When the Gospel Awakens the Morning Calm (Part 5)

With the Gihae Persecution taking its toll on the number of Christians and the survival of the gospel in the Land of the Morning Calm, as you have read in the previous part of this article, the church in Korea was once again bound for decline. In this last part of the article, we will see how the church fared in the subsequent decades before yet another, decidedly the worst, persecution smacked the church hard.

Previously, I have mentioned that Father Pierre-Philbert Maubant, one of the three French missionaries who came to Korea prior to the Gihae Persecution, had sent at least two exceptional Korean Christians to study in a Catholic seminary in Macao in 1836, in his efforts to raise native Korean Catholic priests for the Korean Church. Kim Tae-gon was one of them, of which he completed his seminary studies and attempted to return to his homeland after the Gihae Persecution. He attempted to return to Korea in 1843 with a group of merchants, but was denied entry when he fell under the suspicion of the border authorities.

Kim Tae-gon (1821 - 1846), the first officially ordained Korean Catholic priest

Being forced to return to China momentarily, Kim then met Bishop Jean-Joseph Ferréol (1808 – 1853) in Shanghai, whereby the former was then made a priest by the latter. Bishop Ferréol was by then appointed as the third Vicar Apostolic to Korea, succeeding Bishop Imbert. Another attempt was made in 1845 to return to Korea, this time by the sea route instead of the land route. The newly ordained Father Kim was successful, and on top of that, he managed to secretly bring in Bishop Ferréol and Father Nicholas Daveluy (1818 – 1866) into the Joseon Kingdom.

Nicholas Daveluy (1818 - 1866) writing materials for the Korean Church

Father Kim was an ardent preacher and propagator of the gospel. In spite of constant threats of capture and imprisonment from the imperial government, he never gave up spreading the gospel and bringing in more people into the Catholic Christian faith. He was actively involved in bringing in more missionaries and priests from mainland China and Macao into Korea, including both Bishop Ferréol and Father Daveluy whom I have mentioned above. While attempting to bring in Choi Yang-op (the other Korean seminary student whom Father Maubant had formerly sent to Macao) and Father Jean-Ambroise Maistre (1808 – 1857) into Korea, however, he was apprehended by imperial officials and subjected to torture. Father Kim was then executed in Saenamteo in 1846. His dying words to his executors were as follows:

“This is my last hour of life, listen to me attentively: if I have held communication with foreigners, it has been for my religion and for my God. It is for Him that I die. My immortal life is on the point of beginning. Become Christians if you wish to be happy after death, because God has eternal chastisements in store for those who have refused to know Him.”

Replica of Kim Tae-gon in the Saenamteo Basilica in South Korea

A few years after the death of Father Kim, the Korean Church was bound to enjoy another period of peace and growth. This was especially so after the ascension of King Cheoljong ( / ) (1831 – 1863) to the throne in 1849. The king was highly tolerant towards Catholic Christianity and allowed the gospel free rein throughout his kingdom despite opposition from some imperial officials. The fact that there were believers among the members of the imperial household, including the king’s own father-in-law Kim Mun-gun (김문 / ) (1801 – 1863), further strengthened the king’s reason for toleration towards Christianity.

King Cheoljong ( / ) (1831 – 1863)

Catholic Christianity flourished much under King Cheoljong, whereby 11 more French priests and missionaries entered Korea during the tenure of his reign. This number included Bishop Siméon-François Berneux (장경 / 張敬, Jang Gyeong-il) (1814 – 1866), who replaced Bishop Ferréol as the fourth Vicar Apostolic to Korea after the latter’s death from natural causes in 1853. Bishop Berneux arrived safely in Hanseong in 1856, after which one of the first things he did was establishing a seminary on a mountain near Jecheon ( / ), as an effort to raise more native Korean priests.

 Panoramic scenery of the mountains near Jecheon ( / ), South Korea

Moreover, the bishop contributed a lot to producing more books and written works for the Korean Church, thus increasing the wealth of literature and spiritual education for its members. He recognized the value of using hangul (the native Korean script, in contrast to hanja, that is Chinese characters used in the Korean language) and encouraged Catholic children to learn it from young. Many books and Christian works were also produced in the hangul script, and since hangul was more commonly used among the lower classes of society at that time, it enabled the gospel to spread beyond the elite and make an impact among commoners as well. In fact, it was through the works of Bishop Berneux and the Korean Catholic Church at that time that rapidly increased the society’s literacy of hangul, which has now become the national script of both North and South Korea.

Hangul (above) and hanja (below). Hangul is the native Korean script, while Hanja is the Chinese script adapted for usage in the Korean language

Indeed, the era of peace that Catholic Christianity enjoyed under King Cheoljong was reflected by the rate of growth of the number of believers in the Joseon Kingdom. By 1857, Bishop Berneux reported a staggering number of 15,206 believers throughout the land, and these numbers continued to grow astoundingly in the subsequent years.

This spectacular growth, however, lasted only as long as King Cheoljong remained alive. His untimely death in December 1863 proved to be disastrous for Christianity, especially after the ascension of another minor to the throne, King Gojong ( / ) (1852 – 1919) or the later Emperor Gwangmu ( / ). Because he was unable to rule in his own right at that time, his father, Heungseon Daewongun (흥선대원 / 興宣大院) (1820 – 1898) ruled on his behalf as Prince Regent.

King Gojong ( / ) (1852 – 1919), also known as Emperor Gwangmu ( / ) after the formation of the Korean Empire in 1897

Heungseon Daewongun (흥선대원 / 興宣大院) (1820 – 1898)

The reign of the great Daewongun coincided with the era of Western imperialism and the Meiji Restoration in Japan, resulting in numerous external threats to Korea’s sovereignty. On top of that, the gradual weakening of the Qing Dynasty’s central power in the face of growing Western influence in China meant that Korea lost its sole protector and benefactor. Western and Japanese imperialism was on the rise, its reaching the shores of Korea was imminent, and the great Daewongun was well aware of it.

The Daewongun’s fears finally materialized when Russia became the first Western power to make its prelude appearance on the stage of Korean shores. After successfully pressuring Qing China into signing unequal treaties with Russia, the latter acquired vast territories and military and trading benefits around the Amur River (Chinese: 黑龙江, Hēilóng Jiāng) by 1860. Wanting to acquire a more strategic position for military and trade, the Russian Empire then sent ships to the eastern shores of Korea in January 1866, pressuring the Joseon government into providing more trading and residency benefits for Russia.

Amur River, also known in Chinese as the Black Dragon River (黑龙江, Hēilóng Jiāng)

Some Korean Christians wielding influence in the imperial court suggested that the Russian forces could be driven away with the help of France. Moreover, since Bishop Berneux himself was French, the Korean Christians proposed that the Daewongun hold discussions with the bishop for a French-Korean alliance. Despite the fact that the Daewongun was initially agreeable to this proposal, numerous officials in the imperial government were disagreeable to it, viewing Christianity with suspicion and associating it with a foreign power and agenda. In the end, these officials succeeded in poisoning the mind of the Daewongun and instigating anti-Christian sentiments in the imperial court.

The trap was set, and all that was needed was to entice the unknowing target into it. Under the pretext of wanting to discuss with the bishop about materializing a French-Korean alliance against the Russians, Bishop Berneux was summoned to the imperial court early in 1866. Little did he know, however, that capture and torture awaited him in the imperial capital, should he have agreed to present himself in the imperial court. He nonetheless made his way to Hanseong, in which he subsequently fell into the maliciously devised trap and was taken prisoner. The bishop’s arrest was followed by a string of more arrests involving the other French priests and missionaries who were present in the country at that time. They were all subjected to torture like their predecessors in the country, and were finally sentenced to death by decapitation.

Artist's impression of Bishop Berneux propagating and teaching the gospel to the Koreans

The martyrdom of Bishop Berneux and the other French missionaries in Korea marked the commencement of the final and darkest storm that rampaged over Catholic Christianity in the nation. Known as the terrible Byeongin Persecution (병인박 / 丙寅迫, Byeong-in Bakhae) of 1866, it tore the Korean Catholic Church apart to its very roots and claimed the lives of over 8000 Christians, thus effectively obliterating about half of the Christian community throughout the land at that time. The mass beheading of the Koreans who held faith in Christ were mostly carried out at Mount Jeoldu (절두 / 切頭, Jeoldu-san) overlooking the Han River in the imperial capital. Indeed, the number of those beheaded for their faith was so great that the mountain was actually named “The Mount of Beheading” (Jeoldu meaning “beheading” in Korean). Out of the 12 foreign priests and missionaries who were residing in Korea at that time, only three managed to escape the country alive, of which both Bishop Berneux and Father Daveluy were not among them.

Memorial atop Mount Jeoldu (절두 / 切頭, Jeoldu-san), erected in commemoration of all the Christians who were martyred at that site in the Byeongin Persecution of 1866

The Byeongin Persecution was so severe that Christianity never saw daylight amidst the darkness until 1871, when the great Daewongun stepped down nominally to make way for King Gojong to rule in his own right. Although the Daewongun no longer held supreme position in the imperial court, he still wielded much influence over his son’s rule until his death. Nevertheless, constant internal problems in the imperial court, coupled with the ever-increasing external threats to Korea’s sovereignty, shifted much of the imperial rulers’ attention away from the Church.

With the clearing of the final storm of persecution, Catholic Christianity was once again guaranteed freedom and stability in the Land of the Morning Calm. Korean Christians were able to pick up from where they last stopped, and the Church once again grew steadily in numbers and strength in the decades that followed. The gospel continued to flourish in the land, so much so that in 1877, the Catholic seminary established in Korea was reactivated and in 1888, the printing headquarters that was responsible for mass producing Bibles and Catholic materials was transferred from Nagasaki to Hanseong (Seoul).

Doubtless to say, although Christians now constitute a major portion of South Korea’s total population, even surpassing that of the nation’s traditional religion of Buddhism, its beginnings were not altogether smooth-sailing. Countless lives were lost through several bouts of persecution, and a large amount of property and materials seized and destroyed before the gospel penetrated every corner of the country to become what it is today. Nevertheless, one thing’s for sure – that the faith of Christ can undoubtedly be seen as something inherently and natively Korean from its very beginnings up to this very day, as shown by its history in bygone days and its reality in the present days.

Mirinae (미리내) in Anseong (안성 / 安城), South Korea, where lies the tombs of Bishop Ferréol and Father Kim Tae-gon

Sculpture of Mary and the infant Jesus, made in Korean style

Main References:
1.      Catholic Dictionary (2007), Korean church (the beginning of), Catholic Dictionary, viewed 29 November, 2011, <http://dictionary.editme.com/Korean>
2.      Fathers of the London Oratory (n.d.), The new glories of the Catholic Church, Richardson and Son, London.
3.      Grayson, J.H. (1985), Early Buddhism and Christianity in Korea: a study in the emplantation of religion, E.J. Brill, Leiden, the Netherlands.
4.      Kim, A.E. (1995), ‘A history of Christianity in Korea: from its troubled beginning to its contemporary success’, Korea Journal, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 34-53.

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