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Christianity in Modern Korea

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A SURPRISING PREVALENCE

Any visitor to South Korea today is struck by the sheer number of churches everywhere, from great cathedrals in big cities to humble village churches visible from any train or bus in the countryside. Christianity has a long history in Asia, beginning in India and reaching China and Japan in the 1500s. In China and Japan, however, Christians never numbered more than a small percentage of the population. Though individual Christians have been important in shaping the modern histories of both countries, Christianity has never enjoyed truly mass appeal, and the percentage of Christians in China and Japan historically has ranged in the low single digits. Only in the most recent reports from China, where Christianity is enjoying a surge in membership of “house churches” has the estimated figure risen to three percent. Korea, on the other hand, as is plain from the number of red neon crosses glowing all across the urban landscape on church steeples at night, presents a different picture.

Korean Christianity began growing from seeds planted by Catholic converts in the 1780s, who learned about Christianity in China during tribute missions to the court in Beijing and returned home with religious texts and started meeting secretly. Christianity was outlawed at the time because of the “rites controversy,” the argument over whether Christians could observe Confucian memorial ceremonies to the spirits of ancestors. In Korea the fragile Catholic community suffered bitter persecution and frequent martyrdom through the 1870s. In fact, Catholicism did not begin to spread in significant numbers until the dawn of the twentieth century.

Likewise, the first Protestant communities in Korea were indigenous churches founded by Korean merchants who had encountered Christian teachings on their travels in Manchuria in the 1860s. In the 1880s, however, there followed a surge of Protestant missionaries from the West, mainly from North America, just as Korea was experiencing a national crisis brought on by Japanese imperialism and the collapse of the Korean monarchy. When Korea became a Japanese colony in 1910, Christianity was not part of the program of conquest as it was in many other colonies. Rather, it was an alternative to what the colonial power was trying to impose. Thus, the appeal of Christianity in Korea was partly spiritual, partly economic, because of its association with Western modernity (including modern education), and also partly nationalist, because it served as an expression of Korean civil society that was not completely under Japan’s control.

These early currents were elaborated upon after World War II, in the national crisis brought on by the division of Korea into north and south and the strong anti-communism of South Korea after the armistice in 1953. The “success” of Christianity in Korea from that time forward, therefore, is a reflection of events and trends in Korean history, leading to the phenomenon that upwards of thirty percent of the South Korean population today identifies itself with Christianity, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. (note 1)

NOTES

1. According to the Korea National Statistical Office in 2003, 53.9 percent of the South Korean population over the age of fifteen reported a religious affiliation. Of those, 47 percent were Buddhists, 36.8 percent were Protestants of various denominations, and 13.7 percent were Roman Catholics. The concentration of Christians in the general population also varied by region, with more Christians in Seoul and the southwestern Chôlla provinces, and more Buddhists in other regions. (Cited in Jang Sukman, “Historical Currents and Characteristics of Korean Protestantism after Liberation, Korea Journal XLIV:4 (Winter 2004), 134–135). Though the percentage of Christians in South Korea has been given in the mid to high-twenties for the past two decades, statistics for church membership must always be taken with caution. See James H. Grayson, “Religious Adherence and the 1985 and 1995 Censuses: What They Tell Us and Don’t Tell Us about Korean Christianity,” a paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, Chicago, March 2005.

Don Baker explains why claims may be inflated by pointing to some of the drivers for church growth in his chapter, “Sibling Rivalry in Twentieth Century Korea: Comparative Growth Rates of Catholic and Protestant Communities,” in Robert E. Buswell, Jr., and Timothy S. Lee, (eds.), Christianity in Korea (Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2006), 283–308.

As for North Korea, the number of Christians is unknown. There are state-recognized churches that hold services, and it is believed that there are “house churches” in the North, but no one has been able to ascertain anything approaching reliable numbers for Christian believers.

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