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The Evangelization of Korea, c.1895–1910: Translation of the Gospel or Reinvention of the Church?

  • Kirsteen Kim (a1)

Several studies of the history of Protestant Christianity in South Korea have argued that the religion's rapid growth was chiefly because of the successful translation of the gospel into Korean language and thought. While agreeing that the foundation laid in this respect by early Western missionaries and Korean Christians was a necessary prerequisite for evangelization, this article challenges the use of a translation theory, such as has been developed by Lamin Sanneh, to describe the way that Christianity took root in Korea, both on the basis of conceptual discussions in the field of mission studies and also on historical grounds. It draws on research for A History of Korean Christianity (2014) to examine the years of initial rapid growth in Protestant churches in Korea – 1895 to 1910. Its findings suggest that rather than ‘translation of the gospel’ a more historically accurate description of what took place is ‘reinvention of the Church’.

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* Leeds Trinity University, Brownberrie Lane, Leeds, LS18 5HD. E-mail:
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1 ‘Protestant’ in this period of Korean history refers to Presbyterian and Methodist denominations.

2 Latourette, Kenneth Scott, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 vols (New York, 1937–45), 6: 428–30.

3 For the conference, see Stanley, Brian, The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910, Studies in the History of Christian Mission (Grand Rapids, MI, 2009).

4 Note on transliteration: This article uses the McCune-Reischauer system of Romanization for Korean words. Korean names will appear in East Asian order (family name first). Alternative orders and spellings will be given in brackets.

5 Mott, John R., The Decisive Hour of Christian Missions (Edinburgh, 1910), 88 .

6 World Missionary Conference, Report of Commission I (Edinburgh, 1910), 6 .

7 Ibid. 36.

8 Ibid. 80.

9 Chung, Notably David, Syncretism: The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea (Albany, NY, 2001); Oak, Sung-Deuk, The Making of Korean Christianity: Protestant Encounters with Korean Religions, 1876–1915 (Waco, TX, 2013).

10 Sanneh, Lamin, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY, 1989).

11 Kim, Sebastian C. H. and Kim, Kirsteen, A History of Korean Christianity (Cambridge, 2014), which offers greater detail and further indications of primary sources and secondary literature than can be given here.

12 Although Protestant translation activities had been going on since the 1870s, it was not until about 1895 that Protestant Church growth began to accelerate rapidly; after 1910 the rate of growth slowed. For figures, see Ryu, Dae Young, ‘The Origin and Characteristics of Evangelical Protestantism in Korea at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’, ChH 77 (2008), 371–98, at 397; Park, Chung-Shin, Protestantism and Politics in Korea (Seattle, WA, 2003), 16 . Cf. the outlines of Paik, Lak-geoon George, The History of Protestant Missions in Korea 1832–1910, 2nd edn (Seoul, 1970); Clark, Allen D., A History of the Church in Korea (Seoul, 1971).

13 Use of the word ‘reinvention’ is inspired by Parratt, John, Reinventing Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI, 1995).

14 Sanneh, Translating, 214–16.

15 Ibid. 9–49.

16 Ibid. 50–129.

17 Ibid. 130–56.

18 Luzbetak, Louis J., The Church and Cultures (Maryknoll, NY, 1988; first publ. 1963).

19 Kraft, Charles H., Christianity in Culture (Maryknoll, NY, 1979).

20 Bevans, Stephen B., Models of Contextual Theology, 2nd edn (Maryknoll, NY, 2002), 40–4.

21 Sanneh, Translating, 192–209.

22 E.g. Hall, Stuart, Representation (London, 1997).

23 Such as the recovery of the early history of Christianity in Asia: Moffett, Samuel Hugh, A History of Christianity in Asia, 1: Beginnings to 1500 (Maryknoll, NY, 1988).

24 Wright, N. T., The New Testament and the People of God (London, 1992), 341–5. I am indebted to Morwenna Ludlow for alerting me to this point.

25 See, for example, Burrows, William R., ‘A Seventh Paradigm? Catholics and Radical Inculturation’, in Saayman, Willem and Kritzinger, Klippies, eds, Mission in Bold Humility (Maryknoll, NY, 1996), 121–38.

26 Shorter, Aylward, Evangelization and Culture (London, 1994), 30 . Sanneh is aware of this difficulty (Translating, 50–87), and argues for a vernacularizing effect of Catholic missions even before the Second Vatican Council encouraged translation of the liturgy and reading of the Bible by lay people: ibid. 88–129.

27 Sanneh, Translating, 88–129.

28 Ibid. 211–38.

29 Ibid. 212.

30 E.g. Sanneh, Lamin, The Crown and the Turban (Boulder, CO, 1997).

31 Catholicism had been practised in Korea for almost a century by this date but had been largely suppressed by persecution.

32 Ross, John, Mission Methods in Manchuria (Edinburgh and London, 1903). On Ross, see, in this volume, James H. Grayson, ‘John Ross and Cultural Encounter: Translating Christianity in an East Asian Context’, 338–58.

33 This was a script designed by King Sejong's scholars several hundred years before, specifically for the Korean language, but which was despised by the literati, who preferred to use Chinese characters.

34 Huntley, Martha, Caring, Growing, Changing: A History of the Protestant Mission in Korea (Cincinnati, OH, 1984), 28 .

35 E.g. that ancient Koreans were monotheistic: Oak, Making, 63–83.

36 Ross, John, History of Corea, Ancient and Modern (London, 1891 edn), 355 .

37 Baker, Don, ‘Hananim, Hanŭnim, Hanullim, and Hanŏllim’, Review of Korean Studies 5 (2002), 105–31; Bierne, Paul, Su-un and His World of Symbols (Farnham, 2009).

38 Korean Catholics referred to God as ‘Chŏnju’, the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese term preferred by Matteo Ricci.

39 Huntley, Caring, 132–8.

40 Paik, History, 374.

41 The earliest history of Protestantism in Korea is Paik, History, which is a history of missions written in English and citing only English-language and missionary sources; cf. Clark, Charles Allen, The Korean Church and the Nevius Methods (New York, 1930).

42 Notably Clark, History.

43 The leading church historians writing in Korean are Min Kyŏng-bae (Kyoung-bae Min) and Yi Man-yŏl (Mahn-yŏl Yi): see, for example, Kyŏng-bae, Min, Han'guk kidokkyo hoesa [A History of the Korean Church] (Seoul, 1982); Han'guk minjok kyohoe hyŏngsŏngsa-ron [The Establishment of an Indigenous Korean Church] (Seoul, 2008); Man-yŏl, Yi, Han'guk kidok'kyo suyongsa yŏn'gu [Study on the Korean Reception of Christianity] Seoul, 1998); Han'guk kidok'kyo-wa minjok t'ongil undong [Korean Christianity and the National Unification Movement] (Seoul, 2001).

44 Chung, Syncretism.

45 Oak, Making. Oak also included translation from Christian literature in China.

46 Nevius, John L., The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (Shanghai, 1899).

47 Clark, Charles Allen, The Nevius Plan for Mission Work in Korea (Seoul, 1937).

48 Clark, History, 147–8; on Yun Chi-ho, see Ahn, Shin, ‘The International Religious Network of Yun Chi-ho (1865–1965): Mission or Dialogue?’’ in Gregory, Jeremy and McLeod, Hugh, eds, International Religious Networks, SCH S 14 (Woodbridge, 2012), 228–35.

49 Paik, History, 295–8; Choi, Hyaeweol, Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea (Berkeley, CA, 2009), 6572 .

50 Paik, History, 419–28.

51 Ryu, ‘Origin’, 398.

52 Mott, Decisive Hour, 5–7.

53 World Missionary Conference, Report I, 25.

54 Ibid. 71.

55 Palmer, Spencer J., Korea and Christianity (Seoul, 1967). Palmer identifies 1895–1910 as the years of most rapid growth and connects this phenomenon with the social trauma of the period: ibid. 80–1, 91–4.

56 In Protestant historiography this was led especially by Mahn-yŏl Yi.

57 Grayson, James H., Early Buddhism and Christianity in Korea (Leiden, 1985); idem, Korea: A Religious History, 2nd edn (Abingdon, 2002).

58 Yi, Mahn-yŏl, ‘The Birth of the National Spirit of the Christians in the Late Chosŏn Period’, in Yu, Chai-shin, ed., Korea and Christianity (Seoul, 2004), 3972, at 40–3; Kim and Kim, History, 62–3.

59 Hunt, Everett N. Jr, Protestant Pioneers in Korea (Maryknoll, NY, 1980), 90–2.

60 Kang, Wi Jo, Christ and Caesar in Modern Korea (New York, 1997).

61 Shin, Gi-Wook, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea (Stanford, CA, 2006), 2157 .

62 Eckert, Carter J. et al., Korea Old and New: A History (Cambridge, MA, 1990), 214–22.

63 Wells, Kenneth M., New God, New Nation: Protestants and Self-Reconstruction Nationalism in Korea, 1896–1937 (Honolulu, HI, 1990), 85–6.

64 Including undertakers and shamans.

65 Huntley, Caring, 66–80.

66 Nahm, Andrew C., Korea: Tradition and Transformation (Elizabeth, NJ, 1988), 179–81.

67 Paik, History, 234.

68 Wells, New God, 30–2.

69 Suh, David Kwang-Sun, ‘American Missionaries and a Hundred Years of Korean Protestantism’, IRM 74 (1986), 518, at 6–9.

70 Cf. Paik, History, 260–2, 356–8.

71 Huntley, Caring, 125.

72 Chandra, Vipan, Imperialism, Resistance, and Reform in Late Nineteenth-Century Korea (Berkeley, CA, 1988).

73 Park, Protestantism, 127.

74 Wells, New God, 57.

75 Ibid.

76 Lim, Heekuk, ed., Christianity in Korea (Seoul, 2013), 7384 .

77 Yi, ‘Birth’.

78 Park, Protestantism, 123–6.

79 Pak, Jacqueline, ‘Cradle of the Covenant’, in Buswell, Robert E. Jr and Lee, Timothy S., eds, Christianity in Korea (Honolulu, HI, 2006), 116–48.

80 Don Baker, ‘Sibling Rivalry in Twentieth-Century Korea’, ibid. 283–308, at 289–96.

81 Choi, Young Keun, ‘The Great Revival in Korea, 1903–1907’, Korean Journal of Christian Studies 72 (2010), 129–49.

82 Ryu, ‘Origin’, 394.

83 Wells, New God.

84 Park, Protestantism, 30–6.

85 As in the independence movement of 1 March 1919: see In Kim, Soo, Protestants and the Formation of Modern Korean Nationalism, 1885–1920 (New York, 1996), 155–86.

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