In Part 1 of this article, I have discussed several attempts that were made from neighbouring Ming China and Japan to bring the gospel into the Joseon Kingdom of Korea in the 16th and 17th centuries. These attempts, all of which failed, did not materialize or did not leave much of an impact in the land of Korea in general, nonetheless set the background and paved the way for the spread of an indigenously Korean form of Christianity to the masses.
Indeed, never before has it been seen in Christian history worldwide a pattern in which Christianity is first introduced to the people of a nation not by the efforts of any foreign missionaries or emissaries, but rather by an indigenous movement of the nation’s natives themselves. To rephrase this simply in the context of Korea, it is a wonder that while most other nations and ethnic groups of the world would first hear about the gospel and receive Christianity through the efforts of foreign missionaries and emissaries, Korea is perhaps one of the few nations in the world (if not the only) in which the gospel is first propagated amongst the masses not by any foreign missionary, but by indigenous Koreans themselves. Because of this, this form of Christianity “by the Koreans and for the Koreans” was able to take on a distinctively Korean shape while retaining most of the principles of the Bible with great fervour and accuracy, notwithstanding the absence of spiritual guidance from qualified priests and missionaries.
Sounds amazing and interesting? Do read further to find out more for yourselves!
The era of King Jeongjo’s reign, spanning from 1776 to 1800, was coloured with political strife and intrigue within the royal family and the imperial court. Indeed, in an imperial court where jealousy abounds and hatred reigns, and where the lust for power and prestige is the rule of the day, King Jeongjo (정조 / 正祖) (1752 – 1800) ascended a throne of dissension and reigned through a period of turbulence. Such turbulence and tribulation manifested not only in the realm of the imperial courts, but also among groups of scholars holding to conflicting schools of thought.
King Jeongjo (정조 / 正祖) (1752 – 1800)
Amidst such tumultuous times, one could never find peace of mind and heart even if he were to remain neutral in the midst of the rampaging factional rivalries that were tearing the nation apart. As a result, a disillusioned Silhak (실학 / 實學) scholar by the name of Kwon Cheol-sin (권철신 / 權哲身) (1736 – 1801) took the initiative to organize a series of meetings that involved the participation of several closely-knitted young Silhak scholars in 1779. Due to its relatively isolated and peaceful location, a Buddhist temple in Icheon (이천 / 利川) known as Cheon Jin-am (천진암 / 天眞菴) was selected as the venue for these meetings that lasted for 10 days.
Cheon Jin-am (천진암 / 天眞菴), the "sacred heartland" of Korean Christianity as seen today
Within the duration of these 10 days, the young Silhak scholars devoted themselves to an intensive study of various theological, philosophical and scientific texts written by Confucian and Buddhist scholars, as well as those produced by Jesuit missionaries resident in China. Among those texts was the renowned theological treatise by Matteo Ricci, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (Chinese: 天主实义, Tiānzhŭ Shíyì), which I have mentioned in the previous part of this article. Issues pertaining to heaven and earth, the human nature and suffering, as well as the immortality of the soul were the mainstays of intellectual discussions during these series of meetings.
At the end of the 10-day meeting, a solid and consensual conclusion was arrived at – that Christianity provided the answers for many of the questions that neo-Confucian teachings could not answer satisfactorily. This unanimous conclusion thus prompted the entire body of young Silhak scholars who participated in the meetings to adopt the gospel as their common way of life and to share it out with others as much as they could. Thus began the first efforts by the Koreans themselves to spread the gospel to the Koreans, without any aid whatsoever from foreign missionaries.
The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (Chinese: 天主实义, Tiānzhŭ Shíyì), by Matteo Ricci
From the several Silhak scholars who participated in the series of meetings at Cheon Jin-am, two stood out particularly more than the rest, namely Yi Sung-hun (이승훈 / 李承薰) (1756 – 1801) and Yi Byeok (이벽 / 李檗) (1754 – 1785). Yi Byeok showed an extraordinary interest in the teachings of Christianity and took the initiative to scrutinize in more detail the written works of Matteo Ricci and other Jesuit missionaries in China. In fact, upon hearing that Yi Sung-hun was to be part of an ambassadorial delegation to Beijing in 1783, Yi Byeok sought him out and requested that he stayed in Beijing for a longer period of time to acquire as much knowledge as possible regarding the teachings of Christianity. Taking Yi Byeok’s advice, Yi Sung-hun thus set out for the Chinese imperial capital with the rest of the delegation and stayed there for about three months.
Yi Sung-hun (이승훈 / 李承薰) (1756 – 1801)
While in Beijing, Yi visited the Southern Cathedral (Chinese: 南堂, Nántáng) many times and sought out the Jesuit missionaries and priests of the cathedral, yearning to learn more about the Christian faith and the teachings of the Bible. He received constant and sound instruction in the gospel, and was subsequently baptized into the Catholic Christian faith. Bringing with him a large number of books, crucifixes and presents, and a new wealth of understanding of the Christian faith, Yi returned to his homeland the following year, ready to share the good news of the gospel to his fellow scholars and countrymen.
Nantang (Chinese: 南堂, Nántáng; lit. "Southern Church"), as seen in Beijing today. It is one of the oldest Catholic churches in China
No doubt, the first person whom Yi sought after his return to Korea was his mentor, Yi Byeok. Yi Sung-hun presented all the books and written materials that he brought back from the Jesuit missionaries in Beijing to Yi Byeok and their fellow Silhak scholars who participated in the meetings of Cheon Jin-am. Yi Byeok especially showed deep interest for these newly-received materials and began devoting much time in seclusion to delve into the depths of the gospel and the Christian faith. The more Yi Byeok studied the Scriptures and the works of the Jesuit missionaries, the more he was persuaded of the truth and authenticity of the gospel, and the more his heart’s desire grew to propagate his newfound faith.
After a thorough study of the Scriptures, both Yi Byeok and Yi Sung-hun became active missionaries and evangelists amongst their relatives and friends. Everywhere they went, they were enthusiastic in sharing the good news of the gospel and proclaiming the truth of the Bible. They shared the teachings and knowledge of the Christian Scriptures with all their family members, relatives and friends, most of whom belonged to the learned upper and middle classes. Besides, they also actively and tirelessly reached out to the lower classes of society with the gospel.
Yi Byeok (이벽 / 李檗) (1754 – 1785)
Yi Byeok, besides being an ardent and oratorical preacher of Catholic Christianity, was himself a prolific writer who actively used the pen to spread and expound the knowledge of the gospel. From his self-study of the Christian Scriptures and the written works of the Jesuit missionaries in China, he produced a whole lot of written works himself, propounding, explaining and commenting upon the teachings of the Bible and the principles of Christianity. In fact, one of Yi Byeok’s most influential work was The Essence of the Sacred Teaching (성교요지 / 聖敎要旨, Seonggyo Yoji), which provided a commentary on key biblical concepts such as the existence of God, the Creation, the sin and fall of man, the salvation of Jesus Christ, the life and teachings of Jesus, the judgment and the immortality of the soul. Another work by Yi Byeok worth mention here is The Hymn of Adoration of the Lord of Heaven (천주공경가 / 天主恭敬歌, Cheonju Kongkyeongka), which was highly influential in propagating the gospel and strengthening the faith of Korean Christians.
As a result of Yi Byeok and Yi Sung-hun’s vigorous efforts in propagating the gospel among both the upper and lower classes of Korean society, Catholic Christianity spread very rapidly and flourished especially among the learned classes. Christianity became extremely popular among other Silhak scholars and the nobility, and regular gatherings were held in the Buddhist temple of Cheon Jin-am whereby these new Korean Christians studied the Christian Scriptures and held worship services together. The number of Korean Christians eventually multiplied by leaps and bounds, so much so that it soon became impractical and impossible to hold Christian gatherings in the secluded temple of Cheon Jin-am. Yi Byeok’s residence in the outskirts of the Korean imperial capital of Hanseong (한성 / 漢城) (present-day Seoul) was thus chosen for the purpose of holding larger Christian gatherings.
By the spring of 1785, even Yi Byeok’s residence reportedly became too small for the ever-growing congregation of Korean Christians. As a result, Christian gatherings were subsequently transferred to the larger residence of Kim Beom-woo (김범우 / 金範禹) (? – 1787), a scholar and translator in the imperial government who was also zealous for the spread of the gospel and the expansion of the Korean Christian community. It was reported that around that time, there were already over a thousand people who were faithful adherents of Catholic Christianity.
Artist's impression of a Christian gathering held in Yi Byeok's residence in Hanseong (Seoul), with Yi Byeok himself teaching the Scripture
In time to come, the Korean Christian community grew with such rapidity that a more formal organization was required for the administration of spiritual affairs. However, due to the fact that there were no foreign missionaries, and thus no formally qualified Catholic priests in Korea at that time, a few of the most learned Silhak-cum-Christian scholars such as Yi Byeok, Yi Sung-hun and Jeong Yak-yong (정약용 / 丁若鏞) (1762 – 1836) took over the role of Catholic priests and carried out spiritual duties such as administering baptism and the Holy Communion, among others.
Jeong Yak-yong (정약용 / 丁若鏞) (1762 – 1836)
With the formal establishment of a church organization by the Korean Christians, coupled with the widespread popularity of the gospel especially among the aristocratic and scholarly classes, Christianity soon became perceived as a threat to the proponents of neo-Confucian philosophy. Wanting to create an ideal Korean society governed by solid neo-Confucian principles, such proponents rejected Christianity for its supposedly foreign origins and equated it to the teachings of superstitious Buddhists.
As a result of such opposition, a raid was organized by the local authorities not long after regular Christian gatherings were started to be held in the residence of Kim Beom-woo. During the sudden raid on his residence in the middle of a Christian gathering, the Korean Christians who were gathered there, including Kim himself, were arrested, imprisoned and harshly treated. Kim was badly tortured during imprisonment before being thrown into exile, in which he subsequently died from the severity of his wounds. This unexpected assault thus sparked a series of official persecutions that were to follow in time.
Somewhere in March 1785, several students from the renowned Confucian educational institution of Sungkyunkwan (성균관 / 成均館) made efforts to circulate a poisonous directive against Korean Christians, urging the relatives and friends of Christians to sever all ties with them unless they recant their faith. This written directive, however, did not make much of an impact until later that year, when King Jeongjo was increasingly pressured by numerous government officials to outlaw Christianity out of fear that it may grow out of control. Consequently, an imperial edict was issued, declaring Catholic Christianity illegal and urging relatives and friends of Christians to publicly accuse them for professing their faith. Additionally, Catholic works from China were also barred by imperial order from being imported into the Joseon Kingdom.
The Sungkyunkwan (성균관 / 成均館) institution, a renowned centre for Confucian education during the Joseon Dynasty
As part of the execution of the imperial edict, the various families and clans throughout the kingdom were required to return to their home city, county or settlement. The members of each clan were then required by imperial order to find out who amongst them had become Christians and to pressure those Christians to renounce their faith. No doubt, such a move was generally successful in curtailing the spread of Christianity and reducing the number of adherents throughout the kingdom, albeit for a short period of time only.
It was reported that at the meetings of each clan with believers in them, the believers were immensely pressured to renounce their faith and apologize for adhering to the teachings of the gospel. Christians who did not recant were incessantly pressured with humiliation and threats, so much so that in the end, many bowed down to such pressure. To prove their sincerity in renouncing their belief, these Korean Christians were subsequently required to write public letters of apology and to apologize in person to the elders of their respective clans. Even Yi Sung-hun, Kwon Cheol-sin and Jeong Yak-yong bowed down to such immense pressure in the end.
Yi Byeok, however, was more strong-willed and adamantly refused to forego his faith even in the face of constant threats from his family and clan. It was said that his father, out of anger, placed the young Silhak scholar under house arrest and severed all of his connections to the outside world until he agreed to renounce his faith. Yi Byeok never gave in, and instead spent the remaining days of his life under house arrest praying and fasting. He frequently refused food and sleep, and finally died out of exhaustion in June 1785.
With the passing of the fervent preacher and teacher of Korean Catholic Christianity, Yi Byeok, it seemed as if Christianity in Korea during that era would eventually collapse under the intolerant imperial edict of King Jeongjo. But was this the case in the subsequent years? Read on in the next part of this article.
1) Iraola, A.E. (2007), True Confucians, bold Christians: Korean missionary experience, a model for the third millennium, Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam.