For one who was there, the Billy Graham Crusade in Korea, May 30–June 3, may well have been the spiritual high of a lifetime. More than three million people gathered in the five-day Seoul crusade, and a hundred thousand stood to make decisions for Christ, something that had to be seen to be believed. Add to this the additional million and a half that we associate evangelists were privileged to address and you will begin to realize the magnitude of what was going on. The final June 3 meeting in the Plaza at Seoul, at which 1.1 million were present, was surely the largest crowd ever assembled to hear the Gospel preached.
What brought it all about? An analysis reveals many factors. Korea is a distinctive nation. It has been called the Israel of the Far East, and its people the Irish of the Orient. Confucianism has provided Korea’s cultural and ethical basis for the last two thousand years, as it has for China. In the sixth century A.D. Buddhism swept through the country, and it remains today nominally the strongest religion in Korea. Christianity stands second in numbers, though in vigor and influence it easily surpasses Buddhism. With all the sects and peripheral cults included, Christians make up 13 per cent of the population, with evangelicals prominent among them.
Half of the Korean evangelicals are Presbyterians; they are followed by Methodists, Holiness groups, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Anglicans. While the institutional church in many other lands is either at a standstill or back-pedaling, evangelical churches in Korea are among the fastest growing in the world, currently doubling in numbers each decade despite their strict membership requirements. (Many churches, Dr. Samuel Moffett told us, do not receive an applicant until he has led someone else to Christ.) The most effective publicity Graham received was not the generous press coverage but by word of mouth.
Recent population growth was a major factor in the magnitude of the crusade. In Korea there are 350 people to the square mile, fourteen times as many as in the United States, even though 80 per cent of the country is mountainous. Twenty years ago, at the end of the Korean War, Seoul had only a million people, but now it has exploded into the eighth-largest city in the world, with 6.1 million people. Many of these are from North Korea, from which five million refugees fled. I spoke on the concluding Sunday morning to 11,000 in (and around) the largest Presbyterian church in the world, Young Nak, the bulk of whose charter membership is made up of North Koreans. Their stories of valor amid surrounding martyrdom could fill a spellbinding book. They have a saying: “Christians are like nails: the more one hits them, the farther in one drives them.”
A Methodist superintendent minister told me that 10 per cent of the average congregation of any evangelical denomination attends five o’clock prayer meetings every morning. In Taegu, where I conducted a seven-day crusade, a reported 27,000 gathered on a Sunday afternoon during prayer time—all of them praying audibly at once.
There was undoubtedly an economic factor to the crusade story in a country that has an amazing 14 per cent annual growth of its GNP. Korea was 80 per cent rural, but now urban dwellers have surged into a narrow lead in the population of the country. Current wages in Seoul are about fifteen cents an hour, which sounds minimal, but with the labor force working up to seventy-two hours per week, it is enough for food, housing, and clothing better than what the Koreans have known in the past. Not many have cars, but bicycles, motorcycles, buses, trains, and even planes are seen packed in sardine style. There are cameras and transistor radios everywhere, though television is still a luxury item. The people are mobile and very receptive to public gatherings.
Politically the time was ripe. Although President Park is not even nominally Christian, he has said, “One man, one religion,” and he reckons that the best bulwark against Communism is personal religion. Consequently, the former army general’s word made the huge Plaza (the site where a government installation is to stand) available at nominal cost to the crusade.
Additionally, there is no anti-Americanism in the Republic of Korea. Dr. Stan Wilson, veteran Presbyterian statesman there, told us that there is scarcely a Korean over thirty-five who has not seen the body of a North American killed while defending Korean freedom.
Billy Graham is a familiar figure to Koreans, for he came to them in the middle of a cold winter during the Korean War. The people have not forgotten that Ruth Graham was educated in Korea and that Billy visited their battlefields, preached in their packed if bombed-out churches, and commiserated with them in the streets.
In his preaching, Graham stuck to the Word of God, with emphasis on parables and pictorial language that reflected the land, to which the people feel such an attachment. When it came time for the invitation, there simply was no way to invite inquirers to come forward. There were no aisles, and the people were closely packed. Graham asked those wishing to make decisions for Christ to stand up, and in each segment of the Plaza there were many counselors.
The six of us associate evangelists, conducting crusades in the seven smaller provincial centers, preached as often as five times a day. For example, Lee Fisher preached to 500 prostitutes, Sherwood Wirt to a thousand factory workers, Howard Jones to Buddhist seminarians, and Grady Wilson to 60,000 high-schoolers. At universities we addressed 2,500–4,000 students at a time. Perhaps the most receptive audiences were those in the army meetings. There on a hillside in flawless formation would be 2,200 Korean soldiers; evangelicals in the Korean army have doubled in numbers in the last three years—from 15 to 30 per cent.
Korean pastor Billy Kim, who interpreted for Graham, challenged the whole North American contingent at a breakfast meeting. After thanking us in a most moving way for coming to Korea, he looked searchingly around at us and chided: “We Koreans don’t care if you can preach! And we don’t care if you can sing! And we don’t even care about your cameras [turning around and pointing at a World Wide Pictures cameraman plying his trade]. What we want to know here in Korea is, ‘Do you love us?’ ” Most of us became misty-eyed as we thought of First Corinthians 13. Now, back at home, I can still see those shining faces, part of the two billion people of Asia, and hear a voice from that land of lovable people crying: “Come over … and help us.” I, for one, can hardly wait to go back!
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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