Korea The First Asian Protestant Nation

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the only predominantly Christian nation in Asia was the Philippines, which was a strongly Catholic country with a small Protestant minority. At the end of the twentieth century, Korea has established itself as a largely Christian nation, with Protestantism—especially Presbyterianism—being by far the largest Christian group.

Yet in 1901, only a tiny proportion of the Korean population was Christian—perhaps 1 percent. How did a country with virtually no Christian presence come to be, in effect, a Christian nation? The answer is complex. The Pyongyang revival of 1907 was one of a series of essentially independent Pentecostal movements of the first decade of the twentieth century and is known to have been a significant force in bringing about conversions among the native population.

A further point of importance is that Christianity came to be perceived as an ally rather than an enemy by Koreans in the twentieth century. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and remained under Japanese rule until the end of the Second World War. Unusually, Christianity was seen as allied with Korean nationalism, especially in the face of Japanese oppression. Elsewhere in Asia, Christianity was easily depicted by its critics as the lackey of Western imperialism. In Korea, however, the enemy was not the West but Japan. Throughout this time, Christians played an active role in the Korean independence movement, out of all proportion to their numbers. Of the 123 people tried for insurgence by the Japanese in the 1911 popular revolt against Japanese rule, 98 were Christians. At this time, Christians made up just over 1 percent of the Korean population. The significance of this point could hardly be overlooked.

Following the Second World War, Korea underwent partition into a Communist north and democratic south following the Korean War, which broke out on June 25, 1950. The heavy involvement of Christian missionary agencies in the relief programs that followed the ending of the war created a powerful stimulus to the development of Christianity, which was catalyzed still further by the Korean churches' programs of social action during the 1960s. Growth continued unabated, especially within Korean Protestantism. In 1957 there were about 800,000 Protestants in Korea. This figure had more than doubled by 1968 (1,873,000) and soared even further by 1978 (5,294,000). The Catholic church also enjoyed a surge in its growth, rising from 285,000 (1957) to 751,000 (1968), then to 1,144,000 (1986).

Today Korea sends out Christian missionaries to nations throughout Asia, and increasingly to the large Korean diasporas of major Western cities, from Sydney to Los Angeles, from Melbourne to New York. These missionaries are now closely linked with a network of churches that increasingly serve as a focal point for community action, mutual support, and spiritual nourishment. In 1979 Korean churches sent 93 missionaries overseas. In 1990 that number had increased to 1,645; in 2000 it stood at 8,103.15 South Korea is today home to some of the world's largest Protestant churches.

And as North Korea shows every sign of being about to collapse, economically and politically, the question of the future religious development of this hard-line Communist state remains completely open. The anecdotal evidence suggests that Christianity has already made deep inroads among the population, and it is expected to grow further in the next decade.

The rise of Korea to prominence within global Protestantism is an important reminder of how situations change, often quite rapidly.

Korea is overwhelmingly Presbyterian, although with a rich diversity of expressions not found elsewhere. Other versions of Protestantism are also found in Korea, including a small Anglican community of about 50,000 that traces its origins back to 1890. One of the most significant distinctive features of Korean Protestantism is its commitment to theological education, evident in its many colleges, seminaries, and universities. The oldest of these—the Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary—was founded in 1901 in Pyongyang; it relocated to an eastern district of Seoul following the Communist takeover of the north.

Korea is an example of an essentially Buddhist nation that has come to be predominantly Protestant. Yet Protestantism has also been gaining ground in other regions of the world, including some that until recently were regarded as uniformly Catholic. In what follows, we consider the astonishing rise of Protestantism in Latin America and its implications for Protestantism itself and the global dynamics of Christianity as a whole.

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