We tend to think that Christianity entered foreign lands only due to missionary work. Not so in Korea. Until the late 19th century, the mountainous Korean Peninsula was governed tightly by a Confucian tradition and closed off to most foreigners. Missionaries found it difficult to penetrate the reclusive nation, focusing instead on Korea’s larger neighbors, China and Japan. Consequently, Koreans themselves played a more significant role in importing and later spreading Christianity to Korea. Three hundred years later, Christians make up more than a quarter of South Koreans and the country is responsible for one of the world’s largest missionary movements. What first caused Christianity to take hold in Korea?

Confucianism’s decline

The spread of Christianity in China in the late 1700s made an impression on the Korean elite. Jesuit missionaries distributed philosophical and scientific literature, material that caught the attention of scholars looking to innovate and reform the Confucian system. The application of the teachings of the Chinese sage Confucius (551–479 BC), which centered on wisdom and right social relations, had resulted in a remarkably stable society with a highly developed culture. However, it also produced an elitist culture, resistant to the innovations of the modern world and to possibilities of Christianity, which scholars saw as driving Western development.

Among those open to such reforms was aristocrat Yi Seung-hun, who was baptized by a French Jesuit in a Beijing Catholic church in 1784. Upon his return to Korea, Yi baptized several fellow scholars and together they formed the first Christian community in Korea. Today, the Korean Catholic Church is the only national Catholic church that is recognized as founded by a lay community.

However, the Korean authorities refused to tolerate the performance of non-Confucian religious rituals and soon discovered the fledgling church. The government disciplined Yi and several other aristocrats. But the church’s host, Kim Beom-u, who was of a lower social rank, was imprisoned, tortured, and banished. He later died of his injuries, becoming the Korean church’s first martyr.

As the government cracked down, Korea’s new converts also faced pressure due to a change in policy of the Catholic Church. In 1790, Korean Christians learned that the pope had forbidden converts to venerate their ancestors according to the “Chinese Rites.” But such dereliction of duty especially drew the ire of Confucians for whom the veneration of the fathers by the sons was axiomatic for societal well-being. Christians who openly discontinued veneration were not only ostracized from their families but also risked persecution and death.

Despite these difficulties, the first Korean Catholics pressed the bishop to send them a priest (they could not observe mass without one) and in 1795, a Chinese priest was smuggled in. For a time, the priest was protected from authorities by Kang Wan-suk (Columba), a wealthy aristocratic woman, who was divorced by her husband for her evangelistic activities. Kang was part of the “Unmarried Virgins,” a community of mostly affluent women who refused marriage or otherwise bucked familial societal norms by living in community and practicing celibacy.

But Kang’s status only protected her for a short time. She was tortured but refused to disclose the whereabouts of the priest. Later, the government beheaded Kang, as well as the priest and many other church leaders, in what later became known as the Sinyu Persecution of 1801. For the first time, Catholicism itself was officially prohibited nationwide.

Christianity spreads nationwide

Despite being started by aristocratic men, the first Korean Christians understood that the church was for all people. In a society stratified by ancestry and segregated by gender, early Christian communities included women and people of different ranks, and those from outcaste groups. Some aristocrats who converted to Catholicism or were sympathetic to the faith disguised their views, caring for exiled believers by allowing them to live on land they owned in more remote mountain areas or islands. Some of the exiled made their living as potters and itinerant tradespeople who spread the faith by disseminating Catholic literature and religious objects across the country.

The first Korean priest, Kim Dae-geon (Andrew), was ordained in 1845 after receiving religious training in other parts of Asia. However, shortly after re-entering Korea, Kim was discovered with incriminating Korean-language Christian texts and images. The authorities learned that he had been trying to help French priests enter the country from China and he was executed.

News of the incursions of Western powers and spread of Western ideas into China increasingly alarmed the Korean government, driving it to further isolationism and more aggressive suppression of Catholicism. Catholics’ foreign links also alarmed the government, provoking further crackdowns and deaths. The last officially sanctioned persecution started in 1866 when it’s estimated that 8,000 people, or half of the Catholic community, were killed. Pope Paul II canonized 103 martyrs when he visited South Korea in 1984.

The rise of the Protestant church

The locals’ role in the beginning of Korea’s Protestant church in the 1880s closely resembled the early days of Catholicism. In addition to starting their own churches, Korean Protestants also lobbied for the entry of Western missionaries and supported their work. “The seed had been sown, and the field was ripe already, in a sense, and was waiting for the harvest,” wrote one foreign missionary who arrived in the late 19th century.

There were at least two seedbeds of Protestantism in Korea. One was in Ŭiju, near the modern-day border between North Korea and China. On business in Manchuria, several young Koreans met John Ross and John McIntyre, two Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, who had long been interested in Korea but were unable to enter. The party taught the missionaries the Korean language and helped them translate the Chinese Bible. After they were baptized in the late 1870s, several returned to Ŭiju and started a church there.

The second seedbed was Sorae, on the west coast, the hometown of one of the first Protestant evangelists, Suh Sang-ryun (1848–1926). Suh carried copies of a Korean translation of the Gospel of Luke there and began to pastor a group of Korean believers. That community is now regarded as the “cradle” of Protestant Christianity in Korea, a symbol of the self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating nature of Korean Christianity.

By the 1880s, the Confucian order was crumbling and Korean sovereignty was threatened not only by Western powers but also by the rise of Japan. Progressive Koreans sought to modernize the country and pressed for the entry of foreign missionaries to help with medicine and education. Some saw Christianity as the religious or ideological basis of Western society, believing the nation would benefit from a spiritual renewal of the people.

The first Western missionaries to enter Korea officially were Horace Grant Underwood and Henry Gerhard Appenzeller—both from the United States. Underwood, a Northern Presbyterian, and Appenzeller, a Northern Methodist, disembarked together from the same ship in 1885. Many of the first believers they baptized in Seoul were from Sorae.

One Protestant progressive was Yun Chi-ho (1867–1945), an aristocrat who had become a Christian at the Anglo-Chinese School in Shanghai, while in exile following the failure of a coup in 1884. He explained his desire for baptism was “the hope that I may … God willing, live a useful life for myself and my brethren.” Yun kept in touch with leaders of the US Methodist Episcopal Church South, which operated the Shanghai School. He urged them to send missionaries and also offered financial support for them.

When Southern Methodist missionaries arrived in 1896, they likened Yun to the man of Macedonia whom the apostle Paul saw in a dream saying “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (Acts 16:9). Yun, like many future Christian leaders, regarded Christianity as a new energy for national revival.

Convinced that problems such as invasions by foreign powers and social instability in Korea were connected with the internal weakness of the country itself, Yun believed that the country’s fragility could be overcome by the civic morality and transcendent power of Christianity. In 1910, Yun served as one of the representatives of the “native churches” at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910 where he testified to the great receptivity of Korea to Christianity.

Despite the efforts of Yun and others, Western missionary numbers were comparatively low in Korea. Moreover, many missionaries did not master the Korean language, so they were dependent on their Korean co-workers for evangelistic work. From the first entry of Protestantism, colporteurs like Suh Sang-ryun sold Christian literature, and from the late 1880s, Korean Christians were engaged by missionaries as “helpers” to interpret for them, lead Bible studies, and organize churches.

In traditional Korea, male missionaries were prohibited from conversing with Korean women and from gaining access to the anbang, a private room for women in a Korean home. Because of this taboo, the missionary wives initiated women’s ministry and Korean female evangelists, or “Bible women,” played an important role in the early spread of Protestantism. In fact, most of them were wives who had been neglected by their husbands in the patriarchal society of Korea. Nevertheless, they served as role models for modern women through their witness and Christian teaching, which included the principle of equality and the rights of women.

One of the most renowned “Bible women” was Kim Gang (Dorcas; 1848-?) who later testified that “the day that Jesus Christ was preached in Korea began the emancipation of women from the bondage of thousands of years.” She first heard the name of Jesus at the age of 50 and she was baptized and received into full church membership in 1899.

She remembered the day of her baptism as “the happiest of my life.” She explained that until then in Confucian society as a woman she had never been called by her name, only by that of her father, husband, or son, but when “freedom had come to me, … I received a name, ‘Dorcas’ that means ‘deer.’” Living up to her name, Dorcas was given a preaching circuit of 1,450 miles of mountainous territory. As she walked it, she was sometimes verbally attacked, refused food by local people, and once imprisoned. Despite the opposition, Dorcas continued to evangelize Korea.

The Pyongyang Revival

The “Pyongyang Revival” or “Korean Pentecost” in 1907 was a seminal religious movement for Korean Protestant Christianity. “Some of you go back to John Calvin, and some of you to John Wesley, but we can go back no further than 1907 when we first really knew the Lord Jesus Christ,” Korean Christians were recorded as telling missionaries in 1913.

While spiritual in nature, the revival cannot be understood apart from the political context of the time. The power struggle in East Asia in 1905 was gradually being won by Japan, who defeated China in 1895, and Russia. In 1910, Japan would annex Korea and it would cease to exist as a separate country until the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945. The famous revival in 1907 occurred at a time of crisis as the nation was being lost.

Kil Sun-ju (1865–1935), who was ordained later in 1907 as one of the first ministers of the newly established Presbyterian Church of Korea, was the central leader of the revival. Before he converted to Protestantism, he had been deeply engrossed in Daoist ascetic practices. But, as Korea entered a period of national crisis, Kil grew increasingly cynical about Daoism’s ability to help his country, blaming its pessimistic outlook and private spirituality. As foreign powers encroached on Korea, Kil searched for another religion that was socially engaged and offered hope for the future to save the country from its fate.

While losing his sight, Kil was introduced to Christianity by a Christian friend who asked him whether he could pray to God as father. Kil answered, “How could man call God Father?” But three days later, while praying, he heard a mysterious voice call his name three times. Kil was afraid and prostrated himself, crying out, “God the Father who loves me, forgive my sin and save my life!” After his conversion, Kil became an ardent Christian, church elder, and a Korean nationalist leader.

The Pyongyang Revival broke out in Kil’s church, Jangdaehyeon Church, after Kil publicly confessed his personal sin to church members. “I am a man of Achan’s sin,” he cried, referencing Joshua 7:18, and hundreds of others followed his example of repentance and forgiveness to save their souls and the nation. Kil and others preached across the country as the revival spread further to China and Manchuria. The religious movement also took on political overtones and became increasingly associated with Korean nationalism. Kil was one of the key leaders in the Independence Movement of March 1, 1919, against the Japanese colonization of the country.

The revival had lasting effects on Korean Christianity and on Korea. Indigenous Christian rituals such as sagyeonhoe (Bible study and the Bible-examining meetings), saebyoek gido (dawn prayer meetings), and tongseong gido (collective audible prayer) were formulated as part of Protestant practice. Korean Christian leaders led nationwide educational movements with the vision of making Korea a Christian nation.

The Great Revival transformed Protestantism from a foreign religion to a new national religion, laying the foundation for the most remarkable church growth in Asia in the 20th century and positioning South Korea as a global center of Christianity.

Kirsteen Kim is professor of theology and world Christianity at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her many publications include A History of Korean Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2015) which was co-authored with her husband, Sebastian C. H. Kim.

Hoon Ko is a PhD candidate in intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary researching how Korean Protestant preachers contributed to national revival from 1884 to 1919.