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Friday, January 17, 2014

Players In Public Life

The "Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetary," on a hill in Seoul, Korea, was designated in 1890 as a site for burying foreign missionaries by Emperor Gwangmu, 26th King of the Joseon Dynasty, and the first Emperor of the Korean Empire. [Photo by Matthew Smith, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.]

In the secularist view of development, Christianity is not always seen as a positive contributor to the cause.  That’s because it is often stereotyped as “institutional” rather than community-oriented, and relegated to “private inspiration” rather than viewed as a major player in public life.

The history of Korea, however, tells a different story. In the late 19th Century, Korea was mostly illiterate, without roads or railways, power or sewer systems. At this point in history, Protestant Christian missionaries (Presbyterians and Methodists) came from the USA, England, South Africa, Canada and other nations. 

These missionaries of the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century saw themselves as players in public life, and were embraced as such by many Koreans. Were these missionaries discipling a nation? I'd say so. Today, they occupy a place of honor in Korean history. 

I was privileged to visit the "Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery," as it is called today by its caretaking church, while in South Korea this week. At this cemetery are 145 graves belonging to foreign missionaries and family members. The brochure for the cemetery says: “Abandoning promising careers back home, they came to share the light of the Gospel with ‘Corea’ which was then unknown. The missionaries profoundly influenced Korean society, not only by establishing hospitals and schools, but by affecting its intangible values, thus contributing to the abolition of the class hierarchy in old Korea.” About 231 graves of other foreigners are at the site as well, which is also called the Yanghwajin Foreigners' Cemetery.

The missionaries not only brought the Gospel of salvation, but helped lead Korea into modernization. They did this partly through the establishment of schools. At one point, the number of schools started by missionaries reached 400. It was from these schools that future leaders of Korea came. And this education was not only for males, but for females too, which changed Korea. 

Christianity “caught on” in Korea. They took to the Bible like kids in a candy store. I’m not sure of all the reasons for this, except to say it was a move of the Holy Spirit, beyond human orchestration or control. This was certainly the case with the Wonsan repentance movement of 1903, which led to the Great Pyeongyang Revival Movement, or “Korean Revival” of 1907, viewed by some as the major catalyst for the spiritual-social-cultural transformation of South Korea. 

I’ll say more next week.
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