The Republic of Korea is rather unique in terms of religion as, despite a high level of ethnic homogeneity, there is no single dominant religion.1 And while more than half of Koreans do not profess any religion, many will still engage in religious activities, such as consulting a shaman or offering incense and food to ancestors. But among those who do have a religious affiliation, Christianity is the most popular, which is rather remarkable considering that its appearance on the peninsula was first met with violent persecution. This article offers an introduction to Korean Christianity, focusing on Catholicism and Protestantism, and provides a summary of its history and contemporary practice, as well as the challenges this religion faces today.2
A Brief History of Catholic Christianity in Korea
All religions are naturally shaped by history, but this is particularly true for Catholicism in Korea. Koreans were first introduced to Catholicism in the early seventeenth century through books on “Western learning” that had been translated by Catholic missionaries in China and their Chinese collaborators. Koreans could easily read the classical Chinese these books were written in, and while interested in the technology, science, and math they contained, they rejected their religious message. This began to change in the late eighteenth century with one Korean scholar, Peter Yi Seung-hun (1756–1801), traveling to Beijing as part of a tribute mission where he received baptism. He would baptize many Koreans, and the movement would quickly spread beyond scholars to include women and commoners, so when a Chinese missionary named James Zhou Wenmo (1752–1801) arrived in Korea in late 1794, there were already several thousand Catholics there. Women such as Columbia Kwang Wansuk (1760–1801) became important leaders in the Catholic Church, while low-born men, such as the butcher Hwang Ilgwang (1757–1801), testified to Catholic teachings on spiritual equality by declaring that there were two heavens, one after death and one in the midst of a church community in which all were respected. However, Catholicism’s foreign connections, government fears that it would encourage rebellion, and the Catholic rejection of ancestor rites led to violent state-sponsored persecution of Catholics. While the first persecutions were typically small in scale and only killed a few hundred Catholics at most, by the mid-1860s, the rise of Western imperialism and consequent foreign pressure on Korea led to ones that would kill thousands, including French missionaries, seriously damaging a community that never numbered more than 23,000 at this time.3 While Catholics would come to enjoy tolerance as the country opened, Korean Catholics largely lived on the margins of society, forming what has been referred to as a “ghetto church” that eschewed politics and focused on salvation in the next life, until the middle of the twentieth century.4
A Brief History of Protestant Christianity in Korea
While there were attempts by Protestant missionaries to enter Korea in 1832 and 1866, sustained contact and conversion would not occur until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Koreans abroad in Manchuria came into contact with Protestantism through Scottish missionaries, such as John Ross (1842–1910), and smuggled Korean translations of the Gospels and then the entire New Testament into Korea before the first resident missionary, Methodist Horace Allen (1858–1932), arrived in 1884. Officially, Allen was a doctor to the American legation, as there were fears that open missionary work would lead to persecution. The following year, Presbyterian Horace Underwood (1859–1916) entered the peninsula as the first ordained Protestant minister. He would go on to help establish Yonsei University, and he and Allen would work together to organize Severance Hospital. In fact, Protestant missionaries focused on such medical and educational institutions not only because they were seen as intrinsically good, but also as a means to encourage conversion and win state support.5
Protestant Christians were therefore not only sharing the Gospel, but Western Anglo–Protestant civilization. In a sense, they promised both spiritual and national salvation, something many Koreans believed was needed as Japan came to increasingly dominate the country, particularly after its victory in the Russo–Japanese War (1904–1905). Moreover, Protestant missionaries followed a policy of giving a significant amount of local authority to Koreans, who were then expected to support their own churches and conduct missionary work themselves, allowing them a significant amount of space to shape Christianity to their needs. Korean initiative, political instability, and the fear over the future of their country—combined with the hope offered by Protestant Christianity—helped lead to the Great Revival of 1907 and a consequent surge in the number of Protestants to over 100,000. Korea’s annexation by Japan in 1910 did not end Protestant political and social movements. Instead, because the Japanese Government–General essentially ran Korea as a military colony with essentially no freedom, religion offered a space where Koreans could talk and organize that the Japanese government had to respect or risk upsetting Great Britain and the United States, whose citizens made up the vast majority of Protestant missionaries. Thus, when the 1919 March 1st Movement broke out, it was organized primarily by Korean Protestants and members of Cheondogyo (an indigenous, syncretic religion), with the declaration of independence it issued being signed by fifteen members of that religion, two Buddhist monks, and sixteen Protestants. Likewise, as pressure increased on Korean Protestants to take part in Shintō rituals in the 1930s, many resisted for both religious and nationalist reasons.6
Korean Protestants also took an active role as social leaders, both before and during the Japanese colonial period. The rigid division of the sexes in Korea meant that it was necessary to send female missionaries, including medical doctors, to reach Korean women. These women were often models of hope and inspiration to their Korean counterparts. And while the behavior of missionaries might seem patriarchal to people living in the twenty-first century, Protestant Christianity offered church-related institutions where women could study, work, and gather in public. For instance, in 1886, American Methodist Mary Scranton (1832–1910) opened the first modern public school for Korean women (Ewha Haktang, Pear Blossom Academy), and Korean “Bible women” would go out on their own seeking converts to the new faith. Christianity could also provide a bridge that allowed Korean women the opportunity to study abroad. For instance, Esther Park (1876–1910) attended Ewha and served as an interpreter for a missionary doctor, ultimately leading her to study medicine in the United States and to become the first female Korean doctor of Western medicine.7 Likewise, Methodist Yu Gwan-sun (1902–1920) received an education at Ewha and ended up participating as a leader in the March 1st Movement, but would ultimately be arrested and die from her mistreatment in prison.
Catholics and Protestants after National Division
The division of Korea following World War II caused serious problems for Korean Protestants, as the majority of believers lived in northern Korea, which gradually came under the control of a Communist government that was increasingly hostile to Christianity. Many would flee to the south, which was supported by the United States and led by anti-Communist Protestant Syngman Rhee (1875– 1965, president 1948–1960). At the time of independence, there were nearly 400,000 Korean Protestants, but just ten years later, as Protestants—often with overseas aid and government support—energetically sought to rebuild Korea and spread their faith, the number more than doubled to over one million. Rhee’s increasingly dictatorial regime was ultimately replaced by the even more dictatorial Park Chung-hee (1917–1979), who took power in a 1961 coup, and was president from 1963–1979. These developments helped lead to theological divisions among Protestants. Conservatives generally supported the anti-Communism of the Republic of Korea and prioritized individual salvation, launching revivalist and evangelical movements.8 These efforts more than tripled the Korean Protestant population in twenty years from less than three million in 1967 to more than ten million in 1987. This emphasis on conversion continues, as a 2017 survey revealed that Korean Protestants were seven times more likely to try to share their faith than Catholics and twelve times more likely than Buddhists.9 Though smaller in number, liberal Protestants were also active, taking part in and even leading social movements that sought to help farmers and workers or even political movements that directly challenged dictatorship. Such activities found theological expression in “Minjung Theology,” which held that the minjung (masses) were the true movers of history and especially beloved by God. Thus, while denominational divisions are important, with Presbyterianism followed by Methodism being the most popular, theological divisions that cut across them are also significant.
The Catholic Church also suffered persecution in the North following liberation and division, with Catholicism ceasing to exist as an organized, public religion there. Though not growing nearly as quickly as Protestant Christianity, the number of Catholics did increase in the South, going from over 450,000 in 1960 to more than 750,000 in 1970 and more than 1,300,000 in 1980.10 The Second Vatican Council, which, among other reforms, encouraged the indigenization of Catholicism and allowed for vernacular languages to be used for Mass, certainly played a role in this growth, as did Korea becoming ecclesiastically independent, allowing the Catholic Church in Korea to be better able to respond to conditions there and participate more in society. While generally apolitical as an institution, Korean Catholics—such as pro-democracy, human rights activist, and later president of the Republic of Korea (1998–2003) Kim Dae-jung (1924–2009)—were often active in progressive movements. Moreover, in the 1970s, as the increasingly heavy-handed rule of the dictator Park Chung-hee directly impacted the Catholic Church itself, church leaders like Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan (1922–2009) engaged in measured but direct opposition to the regime. Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1984 to canonize 103 martyrs of Korea (ten French clerics and ninety-three Koreans), the first such ceremony to occur outside of the Vatican, gave Catholicism greater visibility and also likely helped encourage growth. Such papal attention has continued, with Pope Francis visiting Korea in 2014, holding the country up as a Catholic success story.11
Korean Catholics are frequently self-consciously proud of their history, presenting their faith as one that has consistently encouraged modernity, equality, human dignity, and democracy since its very beginnings on the peninsula. Moreover, what had been for many years a church of the poor that was on the margins of society has become a middle- and upper-class church that boasts well-respected hospitals and universities. At the same time, the comparative lack of financial scandals that have plagued Korean Protestant churches (and the sexual ones that have rocked the Catholic Church in the West) gives Catholicism a positive image in society. Moreover, the Catholic Church maintains good relations with other religions. It’s not uncommon to see a Catholic church bearing a banner with a message on it wishing Korean Buddhists a happy Buddha’s birthday. Since 1997, the Catholic Church in Korea has formally issued such birthday greetings.12 Taken together, the Catholic Church and Catholics are by and large viewed as responsible and trustworthy members of society who contributed to the development of Korea.
Christian Faith and Practice in Korea Today
Korean Protestant worship tends to be conservative and traditional. Worshippers pray silently after entering the church to prepare themselves for the service, which usually opens with a hymn. Then, the whole congregation typically recites either the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed and reads Bible verses out loud. There frequently are also opportunities for people to pray individually or out loud together. A sermon, which is often the center of the service, is then given by a pastor. The service ends with hymns, an offering, prayer, and benediction. Music plays an important role in devotions. Sometimes, for youth and young adult groups, contemporary Christian music is sung rather than traditional hymns.
Protestants are also known for the large sizes of their churches, both in terms of the physical building and the number of members. In particular, Korea is known for the formation of megachurches, such as the world’s largest, Yoido Full Gospel Church, located in Seoul, which started with five people in 1958, but now may have attendance of upward of half a million over a weekend. Korean Protestant churches are especially visible at night in cities, as their red neon crosses light up the skyline. Numbers reveal that this is not simply appearance: Protestant churches and church-related institutions considerably outnumber other religious organizations, with Protestants having 55,104 in 2017, compared to Buddhists at 13,215 and Catholics at 2,028.13 Protestants also run the most religious broadcasting stations, newspaper and magazine publishers, clinics, schools, and social welfare organizations.
A Catholic traveling to Korea from the United States or Canada would find much that is familiar in a parish in Korea. For instance, the center of parish life is still the Mass, with multiple ones being offered each weekend, including the Saturday vigil service. And while the language would be different, the order of the Mass would be recognizable, as would be many of the hymns. However, there are numerous differences. For instance, the Korean proclivity for singing means that choirs are relatively larger there. Koreans usually stand during parts of the Mass when Western Catholics would kneel, and the sign of peace is a bow rather than a handshake. The collection basket is not passed, but instead, people line up to drop reusable envelopes into the box (one can always drop an empty one in). Many Korean Catholic women still wear veils during Mass, especially in the countryside. Masses typically cater to specific age groups. For instance, Saturday vigil Mass might be focused on families with small children, Sunday morning Mass for middle-aged and older people, and Sunday evening Mass for young people (late teens to late twenties). Though this is perhaps atypical, at one provincial church, after the youth Mass, young people drink soju (a clear alcoholic drink) and play games with the parish priest in the church parking lot. Such group life is important, and there are various parish organizations for people at every stage of life. Even though groups such as the Legion of Mary attract both men and women, their small group meetings tend to be divided by gender.
The parish church building is also similar but with some differences. Some churches have large statues of Jesus that are lit up at night on the roof above the front door. Because land is at a premium in cities, some are built up on high hills (where the land is cheaper), and every available space is used. That, however, does not prevent the building of Marian grottoes in a large number of parish churches. Pious Catholics entering the church will typically bow toward the statue of the Virgin Mary (usually referred to as Sŏngmonim, Holy Mother) and cross themselves as they walk in front of it. Church interiors are often relatively plain but typically include a large crucifix flanked by statues of Mary and Joseph, and possibly a Korean saint, with Fr. Andrew Kim Taegŏn (1821–1846), the first Korean priest, being particularly popular.
The history of anti-Catholic persecution on the peninsula has led to a strong focus in Catholic devotional life on the martyrs of Korea. For instance, there is an entire order of Korean nuns, the Sisters of the Korean Martyrs, dedicated to them, and special prayer sessions of 103 days (one for each martyr saint) are held. Moreover, the geographic scope of these persecutions means that there are sites connected to martyrdom throughout the country. Some might be quite simple, containing merely a plaque explaining the importance of the site, while others could include an outdoor “Stations of the Cross,” a path marked with the mysteries of the rosary, a Marian grotto, monuments to the martyrs (possibly including their graves), and a gift shop. Some, such as the Haemi Martyr Shrine, located in Chungcheong Province, even include a large tower filled with representations of Jesus, Mary, and martyrs that provides a panoramic view of the surrounding city, as well as large open spaces that allow for both prayer and sightseeing by non-Catholics who might come to observe the beautiful foliage. There are many guidebooks for individuals who wish to go on pilgrimages, though often parishes take trips together. Such pilgrimages can include saying the rosary on the bus ride to the site, praying the Stations of the Cross, attending Mass, and then lunch (sometimes including soju). There can even be an element of play, as one pilgrimage one of the authors experienced included a visit to a local site where a Korean historical drama had been filmed and to the tombs of former Korean kings who died long before the arrival of Catholicism on the peninsula. There is an international dimension to this, as recently the Vatican recognized a martyr pilgrim route through Seoul; and UNESCO has recognized the bicentennial of the birth of the first Korean priest, leading to Catholics proudly presenting the cleric as not just being the “Pride of Korea,” but the whole world, and as someone who supported “human rights and equality.”14
Catholics and Protestants face common problems. Korea’s liberal democracy and economic development have led people to become more independent and therefore less willing to fully commit to a religious organization. Moreover, the hypercompetitive nature of Korean society means that people have comparatively little time and are less willing to spend it on religion. Other worldviews are rising that can compete with religion. For instance, changing views of sexuality run counter to traditional Christian teachings on that subject.15 Moreover, Korea’s low birth rate of less than one child per woman means that there will be fewer Koreans and therefore fewer Christians. Christians also face their own unique problems. For instance, while Korean Protestants are now the largest group of religious believers (more than 20 percent of the population, with Buddhists having just under that number), Protestantism also has the lowest approval rating, with less than 10 percent (Buddhism enjoys over 40 percent and Catholics about 37 percent). Younger non-Protestant Koreans frequently describe Protestant churches as selfish, materialist, and authoritarian, and many feel offended by what they see as overly aggressive Protestant evangelists.16 This has led some Korean Protestant churches to reflect on whether they have focused too much on quantitative expansion and spiritual salvation, and not enough on helping develop Korean society. Even some Protestant Christians are distancing themselves from their churches, leading to so-called “Canaan believers.” The reverse of “Ca-na-an” in Korean means “not(an)-going(na-ca).” Such Christians accounted for 23.3 percent of the Korean Protestant population in the 2017 survey, a considerable jump from 10.5 percent in 2012. Nearly half (44.1 percent) of the Canaan believers stopped attending church because they did not want to be tied to any particular denomination. Such Protestants still maintain belief in Christianity and might participate in online Sunday services while praying on their own.17
There are also serious problems facing the Catholic Church. For instance, while a recent government count holds that there are approximately 3,300,000 Catholics (of a population of more than 53,000,000), the Catholic Church of Korea claims more than 5,800,000. This discrepancy can be accounted for by the fact that the Catholic Church is counting baptisms, while the government is counting self-identification. This would mean that about one-third of people baptized as Catholics have not only stopped practicing, but also have ceased identifying as Catholics. Despite this, the Catholic Church in Korea is growing, but the rate of growth has dropped to 0.9 percent. Since 2000, reception of the sacraments has declined consistently, and attendance at weekly Mass is, using church statistics, at only 18 percent of all Catholics in any given week. This is not the result of a shortage of priests: the number of clerics per Catholic has risen since 2000, going from 1,318 Catholics for every priest in 2000 to 1,089. While there are just over 3,000 priests, there are more than 10,000 nuns, and many parishes will have several assigned to them. However, the number of women wanting to become nuns and men entering the seminary is declining.18
Korean Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, face many challenges today, with perhaps changing social mores and demographic decline being the most serious. However, Christians in Korea have overcome a history of persecution, colonial oppression, division, and war; and the strong foundations they have built through that turbulent history mean that they will, perhaps with varying levels of success, be able to deal creatively with the challenges they face today. Change, will, of course, occur, particularly as Korean Christianity becomes more global as Koreans immigrate and establish churches outside the peninsula or serve in other countries as missionaries, and as non-Koreans (Christian or otherwise) migrate to the peninsula. Christian vitality in Korea, its ability to change with the times while still remaining itself, means that while transformation is inevitable, Christianity, in both its Catholic and Protestant forms, will likely remain for years to come as a significant part of the Republic of Korea.