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Written by Cody Thiel
Researcher at The Korea Society
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the Hermit Kingdom, Korea, began to open up its doors. Korea signed treaties with United States of America, Great Britain, France, Russia, and Japan, and new goods and services began to flow into Korea. Along with these foreign imports came a flood of new ideas, religions, and philosophies. Foremost among them was Christianity.
In the early nineteenth century Catholic missionaries and converts worked to spread the gospel news, but were limited by government bans on preaching. Many of these early Christian pioneers in Korea paid the ultimate sacrifice for their faith. But towards the latter end of the century, Protestant missionaries found fertile soil to plant their seeds.
A Medical Doctor as the First Protestant Missionary to Korea
The first officially recognized Protestant missionary to set foot on Korean soil was Horace Allen in 1884 CE. Originally, Allen came as a physician to Chosŏn Korea with the United States of America’s diplomatic delegation. His arrival proved to be providential. Prior to Allen’s arrival, several different groups within Korea were pushing to modernize the country. These modernizers felt that if Korea did not begin to modernize, the Koreans would be unable to withstand the imperialistic pressures of the Western world.
One of these groups, the Kaehwapa(Enlightenment Party), also believed that the current government was slow to accept Western ideas and technologies. In December 1884 they attempted to overthrow the Chosŏn government. Hoping to kill several key members of the central government and then take over the royal palace, members of the Enlightenment Party attacked several government officials during the opening ceremony of the new Seoul post office. In the aftermath of the attack, the brother of the queen, Min Yŏngik, lay dying on the floor with several stab wounds.
Fortunately, Horace Allen was near the scene. He hurriedly pushed aside the Korean doctors and, using Western medical science, saved his life. This somewhat miraculous healing earned Allen an audience with the queen. Because of the favorable impression that Allen left with the royal family, the Chosŏn government formally sponsored the introduction of Protestant missionaries into Korea.
As missionaries flooded into Korea they focused their efforts in three different areas — medicine, education, and evangelism.1 While medicine and education had the most obvious and practical influence in Korean society, all three drastically changed the course of Korean history.
Western Medicine, Education and Evangelism
Because of Horace Allen’s well-renowned work as a doctor, Koreans were eager to benefit from and learn the science of Western medicine. Medical missionaries set up small clinics and practices throughout Korea to administer to the sick. They also established medical schools and hospitals. The most famous of these hospitals was established by Horace Allen. Shortly after his rescue of Prince Min, the king authorized Allen to build a hospital calling it Kwanghyewǒn (House of Extended Grace).("History”, Yonsei University Health System, accessed May 15, 2012, http://www.yuhs.or.kr/en/about_yuhs/yuhs/YUMC_history) This eventually developed into a medical school and in 1908 graduated the first class of Korean medical doctors. Later the hospital’s name was changed to Severance Hospital and today it is one of the largest hospitals in Korea and the second largest medical college.
Women medical missionaries also made generous contributions to Korean society through medicine during this time. Because traditional Chosŏn culture would not allow men and women to interact in society, male medical doctors were unable to visit Korean women. Western missionary women used their knowledge of medicine to reach out to these women through clinics and training. Western missionaries helped to train the first Korean nurses. One Korean, Esther Park, not only received medical training from these missionaries, but traveled with them to the United States to receive additional training and certification.2 This training and education of Korean women helped to drastically change the role of women in Korean society by enabling them a new degree of independence.
The separation of genders also applied in other areas of Korean culture, particularly education. Because men were unable to come in direct contact with Korean women, foreign missionary women took it upon themselves to train and educate Korean women. One of the most influential missionaries, Mary F. Scranton, founded Ehwa Women’s School under the authorization of the queen. Ehwa would eventually become the premier university for women in Korea.
Education and Women
Ehwa and other institutions worked to promote literacy among women. While it would seem natural for American missionaries to teach women English, missionaries typically encouraged women to learn Han’gŭl. This education helped lower class women that had previously had little hope for an education. While Korean men were typically better educated, many Koreans sought out Western missionaries for educational opportunities. This focus on literacy not only helped to spread the Christian faith, but also introduced Koreans to new ideas such as democracy.
While both medical and educational efforts helped bring the modern world to Korea, ultimately missionaries hoped that these efforts would introduce people to Jesus Christ and His gospel. For many of the missionaries the sole purpose of their ministry was conversion. Missionaries that focused on evangelism found marked success in Korea. One missionary described the initial reception of Christian missionaries in Korea.
Suddenly the command was issued from somewhere, “Open wide the gates,” and lo, in stepped the missionary. The doors had remained fast closed till he was ready, but now the hour had come. From that day on the missionary has been the representative Westerner, no the merchantman nor official, but the missionary, the moksa,3 passing the length and breadth of the land, in the far north, down south, all the way from Seoul to Pusan, to Ŭiju, gazed at by the wondering multitudes. 4
Another missionary proclaimed:
For almost ten years the story of the work in Korea has been entrancing. It has read almost like a fairy tale, and veritably it has seemed like a chapter from the Acts of the Apostles. Steadily and regularly, with an ever-increasing momentum, the work has been growing faster and faster, exceeding the brightest visions of the most optimistic students of missionary work.5
When compared to neighboring nations this growth was quite miraculous. In some of the early years there were as many as 20,000 converts a year. This growth has continued into the twenty first century. In South Korea nearly twenty-five percent of the population is Christian and at night cities are dotted with neon crosses, displaying the saturation of Christianity in Korean society.
Today, the impact of early Christianity is quite evident. Hundreds of hospitals, schools, and churches trace their roots back to these early missionaries. Whether in the field of medicine, education, or evangelism, the efforts of missionaries are remembered as one of the driving forces of modernization and change in Korea.
Clark, Donald. Missionary Photography in Korea: Encountering the West through Christianity. Seoul: The Korea Society, 2009.
“History”. Yonsei University Health System. accessed May 15, 2012. http://www.yuhs.or.kr/en/about_yuhs/yuhs/YUMC_history/
Palmer, Spencer J. Korea and Christianity: The Problem of Identification with Tradition. Seoul: Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, 1986.