Christianity in Korea: From Persecution to Prosperity

What they believe in in Korea

Despite its predominantly homogeneous ethnic composition, the Republic of Korea stands out for its religious diversity, with no single dominant faith. Although more than half of Koreans consider themselves non-religious, many still participate in religious rituals, such as calling on shamans or honoring ancestors through offerings. Notably, Christianity has become the most common denomination among those who adhere to the religion, no small feat considering its tumultuous establishment marked by severe persecution on the peninsula. This article serves as an introduction to Korean Christianity, highlighting both Catholicism and Protestantism, offering a brief overview of their historical trajectory, current practices, and contemporary challenges faced by these religious traditions.

A brief history of Catholic Christianity in Korea

Every religion is deeply influenced by historical events, and this is particularly evident in the case of Catholicism in Korea. Koreans' familiarity with Catholicism dates back to the early seventeenth century, when they encountered translated works on "Western education" brought by Catholic missionaries from China and their Chinese collaborators. Although Koreans were intrigued by the scientific and technical content of these texts, they initially rejected their religious teachings. However, a shift occurred in the late eighteenth century when a Korean scholar named Lee Seung-hoon (1756-1801) traveled to Beijing on a tribute mission and was baptized there. Upon his return, Lee Seung-hoon baptized many Koreans, which led to the Catholic movement expanding beyond scholars to include women and commoners. By the time a Chinese missionary arrived in Korea in late 1794, there were already several thousand Catholics in the country. Many women became influential figures in the Catholic Church, and people from humble backgrounds advocated spiritual equality in the Catholic community.

However, Catholicism's foreign connections and the government's fears of possible rebellion, combined with Catholics' rejection of ancestral rites, caused severe persecution by the state. While at first the persecutions were relatively small in scale, claiming the lives of no more than a few hundred Catholics, by the mid-1860s the growing influence of Western imperialism and foreign pressure on Korea led to more widespread persecutions that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, including French missionaries. This seriously affected the community, which at the time numbered no more than 23 000. Despite gradually gaining tolerance as the country opened up, Korean Catholics continued to exist on the fringes of society, forming what is known as the "ghetto church," which refrained from political participation and focused on salvation in the afterlife until the mid-twentieth century.

A brief history of Protestant Christianity in Korea

Although Protestant missionaries made initial attempts to enter Korea in 1832 and 1866, sustained contact and conversion efforts did not occur until the late nineteenth century. Koreans in Manchuria were introduced to Protestantism through Scottish missionaries such as John Ross (1842-1915), who secretly brought Korean translations of the Gospels and the entire New Testament to Korea. The first Protestant resident missionary, Methodist Horace Allen (1858-1932), arrived in 1884 under the guise of a physician at the American mission because of fears of persecution associated with overt missionary activity. The following year, Presbyterian Horace Underwood (1859-1916) became the first ordained Protestant minister on the peninsula. Underwood was instrumental in establishing Yonsei University, and with Allen they organized Severance Hospital. In addition to religious mission, Protestant missionaries prioritized the establishment of medical and educational institutions as a means of conversion and government support.

Catholicism in South Korea

Protestant missionaries sought to spread not only the gospel but also Western Anglo-Protestant civilization, offering spiritual and national salvation-an attractive prospect for many Koreans, especially with Japan's growing influence after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). By giving Koreans considerable local authority and encouraging them to support their churches and participate in missionary work, missionaries made it possible to tailor Christianity to the needs of Koreans. This, combined with Koreans' initiative and concern for the future of the country, contributed to the Great Revival of 1907, which brought the number of Protestant followers to over 100 000. Despite the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, Protestant movements continued to exist because religion provided Koreans with an opportunity to organize and express opposition to a colonial regime that restricted freedoms. For example, the March 1 Movement of 1919, which demanded independence from Japan, was led by Korean Protestants. Similarly, many of them resisted pressure to participate in Shinto rituals in the 1930s for religious and nationalist reasons.

Korean Protestants also played an important social role, especially during the Japanese colonial period. Women missionaries, including medical professionals, traveled to Korean women, serving as beacons of hope and inspiration. Although Protestant Christianity seems patriarchal by modern standards, it gave women the opportunity to study, work, and gather in public. Examples include the establishment of the first modern public school for Korean women by American Methodist Mary Scranton (1832-1909) and the educational journey of Esther Park (1876-1910), who became the first Korean woman to earn a doctorate in Western medicine after studying abroad. In addition, figures such as Methodist Yoo Gwan Sun (1902-1920) participated in social movements such as the March 1 Movement, demonstrating the multifaceted influence of Protestant Christianity on Korean society.

Catholics and Protestants after national division

After World War II, the division of Korea created serious problems for Korean Protestants, as most believers lived in the northern part of the country, which gradually fell under the rule of communists who were increasingly hostile to Christianity. Many fled south, led by the anti-communist Protestant Seungman Rhee (1875-1965), who served as president from 1948 to 1960. Although there were about 400 000 Protestants in Korea at independence, the number more than doubled to over a million within a decade, aided by vigorous efforts to rebuild Korea and spread the faith, often with the help of foreign aid and government support. However, the increasingly authoritarian regimes of Ri and then Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) led to theological divisions among Protestants. Conservatives held anti-communist views of the Republic of Korea and prioritized individual salvation, which led to a significant increase in the Protestant population, from less than three million in 1967 to more than ten million in 1987. At the same time, though in smaller numbers, liberal Protestants participated in social and political movements challenging the dictatorship, with theological justifications such as "Minjung theology," which emphasized the importance of the masses in history.

The Catholic Church also faced persecution in the North, which led to the end of organized, public Catholicism in that region. In contrast, Catholicism experienced moderate growth in the South, aided by factors such as the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the ecclesiastical independence of Korea. While usually apolitical, Korean Catholics, including figures such as Kim Dae-jung, actively advocated progressive ideas, often in opposition to authoritarian regimes. The canonization of 103 Korean martyrs in 1984 by Pope John Paul II and subsequent visits by popes, including Pope Francis in 2014, have contributed to the growing popularity of Catholicism. Korean Catholics are proud of their history, presenting their faith as a champion of modernity, equality, human dignity and democracy. The Catholic Church's transformation from a marginal organization to one with prestigious hospitals and universities, as well as its relatively clean public image compared to Protestant churches, has earned it respect in Korean society. In addition, the Catholic Church maintains friendly relations with other religions, frequently extends greetings and participates in interfaith initiatives, which contributes to its positive perception as a responsible and trustworthy member of society.

Christian faith and practice in contemporary Korea

Korean Protestant worship practices are generally conservative and rooted in tradition. Upon entering a church, the congregation usually performs a silent prayer to prepare for the service, which usually begins with a hymn. The congregation then often recites the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles' Creed together, as well as reading aloud selected verses from the Bible. Opportunities for individual or communal prayer are often provided during the service. The centerpiece is usually a sermon delivered by the pastor, followed by hymns, offerings, prayer, and a benediction. Music plays an important role, with contemporary Christian music sometimes replacing traditional hymns in youth groups.

Korean Protestant churches are characterized by their considerable size, both in terms of physical structure and number of members. The country is famous for its megachurches, exemplified by the world's largest full gospel church, Yoido in Seoul, which began its modest operations in 1958 but now draws hundreds of thousands of worshippers each week. The visibility of Protestant churches can be seen on the city's skyscrapers, where their red neon-lit crosses dominate the night. Statistically, Protestantism far outnumbers other religions, with many church-related institutions including radio stations, newspapers, clinics, schools, and social welfare organizations.

Catholic worship in Korea shares some similarities with practices in the United States and Canada. Mass takes center stage, with several services held every weekend. While the Mass order and chants may be familiar, there are some notable differences, such as larger choirs and standing instead of kneeling during some parts of the Mass. The sign of peace is given with a bow rather than a handshake, and during the collection of donations, one must line up and drop envelopes into a box. It is still common to wear a veil during Mass, especially among rural Korean Catholic women. Masses are often geared toward specific age groups, reflecting the diverse demographics of the community. Parish life emphasizes group activities, and different organizations cater to different stages of life.

Church architecture in Korea resembles Western examples, but with unique features such as illuminated statues of Jesus on church roofs. Due to limited urban space, some churches are built on high ground, utilizing every available space. Marian grottos are common, and worshippers often bow to statues of the Virgin Mary upon entering a church. The interior usually features a crucifix surrounded by statues of Mary, Joseph, and Korean saints such as Fr. Andrew Kim Taegon, honored for his martyrdom.

The history of persecution of Catholics in Korea underlies religious practices that place great emphasis on martyrs. Martyrs are honored with special prayers and memorials, and pilgrimage sites are scattered throughout the country. These sites range from simple plaques to elaborate shrines with Stations of the Cross, rosaries and monuments to martyrs. Parishes often organize pilgrimages, combining prayer with cultural and historical experiences. International recognition of Korean martyrs and clergy underscores their importance beyond national borders, symbolizing the principles of human rights and equality embraced by Catholics worldwide.


Catholics and Protestants in Korea face common obstacles against the backdrop of liberal democracy and rapid economic progress, which have fostered individualism and reduced adherence to religious institutions. In addition, the highly competitive nature of Korean society leaves little time or inclination for religious activism. Emerging alternative worldviews, coupled with changing attitudes toward sexuality, are challenging traditional Christian teachings. In addition, Korea's declining birth rate poses a demographic threat that could lead to a shrinking Christian population.

Unique challenges face each Christian denomination. Despite Protestantism's numerical predominance, it suffers from disproportionately low approval ratings: many young Koreans criticize the churches as self-centered, materialistic, and authoritarian. Some disillusioned Protestants, described as "Canaanite believers," are moving away from organized religion, causing Protestant circles to reflect on their contribution to society and spiritual priorities.

The Catholic Church faces similarly serious challenges. Discrepancies between official figures on parishioner numbers and actual involvement show a decline in sacramental participation and Mass attendance. Despite a sufficient number of clergy, there has been a decline in vocations, with fewer people seeking ordination or entering religious life.

Despite these challenges, Korean Christians draw strength from a history marked by persecution, colonization, and war. Their resilience and adaptability testify to their ability to respond creatively to contemporary challenges. As Korean Christianity becomes integrated into global trends through migration and missionary endeavors, it will undoubtedly undergo changes. However, its vitality and ability to evolve while maintaining its core values suggest that Korean Christianity will maintain its presence in Korean society for the foreseeable future.


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