*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 14th of February 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

It’s time to go to the mailbag this Monday morning… a question from Diane in Medford, Oregon.

Diane asked, “[I love] hearing about how Christianity grew in other countries. My old neighbor was a Korean, and she told me that Koreans were the most Christian of any Asian nation. I would love to hear how Christianity got to Korea”.

Thanks, Diane! A quick clarification- Asia is huge. Ginormous. And sometimes we say “Asian” when we mean “East Asian”- Russia is Asian, Georgia is Asian- the way we drew up the continents still seems like one of the laziest things we’ve done as a civilization…

East Asia is:

  • China 5%
  • Taiwan 4%
  • Hong Kong 12%
  • Japan 1.5%
  • Macau 7%
  • Mongolia 1%
  • North Korea likely a fraction of 1%
  • South Korea 29%

Moreover- some 70% of Korean Americans are Christian- so I see why this question of Korea and Christianity is so interesting.

Unlike other East Asian countries- we have no record of any Christian activity until the late 1500s. We know a Jesuit called Gregorios de Cespedes was a missionary in Japan, and he spent some time with the Japanese in Korea. But nothing seems to have come of his work in Korea.

It was Korean diplomats in China in the 1600s who first received a copy of Matteo Ricci’s “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven”- this was a dialog written in Chinese between a Confucian and a Christian explaining how Christianity is not opposed to Confucianism but it the completion of it.

It wasn’t until the 1770’s that a group of Korean philosophers joined together to read this book- it led some of them to make the trek to China, where they could be Baptized. They then returned and began preaching and Baptizing- but there was no missionary apparatus. There were no regular clergy.

By 1800 a Catholic Hymnal was brought to Korea, translating for a common worship experience amongst the disparate Korean Christians. The Korean Joseon dynasty (in power for five centuries) pushed back against what they saw as a foreign religion. The 19th century was one of intense persecution for the few Christians there. But persecution and martyrdom have ways of growing a group, which happened to Christianity in Korea.

Western missionaries began to notice, and soon a Scot named John Ross translated the New Testament into Korean.

By 1882 Korea had opened itself to Western missionaries because they were not to proselytize. Western missionaries set up schools and hospitals- as the Joseon Dynasty crumbled, Christianity represented hope, modernization, and a democratic spirit.

The years 1905 to 1945 were those of Japanese occupation- and the numbers of faithful multiplied as embracing Christianity was the counter-cultural response to Japanese imperialism.

Parallel to the Azusa Street Revivals in Los Angeles during the early 1900s; there was a revival in Pyongyang (now North Korea)- Pyongyang was called “the Jerusalem of the East.”

The post-World War II division of Korea saw the once fervent north fall under the sway of Communist Russians and the repressive governments under the Kim dynasty. Kim Il Sung- the founder and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un, was raised by a Christian mother and his grandfather was a Christian pastor.

In South Korea, Christianity became a marker of social identity- not northern and not Japanese. For a country that has been historically harassed and occupied, the embrace of Christianity could do a few things:

1st- it reinforced that earthly powers were not the ultimate authority.

2nd- it supported the idea of the worldly life as a pilgrimage through a vale of tears

3rd- it was not the faith of the imperialists. It enraged them.

In a twist from so many stories of missions in the 19th and 20th centuries- Korean Christianity didn’t look like an outsider religion but was indigenous. It just took several historical accidents for it to turn out like that.

Today the largest church in the world is in Korea- the Yoido Full Gospel Church (“Full Gospel” is a cousin of the Foursquare Theology of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson)- they claim membership of 3/4 of a million. The Moonies also come from Korea, and I need to do an episode on them…

Thanks, Diane from Medford- and as always, send your questions to me at danv@1517.org or on Twitter.

The Last Word for today comes from 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 14th of February 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who knows Medford, Oregon, as the home of Dick Fosbury of the “Fosbury Flop,” the kid from Free Willy, and Ginger Rodgers (who wasn’t born there but owned a house in Medford). He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who, when just asked what I’d like for my birthday dinner I responded: Korean BBQ. It’s the best. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.