The practice of Christianity in Korea has a relatively short history but, after a slow start, it has seen significant growth and high numbers of believers. The deeply-rooted traditional religions of Korean shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism held strong for many centuries and have been challenged by Christianity in a meaningful way only since 1784, when the first Catholic prayer-house was established in Korea. Protestantism followed in 1884, but growth of both was slow until the middle of the twentieth century. In 1897 the Russian Orthodox Church resolved to send missionaries to Korea by decision of the Holy Synod in July 1897. Archimandrite Ambrose Gountko led the three person team, but was refused permission to enter the country.
In 1900 a more hospitable atmosphere between Russia and Korea allowed for a second missionary team led by Archimandrite Chrysanthos Shehtkofsky to begin an outreach in Seoul. He was joined in Korea by Hierodeacon Nicholas Alexeiev of the original team, and chanter Jonah Leftsenko. On February 17, 1900 in a make-shift chapel the first known Orthodox Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the Korean peninsula.
The first Orthodox church was constructed in Jung Dong, Jung-gu, the central area of Seoul in 1903 and is named in honor of Saint Nicholas. However, with the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 - 1945 came an intense period of persecution against Orthodox Christian believers. In spite of persecution in 1912 Fr. Ioannis Kang, the first native Korean Orthodox priest, was ordained.
In November 1921 The Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Moscow ended its support of the Church of Korea, and the Japanese Orthodox Church gave up its jurisdictional authority. Thus, in 1946, the Orthodox Church of Korea was put into the position of having to organize itself as a parish.
1947 saw the ordination of a third Korean priest, Fr. Alexei Kim, just as the last Russian priest departed the country. Father Alexei was the sole priest of the Orthodox Church left to serve the people of Korea. Just three years later, on July 9, 1950, he was captured and disappeared without record. As the Korean War descended upon the land the Orthodox Christian community in the region was dispersed and the formal practice of the faith disrupted.
However, in 1953, Army Chaplain Archimandrite Andrew Halkiopoulos of the Military Forces of Greece was made aware of Korean Orthodox faithful and arranged for a parish in Seoul to be reestablished.
The following year Korean Orthodox Christian Boris Moon was ordained by Archbishop Ireneus of Japan in Tokyo. Then, on Christmas Eve of 1955, by unanimous decision the Korean Orthodox community chose formally to come under the jurisdictional authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
In 1975, Archimandrite Sotirios Trambas volunteered to serve in the Korean mission of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. During the ensuing years, he founded a monastery, several parishes both in Korea and in other places in Asia, and a seminary.
In 1993, the Holy Synod of Constantinople elected Archimandrite Sotirios Trambas as Bishop of Zelon and Auxiliary Bishop to the Metropolitan of Australia and New Zealand. In this role, Bishop Sotirios served as Exarch of Korea. On April 20, 2004, the Exarchate of Korea was raised to the rank of a Metropolis and Bishop Sotirios became the first Metropolitan of Korea.
On May 28, 2008, Metropolitan Sotirios of Korea, the first Metropolitan of the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea retired and was given the title of Metropolitan of Pisidia. On the same day, Bishop Ambrosios of Zelon and Auxiliary Bishop of the Metropolis was elected to succeed Metropolitan Sotirios as the Metropolitan of Korea.
Today there are ten Korean Orthodox parishes with several hundred members in South Korea, as well as one monastery. Additionally, in 2006 the government of North Korea supported the establishment of at least one Orthodox Christian parish (of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate) in the capital Pyongyang.
Prior to the Korean War of 1950–1953, two-thirds of Korean Christians lived in the North, but most subsequently fled to the South. It is not known how many Christians remain in North Korea today, and there is some confusion about the exact number in South Korea as well. It is known that by the end of the 1960s there were barely one million Protestants in South Korea, but during the "Conversion Boom" period ending in the 1980s, the number of Protestants increased faster than in any other country. According to the CIA's World Factbook, Christians and Buddhists today each comprise 26% of the population of South Korea,and other sources claim that about 49% of the population are Christians. The discrepancies arise because a large proportion of the population does not maintain official membership in a specific religion, regardless of the group in which they are active.
In 2005, one source showed that about 18% of the population of South Korea professed to be Protestants and around 10% called themselves Roman Catholics, the third highest percentages in Asia (after the Philippines and East Timor). Surveys have shown that South Korean Christians are very active in their religion, quite often exceeding their American counterparts in frequency of attendance at group worship services. Seoul contains eleven of the world's twelve largest Christian congregations. South Korea also provides the world's second largest number of Christian missionaries, surpassed only by the United States. South Korean missionaries are particularly prevalent in 10/40 Window nations that are hostile to Westerners. In 2000, there were 10,646 Protestant South Korean missionaries in 156 countries, along with an undisclosed number of Catholic missionaries. A number of South Korean Christians, including David Yonggi Cho (조용기), senior pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, have attained worldwide prominence.
Christianity was established on Korean soil only after nearly two centuries of failed efforts, and another two centuries passed before Christianity became numerically significant. The first known Christian in Korea was Konishi Yukinaga, who was one of the commanders of the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s. He took a Korean girl later known as Julia Otā (ジュリアおたあ) back to Japan with him and she later became one of the first Korean Christians. Father Gregorious de Cespedes, a Jesuit priest, visited Konishi in Korea in 1593 to work among Japanese expatriates, but he was not permitted to proselytize Koreans.
A decade later, however, the Korean diplomat Yi Gwang-jeong (이광정) returned from Beijing carrying a world atlas and several theological books written by Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China. He began disseminating the information in his books and from these beginnings the first real seeds of Christianity were sown. Christianity faltered along in Korea over the following two centuries before the Catholic Church was finally able to gain a foothold in 1784. Even after this time, Korean Christians dealt with persecution and hardship but persecution has been shown historically to strengthen the faith of believers and increase the influence of the church. Many were martyred, the most famous of whom was Andrew Kim Taegon, who was beheaded in 1846 at the age of 25 for his practice of a foreign religion. Christianity continued to gain adherents despite the persecution, and in 1884 Henry Appenzeller, a Methodist, and Horace Underwood, a Presbyterian, both from the United States, introduced Protestantism to Korea.
Matteo Ricci's books provoked immediate academic controversy when Yi Gwang-jeong brought them into Korea, and academics remained critical for many years. Early in the seventeenth century, Yi Su-gwang, a court scholar, and Yu Mong-in (유몽인), a cabinet minister, wrote highly critical commentaries on Ricci's works, and over the next two centuries academic criticism of Christian beliefs continued unabated.
Some scholars, however, were more sympathetic to Christianity. Members of the Silhak (실학; "practical learning") school believed in social structure based on merit rather than birth (see classism), and were therefore often bitterly opposed by the mainstream academic establishment. Silhak scholars saw Christianity as an ideological basis for their beliefs and were therefore attracted to what they saw as the egalitarian values of Christianity. Thus, when Christianity was finally established in Korea, there was already a substantial body of educated opinion sympathetic to it, which was crucial to the spread of the Catholic faith in the 1790s. An 1801 study indicated that 55% of all Catholics had family ties to the Silhak school. This philosophical sympathy for Christianity among the educated elite greatly facilitated its growth in Korea.
Largely as a result of the influence of the Silhak school, Christianity in Korea began as an indigenous lay movement rather than being imposed by a foreign ecclesiastical hierarchy. The first Catholic prayer-house was founded in 1784 at Pyongyang by Yi Sung-hun, a diplomat who had been baptized in Beijing. In 1786, Yi proceeded to establish a hierarchy of lay-priests. Although the Vatican ruled in 1789 that the appointment of lay-priests violated Canon Law, Christianity was introduced into Korea by indigenous lay-workers, not by foreign prelates. Since Christianity began as largely a "grass-roots" effort in Korea, it naturally spread more quickly through the population than it would if it had originated with outsiders with no initial popular support.
Hangul, a phonemic Korean alphabet invented around 1446 by scholars in the court of King Sejong, was little used for several centuries because of the perceived cultural superiority of Classical Chinese (a position similar to that of Latin in Europe). However, the Catholic Church became the first Korean organization to recognize officially the value of using Hangul, and Bishop Berneux mandated that all Catholic children be taught to read it. Christian literature printed for use in Korea, including that used by the network of schools established by Christian missionaries, predominantly used the Korean language and the easily-learned Hangul script. This combination of factors not only resulted in a sharp rise in the overall literacy rate, but also enabled Christian teachings to spread beyond the elite, who predominantly used Chinese. As early as the 1780s, portions of the Gospels appeared in Hangul; doctrinal books such as the Jugyo Yoji (주교요지) appeared in the 1790s and a Catholic hymnary was printed around 1800.
John Ross, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary in Manchuria completed his translation of the Bible into Korean in 1887 and Protestant leaders immediately began emphasizing its mass-circulation. In addition, they established the first modern educational institutions in Korea. The Methodist Paichai School (배재고등학교) for boys was founded in 1885, and the Methodist Ewha School (이화여자고등학교) for girls (later to become Ewha Womans University) followed in 1886. These, and similar schools established soon afterwards, facilitated the rapid expansion of Protestantism among the common people, and in time Protestants surpassed Catholics as the largest Christian group in Korea. As a side effect during this period, female literacy rose sharply, since women had previously been excluded from the educational system.
The spread of Christianity in Korea was aided by the similarity of certain Christian doctrines with a number of Korean traditions. Unlike prevailing Chinese and Japanese religions of the time, shamanist Koreans had an essentially monotheistic concept of a Creator-God, whom they called Hwan-in or Hanal-nim (하날님) (later also Haneul-nim, 하늘님/하느님, or Hana-nim, 하나님). According to an ancient myth, Hwan-in had a son named Hwan-ung (환웅) who, in turn, had fathered a human son named Tangun in 2333 BC. According to the story, Tangun founded the Korean nation and taught his people the elements of civilization during his thousand-year reign. There are several variants of this myth, one of which depicts Tangun as having been mothered by a virgin. Some modern theologians have even attempted to explain the Christian concept of the Trinity in terms of the three divine characters in the Tangun myth. These parallels psychologically prepared the Korean people to accept various Christian teachings, such as the incarnation of Jesus.
One of the most important factors leading to widespread acceptance of Christianity in Korea was the identification that many Christians forged with the cause of Korean nationalism during the Japanese occupation of 1905 through 1945 (comparable to Catholicism in Ireland and Poland). During this period, seven million Koreans were exiled or deported and a systematic campaign of cultural assimilation was attempted. In 1938, even use of the Korean language was prohibited. However, the distinctly Korean nature of the church was reinforced during those years by the allegiance to the nation that was demonstrated by many Christians. Furthermore, while the subsequent constitution of South Korea guarantees freedom of religion as well as separation of church and state, the South Korean government has been favorable overall to Christianity, regarding the religion as an ideological bulwark against Communism.
On 1 March 1919, an assembly of thirty-three religious and professional leaders known as the "March 1 Movement" passed a Declaration of Independence. Although organized by leaders of the Chondogyo (천도교) religion, fifteen of the thirty-three signatories happened to be Protestants, and many of them were subsequently imprisoned. Also in 1919, the predominantly Catholic pro-independence movement called "Ulmindan" (울민단) (Righteous People's Army) was founded, and a China-based government-in-exile was at one time led by Syngman Rhee (이승만), a Methodist.
Christianity was linked even more with the patriotic cause when Christians refused to participate in worship of the Japanese Emperor, which was required by law in the 1930s. Although this refusal was motivated by theological rather than political convictions, the consequent imprisonment of many Christians strongly identified their faith, in the eyes of many Koreans, with the cause of Korean nationalism and resistance to the Japanese occupation. This show of resistance to the occupying nation enabled Koreans to see past the foreign origins of Christianity and accept it as their own.
The Christian concept of individual worth has also found expression in a lengthy struggle for human rights and democracy in Korea. In recent years, this struggle has taken the form of Minjung theology. Minjung theology is based on the "image of God" concept expressed in Genesis 1:26-27, but also incorporates the traditional Korean feeling of han, a word that has no exact English translation, but that denotes a sense of inconsolable pain and utter helplessness. Minjung theology depicts commoners in Korean history as the rightful masters of their own destiny. Two of the country's best known political leaders, Kim Young-sam, a Presbyterian, and Kim Dae-jung, a Roman Catholic, subscribe to Minjung theology. Both men spent decades opposing military governments in South Korea and were frequently imprisoned as a result, and both also served terms as President of the Republic after democracy was restored in 1988.
One manifestation of Minjung theology in the final years of the Park Chung-hee regime (1961-1979) was the rise of several Christian social missions, such as the Catholic Farmers Movement and the Protestant Urban Industrial Mission, which campaigned for better wages and working conditions for laborers. The military government imprisoned many of their leaders because it considered the movement a threat to social stability, and their struggle coincided with a period of popular unrest which culminated in the assassination of President Park on October 26, 1979. However, even this period of turmoil affected the growth of Christianity to the degree that Koreans saw it as a source of stability in a difficult time.
Many Korean Christians believe that their values have had a significant positive effect on various social relationships. Traditional Korean society was hierarchically arranged according to Confucian principles under the semi-divine emperor. Women had no social rights, children were totally subservient to their parents, and individuals had no rights except as defined by the overall social system. This structure was radically challenged by the Christian teaching that all men are created in the image of God and thus that every individual has implicit worth. Closely aligned to this concept is an emphasis on the right to own private property.
Christians regarded the emperor as a mere man who was as much under God's authority as were his subjects, and Christian values also favored the social emancipation of women and children. The church permitted the remarriage of widows (as taught by apostle Paul, not traditionally allowed in East Asian societies), prohibited concubinage and polygamy, and forbade cruelty to or desertion of wives. Christian parents were taught to regard their children as gifts from God, and were required to educate them. Arranged child marriages and the neglect of daughters (who were often regarded as less desirable than sons in Asian culture) were prohibited. These changes were judged as favourable by many Koreans, who associated them with Christianity, and many became Christians as a result.
South Korea's rapid economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s is usually credited to the policy of export-oriented industrialization led by Park Chung-hee (박정희), who was a devout Buddhist. But many South Korean Christians view their religious faith as a factor in the country's dramatic economic growth over the past three decades, believing that its success and prosperity are indications of God's blessing. It is, of course, difficult to isolate this factor from the effects of other influences such as indigenous cultural values and work ethic, a strong alliance with the United States, and the infusion of foreign capital.
A 2003 study by economists Robert J. Barro and Rachel McCleary suggests that societies with high levels of belief in heaven and low levels of church attendance also exhibit high rates of economic growth. Barro and McCleary's model has been influential in subsequent scholarship and, to some observers, it supports the belief that Christianity has played a major role in South Korea's economic success. The study has also been criticised by scholars such as Durlauf, Kortellos, and Tan (2006), who argue on statistical grounds that there is little evidence connecting religion and economic growth either directly or indirectly.
Any research, however, no matter which side of the issue it supports, is irrelevant to the fact that the confidence of South Korean Christians in the social and economic benefits of their faith has been a factor in the spread of Christianity in South Korea. There is much appreciation in South Korea for the statistical growth, impressive organization, and attractive buildings that are enjoyed by many Christian groups. People quite naturally want to associate themselves with prosperity and success, and insofar as they see Christianity as the source of those things, they will be more likely to accept it as an important influence in their lives.