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."

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.

One key to the rapid growth was the strategy adopted by the young pioneer missionaries, which emphasized developing indigenous leadership: "self-government, self-propagation of the faith, and self-support."

"This encouraged national leaders to take care of their own affairs without foreign control or funding," Dr. Park says. "They practiced it from the beginning, advising but letting the Koreans preach and run the churches."

And the Korean people, in desperate straits, were hungry for what the preachers had to offer. Japan colonized the peninsula from 1905 to 1945, and attempted to "Japanize" the population. In the midst of great suffering, Christianity apparently met people's spiritual needs. While some Koreans were Confucianists or Buddhists, "mostly [they were] shamanists and animists," Eileen says. "People often lived in fear of evil spirits."

The faith also grew rapidly as it became closely identified with the Korean independence movement. Some native Christians were imprisoned by the Japanese for pro-independence activities, including refusing to worship Japan's emperor. Missionaries were seen as supporting the movement. Sam's father was forced to leave the country in 1936 when he refused to send his students to the Shinto shrines.

Sam himself had not intended to become a missionary, he says, yet he got "hooked by the Lord." During a talk he attended while studying in the US, he recalls, the speaker said, "Gentlemen, your watches could tick for 9-1/2 years without numbering the people in China who have never heard the gospel."

That did it. With a Yale doctorate in hand, he headed off as a missionary to China in 1947, and soon faced the Communist revolution. "I stayed too long, was interrogated, detained, and finally given a people's trial," he says. He was thrown out of the country in 1951.

For most of the couple's quarter century in Korea, Sam taught ministry candidates at the Presbyterian College and Seminary in Seoul, where the seminary founded by his father in Pyongyang was reestablished. It has since become one of the largest in the world.

"Presbyterians are to Korea what Baptists are to Texas," he says with a chuckle.

Eileen, who has a master's degree in Christian education, for seven years served as director of the Korea Bible Club Movement, a network of schools for some 50,000 underprivileged children. Even children who worked in factories during the day would come to school at night, she says.

Christian chaplains active in factories and in the Army have been another key element in the Korean "miracle," as are the regular revivals held by churches.

Today, more than 16,000 Korean missionaries are working in countries around the globe. "Korea had a mission movement from the very beginning, with students from among the earliest seminary graduates going to Japan, Mexico, California, and Siberia," Park says.

The Moffetts stay in touch by phone with close Korean friends and still travel there quite often. Eight years ago, they went to North Korea, the home of Sam's childhood. They took food and medical supplies, working with a North Carolina-based group, Christian Friends of Korea. Just last May, they took an unusual and unexpected trip back to the peninsula. The church in Korea asked to rebury Sam's father on the campus of the seminary he founded. "We were a little shocked," he says, "but we realized that was exactly what he would have loved." The couple took his parents' ashes to Korea with them.

Today, although a nonagenarian, Sam is busy working with a colleague on the third volume of his "History of Christianity in Asia." Eileen is archiving the letters of Korean missionaries from the 19th and 20th centuries.

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