Next week, South Koreans will commemorate their liberation from Japan and the subsequent founding of the Korean nation. As much as any other civil holiday, Liberation Day, celebrated on August 15, symbolizes the Korean peninsula's self-determination and political strength. Yet without the Protestant church, it's worth wondering if Korean independence would ever have been achieved.
Indeed, the tie between Korea's church and its freedom movement makes for one of the most remarkable stories in modern missions.
When Protestant missionaries first arrived in the "hermit nation" in the mid-1880s, Korea was still heavily influenced by its historic patron and former occupier, China. Educated Koreans spoke and wrote Chinese alone. Although a 15th-century Korean king had invented an alphabet for Korea's indigenous language, Hangul, it was rarely used. Many considered Hangul to be the language of children and illiterates.
One of the missionaries' earliest decisions was to translate the Bible into Hangul. Throughout the 1890s, Korean colporteurs worked with missionaries to distribute Scripture portions throughout the country. These Scriptures were highly contextualized, using Korean spiritual terms infused with new, Christian meanings. By the time Japan colonized Korea in 1910, the British and Foreign Bible Society alone had distributed more than one million Scripture portions.
As the first piece of Hangul literature, the Korean Bible proved to be a thorn in the side of imperial Japan. It sparked a "Hangul movement," leading to the publication of newspapers, poems, and novels in the indigenous tongue. Throughout Japanese occupation, the Koreans' desire for independence became closely linked with their desire to use their own language. As ...