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The common narrative explaining the rise of Asian Christianity in the modern age is a story of Western goers sent by Western senders, and there’s some truth to that. The Opium Wars of the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s served as a catalyst for opening China. Waves of missionaries followed, most famously J. Hudson Taylor (1832–1905), whose China Inland Mission made significant inroads.
But the story turns out to be more complicated.
Beginnings of Korean Christianity
Admittedly, the Protestant West viewed China as the ripe plum of East Asia, but it wasn’t the only missionary target. Take Korea, for example. Nicknamed the “Hermit Kingdom” by one Western observer in 1882, Korea closed its doors to foreigners and showed hostility toward Christianity. But from the 1860s, instability and oppression at home spurred a diaspora movement that drove individuals out of the peninsula. Some found their way across the Chinese border to Manchuria, where they fell in with Chinese Christians and Western missionaries unable to cross into Korea.
One such figure who entered Manchuria at this time was businessman and merchant Seo Sang-ryun (1848–1926), who had been running ginseng from Korea. On one trip across the border he fell deathly ill. Two Scottish Presbyterians—brothers-in-law John Ross and John MacIntyre—nursed him back to health. He became a Christian and was baptized. Seo’s return to Korea a few years later proved a pivotal event in church history, and it should upend how we in the West remember the role of missions in the globalization of the faith.
Modern Missions Movement and Korea
To understand why, we have to go back nearly a century to the publication of William Carey’s An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (1792), which substantially shaped how Western Christians thought (and still think) about missions. By “means” Carey meant forming missions societies, what Paul Pierson calls “a structured committed community of men (and eventually women) who knew that their call was to take the gospel to other areas of the world.” This innovation allowed resources to be coordinated cross-confessionally—not only the human resources of those who went abroad to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, but also of those who stayed home and supported the mission financially, relationally, and prayerfully.
The response was striking. Networks and societies of stayers and goers formed, propelling Christianity—admittedly, Christianity sung in a Western key—around the globe. The financial capacity, geographical extension, and political weight of the British Empire was pressed into service. Other Western nations followed suit, often marrying political expediency with religious fervor as the gospel advanced in colonial holdings.
The evangelization of unreached peoples often hinges on the presence of a diaspora community in a place where the church already exists, rather than on the insertion of foreign missionaries into an unreached culture.
This story, or something like it, undergirds how we remember the substantial progress of Christian globalization over the last two centuries. But this model of (Western) senders and (Western) goers doesn’t account for its own success. Then, as now, the evangelization of unreached peoples often hinges on the presence of a diaspora community in a place where the church already exists, rather than on the insertion of foreign missionaries into an unreached culture. We can see this in the story of Seo Sang-ryun and the origins of Korean Protestantism.
Bible in Korea
It turns out that John Ross, one of the Presbyterians who baptized Seo, had been seeking opportunities to reach Korea for Christ since the early 1870s, but he couldn’t get in. The Korean government prohibited even teaching the language to foreigners. Nevertheless, from his base in Mukden (now Shenyang), Ross found a tutor. He focused on learning and translating texts into Korean, and ministering to the diaspora in Manchuria. His labors began to bear fruit.
Converts began to worship alongside Chinese Christians and smuggled contraband literature across the border. From the late 1870s, a small group of Koreans that included Seo partnered with Ross and MacIntyre to translate the Bible. In 1882 they completed the Gospel of Luke, the other three Gospels in 1884, and the entire New Testament in 1887. Significantly, they didn’t translate into the language of the educated elite but into the Hangul vernacular.
An unnamed peddler first carried the Gospels (along with his own testimony of faith in Christ) to the Korean diaspora of eastern Manchuria. Upon his return to Mukden, he reported that many wanted to be baptized. In winter 1884, Ross traveled there, baptized 75, and put other names on a list for his next visit.
Seo Sang-ryun’s Ministry and Work
Seo returned to Korea in that same year. He labored as an evangelist and organized prayer meetings, initially at Ŭiju (his ancestral home), just over the Manchurian border on the Yalu River. But after taking heat for his foreign contacts, he established a more permanent ministry at Sorae, a remote fishing village over the mountains from Changyon in Hwanghae Province, where his extended family lived. It was in Sorae where Seo Sang-ryun and his brother, Seo Sang-u, established what is now regarded as “the best supported claimant to be the first Korean church.” They met secretly for worship behind locked doors.
But was it really a church? Reformed theologians often describe a true church as characterized by the preaching of God’s Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline. By all accounts, the first of these was present. But as an unordained evangelist, Seo never asserted authority to baptize or administer the Lord’s Supper. Nor did he implement church membership. He was apparently content to wait until his flock could be formally incorporated into the visible church of Christ.
In practice, this meant waiting for a Western missionary and, from before 1885, the congregation in Sorae repeatedly asked Ross to come. After signing a series of “unequal treaties” with foreign nations, Korea slowly opened its doors, but missionary work remained prohibited, and Ross was not free to come. Instead, he introduced Seo by letter to the American Horace G. Underwood (1859–1916), another Presbyterian, who had recently arrived in Seoul and was quietly engaged in medical missions, education, and orphan care as he learned the language. Seo met Underwood in late 1886.
Although evangelism of Koreans was illegal and conversion a capital crime, Underwood received a small delegation of Christians from Sorae the following spring. He recorded, “They were examined before the whole Mission, and finding they had been believers for some years, and were able to state intelligently the ground of their faith, the Mission unanimously decided three of them should be admitted to the church by baptism.” (Some, perhaps all, of the remaining members of the delegation had already been baptized.)
In fall 1887, Underwood’s mission felt bold enough to attempt an itinerant preaching tour—from Seoul to Sorae, Pyongyang, and Ŭiju. Another seven were baptized in Sorae, where believers continued to meet regularly for worship under Seo’s pastoral care.
God used Seo Sang-ryun and other members of the diaspora community to lay the foundation for ongoing gospel ministry in their own homeland.
In September of that same year, perhaps just before Underwood itinerated, Ross finally visited Korea. He met with Underwood in Seoul, where he witnessed the founding of the Saemoonan Presbyterian Church, the first church in Korea pastored by an ordained minister. Its membership comprised 14 Koreans—13 were from Sorae. A week later, two Korean elders were ordained, and the following year the first four Korean women were baptized. Within a decade, Saemoonan had planted several daughter churches, and growth continued.
John Ross wanted to take the gospel to Korea himself but wasn’t given the privilege. Instead, he spent a decade among the members of the Korean diaspora in Manchuria. God, in his providence, used Seo Sang-ryun and other members of the diaspora community to lay the foundation for ongoing gospel ministry in their homeland (Rom. 15:20; 1 Cor. 3:10).
Fruitfulness of Diaspora Ministry
In Kenneth Scott Latourette’s magisterial History of the Expansion of Christianity (1937), he committed three of seven volumes to the century that followed the publication of Carey’s Enquiry. It was principally a story of Western missionaries bearing the gospel to the nations.
But that’s not exactly how it happened. Instead, missionaries were often received in new lands by native believers who had met Christ or grown in their faith while living elsewhere. During that “great century,” as Latourette dubbed the 19th, ministering to diaspora communities turns out to have been a fruitful way of fulfilling the Great Commission. It still is.
Ministering to diaspora communities turns out to have been a fruitful way of fulfilling the Great Commission. It still is.
The village of Sorae is now part of North Korea, where Christians once again gather in secret and behind locked doors. But that’s hardly the last word. The Korean church has become one of the most active forces for cross-cultural evangelization in the world, with around 30,000 missionaries on the field. Ironically, when Western missionaries were expelled from China in the 1940s and 1950s, Korean believers became witnesses to their much larger neighbor. What seemed to be a footnote on the expansion of Protestantism in Asia turned out to be a major plotline in the story of global Christianity.