Protestant missionaries arrived in Korea in the 1880s with a burning desire to share the gospel to the locals.
This was the golden age of Protestant missions, and missionary records captured detailed impressions of Korea’s political, social, and spiritual atmosphere.
The missionaries were perplexed to find almost no evidence of religious life there. Some even defined Korea as a nonreligious country where Confucianism merely served as a philosophical and moral guide for living.
They were wrong.
As they settled into their new lives, the missionaries soon realized that shamanism was a core religious belief in Korea. American missionary Homer B. Hulbert used the term “spirit-worship” for the animist, nature-worshiping practices he observed there, while fellow missionary George Heber Jones opined that Korea was rich in religious phenomena that comprised a mix of shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
Shamanism “appealed” to the Korean person’s soul and “inspired him with fear,” while “Buddhism appealed to his heart and inspired him with admiration and Confucianism appealed to his mind and inspired him with respect and veneration,” Jones wrote in The Rise of the Church in Korea.
These missionaries also grew to recognize how influential shamanism was in shaping and contextualizing the Christian faith in the Korean context.
Shamanism provided a deep awareness of the spirit world, which cultivated fertile space for evangelism. The female shamans’ spiritual power and authority also proved instrumental in growing a network of “Bible women” in the country.
How Christianity arrived in Korea
Korean scholars were the first to introduce Catholicism in the country. In the 1700s, a group of young local scholars who had studied Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci’s The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven in Chinese dispatched Korean representatives to China. In 1784, these representatives came back to the Korean peninsula and brought Catholicism with them.
As Catholicism in Korea grew significantly, so did antagonism against those who professed this faith. The 18th and early 19th centuries were marked by persecution and martyrdom, and the greatest outbreak of persecution occurred in 1866 under Korean imperial regent Taewŏn’gun’s rule. Following his abdication in 1874, Queen Min initiated treaties with foreign powers, which opened doors for Protestant missionaries to arrive in Korea.
Yet shamanism remains a potent and pervasive force in Korean society, and an estimated 50,000 shamanic ceremonies are held in greater Seoul annually.
A deeply rooted animism
Shamanism is a folk religion based on the belief that human beings can interact with various spirits, including spirits of ancestors or of inert objects such as trees and the moon. It began in Siberia and existed in Korea well before the tenth century B.C. While there is no accurate record of who brought shamanism into Korea, archaeological data points to the Bronze Age as the period it arrived in the peninsula.
While shamanism exists worldwide, Korean shamanism is unique in terms of the costumes shamans wear, the spirits they interact with, and (most of all) the way they communicate with the spirits. Most shamans around the globe contact the spirit world by going into a trance and “leaving” their bodies. Korean shamans, however, invite the spirits to come “into” them.
Mudang, or female shamans, typically lead rituals (kut) by performing songs and dances with accompanying music and preparing offerings to please the spirits invoked. (Baksu, or male shamans, also exist but are less common.)
For these rituals, mudang dress in elaborate rainbow-hued ceremonial outfits that come decorated with jade pieces. Their goal: to help their clients receive clarity or assistance in almost every aspect of life, whether in selecting a child’s name, choosing an auspicious date for a wedding, or ushering in a good harvest.
One of the most crucial components of Korean shamanism’s meaning-making process is the presence of countless spirits in the world.
The early missionaries noticed this very aspect in Koreans’ everyday lives.
“Spirits are everywhere and are likely to turn up at any corner. Even door-hinges and chopsticks may be the abode of spirits who have power to change a man’s whole destiny,” Hulbert wrote in “Korean Folk Tales.”
The pervasive reality of shamanism in Korea meant that the early missionaries did not have to explain the existence of the spiritual world or the omnipresence of God to Korean people because these concepts already existed in their worldview.
However, Christianity was seen as a foreign intrusion on a shamanistic religious system, and in turn, both Catholic and Protestant missionaries held largely negative perceptions of shamanism. But while the Catholic missionaries dealt mostly with Confucianism in the Korean context, Protestant missionaries confronted shamanism head-on.
American missionary Horace G. Underwood unabashedly called the shamans “idolaters” when he first encountered Korean shamanism. Fellow American missionary Henry G. Appenzeller, meanwhile, insisted that shamanism was merely superstitious and lowly.
Praying in the Spirit
The Great Pyongyang Revival of 1907 changed these missionaries’ views on shamanism and the spirit world.
While the Korean church grew exponentially from 1897 to 1906, Korea was in a tumultuous political situation due to a conflict between Russia and Japan over control of Korea. The Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) destabilized Korea economically, politically, and socially. The Pyongyang Revival, which spread across the peninsula, arose from this painful political background.
During this nationwide movement, believers participated in mass confession and repentance, exorcism and healing, and intense corporate prayer, all of which were often accompanied by loud weeping.
“The whole audience began to pray out loud, all together. The effect was indescribable—not confusion, but a vast harmony of sound and spirit, a mingling together of souls moved by an irresistible impulse of prayer,” said American missionary William Blair of his experience there.
These revival meetings had a profound impact on foreign missionaries’ perceptions of Korean spiritism. Some missionaries who were once extremely critical of exorcism or healing ministry changed their attitudes during these gatherings, wrote historian Sung-Deuk Oak.
Many missionaries abandoned cessationist views and testified that miracles could happen. They came to accept the traditional Korean view of spirits and acknowledged the role of shamanism in Protestant success in Korea.
“I am convinced that the devil can work now in opposition to Him exactly as he did 1900 years ago,” American missionary Charles A. Clark wrote.
Naming God in Korean
Identifying an indigenous name for “God” in Korea also led missionaries to change their perspectives on shamanism.
Some missionaries advocated the adoption of a traditional divine name like Hananim (하나님), which refers to the highest god or the “heavenly king” in shamanism.
Using a vernacular Korean word that people were familiar with could facilitate the acceptance of Christianity’s monotheistic practice, said Scottish missionary John Ross. Since Korean people already had the notion that Hananim was supreme among the gods and other spirits, Ross saw an opportunity for critical contextualization.
Other missionaries like Horace G. Underwood felt that it was prudent to avoid using Hananim precisely because Koreans were familiar with the term’s shamanist roots. Some alternative words or names he experimented with included Ch’amshin (참신), or “true god,” and Syangjyu (샹쥬), or “high lord.”
Underwood’s wife, Lillias, also opined that Hananim in the shamanist context was the Old Testament equivalent of Baal: “Over all the objects of worship, they believe, is the great Heavens, the personification of the visible heavens, who, as nearly as I can discover, is identical with the Baal referred to in the Old Testament.”
When missionaries did use the name Hananim in conjunction with the power of the Holy Spirit, Koreans became intrigued by the Christian message.
While preaching a sermon at a local market, American missionary Samuel A. Moffett appealed to the notion that the Holy Spirit could conquer all other spirits. “I am not afraid of your evil spirits because I know the Great Spirit, Hananim,’” he proclaimed.
“If he loves me, no other spirit can hurt me. And the proof of his love is that he sent his only Son, Jesus, to die for me and save me.”
By using the name Hananim as a bridge between Korean shamanism and Christianity, Moffett and other like-minded missionaries effectively proclaimed the message and evangelized to the local people. The Christian message of liberation and love was an extremely appealing option to Koreans who constantly lived in fear of evil spirits.
Glimpses of the Trinity
Some missionaries went further by affirming the presence of spiritual elements in Korean shamanism, contending that they were the less-complete form of the Christian gospel. They observed that Korea’s founding story, the Tan’gun myth, bore remarkable similarities to the Trinitarian view of God.
In the Tan’gun myth, Hwan’in (“creator”) sends his son Hwan’ung to the world in human form to help human beings who are leading miserable lives without divine guidance. Hwan’ung marries a bear-woman and gives birth to Tan’gun, who goes on to establish the Korean kingdom.
Hulbert, the American missionary, used the Tan’gun myth to explain Christian monotheism and Trinitarian theology. Hwan’in was a reflection of Creator God; Hwan’ung, the Holy Spirit; and Tan’gun, the incarnated Jesus Christ, Hulbert wrote in “Korean Folk Tales,” a 1902 paper for the Korean branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Rather than imposing their theology as truth, missionaries like Hulbert sought to identify points of contact between Christianity and Korean culture. They began by asking the question “How can I translate the message of Jesus Christ for people whose theology or philosophy is completely different from mine?”
Whether the missionaries believed in the Tan’gun myth is a secondary issue. What is important is that they used a modus operandi that was helpful in translating their message. It was the “starting point to decode the cultural and theological genealogy of Protestantism, a new religion in modern Korea,” wrote Oak, the historian.
A woman’s domain
Another distinguishing feature about Korean shamanism was that Korean society viewed it as a “woman’s religion” because shamanistic practices were predominantly female-led. Female shamans ministered to housewives of various classes, and even the highest and best-educated classes called for them when they were in trouble, according to American missionary J. R. Moose.
As a result, female shamans made more money than any other class of women in Korea. Even though they were often perceived as lowly outcasts in Korean society, they also wielded significant spiritual power, as they were the only ones who could perform seances and communicate directly with the spirits.
Nowhere else was this power more evident than in the anbang, the innermost quarters of a Korean home. Off-limits to men and foreign missionaries, only Korean women were invited into this private space where wives would exercise their authority.
In the intimate sphere of the anbang, women’s public powerlessness transformed into private strength. Female shamans provided “cathartic compensation and limited redress for Korean women’s otherwise miserable state,” wrote Laurel Kendall in Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life.
Here, female shamans revitalized the whole house and all who dwelt within through their rituals and spiritual exchanges. They exorcized demons, healed the sick, appeased household gods, and freed the family’s restless dead from hell, according to Kendall.
The shamanistic rituals (kut) that were held in these spaces also allowed women to release their han and “recharge” their spiritual power.
Han, which may be experienced individually and collectively, refers to a deep sense of unresolved bitterness, pain, anger, and grief due to ongoing oppression and unjustifiable suffering. Three types of kut were typically performed: the healing kut, prosperity kut, and funerary kut. Women who released their han through kut often experienced healing from their afflictions.
Saturated in the Word
Like the female shamans, Korea’s “Bible women” served as intercessors, healers, exorcists, and spiritual mentors.
Since a preexisting social norm accepted female shamans as religious authorities within the sphere of the household, Korean evangelists, or Bible women, found fewer barriers to entry within Korean households.
These Bible women played a significant role from 1895 to 1945. Trained at schools established by mission boards toward the end of the initial period of Protestant missions in Korea, the Bible women zealously shared about Jesus with their compatriots and promoted women’s literacy and empowerment in the country.
“Korean Bible Women were successful in their work of evangelization because they utilized the women’s anbang network and borrowed the authority of other female religious figures in the anbang, specifically that of the mudang (female shaman),” religious studies scholar Lee-Ellen Strawn argued.
“The Bible woman is sent for to pray and sing Psalms,” American missionary Mary Scranton said. “When anyone gets tired of trying to propitiate the evil spirit, it is the Bible women who must come and take down the fetishes and burn them. They are called upon to cast out devils, as well as to offer the fervent effectual prayer for the healing of the sick.”
Korea’s Bible women not only prayed for healing of physical bodies but also attended to women’s spiritual needs, eased their inner struggles, and provided spiritual guidance. Their faithful witness in these household spaces also led to some female shamans’ conversion to Christianity.
One female shaman became a Christian after meeting a Bible woman who shared the gospel with her, according to American missionary J. R. Moose. She was able to understand the Holy Spirit as one who had authority over countless other spirits.
And while some newly converted former shamans still used herbs and prayed for healing as they were accustomed to doing, they appealed to the Holy Spirit in these rituals. Their awareness of the spirit world enabled them to fully accept the Holy Spirit’s power and authority.
An indigenized faith
Shamanism persists in Korean culture today, and mudang continue to be active practitioners of this folk religion. Additionally, few Korean Christians are aware that the word they currently use for God, Hananim, has shamanist roots.
Nevertheless, shamanism’s influence on Christianity does not mean that religious syncretism—the amalgamation of various religious beliefs and practices—was ever an issue.
Missionary documents show continuity with the Korean spiritual framework and reveal two principles at work in the missionaries’ evangelistic efforts.
First, the Koreans were spiritual people who acknowledged the ubiquity of various spirits. The missionaries did not have to explain the existence of the spiritual world or the omnipresence of God because those concepts already existed.
Second, the spirits had strong control or authority over Koreans, no matter whether they were practicing shamanists or not. This openness and awareness of the spirit world provided myriad opportunities to share about Christianity.
Some theologians and missionaries criticized the presence of shamanistic elements within Korean Christianity for fear that this would dilute doctrinal orthodoxy. But ensuring continuity with the past fostered Christianity’s rapid spread in Korea and engendered a unique, indigenized form of the faith there.
Today, the spirit of the Pyongyang Revival remains strong. Many Korean Christians practice healing and exorcisms and engage in creative ways to express their faith, such as through praying aloud in groups (called tong-sung prayer), attending early-dawn prayer meetings, and visiting prayer mountains.
Shamanism has provided various avenues through which Christianity could assimilate into Korean culture and achieve indigenization. While missionaries from the West successfully harnessed shamanist beliefs to contextualize the faith in their time, the result of their efforts is not syncretism but an enduring, indigenized Christianity mobilized primarily by local Korean Christians.
Soojin Chung is an assistant professor in the department of practical theology at Azusa Pacific University.