The Making of Korean Christianity: Protestant Encounters with Korean Religions, 1876–1915

Written by Sung-Deuk Oak Reviewed By S. Michael Ahn

The author of this book is Dongsoon Im and Mija Im Chair Associate Professor of Korean Christianity at University of California, Los Angeles. This monograph is a slightly revised and updated version of a Th.D. dissertation submitted to Boston University in 2002. The original title reveals more succinctly the purpose of this study: “The indigenization of Christianity in Korea: North American Missionaries’ Attitudes towards Korean Religions, 1884–1910.” In revising, Oak has slightly expanded the period of inquiry. The period set forth earlier represents two landmark events: 1884, the initial arrival of Protestant North American missionaries (Henry G. Appenzeller and Horace G. Underwood) and 1910, the Japanese annexation. Readers are, however, left mystified as to what the new scope stands for.

In an attempt to challenge the traditional and wide-held understanding that “the first-generation North American missionaries and Korean Protestant Christians” were “fundamentalist destroyers of Korean religious cultures,” Oak argues that they were rather “moderate evangelicals whose fulfillment theory paved the way for the indigenization of Protestant Christianity in Korea” (p. xvii). The early Anglo-missionaries and native Christian leaders were sensitive to the indigenous culture and religions while maintaining their conservative theological identity.

The Introduction provides a brief history of research into the early Korean Protestantism. This period generally reflects theological conservatism and cultural imperialism among early North American missionaries in Korea. Over against that conventional backdrop, Oak proceeds to his main thesis.

In chapter 1, he attributes the formation of Hanǎnim, the Korean appellation of the Christian God, to the missionaries’ adaptation of ancient Chinese and Korean folk religions that worshipped the monotheistic divine being—i.e., Shangdi of China and especially Whanin of Korea. The national birth myth of Korea, the Tan’goon legend, resembles the Christian soteriological account to some extent with Trinitarian and incarnation elements, and thus providing germane points of contact.

The second chapter delineates how the soteriological symbol, the cross, and Protestant eschatology were infused in the late nineteenth-century context of the messianic and end-time expectation of the Korean populace. Troubled by the dire situation, some Korean Christian leaders interpreted the two popular eschatological traditions (Chǒnggamnok and kaebyǒk) as precursors to the Christian messianism. The cross took on the meaning of the eschatological refugee place as envisaged by Chǒnggamnok, purportedly a fourteenth-century prophetic book that predicted the coming of a savior figure.

The third chapter addresses the matter of “spirits” in two respects. On one hand, missionaries corrected the animistic worldview and strictly forbad the demon worship (kut) including spirit fetishes and talismans. One of the most ostensible demarcations of Christian proselytization was to renounce and abandon these idolatrous items and to acknowledge the superiority of Christ over all other indigenous spirits. On the other hand, missionaries began to accept the supernatural reality of demon-possession, which in their home country was dismissed as a superstition of the pre-enlightenment era.

The fourth chapter recounts the early Korean adaptation of the ancestor worship into a Christianized memorial service, Ch’udohoe. Fervent confrontation of ancestor worship in the early mission history provoked a series of grave conflicts at times resulting in a large-scale martyrdom. By 1897, inspired by an American memorial service, some Korean leaders began to develop a contextualized and legitimate ancestor memorial service. Without impinging on the idolatrous elements of chosang-chesa (ancestor worship), this new form of service alleviated the negative public portrayal of Christianity and at the same time satisfied Korean Christians of the longing for filial veneration that had been deeply cultivated by the Confucius tradition.

The fifth chapter points to the receptivity of Korean Christianity toward the Chinese Christian literary influence. The final chapter sets out to delve into the birth of one of the most distinctly Korean Christian expressions: early dawn prayer meeting. Although early morning has been regarded as an important hour for individual devotion (e.g., by Judaism, monastery traditions, reformers, and even modern Pietists), it is the early Korean Christianity that set it up as a public gathering of the local church. Kil Sǒnju, probably the most significant Korean Christian leader at the turn of the twentieth century, was responsible for institutionalizing “early dawn prayer meeting” as a daily corporate gathering which has become a norm for virtually all Korean congregations not only in Korea but all over the world.

Despite its convincing analysis of myriads of historical data, a few minor questions are in order. First, I am not entirely sure that the formation of early dawn prayer meeting is a result of Daoist influence. A more plausible case could be made on the basis of a Korean penchant for communal orientation and passionate zeal since early devotion has been a common feature in various Korean religious groups. Second, theological fundamentalism seems to be grossly misrepresented. It is not conservatism that negates the supernatural reality such as demon-possession or casting out of evil spirits, but a rationalistic worldview. Third, it might not be a moderate theological stance that was in play when missionaries searched for points of contact in indigenous religions for more effective means of evangelism but utilitarian pragmatism that allowed them to work with the existing religious frameworks. These quibbles aside, this study is a significant contribution to the topic it covers. A wealth of historical data from the turn of the last century on the formation of Korean Christianity is meticulously presented and carefully analyzed. Serious students interested in that area will have to consult with this book. An inquisitive mind will be pleasantly surprised to find many fascinating anecdotes of early missionary accounts.

S. Michael Ahn

S. Michael Ahn
Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary
Mill Valley, California, USA

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