“In the golden age of Asia
Korea was one of its lamp-bearers
And that lamp is waiting
To be lighted once again
For the illumination in the East.”
When renowned Indian poet, playwright and laureate Sir Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) wrote this brief but vivid description in 1929 during a visit to Tokyo, Japan, he was undoubtedly praising the resilience and determination of the people of what is figuratively known as the Land of the Morning Calm. Despite never having the privilege to visit the Land of the Morning Calm, Sir Tagore manifested his deep admiration for the people of the land in the form of this single-stanza poem, entitled The Lamp of the East. And indeed, although Sir Tagore’s allusion to Korea’s “lamp” being snuffed out reflected accurately the reality of the Japanese occupation and annexation of the nation during the pre-World War II era, his poetic prediction nonetheless described precisely the actuality that Korea is today – a land of illumination in the Far East.
The Land of the Morning Calm – home of several kingdoms controlling an entire peninsula not very well known to people outside East Asia before the advent of Western imperialism and colonization in the 19th century. This land, often dubbed mystical and mysterious, which lies between the Chinese Mainland and the Japanese Archipelago, derives its figurative name from its longest reigning dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조 / 朝鮮王朝, Joseon Wangjo) (1392 – 1897) (“Morning Calm” being a direct English translation of the term “Joseon”). And it was undoubtedly during the reign of this dynasty that Christianity first found its way into the Land of the Morning Calm, or more commonly known as Korea.
Life during the Joseon Dynasty
If any of you has visited South Korea before, you might have noticed that its capital city of Seoul (서울) has a flourishing Christian presence with many large cathedrals and churches in just about every corner of the city. Indeed, Christianity’s popularity in South Korea has grown by leaps and bounds over the last half of the 20th century up to this very day. It is said that South Korea is one of the few nations in the world that has seen such a dramatic and spectacular boom in the size of its Christian population, so much so that the number of adherents of Christianity in the nation has reportedly surpassed that of Korea’s traditional religion of Buddhism.
Yoido Full Gospel Church (여의도순복음교회 / 汝矣島純福音敎會, Yeouido Sunbogeum Gyohoe), currently the largest Protestant church in South Korea and the world
Nonetheless, despite Christianity’s spectacular growth in the Land of the Morning Calm in recent years, its beginnings in the 18th century were not exactly sweet, especially amidst a strongly Confucian and Buddhist society that was suspicious of almost anything that appeared foreign in origin. In spite of this, it is worth noting, as you will read later on, that Christianity first found its roots in Korea not as a result of missionary efforts by any foreign missionaries, but rather as a result of the propagation of the gospel by the Koreans themselves, thus giving Christianity a distinctively “by the Koreans and for the Koreans” image within the traditional Korean society of the era. Having said these, let us now delve further into the unique past of Korean Christianity. Read on to find out more!
As compared to its immediate neighbours China and Japan, it is fair to say that the history of Christianity in the Land of the Morning Calm is relatively short and brief. While Christianity, particularly in the form of Catholicism, was spreading rapidly and thriving magnificently in both China and Japan during the 16th and 17th centuries, the gospel was relatively unheard of throughout the Korean Peninsula. This is accentuated by the fact that during the later centuries of the Joseon Dynasty, the Korean imperial government exercised strict isolationist policies and closed its doors to almost all foreign trade and contacts.
Re-enactment of a dance performed in the imperial court during the Joseon Dynasty
As Catholic Christianity flourished in China and Japan during the late 16th and early 17th century, there were talks and ideas of bringing the gospel to Korea as well amongst the established Christian communities in both these countries. The first such attempt came from Japan, whereby Father Gaspar Vilela (1525 – 1572), the Portuguese Jesuit missionary most renowned for establishing the first Japanese Christian community in Japan’s imperial capital of Kyoto, drafted plans to recruit Jesuit missionaries and introduce the gospel to Korea. Nevertheless, his plans never materialized, as he died in 1572 in Goa, India before he had the chance to carry them out.
The next attempt to introduce the gospel into the Land of the Morning Calm came also from Japan, this time on a slightly greater scale, albeit unplanned. In the years prior to 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Japanese: 豊臣秀吉) (1536 – 1598), one of the three great unifiers of Japan, gradually succeeded to stabilize his position and strengthen his grasp over the whole of Japan. As he consolidated more power and influence over the formerly splintered territories in southwestern Japan, he subsequently became more ambitious and finally ordered an invasion of neighbouring Korea in 1592. Hideyoshi’s ultimate ambition was to conquer not only Joseon Korea, but also Ming China (i.e. China under the Ming Dynasty).
Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉) (1536 - 1598)
In May 1592, Hideyoshi ordered the first attack on Korea. Although he did not personally lead his army into battle due to failing health, he appointed several prominent warlords to lead his troops into Korea, one of whom was Konishi Yukinaga (Japanese: 小西行長) (1555 – 1600), an ardent Catholic Christian warlord and patron of Catholic Christianity in Japan. Since Christianity had flourished throughout Yukinaga’s domain under his patronage and protection, many of the soldiers whom he led into Korea were also Christians themselves. As such, Yukinaga requested the company of a Jesuit priest, Father Gregorious de Cespedes, during his expedition to Korea, in order to tend to the spiritual needs of his Christian troops.
Based on recorded history, there was hardly any spiritual contact between Yukinaga’s Japanese Christian troops and native Koreans during the invasion. Father de Cespedes mainly tended to the spiritual needs of Yukinaga’s troops and hardly made any efforts to spread the gospel to the general Korean population. Nonetheless, the Jesuit priest did make fruitful efforts to propagate the gospel amongst the Koreans who were held captive by Yukinaga’s troops.
Following the first Japanese invasion of Korea that lasted from 1592 to 1593, many Koreans were enslaved and taken back to Japan. They were mainly taken back to the southwestern provinces of Japan, including the port-city of Nagasaki (Japanese: 長崎), where the Japanese populations were largely Christian. It was reported that the Jesuit priests serving in these provinces made active efforts to propagate the gospel amongst the enslaved Koreans, yielding much success. In fact, historical records written by Father Louis Frois, another well-known Portuguese Jesuit missionary in Japan, state that there were about 300 Korean Christians in Nagasaki alone in 1596. Moreover, during a bout of persecution against Catholic Christians in Nagasaki in the early 1600s, it was reported that 9 out of 205 martyrs were actually Koreans.
The flourishing port-city of Nagasaki (長崎), as seen today
Subsequent attempts to bring the gospel to Korea came from China. One of the Three Great Pillars of Chinese Catholicism, Xu Guangqi (Chinese: 徐光启, Xú Guāngqǐ) (1562 – 1633), made two requests to the Ming Emperor in 1620 and 1621 respectively for permission to enter Korea to assist in the handling of certain political and military matters. This he did with the desire at heart to bring the gospel to the Korean homeland, but was unfortunately rejected on both occasions by the Ming Emperor.
Re-enactment of the lives of Xu Guangqi (徐光启) and Matteo Ricci in a documentary on Catholic Christianity in China
Moreover, the capture of Crown Prince Sohyeon (소현세자 / 昭顯世子, So-hyeon Seja) (1612 – 1645) and his subsequent captivity under the Manchurian government in Shenyang (Chinese: 沈阳, Shĕnyáng) proved to be a near-turning point for the spread of Christianity in the Korean peninsula. After the devastating defeat of the Korean armies in the hands of the Manchurian government during the Second Manchu Invasion of Korea (병자호란 / 丙子胡亂, Byeongja Horan) in 1636, Crown Prince Sohyeon was captured and brought to the Manchurian capital of Shenyang. When the Manchurian army subsequently set out to capture Ming China’s capital, Beijing, in 1644, the crown prince also followed under captivity. (It should be noted, for those of you who are not aware, that the Manchurian government of northern China was, at that time, consolidating power and would subsequently conquer Ming China and establish the Qing Dynasty in 1644.)
Namhansanseong (남한산성 / 南漢山城, lit. Fortress of the Southern Han Mountain), the fortress in which King Injo took refuge during the 1636 Second Manchu Invasion of Korea
It was in Beijing, while still under captivity, when the crown prince had the privilege to meet one of the most eminent Catholic Christian priest and missionary in China during the era, Johann Adam Schall von Bell. During this short but meaningful encounter, Crown Prince Sohyeon acquired a wealth of knowledge regarding Catholic Christianity, the gospel and Western sciences, all of which he desired to transport back to his homeland for the benefit of his people. After his release from captivity, the crown prince managed to bring back to Korea several books and treatises on various subjects, including theology, astronomy and the sciences.
Hopes were high amongst the Catholic circles in China that Crown Prince Sohyeon’s return to Korea would herald a new dawn for the propagation of the gospel throughout the Joseon kingdom, since he was heir apparent to the throne of his father, King Injo (인조 / 仁祖) (1595 – 1649). The crown prince had highly favourable views towards Christianity and was enthusiastic in bringing in the gospel and knowledge of Western sciences into Korea. This new attitude that he brought back after his captivity, however, did not go down well with his father and many learned officials in the Joseon government. Most unfortunately, the crown prince died a sudden death just within 60 days after returning home, apparently after being poisoned, thus crushing the Jesuit missionaries’ ultimate hope of seeing Catholic Christianity flourishing in the Land of the Morning Calm.
Crown Prince Sohyeon (소현세자 / 昭顯世子, So-hyeon Seja) (1612 – 1645) portrayed in a Korean TV drama
Despite all these failed initial attempts at bringing the gospel into Korea, Korean scholars and officials were not fully unaware of the existence of Catholic Christianity and the teachings of the Bible. In 1603, Yi Gwangjong (이광종 / 李光鍾), a Korean diplomat to Beijing, brought back to Korea a world map and a few books on theology produced by the renowned Catholic missionary to Ming China, Matteo Ricci. Subsequent Korean diplomats and ambassadors to China also brought back numerous works by resident Catholic missionaries and priests in China, including The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (Chinese: 天主实义, Tiānzhŭ Shíyì) by Matteo Ricci, in addition to a vast assortment of Western scientific tools, weapons and maps. Although these written works and items became treasures in the libraries of Korean imperial scholars of the era, they did not leave much of an imprint on the learned classes and general populace until about a century later.
Matteo Ricci (Chinese: 利玛窦, Lì Mădòu) (1552 – 1610)
Nonetheless, there exist a few historical records which vaguely describe the spread and practice of Catholic Christianity by local communities in several areas throughout Korea prior to 1784. One such record mentions that in 1758, many communities in the provinces of Hwanghae (황해 / 黃海) and Gangwon (강원 / 江原) began adopting Catholic Christianity and consequently stopped the practice of performing memorial rites for the dead. This did not go down well with King Yeongjo (영조 / 英祖) (1694 – 1776), who then took stringent measures in outlawing Catholic Christianity and denouncing it as an evil teaching.
Having discussed the various failed initial attempts from Ming China and Japan to introduce Christianity on a large scale into the Joseon Kingdom of Korea, I will now cover the events leading to the beginning and propagation of a uniquely Korean Christianity “by the Koreans and for the Koreans” in the next part of this article.
Part 1 – Initial efforts to bring the gospel into Korea prior to 1784
Part 2 – Beginnings and spread of Catholic Christianity “by the Koreans and for the Koreans”, initial success and decline
Part 3 – Reestablishment and expansion of Catholic Christianity until the great Sinyu Persecution of 1801
Part 4 – Subsequent growth and reestablishment of the Korean Church until the Gihae Persecution of 1839
Part 5 – Subsequent growth and expansion of the Korean Church until the Byeongin Persecution of 1866