Korea, Republic of - (Asia)

Information about Korea, Republic of

99313 square kilometres
Christian 49%, Buddhist 47%, Confucianist 3%, Shamanist, Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way), and other 1%
Christian (%)
Protestant (%)
Reformed (%)

The history of Korea goes back to the third millennium before Christ. In 2333 B.C. the kingdom of Chosun was founded by the legendary king Tangun. Since the first century before Christ there were three kingdoms on the peninsula — Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla. In the 7th century the Silla kingdom acquired a dominating position. In 935 the Koryo kingdom was established; it lasted until 1392. It was followed for several centuries by the Chosun kingdom under the Yi dynasty. In 1910 Korea was annexed by Japan and came, for 35 years, under Japanese colonial rule. The years of Japanese occupation are remembered by Koreans as a time of humiliation and suffering. As national consciousness grew, the Japanese occupation became increasingly oppressive. Koreans were forced to bow before the Shinto shrine, the symbol of the divine power of the Japanese emperor. Japanese colonial rule ended in 1945. The country was liberated but at the same time divided. Subsequent decades brought new suffering. Korea became the battlefield of superpowers (1950-53). Ever since the division of the country into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) and the Republic of Korea (South) the situation has been tense, and all attempts at reunification of Korea have so far proved to be unsuccessful. The North regime, officially Marxist, became more and more of a dictatorship under the autocratic leadership of Kim Il Sung. Under a succession of authoritarian regimes the South experienced an astonishing economic development; today it is one of the rich nations in Asia.
The first Christian influence reached Korea in the 18th century. Korean neo-Confucian scholars contacted Jesuits in China and brought the Christian faith into the country. For a long time Christians were persecuted. In the years 1839, 1846, and 1866-1871 several thousand Christians became martyrs. Today the RCath has about two million adherents. Protestantism reached Korea in the 19th century. Even before missionaries arrived in Korea (or Chosun, as it was then called), lay people like Suh Sang-Yoon and Baek Hong-Joon spread the Gospel in the country. Suh was converted in 1876 in Manchuria by Scottish missionaries and helped with the translation of the New Testament into Korean. He brought copies of Gospel portions back to Korea and in 1883 formed a small Christian community in his home village. In the following year the first American missionaries landed in Korea. Horace N. Allen of the northern Presbyterian Church started medical work (1884). A year later he was joined by Horace G. Underwood, the first ordained missionary. Several more missions were established in the following years: the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in Australia (1889), the Presbyterian Church in the USA (1892), and the Presbyterian Church of Canada (1898). In 1893 they formed the Council for Mission of Presbyterian Churches (CMPC) and opened the theological seminary of Pyongyang (1901).
In response to the Great Revival Movement (1907), missionaries of various backgrounds established the Independent Presbytery of Jesus Church in Chosun (IPCC) and ordained seven Koreans as pastors (1907). Some years later (1912) missionaries and Korean ministers together formed the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Chosun (GAPCC) and sent three Korean missionaries to China. In 1921 GAPCC set up two important lay organizations — the National Youth Association of the Presbyterian Church and the National Association of Women’s Meetings for Evangelism.
Under the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) many Christian lay people participated in the struggle for independence. Toward the end of Japanese occupation the worship of the Shinto shrine was more and more forced on the churches. Under police threat the GAPCC illegally approved the worship of the shrine (1938). Many pastors and lay people resisted and started a movement against “bowing to the emperor’s shrine.” Many were arrested and sentenced to prison or death. Almost all missionaries were expelled (1941). GAPCC was dissolved and integrated into the newly founded Chosun Presbyterian Church of Christ in Japan (1943). After World War II different responses to the Japanese oppression became the reason for the first divisions among the Presb churches.
With the victory of the Allied forces Japanese colonialism came to an end. But with the division of the countries new problems arose. In the North the churches were dissolved (cf. People’s Republic of Korea). In the South the Presbyterian Church was reconstituted (1946). The 33rd Assembly held in DaeGu in 1947 claimed to represent the whole of Korea. Two years later the church adopted the name Presbyterian Church of Korea.
In the following years the Presb churches in Korea grew rapidly. Many reasons can be given for this astonishing development. In the first place it must be emphasized that Christian missions in Korea, in contrast to so many other countries, was not identified with a colonial power. The Christian message was brought to Korea at a time when the religious and cultural heritage of Korea had lost much of its inner strength. Equally important was the policy, the so-called Nevius method, which missionaries adopted. They urged each convert to become an evangelist and to convert others. Much of the growth is due to Korean initiative. Koreans developed a strong commitment to the Christian faith. Spiritual discipline and prayer are characteristic of Korean Christians. A special feature of Korean church life is, for instance, the dawn prayer meeting. Another important factor in church growth was the revival movement. Finally, the Korean Christians generally did not allow evangelism and social action to fall apart.
Korean churches are also found in many other countries. Through migration Korean communities have come into existence in many parts of the world. Since the late seventies the Korean churches have also begun to send out increasing numbers of missionaries. Today several thousand Korean missionaries are active outside Korea. In some countries Korean Presb churches have been founded.
Church growth was accompanied by a succession of schisms. Today Korea presents a bewildering picture. Christianity represents close to 28% of the population. But Presb Christianity alone consists of around 100 separate denominations in Korea.
Immediately after World War II a dispute arose over the readmission of those who had bowed to the shrine (KoShin [no. 1], JaeGun [no. 6]). A few years later Presb Christianity was shaken by the conflict between conservative and progressive theological interpretations of the biblical tradition (KiJang [no. 13]), followed by the conflict over the participation in the ecumenical movement (TongHap [no. 14], HapDong [no. 15]). The influence of ICCC, struggle for leadership and power, and the impact of seminaries on the life of the churches were divisive. Division was exacerbated by the fact that the Korean church had been cut off from the universal church in its early mission history as well as during Japanese colonial rule. The social disruption resulting from the Korean War also strengthened the trend toward division.
Despite their divisions the Presb churches hold common convictions. They all adhere to the Apostles’ Creed and the Westminster Confession. They all maintain the same patterns of organization and, generally, use the same hymnal (which is also used by other denominations such as the Meth and Bapt). Again and again attempts have been made to bring the churches closer to one another. In recent years the movement has gained momentum. In 1981, in response to the need for common witness, the five largest Presb churches (TongHap [no. 14], HapDong [no. 15], KoShin [no. 1], KiJang [no. 13], DaeShin [no. 16]) decided to organize the Council of Presbyterian Churches in Korea (CPCK). In 1995 three more churches joined the council (GaeHyuk [no. 23], HapDongJeongTong [no. 37], and HoHun [no. 18]). At the initiative of HapDong (no. 15) an even larger association, mainly of conservative churches, came into existence in 1991. For several years these two councils existed side by side, but in 1997 they decided to merge. The new Council (GCPCK) represents most Presb churches in Korea. At its second Assembly in November 1997 the Council emphasized the need for closer collaboration with the wider Ref family.




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