as in Indonesia after 1965). The government in the South is happy to encourage Christianity, and is especially keen to do so where it perceives it to be socially quiescent and a force for loyalty rather than criticism of the powers that be. Some caution is needed in applying the "lessons" of spectacular church growth in Korea to other situations.

II. Religious background

The traditional religions were perhaps at a stage where people's allegiance was not what it had been, and coupled with the turmoil of the 20th century there was a willingness to change. Dr Horace Underwood, a descendant of the pioneer Methodist noted that at the turn of the century there was a spiritual vacuum, "Confucianism ... was an upper class, rather sterile, elite religion; Shamanism a loose collection of beliefs and superstitions, Buddhism virtually dead."4

III. Early Christian contacts

The possibility of Nestorian contact in the 7th century remains open, though there is no firm evidence. A Franciscan, William Rubruc sent a letter to the pope mentioning Korea after visiting a border area, but nothing seems to have come of it.

Other early contacts were also superficial and the real beginnings of the church came from converts returning home, not missionaries. A Catholic chaplain, the Spanish Jesuit Gregorio de Cespedes accompanied invading Japanese troops in 1593, but his concerns were with the troops, not with the Koreans. There were plans to evangelize Korea through converted prisoners of war but these did not get very far.5 In 1832 the Protestant China missionary Karl Gutzlaff (1803-1851) visited the coast.

There were also contacts through China as Koreans at the Imperial Court in Peking were aware of the Jesuit mission and took back scientific books and instruments obtained from the mission. Adam Schall was active in trying to find an opening through conversion of leading Koreans, but these schemes did not reach their intended fruition. But eventually Catholicism reached Korea itself through Lee (or Yi) Sung-hun who returned home from China in 1784 having been baptized at the Jesuit mission. With a few friends who were also converted a small church was established. With some irregularity these laymen also started celebrating the sacraments as well as conducting baptisms. The bishop of Peking put a stop to this in 1790.6

When Fr James Chou from China arrived in 1794 as the first missionary there were about 4000 Catholics, increasing to about 10,000 by 1800 until reduced to almost nothing by a serious persecution the following year. Fr Chou was among those martyred. In 1835 he was followed by Fr Pierre Maubbant of the Société des missions étrangères de Paris. The Catholic church grew despite persecutions in 1790, 1795, 1801, 1815, 1839, 1846 and 1866. There were many martyrs including 3 MEP priests in 1839. The reasons for these persecutions seem to be not so much that Christianity was foreign, but that with its acceptance by some intellectuals it was perceived as a threat to the ruling ideology of Neo-Confucianism.7

The persecution of 1801, was intensified because of the interception of a rash letter from Hwang Sa Yong to the Bishop of Peking which asked for Christians to come in force (400 warships and 50,000 soldiers) to convert the nation. In 1831 Korea was established as a diocese independent from China.

Around 1882 treaties with Western powers, notably the Americans, included provision for religious freedom, and these were reflected in Kyomin agreements between the Korean church and government authorities.8 A treaty with France in 1886 gave freedom to Catholics.9

The first Protestant convert, Suh Sang-yuh, also came to faith outside Korea. While in Manchuria in 1876 he came under the influence of Scottish missionaries. Some early Protestant converts founded a church in Sollae in the North West in 1882. Scripture translation saw the publication of Luke's Gospel in 1884. The first Protestant missionaries were a Presbyterian doctor, Horace Allen, who arrived in 1884 and two clergy, H G Underwood (Presbyterian) and H G Appenzeller (Methodist) who arrived in 1885. A comity arrangement between Methodists and Presbyterians was agreed in 1891. This territorial division was not only denominational, but for different missions for each of the two parties - Northern and Southern USA Methodists and Presbyterians from North and South of the USA, from Canada and from Australia. Over a period of time each of these had a theological as well as a denominational identity. "Generally speaking the territory of the Canadian occupation produced liberal theology, the other three Presbyterian missions a powerful conservative Christianity, and the Methodists a cultural and social Christianity.10

Following the China-Japanese war there was considerable interest in Christianity as already it was perceived as anti-Japanese. This was strengthened when the church helped defend the royal family after the murder of the Queen by Japanese.

In the north S A Moffett was the pioneer American Presbyterian were growth was strong especially from 1895. There was a revival in 1906-7in Pyeng Yang. The "Nevius Plan" stressing independence and bible study was implemented seriously after 1891 and is regarded as another factor in the strength of the church in Korea today. Its emphasis on self-reliance had social as well as religious implications. The Korean Presbyterian Church became an independent body in 1907. Both Methodists and Presbyterians were involved in sending missionaries to Siberia and Japan in 1908, and in 1909 the "A million souls for Christ" movement was launched.

IV. Korean Christianity under the Japanese

From 1905 Japanese influence continued to increase. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea and Christians suffered along with others especially when they refused to join in compulsory Shinto worship. Christian schools were restricted in what they could teach and Christian leaders were arrested. Not surprisingly the church became identified with independence movements especially after 1919 and atrocities continued including the burning down of three local churches with the congregations inside them.

Catholics, particularly the clergy, were more passive than Protestants in the independence movements, but there was still quite a lot of involvement. Seminary students took part against orders of their superiors, resulting in expulsions and the cancellation of ordinations in 1919. After the March 1 [1919] Independence Movement failed some Catholics were involved in the Korean government in exile set up in Shanghai. Further restrictions and closures of schools followed the events of 1919.

The issue of Shinto worship first became an issue in the 1920s. Catholics refused on the grounds that it was paganism, then in the 30s the Japanese said that it was a national ceremony so that Catholic permission was given to take part. Not all agreed that this was acceptable and some lost their jobs or were sent to prison for their refusal to join in.

Despite the oppression there was ongoing growth in the Catholic church during the Japanese time, with the number of dioceses increasing from one to nine.

V. After the Korean War of 1950-1953

The Catholic population rose from 160,000 in 1953 to 530,000 in 1962. It is acknowledged that although many people turned to the church for "spiritual comfort", "the chief motivations behind such a big conversion were the U.N. Command's anticommunist policy and the active relief activities of the U.S. Church."11 By the time of the 200th birthday of Korean Catholicism in 1984 there were an estimated 1,700,000 Catholics with some of the most rapid growth in recent years. Some of the Catholic growth is among urban intellectuals who perceive the Catholic church as more serious than some of the myriad Protestant groups.

In 1963 the NCC criticised the government of General Park Chung Hee for his seizure of power and from 1970 the churches entered a new period of strained relationships with the authorities as both Protestants and Catholics voiced concern about deteriorating human rights in the South. Not all shared in this however, and polarisation between advocates of Minjung Theology and socially conservative theology was very marked.

VI. North Korea

The North had originally been the strongest area for Christian growth. The Yi dynasty which ruled from Seoul did not take the north very seriously, but it was there were there were contacts with Manchuria and where the first Korean converts built their churches. Pyongyang was once called a "second Jerusalem."

After WW II and the coming of the communist government in 1948 many Christians fled south. Between 1946 and 1951 25,000 or half the Catholic population of the north were refugees to the south. Large-scale persecution was acute in 1949 with the arrest of Catholic bishops and clergy. After 1952 there were about 2 million refugees of which about 10,000 were catholic. Now "less is known about Christianity in North Korea than in any other Communist country except Mongolia and Albania."12 Kim Il Sung maintains there are churches in the North for the few that want them, but his policy of extermination has been very thorough. The Chosun Christian League appears to be a front organization for appearances only, but it has arranged conferences for overseas Korean Christians to try and pass resolutions critical of the South and it also attempted to join the Word Council of Churches.

VII. The Church in Korea in the 1980s

In 1981 an article on Korea described it as "A nation on the run to God"13 - picking up a comment of Dr Sam Moffett son of the pioneer S A Moffett, and himself a missionary in Korea.14 The success of Paul Yonggi Cho's mega-church is mind boggling. Their super large congregations may not be exactly typical but in South Korea the Christians were estimated at about 18% of the population less than a century after the first serious missionary efforts. Since WWII the church has roughly doubled in size every decade, though growth has slowed in the 1990s.

The growth is also associated with the presence of Christian schools and colleges - at a time when in some other countries these involvements are seen more as a drain on the Church than a contribution to its numerical or spiritual growth.

Success in terms of growth has also seen division. In 1970 it was said "For the last fifteen years the strength and pride of the Korean churches has been sapped by internal problems; splits and schisms have exhausted their energy and dimmed their light. The Presbyterians have split into more than ten different groups; there are three Methodist groups, two Holiness groups and five Baptist groups"15 It might also be asked whether some of the qualities which lead to growth also contribute to division. Strong leadership can inspire some; it can also drive away those who find there is little room for them to participate unless they develop their own church.

In 1984 the Far Eastern Economic Review ran its cover story as "Korea: the Cross as Catalyst"16 That year, the 200th birthday of Catholicism in Korea saw the canonisation of 103 martyrs giving the country more saints than any other except Italy Spain and France. A government census in October 1983 revealed 5.3 million Protestants, 13.4% of the population in the South and 1.7 million Catholics. If more marginal Christian groups are included about 25% of the 40 million population is Christian and about 50% of the army. Although less aggressive than Protestants, Catholics also continue to grow very fast. It seems that Korea could be the first Confucian country to become Christian. However it needs to be asked how great a transition is made at times, Rev K C Suh, remarked "Christians in South Korea are not progressive or liberal, our Christians are Confucians dressed in Christian robes."17 Cho's messages at his mammoth Full Gospel Church are clear "faith will heal; faith will give you the gift of tongues... faith will bring you success in business, in work, in whatever you do," but some see in them "traces of early Korean shamanism and Confucianism all cleverly measured and mixed." He "strikes a cord in spiritually dispossessed people who feel insecure faced with war, political uncertainty and economic deprivation."18 Not all are happy with competitive church building and sheep stealing, or other forms of "church pollution". Some, laity especially, ask questions about whether this is building God's Kingdom or man's empire, whether their religion needs saving as well as their souls. A Rev Moon (no relation) says there has been a sacrifice of quality in the concern for quantity, "This is a time to take a hard look at ourselves. We ought to ask how much Christianity has changed us, or, indeed, whether it has changed us at all."19

There are other areas of concern besides growth and division. Involvement in the World Council of Churches became a contentious issue which fuelled church splits.20 Different parts of the church have been increasingly resistant to the government in the South as it also developed in a totalitarian direction particularly from 1963 when General Park Chung Hee changed the constitution. Perhaps it was not surprising that people asked whether the Liberation Theology formulated in Latin America had anything to say in the Korean Asian context. The result has been the development of Minjung Theology to emphasise the needs of the poor, oppressed and under-privileged. Despite the valid concern to be orientated around the needs of the masses of the people, its credibility within Korea may not be as great as its credibility overseas.21 Nevertheless, whatever the foreign interest and the foreign parallels, both Minjung Theology and church growth have roots in the historical experience of the Korean church and some of the polarities that has helped produce. Minjung in particular relates strongly to the experience of suffering of the nation at the hands of others, of ordinary people in relation to elites, and women in relation to men in patriarchal society. It is a concept out of the Korean experience to which the Gospel relates.

Those who raise these questions reflect divisions over the appropriateness of social concern and criticism of the government, but the base for this has probably broadened in recent years. The first two rulers after the defeat of the Japanese were Christians, but it is their misrule which helped create the conditions where a critical role for the Church in society was again urgently required. The first Prime Minister was a Methodist, Rhee; the second a Catholic, John Chang. Chang was toppled in an army coup by General Park Chung Hee who in 1979 was assassinated. His successor, Chun Doo Wan has only recently fallen from power, but the memory of his ruthless suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Kwanju in 1980, killing about 200, lives on as Korea's equivalent of Tiananmen Square. The government for a time succeeded in depicting Christian activism as subversive. Although there may be a general willingness to prefer peace, especially in view of the threat from the less than rational North, there will always be those who question whether the ends justify these means and whether those employing them should have the support of the Christian community.

Although Korea appears culturally monochrome, there are differences that continue to affect the history of the church and help explain some of the tendency to schism. Anti-missionary feeling could take a pro-Japanese form, just as anti-Japanese movements could be pro Western missionary. Anti-missionary feeling tended to be strongest in the South and associated with more liberal and socially oriented theology in the Seoul area. Conservatives were more in the northwest where prior to the Communist take over about 80% of Christians resided. That area was more Presbyterian, the Central and South more Methodist.22

In the 1980s and 1990s Korean churches have multiplied in many parts of the world where Koreans have migrated or gone to work in business. Korean missionaries have served overseas since the 1950s, and not just to Korean expatriates. It is important that Korean Christians, and Christians from other cultures, appreciate the combination of cultural, political and religious factors which have contributed to this growth.

This was originally written in 1989. Subsequent edits have been minor, but I have tried to keep the bibliography up to date with major titles.

John Roxborogh

Select Bibliography

Bong Rin Ro. "The Church in Korea" in Saphir Athyal ed., Church in Asia Today Asia Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 1996.

Brown, G Thompson. 'Why has Christianity grown faster in Korea than in China? Missiology 22(1) Jan 1994,' 77-88.

Buswell, Robert and Timothy Lee, eds., Christianity in Korea, University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

Clark, D N. Christianity in modern Korea, University Press of America, 1986.

Diaz, Hector. A Korean theology. Chu-Gyo Yo-Ji: Essentials of the Lord's teaching by Chong Yak-jong Augustine (1760-1801), Neue Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft, 1986.

Far Eastern Economic Review, 19 April 1984, pp.44-55.

Grayson, James Huntley. "The Sinto Shrine Conflict and Protestant Martyrs in Korea, 1938-1945," in Missiology 29(3), July 2001.

Hanson, E O. Catholic politics in China and Korea, Orbis, 1980.

Hunt, Everett N. 'John Livingston Nevius 1829-1893. Pioneer of Three-Self Principles in Asia' in G H Anderson, ed., Mission Legacies, Orbis, 1994, 190-196.

International Review of Mission, 714(293), January 1985.

Jung Young Lee, "The American missionary movement in Korea, 1882-1945: its contributions and American diplomacy," Missiology, 9(4), 1983, 387-402.

Kim Yong Bok, Minjung theology: people as the subjects of history, CCA, 1981.

Kirsteen Kim, “Christianity's Role in the Modernization and Revitalization of Korean Society in the Twentieth Century,” International Journal of Public Theology4, no. 2 (April 1, 2010): 212-236.

Sung-deuk Oak, Sources of Korean christianity : 1832-1945, Seoul: Institute for Korean Church History, 2004.  

Park, P B. "Christianity in the land of Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism," South East Asia Journal of Theology, 14(1), 1972, 33-39.

Park, Seong-Won. "Worship in the Presbyterian Church in Korea." in Lukas Vischer, ed., Christian worship in Reformed Churches past and present, Eerdmans, 2003, 194-207.

Shearer, R E. Wildfire: church growth in Korea, Erdmann's, 1969.

Underwood, Horace G. 'Christianity in Korea,' Missiology 22(1) Jan 1994, 65-76.

Wi Jo Kang, "The first Protestant missionary in Korea and early U.S.-Korean relations," Missiology, 9(4), 1983, 403-418.

Wi Jo Kang, "The relationship between Christian communities and Chung Hee Park's government in Korea," Missiology, 9(3), 1981, 345-358.

Yoo, Boo-Woong, "Response to Korean Shamanism by the Pentecostal Church," International Review of Mission 75, January 1986, 70-74.

Yu Chai-Sin, Korea and Christianity, Asian Humanities Press, 2002.

Yu Chai-Sin, The founding of Catholic tradition in Korea, Asian Humanities Press, 2004.



 Donald N. Clark, "Christianity in Modern Korea" in Rethinking our Notions of Asia. (pdf)

Reformed Christianity in Asia 

Sung-Deuk Oak Online Archive Korean Christianity

UCLA Centre for Korean Studies  


  1. Asia Yearbook 1989, p.147.
  2. "The secret and background of the success and growth of the Korean church is to be attributed to the strong nationalistic and independent spirit of the church. Korea is the only and unique country in the whole world where the Gospel was not preached with the Western imperial aggression. For the people of Korea the colonial power was the Japanese Empire, the non-Christian, pseudo-religious state of the Emperor-Deity. Japan colonised and ruled Korea for half a century (1895-1945). This period corresponds precisely with the formative and constructive period of the Korean church. The Christianity in Korea, therefore, has never been suspected as the anti-national movement because the church was a natural ally of every movement for the national independence." Kyoung Bae Min, "History of the Church in Korea," EATWOT mss. p.1f
  3. Kyoung Bae Min, ibid, p.2.
  4. Far Eastern Economic Review, 15 May 1981, p.65.
  5. Seok Wook Choi, "A short history of Catholic Church in Korea," mss, EATWOT, Manila, 1987, p.4. Also published in Korea Journal, August 1984, pp.4-13.
  6. Seok Wook Choi, ibid., p.8.
  7. Seok Wook Choi, ibid., p.2.
  8. Seok Wook Choi, ibid., pp.3,12.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Kyoung Bae Min, ibid., p.10.
  11. Seok Wook Choi, ibid., p.17.
  12. Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia, p.440.
  13. Far Eastern Economic Review, ibid.
  14. Retired professor of missions, Princeton.
  15. Kim Chung Choon in S Neill, et al., Concise Dictionary of the Christian World Mission, p.327.
  16. 19 April 1984, 44-55.
  17. Far Eastern Economic Review, ibid, p.45.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Harvie M Conn, "The Presbyterian Church Controversy in Korea" in Donald Hoke, ed., The Church in Asia, Moody, 1975, 385f.
  21. Kyoung Bae Min, ibid., p.3.
  22. Kyoung Bae Min, ibid., p.3f.