On June 3, 1973, Billy Graham preached before 1.1 million people at his largest crusade. This event did not occur in America’s heartland or a major American metropolitan center like Los Angeles or New York. Instead, it took place in the South Korean capital of Seoul.
Next to Graham on the platform, acting as his translator, was Billy Kim, a South Korean evangelist who, like the revivalist, had ties to Bob Jones University. By the end of the message, 73,000 people would walk the aisle and make public decisions for Christ.
Graham’s Seoul crusade was but one point of connection in the postwar era between white American evangelicals and their counterparts in South Korea. Two decades prior in 1950, World Vision—currently a multi-billion-dollar evangelical philanthropic organization—was founded in South Korea. A year later, Campus Crusade for Christ would launch its first international chapter by looking across the Pacific to a country establishing itself as a bastion of evangelical theology.
The relationship between these two groups—white evangelicals in America and South Korean evangelicals—is the focus of Helen Jin Kim’s book Race for Revival: How Cold War South Korea Shaped the American Evangelical Empire. Kim, a religious history professor at Emory University, presents a largely unknown history of how postwar American evangelicals cultivated relationships in South Korea and used them to win acceptance within the religious mainstream back home. For evangelicals, it is also a convicting story that illustrates the corrupting influences of militarism, ethnic identity, and religious ideology.
The ‘transpacific highway’
It is impossible to tell the story of early evangelicalism in America, particularly in the period surrounding the Great Awakenings, without attention to transatlantic connections. However, historians have not paid similar attention to connections made across the Pacific. In this regard, Kim’s history of the modern evangelical movement is a helpful corrective, illuminating how American religion has been shaped by its interaction with faith outside of the Western European context.
The benefit of this new framing is that American religion—and evangelicalism especially—are placed into a global context. The rise and success of figures like Billy Graham and institutions like Campus Crusade for Christ was owed not only to domestic realities but also to the interconnected web of relationships that existed along what Kim calls the “transpacific highway,” particularly as it ran through South Korea.
Highways are different from one-way streets, and Race for Revival does not see either party in this evolution as a pawn of the other. Both South Korean and American evangelicals were comfortable using the other as a means of achieving respect and legitimacy at home and abroad, but sometimes the relationship came at a cost to South Koreans. The story of the World Vision Korean Orphan Choir serves as a useful example. The choir—which included children who weren’t orphans—helped the organization and the American evangelical movement to distance themselves from associations of racism in the American South.
The South Korean children became a shining example of American evangelicalism’s colorblind approach to evangelism and faith—an advertisement for its rightful place within the American mainstream. And for their own part, the children benefited from the choir, with many expressing excitement about trips to Disneyland and the chance to sing before foreign dignitaries like the king of Norway.
There was, however, a darker underside tragically captured in the suicide of one of the choir’s former members, Kim Sang Yong (nicknamed “Peanuts”) at the age of 19. According to letters from the World Vision staff, Peanuts was one of several children in crisis who were part of the choir. Some worried that the tours were exacerbating the situation by placing these young, impressionable children in the limelight, where they were adored, before dropping them from tours once they were no longer children.
This is not to delegitimize the very real help that flowed to many South Korean families and children because of donations generated by the choir. But the episode does reveal the unequal relationship between the parties, and the disparity in the benefits flowing to each. Both sides stood to gain, but American evangelicals, in Kim’s telling, reaped far greater rewards from the opportunity to repair a reputation bound up with Jim Crow segregation.
And such reputational enhancements tended to obscure one reason there were so many South Korean orphans and widows needing aid in the first place: the Cold War, which turned hot on the Korean peninsula. Like historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez in Jesus and John Wayne, Kim portrays strong links that existed between militarism and the rise of modern evangelicalism. And like Jonathan Herzog in his study of the early Cold War years, The Spiritual-Industrial Complex, Kim describes conscious efforts to spur on revival in America and create spiritual ballast for the foreign policy of containment.
Looking at Graham’s 1973 crusade, Kim notes that it served to strengthen diplomatic ties between the US and South Korea (the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had to work with the ruling authoritarian regime to hold the meeting), while also strengthening ties between the domestic evangelical movements in both nations. The church and state were not separate spheres, but intimately connected pieces of a larger American apparatus engaged in combating the spread of communism.
The revivals of this era set the context for the most interesting shift that Kim’s book depicts. While American evangelicals were looking to demonstrate that evangelicalism was national in scope rather than concentrated in the South, South Koreans were arguing for a pivot away from America and toward their own country.
Two major events, considered side by side, offer a snapshot of these dynamics. In 1972, Campus Crusade leader Bill Bright was able to bring some 80,000 people to Texas for a gathering that became known as Explo ’72, where college students committed to evangelizing the world. Two years later, Joon Gon Kim, the leader of the South Korean chapter of Campus Crusade, organized Explo ’74 in Seoul, which gathered 1.3 million people (even Graham’s crusade hadn’t attracted that many). In announcing the event, he boldly called for attendees to pray for the total conversion of the nation as a “symbolic sample Christian nation … uniquely used of God for Christ.”
American evangelicals were not the only ones capable of achieving legitimacy through bold displays of Christian commitment. South Korean evangelicals pushed against a message that placed revival within a framework of American exceptionalism, arguing that their country was the new center of heartfelt faith.
An essential corrective
Race for Revival excels in bringing forward the story of South Korea’s place in the revitalization of American evangelicalism. Kim’s work unearthing the role played by South Korean evangelicals in creating, sustaining, and empowering some of the most influential American parachurch organizations makes this an essential corrective to histories that place undue focus on white American figures.
Readers may disagree with some of Kim’s conclusions, in particular her belief that American evangelicals were consciously trying to distance themselves from Southern racism rather than simply living out their commitment to evangelism and care for orphans. However, even those who disagree should reckon with how her narrative highlights an overly individualistic approach to race, one that stressed personal heart renewal while downplaying the importance of broader social and political reform. Like other scholars, Kim has done a helpful service in showing the danger of isolating theological commitments from other concerns, a mindset that can lead to overlooking the human rights abuses of authoritarian governments just because they will allow a large-scale Christian gathering to take place in their country.
In any event, differences with Kim’s conclusions shouldn’t detract from the value of her larger argument about the interconnected web of relationships between evangelicals in America and South Korea, and how those relationships bolstered the status of both groups in different ways. Seoul’s status as host of the Lausanne Movement’s 2024 Fourth Congress on World Evangelization vindicates her theme of South Korea’s emergence as a new center of evangelical power. So, too, does the fact that South Korea has, for some time, been among the top missionary-sending nations, with some missionaries even ending up in America. Clearly, those transpacific highways are still very much in use.
Alex Ward is research associate and project manager for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is pursuing a PhD in history from the University of Mississippi.