God’s intention has always been to display his glory and share his love with the nations. It is seen in the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, throughout the Old Testament, and culminates in Jesus, the hope of the nations.
God used the nation of Israel to spread his glory, praise, and blessing to the surrounding nations. Sometimes he did this through deliverance and blessing, at other times through exile and suffering that led to repentance. God has used the Korean Church to glorify his name in many of the same ways.
Can divine truth be lost?
The first Christian influence came to Korea in the 18th century when Confucian scholars brought some Roman Catholic texts from China. The first known Protestant missionary to land in Korea was Karl Gutzlaff, a German missionary working with the East India Company. He landed on the west coast of Korea in 1832 and stayed there while his ship petitioned Pyongyang for permission to trade.
During the long wait Gutzlaff shared the gospel, distributed Bibles and tracts and gathered information about the state of the Catholic Church in Korea. He heard stories of intense persecution but met no believers himself.
After his ship was denied permission for further trade and he had to leave, Gutzlaff wrote, ‘Can the divine truth, disseminated in Korea be lost? This I believe not, there will be some fruits in the appointed time of the Lord…The Scriptures teach us to believe that God can bless even these feeble beginnings. Let us hope that better days will soon dawn for Korea.’
A young Welshman
In 1865 Robert Jermain Thomas, a young Welsh missionary in China, met two Catholic Koreans and discovered that neither they nor any of their fellow Korean believers had ever read a Bible. This led to a trip in 1865 to distribute Bibles along the coast of Korea. Thomas saw God’s hand at work and immediately planned a second trip aboard a trade ship, the General Sherman. He hoped to distribute Bibles in the capital, Pyongyang.
While travelling up the Taedong River towards the capital, the ship stuck in the mud and started to fire cannons on the people. Koreans attacked the ship. Throughout, Robert Thomas tossed Bibles to the people on the riverbank. When he made it to land he was executed and his Bibles were confiscated. Robert Thomas became the first Protestant martyr in Korea.
On the day of Thomas’ execution, God started working in many Korean hearts. A 12-year-old boy named Choi Chi Hyang received one of Thomas’ Bibles. He turned to Christ and later became an elder in the Pyongyang Church. Park Chun Won, the executioner, used the pages of another of Thomas’ Bibles as wallpaper for his trophy room. He later became a Christian along with his whole family and his house became the site of one of the first Protestant churches in Korea.
Beginning with repentance
Shortly after Thomas’ death, Korea opened up to world trade. A number of American missionaries arrived around 1885 and the Church grew but continued to struggle. Many more missionaries came but the work seemed be at a stand-still. Then in 1903, while preaching in Wonsan, Dr. Hardy, a medical missionary, was moved by the Spirit to confess his strong racial prejudice against the Korean people. The Korean congregation began to weep and likewise confess their prejudice against him. This was the beginning of the Wonsan revival and over 10,000 people turned to Christ. In 1907 the missionaries met in Pyongyang and prayed for revival for six months. Again beginning with deep repentance, God brought revival to Pyongyang. By the middle of the year, there were over 30,000 converts and the movement continued to spread. By 1910 there were reported to be over 250,000 Christians worshipping in Korea and Pyongyang earned the title ‘Jerusalem of the East’.
A testing time
At the same time, the Korean Church entered a time of great testing. From 1910 the Japanese began to occupy the whole Korean peninsula until the end of the Second World War. During the Japanese occupation, many Korean Christians were imprisoned and even martyred for refusing to bow down at the Japanese shrines. However, many church leaders did succumb to the pressure of persecution and led their people in bowing down. This was a painful time for the Korean Church.
As the Japanese occupation ended, Koreans faced another trial when the country was divided into North and South by the USA and USSR. In 1948 the US helped establish a Korean government in the South and the USSR helped establish a communist government led by Kim Il Sung in the North. This led to the Korean War but the division has remained to this day. The Church in the South has flourished and is known all over the world for their prayer and missionary zeal. The Church in the North however, has faced 70 years of hardship. But from the stories of people who have come out of the North, we have learned that the Church has survived. We don’t know much about this Church, but we echo the words of the first Protestant missionary to Korea in our prayers: ‘Can the divine truth, disseminated in Korea be lost? This I believe not, there will be some fruits in the appointed time of the Lord…’.