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date: 21 May 2018

Protestant Christianity in Modern Korea

Summary and Keywords

Korea is the only Asian nation with a significant Protestant presence. One in five South Koreans professes the faith. With more than eight and a half million believers, Protestantism as an organized religion ranks second numerically, not far behind Buddhism, but in terms of power and influence, it is unrivalled. Protestants occupy a central position in the country’s politics, society, and culture. Western missionaries, mostly Americans, introduced Protestantism in the late 19th century. As bearers of Anglo-American civilization, the missionaries built not only churches but also modern hospitals and schools. Korean converts, however, quickly assumed leadership under a policy of self-propagation, self-government, and self-support. In the 1920s and 1930s, the church came of age under popular revivalists who commanded national audiences. The process of indigenization also involved the adaptation to local beliefs and practices, producing a distinctive Korean Protestant tradition. Moreover, because of Japanese colonization, Protestantism did not suffer the stigma of Western imperialism common in other mission fields. Many Protestants, in fact, became nationalist leaders. Following World War II, Korea suffered the division of the country and the Korean War. Protestantism was extinguished in the communist north, leading to a mass exodus to the south, but in South Korea, it thrived. Industrialization and urbanization provided opportunities for the churches to create a sense of community, but it was primarily the aggressive one-on-one proselytization and mass evangelistic campaigns that fueled the dramatic expansion. From the 1960s to 1980s, South Korea became the fastest-growing Christian population in the world. The growth stalled in the 1990s because of the church’s support for previous dictatorial regimes as well as scandals involving Protestant political and corporate leaders. Yet Protestantism today remains a vibrant force in South Korea, home to the largest churches in the world and the base for thousands of Korean missionaries.

Keywords: Korean Protestantism, Korean Christianity, Korean religions, missionaries, indigenization, nationalism


The story of Protestant Christianity lies at the heart of Korea’s modern historical development. Since its introduction in the late 19th century, Protestantism has not only transformed the religious landscape: it has exerted a profound impact on Korean politics, society, and culture. With 8.6 million believers, approximately 20 percent of the South Korean population in 2005 is Protestant, the highest in Asia.1 The city of Seoul boasts some of the largest Christian congregations in the world, and South Korea is second only to the United States in the number of missionaries dispatched abroad.2 Moreover, thousands of Korean congregations have sprouted up in the United States and other parts of the Korean diaspora. Historically, Protestantism has pioneered modern education and medicine in Korea, and many of the nation’s leaders, including several presidents, have come from Protestant backgrounds.3 Along with the power and influence has also come controversy, especially in recent times, when financial scandals and interreligious conflicts have rocked the Protestant establishment. The Korean perceptions of Protestantism may have changed over the years, but the fact remains that the religion has served an integral role in the history of Korea.

Protestantism arrived in Korea a century after Roman Catholicism. A small Catholic community had emerged since the faith was introduced in the late 18th century, but conflict with the Confucian ideology of the Korean state had led to fierce persecution and the prohibition of Christianity. In spite of the official ban, Protestant missionaries started to establish contact with Koreans in the mid-19th century, mostly along the China border and in Japan. The first encounter involved Karl A. F. Gützlaff (1803–1851), a German Lutheran with the London Missionary Society who was serving as interpreter for the East India Company in northern China. Accompanying a merchant ship that sailed along the west coast of Korea in 1832, Gützlaff distributed Chinese-language Bibles and religious tracts to the Koreans whom he encountered, including a few Catholics.4 Although his visit was brief and produced no converts, Gützlaff became the first Protestant missionary to attempt the evangelization of Korea.5 Another encounter occurred a few decades later. Robert Jermain Thomas (1840–1866), a Welsh clergyman with the London Missionary Society, met two Korean Catholics in northeastern China and, accompanied by them as his guide, distributed portions of the Bible and tracts along the northwestern coast of Korea for two months in 1865. Then he returned the following year on board the American merchant ship General Sherman, which sailed up the Taedong River to P’yŏngyang with the purpose of opening up Korea to trade with the West. Thomas took with him copies of the Chinese New Testament. But the ship was stranded before reaching its destination and set on fire by an angry local mob. Although Thomas managed to swim ashore, he was killed. Subsequent reports surfaced of Koreans who acquired copies or portions of Thomas’s Bibles and became interested in the Christian faith.6

In the 1870s, John Ross (1841–1915) and John MacIntyre (1837–1905), Scottish missionaries working in Manchuria, learned the Korean language from itinerant Korean merchants and, working with them as a team, translated the Bible into han’gŭl, the native Korean script. Then the merchants, who had converted under Ross, smuggled the Bibles into Korea. One convert and translator, Sŏ Sang-yun (1849–1926), who was a ginseng merchant by trade, went on to establish the first Korean Protestant church, in his hometown, Sŏrae, Hwanghae province, in 1884.7 Sŏ’s fellow converts from Manchuria founded similar Christian communities in northwestern Korea, planting the seeds of Protestantism before the arrival of foreign missionaries. Around the same time that these communities were emerging along the northern border, Yi Su-jŏng, a young yangban aristocrat and intellectual who had been sent to Japan as part of a Korean government mission to study Meiji Japan’s modernization, encountered Japanese Christians and Western missionaries. He spent a period of time studying the Bible and learning about Christian doctrine, and he was baptized in Tokyo by a Japanese minister in 1883. Yi wrote the first confession of Protestant faith by a Korean, and he worked with the American Bible Society to translate parts of the New Testament into han’gŭl. But before he could complete his project, Yi returned to Korea, where he became embroiled in the political turmoil that swayed the king and his court among different factions. Tragically for Yi, the tide had turned against the political leaders and intellectuals with Japanese ties, and he was executed.8

Protestant Missions

The first Protestant missionary to establish residence in Korea was Horace Allen (1852–1932), an American who had previously been with the Presbyterian Mission in China. Because the prohibition against Christianity was still in effect in Korea, Allen entered the country as physician to the American Legation in Seoul. In December 1884, a group of progressive political leaders carried out a short-lived palace coup, during which Min Yŏng-ik (1860–1914), the nephew of the Korean queen, was injured. Allen treated Min’s wounds and saved his life. In gratitude, King Kojong (1852–1919) granted Allen permission to establish a government medical clinic, the first Western-style hospital in Korea, and to proselytize the Christian faith. In 1885 the first Protestant missionaries to be officially dispatched by their denominations arrived in Korea. Two Americans, Horace G. Underwood (1859–1916) of the Northern Presbyterian Mission, and Henry G. Appenzeller (1858–1902) of the Northern Methodist Mission, came together on board a steamship from Japan.9 Underwood carried with him a copy of the New Testament translated into han’gŭl by Yi Su-jŏng.10 Underwood and Appenzeller were soon followed by missionaries from other denominations, and the spreading the faith went underway, albeit slowly. In 1887 Underwood founded Saemunan Presbyterian Church, and Appenzeller, Chungdong Methodist Church, both in Seoul.

Protestant missionaries in Korea, as in other parts of the world, were active in medical and educational work. Allen was joined my other medical missionaries at the government hospital, and soon the Protestants established a number of hospitals sponsored by their denominations. Western missionaries pioneered modern medicine in Korea. They also laid down the foundations of modern education. Underwood began plans for the establishment of Yŏnhŭi College (now Yonsei University), and Appenzeller founded the Paejae Boys’ School (now Paejae University). In 1886, Mary Scranton (1834–1909), a female Methodist missionary, founded Ewha Girls’ School (now Ewha University), the first school for women in Korean history. Another prominent feature of the early missionary movement in Korea was the vibrant print culture.11 In 1890 the missionaries came together across different denominations to establish the Korean Religious Tract Society, later renamed the Christian Literature Society of Korea, in order to translate Chinese texts into han’gŭl and to publish new ones. The following year the Methodists started the Trilingual Press, operated out of the Paejae School. The press produced works in Chinese, Korean, and English, expanding beyond just religious texts to school textbooks and works for a general public. Underwood was active in Bible translation, wrote Korean–English and English–Korean dictionaries (1890), and started a weekly Christian magazine Kŭrisŭto Sinmun (1900). Appenzeller also participated in Bible translation, and he was editor of The Korean Repository, a monthly magazine for expatriates published by the Methodist Mission Press. As a result of the medical, educational, and other modernizing projects, Protestantism drew the attention of many young Korean intellectuals and political leaders. They associated the religion with the power and wealth of the West and hoped to harness its potential for their country.

From the beginning of Protestant missions, Korean converts were active partners with the missionaries in the work of proselytization. The missionaries took a cautious approach toward direct evangelization. The prohibition against Christianity was technically still in effect, though not strictly enforced.12 The missionaries also confronted a formidable language barrier. It took many years to learn the Korean language, and many missionaries never mastered it to the point where they could converse fluently, much less preach. They thus required the assistance of Korean translators when they evangelized. Over time, some of these translators became evangelists and preachers themselves. The missionaries also employed the Koreans to distribute Bibles, pamphlets, and other Christian literature. They sent out “colporteurs,” itinerant booksellers, laden with Christian material. Some of the booksellers were women. Traditional Korean society had strict separation of the sexes, and male missionaries could not interact with the Korean women. Hence, Western women missionaries proselytized among the Korean women, and the female missionaries used Korean women as personal assistants, who would teach them the language, serve as translators, and accompany them on their visits to the homes of potential converts. Gradually, some of these women took on other roles, including selling Christian literature and even founding their own Christian communities where they carried out preaching and teaching ministries. Called “Bible Women” by the missionaries, they played a crucial role in the spread of Protestantism in its formative years.13

In addition to the practicality of Koreans evangelizing fellow Koreans, the missionaries adopted a conscious policy promoting Koreans to take initiative and leadership in establishing the churches. Following a visit by John L. Nevius (1829–1893), a Presbyterian missionary from Shandong, China, to Seoul in 1890, the missionaries in Korea implemented his vision of a self-propagating, self-governing, and self-supporting church. Under the so-called Nevius Method, they rejected a long period of tutelage and supervision under foreign missionary control, and opted instead for quickly transitioning to an indigenous church.14 Another key policy implemented by the Protestant missionaries was the comity system, an agreement to divide up the country according to different missions to avoid competition and conflict, as well as duplication of their evangelistic work. Inspired by the ecumenical spirit of creating one Christian church in Korea, the various Presbyterian and Methodist groups joined the comity system in 1893.15


The missionaries soon spread out across the Korean peninsula, establishing mission stations in all the provinces. Perceiving the country to be a fertile mission field, the early mission reports are filled with optimism. The number of converts grew steadily, reaching around twenty thousand by the end of the 19th century.16 But it was the advent of revivalism that signaled the coming of age of Korean Protestantism. Most of the missionaries in Korea were from evangelical backgrounds in which revivals, emotion-filled services aimed at the personal experience of salvation, played a prominent role. In the United States, the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s and the Second Great Awakening of the 1790s to 1820s had infused new life into the churches and established the prominence of the evangelical tradition in American Protestantism. In Great Britain, the revivals led by the brothers John (1703–1791) and Charles (1707–1788) Wesley in the 18th century had led to the birth of the Methodist church. For the Korean Protestants, their defining moment was the Great Revival of 1907. The movement began in Pyongyang, which had become a major center for Protestant missions. Called “Jerusalem of the East” by the missionaries, more Koreans converted to Protestantism in the area than any other in the country before the Korean War.17 Not only was the city part of the region where Christianity, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, had started to filter in along the Manchurian border: it was also an area that was less under the dominance of the Confucian aristocracy, the yangban, and hence more open to change.18 During the Great Revival, Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries hosted large gatherings for preaching and prayer. The meetings broke out into crying, shouting, and other emotional displays as the faithful confessed their sins out loud and sought forgiveness and salvation.19 The revival quickly spread from Pyongyang throughout the rest of the country, adding thousands of new converts. A couple of years later, in 1909, riding the momentum of the Great Revival, the Protestants launched the “Million Souls for Christ Campaign.” With the goal of converting a million Koreans to Christianity in a year, the Protestants printed a million copies of the Gospel of Mark, distributed countless religious tracts, and went door to door witnessing their faith to the unconverted.20 Although they fell short of the magic number, the Protestants did manage to significantly increase their membership and visibility. By 1910 the Protestants numbered more than one hundred forty thousand, double the size of the Roman Catholic Church, and by the 1930s Protestants became the single largest religious community in Korea, having surpassed even those who identified themselves as Buddhist.21

The tradition of revivalism begun by the missionaries culminated in the emergence of Korean revivalists, who not only led local congregations but also commanded large followings that cut across denominational boundaries and regional boundaries. The three greatest revivalists in the early history of Korean Protestantism were Kil Sŏn-ju (1869–1935), Kim Ik-tu (1874–1950), and Yi Yong-do (1901–1933). Forming a triumvirate in the histories of the church, they represented the first group of church leaders with national reputations. And they also signaled the development of an indigenous Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s, shedding its identity as a mission of the Western church and becoming a Korean religion. While the revivalists were educated and trained in the schools and seminaries established by the missionaries, they added their own interpretations and emphases to Protestant doctrine and practice. Considered by many to be the “father of Korean Christianity,” Kil Sŏn-ju was the first native ordained clergyman to preside over a Korean Presbyterian congregation, the Central Presbyterian Church in Pyongyang, the largest and most influential church in Korea during the 1920s and 1930s. He held the first Korean-led revival meeting in 1906 at his church, and it was also from his church where the Great Revival of 1907 began. Kil was a fiery millennialist preacher, who predicted the imminent end of the world and the Second Coming of Jesus.22 Together with his friend, Elder Pak Ch’i-rok, he created the practice of saebyŏk kido, “day-break prayer meetings,” the daily gathering of the faithful at the break of dawn. Prayer and meditation in the early-morning hours were common practices in the traditional folk religion in which Kil had been steeped before his conversion to Christianity, and he carried over aspects of the old into the new. Saebyŏk kido has since become one of the hallmarks of Korean Protestant spirituality.23 Fellow revivalist Kim Ik-tu established his reputation on divine healing and exorcisms. He traveled throughout the country, gathering large crowds to be healed of all sorts of diseases and illnesses. Drawing more people to his revivals than anyone else, Kim was perhaps the most popular preacher of the colonial period.24 The third revivalist leader, Yi Yong-do, led similar meetings, highly emotional and characterized by miracles of healing and exorcism. But it was as a “mystic” that he is best remembered in the annals of Korean Protestant history. Stressing the primacy of personal experience over doctrine, Yi developed a highly original and creative theology that incorporated aspects of Daoism and Buddhism, such as the concepts of emptiness and nothingness.25 Toward the end of his brief life, his association with shamanistic practices led to his excommunication by the Methodist Church, and he joined a new religious sect deemed heretical by the Protestant establishment.

Church under Colonial Rule

During the period of Japanese occupation, 1910–1945, the missionaries tried to maintain cordial relations with the colonial state in order to continue their religious, educational, and medical endeavors. But tensions and conflicts were apparent from the outset. For one, the schools established by the missionaries turned into hotbeds of Korean nationalism. The schools taught the students about freedom and democracy, and the Korean teachers were often nationalists who instilled a fierce pride in Korean history and a spirit of resistance against the Japanese regime. In addition to the mission schools, Korean nationalists established their own schools, believing education to be a major instrument in the fight for independence. Protestantism became closely identified with Korean nationalism during the colonial period. Because the Japanese were the colonizers in Korea, Christianity did not suffer the kind of association with Western imperialism that was present in other Asian or African countries. Many nationalists, in fact, saw the Western missionaries as allies in the struggle against the Japanese.26

The first major incident to highlight this connection between Protestantism and nationalism was the so-called Conspiracy Trial of 1912. The Japanese arrested one hundred twenty-four Korean political leaders on charge of plotting to assassinate Governor-General Terauchi Masatake (1852–1919); ninety-eight were Christians. The fact that the majority were Protestants reflected the suspicion with which the Japanese viewed the religion. All but six of the accused were eventually acquitted.27 During the trial, Western missionaries provided support to the accused and reported on the proceedings to the outside world.

Later in the decade, another explosive event gave further evidence of the ties between Protestantism and nationalism. The March First Movement of 1919 signaled the birth of modern mass-based nationalism in Korea. Organized by religious leaders as a peaceful protest against Japanese colonial rule, the movement involved a million Koreans all across the country. Of the thirty-three signatories of the Declaration of Independence, the document that sparked the demonstrations, sixteen were Protestants. The Japanese reacted in panic and violence. The police beat and killed protesters, and hundreds were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Among the victims was Yu Kwan-sun, a sixteen-year-old Methodist student at the Ewha Girls’ School. Arrested for leading an independence demonstration, she was tortured and died in prison. Yu subsequently became a national icon of the March First Movement. As in the case of the 1912 Conspiracy Trial, the Western missionaries reported on the carnage and violence to their mission boards back home, and the various Protestant bodies, in turn, pressured their governments to condemn the brutal Japanese crackdown.28

The March First Movement did not succeed in bringing about Korean independence, but it did pressure the Japanese to take a more lenient approach. The colonial government lifted many of the harsh restrictions and policies of the first decade and attempted to work with more moderate Korean political leaders. It relaxed publication controls and began to issue permits for Korean-run newspapers and magazines. Restrictions on organizations were also lifted, allowing the formation of various groups, from academic societies and labor organizations to youth and women’s groups. Under the more open and tolerant conditions, the 1920s witnessed an efflorescence of Korean cultural and social life. Protestantism also benefited, significantly increasing its membership. By the end of colonial rule in 1945, the Protestant community in Korea numbered 740,000 or 3 percent of the population.29

The freedom and opportunities of the 1920s did not, however, last. In 1931 the Japanese invaded and occupied Manchuria. Then in 1937 Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China and in 1941 attached Pearl Harbor. As part of the Japanese empire, Korea was pulled into World War II. The Japanese wanted to fully exploit the human and natural resources of Korea for the war effort, and in order to achieve this objective, they implemented extensive mobilization policies in Korea as they waged war against the West.

The wartime mobilization policies encompassed the religious sphere. In 1935, the colonial government issued the Shinto shrine order, requiring students and government employees to attend Shinto ceremonies. The order divided the Protestant community. The Japanese presented the Shinto ceremonies, in which participants bowed to the shrines housing the imperial ancestors, as patriotic gestures, similar to saluting the flag, and deemphasized the religious dimensions. Consequently, some groups, such as the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans, took the government at its word and complied with the order. Many Protestants, however, disagreed and condemned the act as idolatry. A few missionaries chose to close down their schools rather than having their students comply with the order, and churches were forced to close for protesting and resisting the policy. Several thousand Korean ministers were arrested, and some missionaries were expelled as a result of noncompliance. Around fifty Christians became martyrs as they died under torture and imprisonment.30 The majority of Protestants, however, acquiesced. The colonial government forced the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, the largest Protestant body, to pass a resolution in 1938 that the shrine order did not violate the Christian faith. Subsequently, all other churches and denominations followed suit. The Japanese regime eventually forced all Protestant churches to combine into one denomination toward the end of colonial rule and had direct control over its affairs. Moreover, under increasing coercion from the colonial state, many former Protestant nationalists turned pro-Japanese collaborator in the 1930s and 1940s, actively advancing the imperialist agenda. They issued calls for young men to join the Japanese imperial army and even unwittingly participated in the recruitment of young women as sex slaves to be sent to serve Japanese soldiers in Southeast Asia and other battlefronts. Wartime Korea represented a bleak and tragic chapter in the history of Protestantism on the peninsula.

Growth and Development

Colonial rule came to an end with Japan’s defeat in World War II. But the joy of liberation was short-lived. Korea was divided in half into Soviet and American occupation zones. In the north, the Soviets installed Kim Il Sung (1912–1994) as the leader. The communists initially allowed the Protestants to participate in the politics of a newly liberated Korea. P’yongyang, after all, was the heart of Korean Protestantism. At first, Christians formed political parties, such as the Christian Social Democratic Party and the Christian Liberal Party, with hopes that they could have a voice in the new government. But the Kim regime cracked down on the parties and started a wave of persecution of Christianity. Not only was religion antithetical to the atheistic ideology of Marxism-Leninism, but Christianity had inseparable ties to the West and capitalism. In the brutal suppression that followed, thousands of Christians lost their lives and property, and the exodus south began. The Protestant experience in the south could not have been more different. The first South Korean president was Syngman Rhee (1875–1965), a Methodist elder. Protestantism flourished, as Western missionaries returned from exile and the Koreans established new churches and religious organizations in the new atmosphere of freedom. There was even talk about the “Christianization of Korea.”31 One controversy, however, that plagued the Protestant establishment in the immediate postwar years was the issue of complicity with the Japanese colonial regime. Many Korean Protestants who had continued to resist the shrine order condemned those who complied, and the issue combined with doctrinal disputes and personality conflicts between church leaders to cause the major Protestant bodies to splinter. The Methodists split in 1945, and the Presbyterians in 1947. Subsequently, the divisions multiplied, producing a plethora of Protestant denominations and groups.

In June 1950 North Korea launched a massive surprise attack on South Korea in an attempt to forcibly reunite the two halves of the peninsula. For the next three years, the Koreans fought a fratricidal war that claimed millions of lives and wrought destruction and ruin throughout the country. The war also represented the Cold War turning hot, as the Soviets supplied tanks, airplanes, and other weapons, along with military advisors to the North Koreans, and the United States deployed combat troops to South Korea to help its ally fight the invader. In North Korea, the persecution of Christians intensified, and the flight south that had begun before the war turned into a tidal wave, reaching its peak when American and South Korean troops beat a retreat from North Korea in January 1951 after the Chinese poured across the border and intervened in the conflict. Tens of thousands of Christian refugees fled south with the retreating American and South Korean soldiers.32 By war’s end, the vast majority of the Christian population found their ways into the south.

The large influx of Protestant refugees from the north laid the foundations for the most significant period of numerical growth. In fact, for most of the second half of the 20th century, South Korea was the fastest-growing Christian population in the world.33 From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Protestant population doubled each decade. The number of Protestants in South Korea in 1950 on the eve of the Korean War was 500,000; by the end of the 20th century, that number had skyrocketed to over 8.5 million.34 Scholars have put forth a number of theories for the extraordinary growth, but there is no single-cause explanation. The growth is the product of a number of religious, cultural, social, and political factors. In the years following the Korean War, economic development transformed the country from a predominantly rural, agrarian society into an urban, industrialized one. Protestantism flourished in this transitional period. On the one hand, it had a long association with modernization. The first missionaries had introduced modern Western-style medicine, schools, and other aspects of Anglo-American civilization. Koreans thus perceived Protestantism as a “modern religion” befitting a modern nation. During the rapid industrialization, Protestantism also benefited from its social resources. Protestant churches in the growing cities provided a sense of community to the workers and their families who were separated from their traditional networks of support.35 Another factor that contributed to the growth of Protestantism was its positive image, in particular the close connection with Korean nationalism during the colonial period. Prominent nationalist leaders, such as Cho Man-sik and An Ch’ang-ho, were Protestants, and the churches had suffered persecution at the hands of the Japanese government because of the close ties to the nationalist movement. A final reason for the growth and success of Protestantism is indigenization. From early on, the Protestants had developed a distinctive Korean variety of Christianity, incorporating indigenous elements of belief and practice.

The postwar emergence of Pentecostalism has carried this process even further. Pentecostalism had been introduced in 1928, but the church remained a small community until the 1960s, when Paul Yonggi Cho (b. 1936) began the rapid expansion. Today, his Yoido Full Gospel Church, with its 800,000 members, is recognized as the largest congregation in the world. With their emphasis on the experience of the supernatural, the Pentecostals have retained the traditional Korean view of the spirit world. For instance, many Korean Pentecostals believe that spirit possession can be the product of not only of the devil and his demons but also the troubled ghosts of dead relatives and ancestors. Furthermore, like the traditional shamans, Pentecostals carry out exorcisms and perform divine healing.36

Protestantism has thus achieved success as a result of favorable cultural, political, and social circumstances, but perhaps the most important reason for the growth is the proselytizing zeal of the Korean Protestants. Since the beginning its history on the peninsula, the Protestant Church has been an active evangelizing force. The mass evangelistic campaigns that characterized earlier periods have continued down to the present. In 1973 the American evangelist Billy Graham (b. 1918) came to Seoul for one of his crusades. The attendance averaged 500,000 a night, and a million showed up the last day, setting a record for his crusades.37 In addition to the mass gatherings, Korean Protestants have emphasized one-on-one evangelization, witnessing to their neighbors and distributing literature in the streets. The scale of Protestant lay participation in proselytization is unprecedented for a religious group in Korea.38

Politics and Society

Following the Korean War, South Korea was ruled by a series of dictators until the late 1980s. Most of the Protestant churches and their leaders supported the authoritarian regimes. Having experienced the persecution and eradication of their faith in communist North Korea, the Protestant mainstream was willing to forego some civil liberties for the sake of anti-communism. Indeed, politically conservative church leaders actively cultivated friendly relations with the authoritarian state. They invited political and corporate representatives to “prayer breakfasts” and offered up prayers for the nation and its leaders. The prayer breakfasts received national media coverage and in 1968 even had a visit by President Park Chung-hee (1917–1979). The Protestants also staged mass rallies, such as the World Pentecostal Campaign of 1973 and “Explosion 74,” in which they displayed their public support for the government.39 The state, in turn, rewarded the church’s loyalty with benefits and privileges, such as a virtual Protestant monopoly of the military chaplaincy.40

Not all Protestants, however, supported the government. In the 1970s a small minority of Protestant clergy and intellectuals launched a campaign of resistance and opposition, calling for protection of human rights and establishment of a democratic government. One group of dissenters developed a distinctive brand of Korean theology called minjung sinhak (theology of the masses). Similar to Latin American Liberation theology, minjung sinhak focuses on the poor and oppressed of Korean society, in particular the urban working class. Central to the theology is the concept of han, defined as the feeling of sorrow and anger produced by the Korean historical experience of injustice and suffering, and it places its hope in a God who will liberate the minjung from oppression.41

In 1987, the year before Seoul hosted the Olympics, the decades of authoritarian rule came to an end after massive demonstrations, and South Korea became a full-fledged democracy. One of the consequences of the political shift for Korean Protestantism has been public criticism of its previous support for the military dictators. Some scholars believe that this is one of the reasons that Protestantism has stopped growing in the 1990s. In contrast, the Roman Catholics, who had been active in the democratization movement, have experienced unprecedented growth. Another possible reason for the decline is scandal. A number of high-profile cases of corruption and unethical behavior have involved Protestants. In June 1995, a multi-level department store in the fashionable shopping and residential district of Kangnam in Seoul collapsed as a result of poor construction, killing 502 people. The owner was a deacon at Yŏngnak Presbyterian Church, considered by many to be the mother church of Korean Protestantism. In the years that followed, other scandals, including influence peddling by the son of President Kim Young Sam (1927–2015), a Presbyterian elder, and bribery cases involving family members of prominent Protestant corporate and political leaders, made headlines.42

The 1990s was the decade of controversy for Korean Protestantism. In addition to the scandals, Protestants became involved in conflicts with other religions. Protestants raided Buddhist temples, decapitating statues of the Buddha and burning down temples. They also came into conflict with the indigenous religion of Tan’gun, the mythical founder of Korea. The followers had installed a statue of Tan’gun in several hundred public schools in the late 1990s, presenting it as an act of patriotism. The Protestants appealed to the government to remove the statues, but a few took the matter into their own hands and attacked the statues. The incidents helped to create a public image of a militant and intolerant Protestantism.43

Yet, in spite of the scandals and the controversy, Korean Protestantism today remains vibrant. The numerical growth may have come to a halt, but the impressive gains sustained in the latter half of the 20th century have made a permanent mark on South Korean society and culture. From the imposing megachurches to the countless storefront chapels, there is no indication of the kind of precipitous decline that has beset mainline Protestantism in Europe and the United States in the past few decades. Indeed, many Korean Protestants believe that their country is now the last bastion of the “true faith.” While the Western churches are embroiled in conflicts over social and political issues, the Koreans see themselves as holding up the orthodox, evangelical faith that the missionaries introduced over a century ago. Korea has long left behind its original status as a mission field for Western missionaries and has, in fact, reversed the process, sending missionaries to the West. As of 2013, there are approximately 26,000 Korean missionaries in 169 countries. They serve not only in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America but also in the United States and Europe. Moreover, the missionaries work primarily with the general population of the host countries, leaving the evangelization of the Korean diasporic communities to themselves.44 Korean Protestantism has thus entered a new chapter in its history. The religion has gone global.

Discussion of the Literature

The recent growth of Protestantism in Korea has sparked an explosion of research in various disciplines, from theology and missiology to history and sociology. The proliferation of literature on Korean Protestantism has generated excitement in the field, and a number of fine studies have been published. The best historical survey on the subject is Sebastian Kim and Kirsteen Kim’s A History of Christianity in Korea. Drawing on the latest scholarship, the book presents a lucid, comprehensive account not only of Protestantism but the entire spectrum of Christianity in Korea. There are also a few concise introductions with insightful analysis: Don Baker’s Korean Spirituality, Donald L. Clark’s Christianity in Modern Korea, and James Huntley Grayson’s Korea: A Religious History. The classic history of Protestantism in Korea is L. George Paik’s The History of Protestant Missions in Korea 1832–1910. Although it covers only the first stage of Korean Protestant history, the work remains unsurpassed in its combination of prodigious archival research and elegant prose.

The best introduction to more specialized studies of Korean Protestantism is the anthology Christianity in Korea, edited by Robert Buswell and Timothy S. Lee. The book contains numerous scholarly articles on different aspects of Christianity in Korea, such as Bible women, millennialism, minjung sinhak, and Christian–Buddhist relations. For more in-depth studies, several fine monographs are available. Chung-shin Park’s Protestantism and Politics in Korea examines the crucial role that Protestants have played in the political history of Korea. Another work that deals with Protestant political involvement, in particular the nationalist movement during the Japanese colonial period, is Kenneth M. Wells’s New God, New Nation: Protestants and Self-Reconstruction Nationalism in Korea 1896–1937. Albert L. Park’s Building a Heaven on Earth: Religion, Activism and Protest in Japanese Occupied Korea discusses some of the same Protestant leaders but focuses on their engagement with social and economic issues, such as rural revitalization. Hyaeweol Choi’s Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea: New Women, Old Ways addresses the important issue of gender and Protestantism, exploring the ways in which the interactions between Western missionary women and their Korean female converts in the early 20th century have contributed to the concept of the “modern woman.”

Korean Protestantism has developed many distinctive characteristics in the course of its history. Although the majority of Korean Protestants are Presbyterians, they tend to be evangelical in orientation. Timothy S. Lee’s Born Again: Evangelicalism in Korea examines how the evangelicalism has shaped Korean Protestant history and theology. The Korean church, with its unique beliefs and practices, is also the product of a vibrant process of indigenization. David Chung’s Syncretism: The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea is a pioneering work in the study of the interaction between Protestantism and traditional Korean religions. More recently, Sung-Deuk Oak’s The Making of Korean Christianity: Encounters of Protestantism with Korean Religions 1876–1915 looks at the adaptation and acculturation that began with the first generation of Western missionaries.

The scholarship on Korean Protestantism has tended in the past to be monopolized by theologians and historians. Recent works, however, have approached the topic from different disciplines and with fresh, new perspectives. For instance, Nicholas Harkness’s Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing, the first major anthropological work on Korean Protestantism, discusses the relationship between Protestantism and classical music, more specifically vocal music. In the field of sociology, previous works have focused almost exclusively with the question of church growth. Kelly H. Chong’s Deliverance and Submission: Evangelical Women and the Negotiation of Patriarchy in South Korea, in contrast, describes the dynamics of gender and family in the lives of contemporary middle-class Protestant women. Another recent work, Rebecca Y. Kim’s The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America, extends the topic of Korean Protestantism beyond the realm of Korean studies and situates it in the U.S. context, providing a transnational focus.

The new scholarship points to the limitless possibilities for future research. In spite of all the works on Korean Protestantism, there are, however, significant lacunae. One is Pentecostalism. Although Pentecostalism and charismatic movements represent the most powerful force in contemporary Korean Protestantism, no major studies have yet been published. Another area for future research is the relationship of Protestantism to modern Korean culture. While studies of the interaction with traditional culture abound, little has been written on the role of Protestantism in modern literature and art. Yet if the current momentum in the field continues, it will only be a matter of time before research extends into these new areas.

Primary Sources

Documents on Korean Protestantism broadly divide into two groups: Western missionary sources and Korean-language materials. An excellent place to begin exploring both is the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Online Archive: Korean Christianity. Created and maintained by Sung-Deuk Oak, the Dongsoon Im and Mija Im Chair, associate professor of Korean Christianity at UCLA, the website provides the most comprehensive selection of primary and secondary sources in Western and Korean language sources, listing titles as well as document links. UCLA also has the Archival Collection on Democracy and Unification in Korea. Donated by the Korea Church Coalition for Peace, Justice, and Reunification in Washington, DC, the collection provides English and Korean-language documents on religious and political groups that participated in the movement for human rights and democratization in South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

A convenient one-volume collection of translated primary sources on Korean Protestantism as well as Korean religions more broadly is Religions of Korea in Practice, edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., part of the series of Princeton Readings in Religions. In Korean, a similar but more extensive collection, dealing with Protestantism and Korean religions, can be found in the four-volume Kidokkyosa charyojip: t’a chonggyo mit chŏnt’ong munhwa ŭi ihae rŭl chungsim ŭro (A Sourcebook of Christian History: Focusing on an Understanding of Other Religions and Traditional Culture), edited by Ch’a Ok-sung.

The two main Protestant groups in Korea are the Presbyterian and Methodist. The National Archives of the Presbyterian Church (USA), administered by the Presbyterian Historical Society, is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the United Methodist Archive and History Center, at Drew University, in Madison, New Jersey. Missionary sources include official documents, such as reports to mission board and minutes of church committee meetings, as well as personal material, such as diaries, letters, and photos. One of the most valuable missionary sources for the study of Korean Protestantism is the Korea Mission Field: A Monthly Journal of Christian Progress, published from 1905 to 1941 by the Federal Council of Evangelical Missions in Korea, an ecumenical body representing the various Protestant groups. Covering virtually the first half of the 20th century, the journal includes mission reports and other items of interest to the Protestant community as well as missionary accounts of Korean culture, society, and history.

In addition to the denominational archives, some missionary papers are housed in university libraries. For instance, the pioneer missionary and scholar James Scarth Gale’s papers are part of the University of Toronto library system. The most extensive university archive for Protestant missionary documents is the Day Missions Collection at Yale University. The archive includes a significant Korean collection. For specifically Presbyterian sources, the Moffett Collection at the Princeton Theological Seminary Library is a treasure trove. Samuel H. Moffett was a missionary to Korea and professor of missions at Princeton Theological Seminary. His father, Samuel A. Moffett, was one of the first missionaries in Korea. The Moffett Collection includes the personal papers of both father and son, as well as an extraordinary array of documents on Protestantism and Korea more generally that Samuel A. Moffett collected and later donated to the seminary. Some of the documents have now been digitized and are available online through the seminary website.

For Korean-language sources on Protestantism, the Harvard-Yenching East Asian Library at Harvard University has a wealth of documents, from Christian newspapers to theological works. Harvard-Yenching, in general, is the premier research library for Korea-related materials in the United States. In conducting research in Korea, the two most important collections on Protestantism are located at Yonsei University and Soongsil University in Seoul, institutions originally founded by Protestant missionaries. A leading publisher of primary sources on Korean Protestantism is the Korea Institute for Advanced Theological Studies (KIATS) in Seoul. It has recently created the “Korean Protestant classics” series, publishing materials previously accessible only in archives, such as the sermons and theological treatises of early Korean Protestant leaders Kil Sŏn-ju and Ch’oe Pyŏng-hŏn, in both the original Korean and English translations. Many of the works are available in U.S. university libraries with Korea-related collections.

Further Reading

Baker, Don. Korean Spirituality. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Buswell, Robert E., Jr., and Timothy S. Lee, eds. Christianity in Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Choi, Hyaeweol. Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea: New Women, Old Ways. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Chong, Kelly H. Deliverance and Submission: Evangelical Women and the Negotiation of Patriarchy in South Korea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008.Find this resource:

Chung, David. Syncretism: The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Clark, Donald L.. Christianity in Modern Korea. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986.Find this resource:

Grayson, James Huntley. Korea: A Religious History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Harkness, Nicholas. Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Kim, Rebecca Y. The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Kim, Sebastian, and Kirsteen Kim. A History of Korean Christianity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Lee, Timothy S. Born Again: Evangelicalism in Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Oak, Sung-Deuk. The Making of Korean Christianity: Encounters of Protestantism with Korean Religions 1876–1915. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Paik, L. George. The History of Protestant Missions in Korea 1832–1910. Seoul: Union Christian College Press, 1929.Find this resource:

Park, Albert L. Building a Heaven on Earth: Religion, Activism and Protest in Japanese Occupied Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Park, Chung-shin. Protestantism and Politics in Korea. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Wells, Kenneth M. New God, New Nation: Protestants and Self-Reconstruction Nationalism in Korea 1896–1937. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1990.Find this resource:


(1.) Sebastian C. H. Kim and Kirsteen Kim, A History of Korean Christianity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 275. The latest official figures are from a 2005 government census. Protestantism in neighboring Japan and China has never gone beyond single-digit percentages of the population. In North Korea, Christianity and other religions have become virtually extinct under the totalitarian communist regime.

(2.) Kim and Kim, A History of Korean Christianity, 307–308.

(3.) The Protestant presidents of South Korea are Syngman Rhee (1948–1960), Yun Posun (1960–1962), Kim Young-sam (1993–1998), and Lee Myung-bak (2008–2013).

(4.) Classical Chinese was the official script in Korea, so literate Koreans would have been able to read Chinese texts.

(5.) L. George Paik, The History of Protestant Missions in Korea 1832–1910 (Seoul: Union Christian College Press, 1929), 38–41.

(6.) Paik, The History of Protestant Missions, 42–45.

(7.) Min Kyŏng-bae, Han’guk Kidokkyohoesa, History of the Christian Church in Korea (Seoul: Yŏnse Taehakkyo Ch’ulp’anbu, 1998), 171.

(8.) Min, Han’guk Kidokkyohoesa, 165–167.

(9.) The Presbyterian and Methodist churches in the U.S. had split over the issue of slavery, 1861 and 1844, respectively. The Presbyterians reunited in 1983, and the Methodists, in 1939.

(10.) Min, Han’guk Kidokkyohoesa, 165.

(11.) The close relationship between Protestantism and print culture stretches back to the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century. Martin Luther and his followers were the first group to fully exploit the power of the newly invented printing press, publishing Bibles and religious tracts in their efforts to promote their new movement.

(12.) There is no record of the prohibition against Christianity ever being formally lifted by the Korean government. None of the treaties that Korea signed with the Western powers in opening up to foreign trade and diplomacy contained explicit clauses for religious toleration. But the prohibition lost any power of enforcement in the fierce imperialist rivalry and domestic turmoil that took place in Korea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

(13.) Lee-Ellen Strawn, “Protestant Bible Education for Women: First Steps in Professional Education for Modern Korean Women,” Journal of Korean Religions 4.5 (April 2013): 99–100.

(14.) Charles Allen Clark, The Korean Church and the Nevius Methods (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1930).

(15.) Paik, The History of Protestant Missions, 187–190. Other groups, such as the Anglicans and Baptists, were few in number relative to the Presbyterians and Methodists, and they chose to steer their own course.

(16.) Don Baker, Korean Spirituality (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008), 71.

(17.) Donald N. Clark, Living Dangerously in Korea: The Western Experience 1900–1950 (Norwalk, CT: EastBridge, 2003), 121–122.

(18.) Donald N. Clark, Christianity in Modern Korea (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986), 6.

(19.) Martha Huntley, Caring, Growing, Changing: A History of the Protestant Mission in Korea (New York: Friendship Press, 1984), 131–139.

(20.) Kim and Kim, A History of Korean Christianity, 107.

(21.) Baker, Korean Spirituality, 71.

(22.) Sean C. Kim, “Preaching the Apocalypse in Colonial Korea,” in Christianity in Korea, eds. Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Timothy S. Lee (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006), 149–150.

(23.) Charles F. Bernheisel, “Rev. Kil Sunju,” The Korea Mission Field: A Monthly Journal of Christian Progress 32 (February 1936): 30.

(24.) Harry A. Rhodes, ed., History of the Korean Mission, Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., vol. 1 (Seoul: Chosen Mission Presbyterian Church, 934), 235, 289–290.

(25.) Pyŏn Chong-ho, ed., Yi Yong-do Moksa sŏganjipj, Letters of Pastor Yi Yong-do (Seoul: Sinsaenggwan, 1969), 102.

(26.) Chung-shin Park, Protestantism and Politics in Korea (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 30–35.

(27.) James Huntley Grayson, “A Quarter-Millennium of Christianity in Korea,” in Christianity in Korea, eds. Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Timothy S. Lee (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006), 15.

(28.) Kim and Kim, A History of Korean Christianity, 118–125.

(29.) Grayson, “A Quarter-Millennium of Christianity in Korea,” 15.

(30.) Grayson, “A Quarter-Millennium of Christianity in Korea,” 16–17.

(31.) Clark, Christianity in Korea, 18.

(32.) Estimates put the number of Protestants who fled south at 70,000 out of a total of 120,000, and only about 20 clergy remained in the north. In the years following, Christianity became virtually extinct in North Korea. See Han’guk Kidokkyo Yŏksa Yŏn’guso and Pukhan Kyohoesa Chipp’il Wiwŏnhoe, Pukhan Kyohoesa [History of the Church in North Korea] (Seoul: Han’guk Kidokkyo Yŏksa Yŏn’guso, 1996), 419.

(33.) James Huntley Grayson, Korea: A Religious History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 211.

(34.) Kim and Kim, A History of Korean Christianity, 275.

(35.) Baker, Korean Spirituality, 74–75.

(36.) Sean C. Kim, “Reenchanted: Divine Healing in Korean Protestantism,” in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, ed. Candy Gunther Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 281.

(37.) Billy Graham, Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (San Francisco: HarperCollins and Zondervan, 1997), 618,

(38.) Baker, Korean Spirituality, 74.

(39.) Park, Protestantism and Politics in Korea, 184–185.

(40.) Park, Protestantism and Politics in Korea, 178.

(41.) David Kwang-sun Suh, The Korean Minjung in Christ (Hong Kong: Christian Conference on Asia, 1991).

(42.) Timothy S. Lee, Born Again: Evangelicalism in Korea (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010), 148.

(43.) Lee, Born Again, 149–150.

(44.) Rebecca Y. Kim, The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 2.