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Were early Christian missionaries in Joseon Korea violent?

The role of missionaries in China and Korea recently came up during the first Nishan Forum on World Civilizations in east China’s Shandong Province.  According to Prof. Yang Sung-moo of Chung Ang University (People’s Daily, September 27, 2010) the entrance of Christianity into Joseon Korea was very violent.

Christianity had come to [this] country “very violently” in the 1880s when missionaries disregarded local Confucian rituals by forbidding believers to kowtow to their enshrined ancestors and destroying Buddhist statues.

There is some truth to that.  I believe it was fiery old Samuel Moore who went to one of the temples outside of Seoul and “accidentally” broke a couple of “heathen idols.”  At first Moore denied it but when confronted with the testimony of a fellow Westerner, he admitted that some of the idols were broken but claimed that the head monk had agreed with him that they should be destroyed.  (You can read some more about Moore’s unwillingness to accept Korean social norms and culture here at JoongAng Daily April 24, 2010). 

There were other ugly foreign missionaries.  I remember hearing during an RAS lecture (I think Donald Clark’s lecture concerning his book  Living Dangerously in Korea ) that a missionary discovered a young Korean man (boy) had been stealing from his orchard and took it upon himself to brand him with a cross either on his forehead or arm.

Fortunately Prof. Yang didn’t include any anecdotes but he did have this to say:

The violent reputation remained until the democratic movement started in South Korea in the 1970s, when churches became a shelter for labor union activists and democrats seeking fairness and justice.

“If Christianity wants to spread across the world, its preaching must respect cultures and cater to the needs of local people.”

But who were these violent Christian missionaries who did not respect Korean culture and the needs of the local people?   

According to Ryu Dae-young’s article, Understanding Early American Missionaries in Korea (1884-1910): Capitalist Middle-Class Values and the Weber Thesis, they were:

….stirred restless, hard-working, success-driven, self-conscious youths of the middling sorts…Typically, middle-class youths [who] were anxious about their socio-economic status: unlike their upper-class brethren they had little to rely on but themselves, yet, unlike the lower-class people, they were filled with the desire to advance to the upper social stratum. This status anxiety made them readily embrace the ideals of personal responsibility and hard work, and missionaries as the epitome of those values. Many of the middle-class youths were also “conscience-stricken” Protestants. They were born in Bible-reading, praying homes and nurtured in Sunday schools. Then they were educated in Christian-“character”-building Protestant denominational colleges…

But if these “hard-working, success-driven, self-conscious youths” were so violent and abusive to Koreans and their culture, why would the average Joseon Korean want to join a Western religion? Ryu provides us with some of the reasons.

Koreans, like other church-goers anywhere in the world, came to the church for all sorts of reasons and motives. American missionaries’ impressive houses, comparatively luxurious life, strange clothes and appearance, among other things, attracted Korean inquirers. Many Koreans joined churches for food and money, for medicine, and for work. A very common question was: “Is there lots to eat in the Way?” or “How much do you pay me for believing in Jesus?” Some Koreans supposed the missionaries’ religion was a philosophy, fine and good, no doubt, which if adopted would bring them in touch with rich and influential foreigners, and find them speedy employment as language teachers and helpers. Some were interested in the Western education that missionary organizations offered and in the prestige that affiliation with missionaries brought. Many, knowing missionary churches were out of reach from the Korean government’s jurisdiction, also wanted to join the church to protect their property. The last two tendencies were particularly noticeable among the Korean middle class.

Well, that might have been so with the Koreans but what about the Chinese?

Missionaries returned during World War I, when China was mired in a crisis of identity as a feudal Confucian country that had prospered for more than 2,000 years and collapsed before Western powers dominated by Christian culture.

“As the Chinese people were in extremely feeble and destitute circumstances, Christian missionaries who prized open China’s doors with opium profiteers under the shield of gunpowder were often associated with scars on the national pride,” said Yan Binggang, director of the Advanced Institute for Confucian Studies of Shandong University.

In the 1800s, a massive anti-Christian campaign ran for more than half a century and climaxed with the Boxer Uprising, and Christianity was disparagingly dubbed “yang jiao” or “foreign religion.”

That also explained why the New China had dedicating itself to building a new church structures on the basis of self-administration, self-support and self-propagation, Yan said.

“The world we face is closely connected by globalization, but cultural diversity is the direction we must strive to preserve,” said Xu Jialu.

That “New China” sounds almost like it could be a state-sanctioned North Korean church….Juche and all.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com setnaffa

    Before criticizing Christian missionaries, perhaps one could ask for a bit of history regarding the loving and gentle conflict between Buddhists and Confucians in the Korean past?

    Granted there is no room for branding folks, I’d rather see something other than old wives tales.

    As for this: “If Christianity wants to spread across the world, its preaching must respect cultures and cater to the needs of local people,” the author (like far too many European and American missionaries, sad to say) does not have a firm grip on the early history of the Church…

  • http://www.biblegateway.com setnaffa

    And given that people in China who publish stories contrary to the Party Line are punished and or killed, I will need more than a couple pinches of salt in order to swallow what the professors have dished up…

    OTOH, some folks seem to lap up PRC “nightsoil” like it was darn tasty…

  • yuna

    I believe it was fiery old Samuel Moore who went to one of the temples outside of Seoul and “accidentally” broke a couple of “heathen idols.”

    This is only somewhat related, but I remember when the pervading Christian atmosphere in South Korea was het up about the traditional customs of 제사(jeisa) and other ancestral worship. It presented quite a dilemma to a lot of the families who had one or two Chrisitans in it who’d been told that any form of worshipping/paying respect to the dead relatives in ceremonies which involved food (sometimes with Pig’s head) and full bowing was a form of idol-worshipping and 미신.(mishin, superstition) I think this rule has relaxed into the allowed realm of tradition-keeping nowadays.

  • inkevitch

    touchy touchy setnaffa!

    I believe R.Neff’s general theme is “early western foreigners in Korea”. This piece fits into that. If it was early Chinese in Korea you may see some pieces debating when buddhism and confuscianism warred in Korea. I like how you then go into “but the buddhists and confucianists did it too,” something I am sure you don’t like when others say “but America does it too.”

    You need to relax man, it isn’t a story about how the Christian missionaries got all of their maids pregnant and had them shipped to the country side.

  • http://vmphotography.com.au hoju_saram

    the author (like far too many European and American missionaries, sad to say) does not have a firm grip on the early history of the Church…

    I mustn’t either. What was so great about the early history of the Church?

    In a loosely related matter, a couple of people said the other week (not mentioning any names, Ut videam & theKorean) that it wasn’t possible to be moral without being Christian. I wonder how they would characterize Pat Tillman?

    Just asking.

  • Granfalloon

    This is why I so rarely argue my agnostic/atheist beliefs with religious folks. Seldom do I find one who can argue rationally. Anderson Cooper was branded as anti-religious a few days ago just for pointing out the religious inconsistencies in a piece of GOP propaganda:

    http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/09/anderson-coopers-takes-on-anti-mosque-gop-candidate-video.php

  • http://orientem.blogspot.com/ The Western Confucian

    By way of counterpoint, here the story of how the Emprtess became a Catholic — A True Story by Bishop Mutel, Bishop of Seoul, 1890.

  • Ut videam

    Thanks for putting words into my mouth, hoju_saram. What I actually said was that it isn’t possible to be moral without an objective moral system. Granted, there have been attempts by atheists to posit such a system without reference to God/gods; Ayn Rand’s objectivism would be one such attempt. Much more common, however—especially these days—is the dogmatic materialist Science-uber-alles atheist of the Dawkins/Hawking variety. So tell me, hoju_saram, how does science get us to an objective moral code?

    This is why I usually regret arguing my religious beliefs with atheist folks. Seldom do I find one who can argue in good faith.

  • hamel

    There were other ugly foreign missionaries. I remember hearing during an RAS lecture (I think Donald Clark’s lecture concerning his book Living Dangerously in Korea ) that a missionary discovered a young Korean man (boy) had been stealing from his orchard and took it upon himself to brand him with a cross either on his forehead or arm.

    I don’t recall hearing this in a Clark lecture, but this is a version of the short story written by Japanese collaborator turned North Korean literary hero Han Seor-ya(한설야): “The Jackals” (“승냥이”) published in 1951. In that story, the missionaries poison and kill the Korean kid after the branding, and cremate his body so that the evidence is lost.

    But it turns out there may be some basis in reality. I recently found the story of an (American or Canadian – not sure) Adventist missionary named C.A. Haysmer. A Korean boy did steal apples from his orchard, and he did write the word “도적” (thief) on the boy’s forehead with some kind of acid.

    Here is where the contention lies. Did he use hydrochloric acid, thereby scarring the boy for life (as “The Jackals” says)? Or did he use acetic acid, in order to mark him temporarily and teach him a lesson, believing that the word would fade away in a matter of days/weeks?

    This Korean paper about what became known in Korea as the “허시모 사건” (허시모 was Haysmer’s Korean name) says that the story became wildly exaggerated, and the writer concludes that he used acetic acid. I have not read the paper because it costs money to download, so I am just relying on the English-language abstract here.

    Nevertheless it is an interesting example of how a sad story from 1924 (this is when the theft and “branding” took place) became a trope in North Korean anti-American propaganda for years – “승냥이” was reprinted in August 2003 in two North Korean literary journals (조선문학 and 청년문학).

    I do hope that Dr Brian R Myers one day uploads both the Korean original story by 한설야 and his English translation to the internet for us all to read.

    My answer to your provocative question, Robert? Every group contains some violent characters, but by and large the reputation of the missionaries among Koreans (especially the poor) is that they were healers and educators and all round good guys – not violent colonialists. I imagine that by the time Protestant Christianity had reached Korea (comparatively late) they had learned something from the failures of earlier attempts at evangelizing.

  • Granfalloon

    Allow me to jump in for hoju.

    First off, unless you can explain how religion gets us to an objective moral code, all you’ve done is disprove the existence of morality. Needless to say, I’m not going to accept “Because God said so” as a legitimate answer for how religion gives us morality. Why do you believe a religious moral code is so much more universal than other? Because more people believe in it?

    Second, I would refer you to the work in morality done by Sam Harris. Here’s his TED talk about how neuroscience can indeed give us objective data about morality:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html

  • robert neff

    Hamel,

    I stand corrected. It was acid and not branding. Thanks.

    Actually I thought it was kind of obvious that I do not support the idea that the missionaries were violent. In fact, the reason I chose the title was to point out Prof. Yang’s strong exaggerated claims and the fact he offered no proof.

    As you noted there were some bad apples (which always make for a great story) but for the most part the missionaries were extremely sacraficing and were responsible for a great deal of change (most of it good) in Korea – look at Sam Moore and the butchers.

  • Ut videam

    Granfalloon, I appreciate the link.

    My principal objection stands: hoju_saram misrepresented my words. Which goes to my point about anti-religious folk being unable or unwilling to argue in good faith.

  • http://timurileng.blogspot.com Zhang Fei

    In the 1800s, a massive anti-Christian campaign ran for more than half a century and climaxed with the Boxer Uprising, and Christianity was disparagingly dubbed “yang jiao” or “foreign religion.”

    Actually, that campaign resulted in 40,000 Chinese Christians and hundreds of foreign missionaries being literally hacked to pieces, with body parts strewn all over the road, on the basis of rumors that Christians were eating Chinese children. Notice how the Chinese always gloss over the interesting details that put them in a less-than-flattering light. The most atavistic xenophobia combined with an over-active imagination continues to color much Chinese opinion about the outside world.

  • george m

    Historically, missionaries (and not just Christian missionaries) were accompanied by military, and the legacy left behind was generally a violent one. This, in spite of the fact that the missionaries themselves often, but not always, abhored the actions of the military. As I am aware, the missionaries in Korea in the 19th century were pretty much in it on their own.

  • http://vmphotography.com.au hoju_saram

    What I actually said was that it isn’t possible to be moral without an objective moral system.

    Ok, I’ll agree with that. But in the context of the argument (i.e., theKorean’s statement that:

    Christian god is by definition good, and it is not possible to be good outside of god

    and my subsequent rebuttals, I think it’s a fair assumption to make that your “moral code” is a religious (and Christian) one.

    Much more common, however—especially these days—is the dogmatic materialist Science-uber-alles atheist of the Dawkins/Hawking variety. So tell me, hoju_saram, how does science get us to an objective moral code?

    Where do I begin? You’ve made a number of false assumptions here:

    1. A objective moral code is not required to be moral.

    Secular humanists believe morality and meaning come from humanity and the natural world, not from God or the supernatural. That human values that give us rights, responsibilities, and dignity. They believe that morality should aim to bring out the best in people, so that all people can have the best in life.

    Humanist and religious morality actually share many basic principles because in fact both are underpinned by the fundamental human moral sense summarized in the Golden Rule: treat others with the same consideration as you would have them treat you. Humanists recognize that the common moral decencies – for example, people should not lie, steal, or kill; and they should be honest, generous, and cooperative – really are conducive to human welfare.

    Look at my example of Pat Tillmen. He follows no “objective moral system”, except the abstract, humanist system taught to him by his family. Yet his actions point to a very “moral” man. He gave away millions of dollars and a pro-NFL career to do what he saw as right and just following 9/11. He was unfailingly loyal to his wife and family. He didn’t steal, cheat, lie – no more than any of his religious peers, anyway. In almost every possible measure – except your own – he was a good, moral man. Perhaps the best of men.

    2. Science doesn’t form the basis of secular morality. Science is incidental. Many atheists believe in education and reason – this doesn’t define their morality. (Nor does materialism, btw – where do you get that idea, btw?)

    A few questions, Ut Videam:

    1. Do you think Pat Tillman is a “moral” man?

    2. How do you explain the overwhelming under-representation of atheists in prison, if the majority of atheists follow no “objective moral system”? (Perhaps the legal system misinterprets “objective morality”?)

  • http://forum.koreansentry.com Koreansentry

    First Christians betrayed and eventually let their founder tobe murdered and they raised Crusades to kill millions of Muslims. Christianity was violent & cruel religion.

  • milton

    2. How do you explain the overwhelming under-representation of atheists in prison, if the majority of atheists follow no “objective moral system”? (Perhaps the legal system misinterprets “objective morality”?)

    Actually, all that data tells us is that in 1997 0.209% of respondents to the survey self-identified as atheists. Note that 18% of those surveyed didn’t respond. Given the stigma against atheism in American society, it’s possible that some of those 18% were atheists and refused to answer. It’s also possible that respondents who identified as Christian or as another religion were giving false answers due to the same stigma. Finally, the survey doesn’t account for religious sentiment at the time the crime was committed. Due to religious outreach groups and the like, people do have changes of heart while in prison, or the opposite: they may have been religious at the time of the crime, then feel the unfairness of being sent to prison, and deconvert.

    The bottom line: I’m not sure there is much we can conclude from this above data. As far as I know there is no correlation between theism or atheism and criminal activity.

  • http://vmphotography.com.au hoju_saram

    As far as I know there is no correlation between theism or atheism and criminal activity.

    I think that’s a fair assessment.

  • http://orientem.blogspot.com/ The Western Confucian

    Here’s a far better counterpoint, telling of when the French Catholic priests and bishops lived in hiding during the persecutions — How the Early Christians Nurtured the Church in Korea. Many of them were among the 10,000 Catholics martyred in the 19th Century. Korea wasn’t even on the maps for American Protestant missionaries until the country opened up.

    Of course, the Korean Church is unique in Catholic history because it was a case of self-evangelization. Korean Confucian scholars got books by Matteo Ricci in China, declared themselves Catholics, and then asked for priests.

  • exit86

    Gotta love the beloved “One foreigner bad, all foreigners bad” logic in these parts.

    Comforting to know that this type of thinking has been around quite a while on this peninsula, and Prof. Yang is doing his best to keep it alive.

    Yesterday’s Headline: “Foreigners stealing babies to eat and gouge out their eyes
    to develop their photographs”

    Today’s Headline: . . . . . . .

  • jinu4ever

    I would like to see Christians (here i mean Protestants) in Korea be more involved with fund raising (not for their own church but for NGOs) and volunteer works and less with envangelism.

    For any Protos reading this, a person who may not believe in God your way can still live a “good” life in God’s satisfaction.

  • http://koreanamerican431.blogspot.com/ baduk

    Do you know that Science is becoming THE Western religion? And, these are not good sciences based on proof; these bad scientists stretches the small evidence into nth degree, thereby losing their credibility.

    I think Dr.Yang is not a Christian. So, what he is saying is very skewed. But, if you ask him if Christianity is strong in Korea, he must admit somehow, someway and some mysterious reasons Korean Christianity is stronger than any other country on the face of the Earth right now.

    Why is that? Could it be God working in Korea? The British bastards used to say “God is an English man”.

    Uh no, not any more. God, the Christian God, is Korean. More people are believing in Jesus in Korea. Massive numbers.

    Holy Spirit is working mightly in Korea! Hallelujah!! Get lost Western heathens, morally corrupt, dirty and full of animal lust.

    Korea is going Christian! Replacing Germany,England and America. In the next century, Korea and China are going to represent Jesus.

  • Benjamin Wagner

    But no bad missionary story is complete without a bloody paroxysm of righteous rebellion.

    http://www.koreanhistories.org/files/KH1_1%20Walraven-Cheju1901.pdf

  • http://koreanamerican431.blogspot.com/ baduk

    Visit any Korean church. People are full of joy and cofident of future. Happy and confident knowing God is on their side.

    Eternal life!!!!!

    With Jesus! Hallelujah! This is the reason God made human race. To accept Him as God.

    Koreans are doing just that! Maranatha! Amen.

  • Minjokjuuija

    But no bad missionary story is complete without a bloody paroxysm of righteous rebellion.

    http://www.koreanhistories.org/files/KH1_1%20Walraven-Cheju1901.pdf

    Not surprising that you’d mention this and be interested in it. After all, you’re the equivalent of those French missionaries as a foot soldier and missionary trying to impose the contemporary religion of liberalism and globalism, and you want to see Korea acquiesce and not rebel against this imposition.

  • αβγδε

    “Korea is going Christian! Replacing Germany,England and America. In the next century, Korea and China are going to represent Jesus.”

    Koreans and Chinese represent Jesus like the way they were kickin’ it 80s style in the 1990s and the way they were kickin’ it 90s style in the 2000s, ie, persistently out of date and out of fashion. But not to worrry, we’re closing the gap quick, Asians will loop around and finally catch up to Europe in their atheism too, our “Jesus Gook” phase will be a curious thing of the past. I’m certain. And, Koreans will be the greatest atheists ever.

  • http://www.sperwerslog.com Sperwer

    Do you know that Science is becoming THE Western religion?

    Science started becoming THE Western religion in the 17th century, i.e., about the time Ne-Confucian scholasticism triumphed in Korea, and it BECAME THE Western religion in the late 19th century. Nietzsche was no prophet when he proclaimed the death of God; just a reporter.

  • http://www.sperwerslog.com Sperwer

    Not surprising that you’d mention this and be interested in it. After all, you’re the equivalent of those French missionaries as a foot soldier and missionary trying to impose the contemporary religion of liberalism and globalism, and you want to see Korea acquiesce and not rebel against this imposition.

    Given your animus for the modern world, I’m genuinely curious about your positive conception of the sort of society Korea should be and, particularly, whether it is feasible given that, imo, it would have to involve an extreme degree of isolationism (and we all know how well how phony that is in the case of all nations that have tried it (e.g., North Korea) and how well such extreme forms of isolation have worked out for the average inhabitants of those countries.

  • hamel

    In the feeble hope of bringing this discussion back on topic, I would like to add to my previous comment that page 94 of Donald Clark’s book “Living Dangerously in Korea (2003, Eastbridge) recounts the Haysmer incident (he spells the name Haysmeir) in full detail, with newspaper citations.

    According to Clark, the substance used was caustic soda, not acetic acid.

    Due to a Korean outcry, Haysmer was put on trial and forced to pay two months’ salary to the boy’s family, and was given a three-month jail sentence, which was suspended upon appeal, at which point he was sent out of Korea by the Seventh Day Adventist mission.

  • http://www.sperwerslog.com Sperwer

    caustic soda would hurt like hell and scar; he served to be tried and punished.

  • http://www.sperwerslog.com Sperwer

    served =deserved

  • Ut videam

    hoju_saram,

    I apologize for the belated answer.

    1) Yes, Pat Tillman appears to have been an exceptionally moral man.

    2) I was wrong to suggest that atheists cannot or do not act morally, or accept an objective moral code. This was sloppy argumentation on my part, as it contradicts my own position that the principles of the natural law that determine morality are accessible to all people of good will through reason alone, without recourse to divine revelation. Mea culpa.

  • αβγδε

    I’m guessing that the majority of atheists in the future, contrary to what they are now, will be moral realists. That is, they will be believe in Right and Wrong. And, of course, they’ll be able to show why such rights and wrongs have nothing to do with Jesus.

    I think that’s the problem with a lot of atheists these days. Most of them are such scientistic, reductionistic buttheads, with terribly flat and shallow perspectives on history and humanity. No depth there. None.

  • reece_oneill

    Simply yes as it is Christianity submissing chatholics as in years of yester. As Koreans are desensants of kings, kings of Ireland and kings of Japan, (All hope depends on them) are am of O’Neill dessent. As Catholics oneills have always been giving people the christian the recievers. As of 1996 in Ireland. I believe i have the answered to the world past and future

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