How Korea embraced Christianity
While Christianity's explosive growth has swept through much of the Southern Hemisphere – particularly across Africa – another dramatic story has unfolded in Asia. Some have dubbed it the "Korean miracle."Skip to next paragraph
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About one-third of South Koreans are now Christian. Seoul, the capital, boasts 10 of the 11 largest Christian congregations in the world. And South Korea sends more missionaries abroad to spread the word than any other country except the United States.
Christianity has grown from a few hundred adherents in the late 19th century to "about 9 million Protestants and 3 to 4 million Catholics in South Korea today," says the Rev. Samuel Moffett, professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.
Dr. Moffett and his wife, Eileen, experienced "the miracle" firsthand. As a son of the first long-term Protestant missionary in northern Korea, he was born in Pyongyang in 1916 and grew up there. Later, the couple spent 25 years serving as missionaries in South Korea, starting in 1955 after the Korean War ended.
No one knows how many Christians remain in North Korea. Two-thirds of Korean Christians lived there before the war, but many fled to escape Communist rule.
The Moffetts have watched South Korea turn into an economic wunderkind, move from authoritarianism to democracy, and become a bastion of Christianity.
"Koreans are natural evangelists – they love to tell the good news," Moffett says during a recent phone interview from his home in Princeton, N.J.
For example, Mrs. Moffett remembers a drive they once took into the Korean countryside in their jeep, stopping along the road to buy a watermelon. "After the transaction, the man looked up and said in Korean, 'Are you a Christian?' I said 'yes,' " she recalls. "Then he said, 'Oh, that's wonderful. If you weren't, I was going to tell you how much you were missing!' "
Today, thousands of Koreans rise to attend prayer services in huge city churches at 4:30 a.m. before heading for work.
"Their prayer life is remarkable, and the whole congregation prays together," Sam says. "In the country churches, you sometimes have to ring a bell to get them to stop."
Yet when the Moffetts arrived after the war, "Korea was very much torn up, with only one paved road in what is now South Korea," Eileen remembers. The per-capita income was only $80 a year. "Many people had no adequate housing, and some were starving at certain times of year before the next crop came in."
The newlyweds headed to the rural southeastern area known as Andong, where they learned the language, helped provide food and clothing for the needy, and traveled around to serve the country churches. Despite desperate conditions, Eileen says, "the people were wonderful – so committed, of good humor, and devoted."
The dynamism of Korean Christianity, many observers agree, is an outgrowth of the peninsula's unique history as well as the early role of indigenous leadership. Christian teachings were first brought to Korea not by foreigners, but by Korean diplomats who came in contact with Roman Catholicism in Japan and Manchuria. An active lay movement developed, but it led to controversy and periods of great persecution.
The first Protestant missionaries, American Presbyterians and Methodists, arrived in the late 1800s. The introduction of the Bible in the local language and the founding of schools for boys and girls helped spread the faith beyond the elites. Moffett's father, also named Samuel, was an early Presbyterian missionary.
"He landed in Pyongyang in 1890 on his 26th birthday and stayed for 46 years," Sam says. He founded the first seminary and began training Koreans.
"Samuel Moffett Sr. was a missionary of great vision and commitment – a major figure who educated native pastors," says Timothy Kiho Park, a Korean who directs Korean studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.