The prophet Isaiah, speaking by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, prophesied of the day when the Gentiles would have a part in God’s salvation in the words, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” To us who are of Dutch-American extraction, the history of the spread of the Gospel over Europe until it reached the land of our forefathers is well-known. However the history of the preaching of the Gospel to other races and nations is not generally known in our circles. Therefore, in this article we desire to acquaint you with the progress of the Word of God among the members of the yellow race; we have in view particularly the Korean nation. Our writing about the Korean nation is prompted by the fact that for the past year we have been rather intimately acquainted with two Korean converts who are now in America preparing themselves in American theological schools for service in the ministry of the Presbyterian Church of Korea.
The Korean nation is often called a “hermit nation”. The reason for this is that it is located on a large peninsula extending from the mainland of Asia into the Pacific Ocean, and consequently it enjoys a somewhat secluded position in relation to the main body of the yellow race such as the Chinese and Mongolians. This peninsula is located east of China and northwest of Japan; it lies well within the north temperate zone and its climate is very much the same as ours.
The Korean people have a very old civilization. Conservative historians generally agree that this nation has had its own culture for three thousand years. During that entire period, with the exception of the feeble efforts of the Roman Catholic Church, they have been a people who walked in darkness in the fullest sense of the word. For thirty centuries, this section of the yellow race was enslaved to the most rampant forms of paganism. They “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man”. Buddha and Confucius were their gods.
At the beginning of the present century, the nation lost its freedom to the Japanese. Previous to this time this proud people had never known the iron heel of the conqueror but had enjoyed
their own government under a Korean emperor. The domination of Korea by Japan was not welcomed by the people. Even today, after almost thirty years of Japanese rule, the nation is constantly seeking to remove the yoke which was placed upon them against their will.
The first missionary effort took place in 1832. It was through the efforts of the Netherlands Missionary Society that the Gospel was first brought to this country. The Netherlands Missionary Society sent a Prussian by the name of Charles Gutzlaf. His work was not very extensive. He was only able to stay in Korea secretly for two months. During this time, he confined his labors solely to the distribution of Bibles and tracts. There was no recognizable fruit upon these labors, nevertheless, Gutzlaf, a man of faith, expressed the confidence when he left Korea that God would use these feeble efforts to the establishment of His Church.
After the visit of Gutzlaf, no other Protestant missionary visited Korea for thirty-three years. This long silence was broken by the voice of Rev. R. J. Thomas, a Scotchman who was appointed by the London Missionary Society. He came to the Orient with his wife but when they reached Shanghai, he suffered the loss of Mrs. Thomas through death. He continued on to Korea alone and began his labors. After a short time, he was forced to return to Shanghai but he later returned to Korea and it was upon his return that he became the first martyr for the Gospel in that land. Rev. Thomas was the victim of the murderous hatred of heathen cutthroats. Such is always the case with God’s cause: it is through the blood of the cross that God redeemed His people and it also often pleases God by the blood of martyrs to establish His Church. So it was also with Rev. Thomas. Today, on the site of the murder of Rev. Thomas, Korean Christians have erected a church to the memory of this faithful witness.
The preaching of the Gospel in Korea was greatly expedited by a treaty made between the United States and Korea in 1882. While this treaty was mainly a commercial trade agreement, nevertheless it contained provisions for the preservation of the safety of American Missionaries in that land. It was after this treaty was signed that there was a considerable influx of American
Missionaries into the “hermit nation”. The two most prominent organizations sponsoring this work were the boards of the Methodist Church (North) and the Presbyterian Church (North). These two groups of people cooperated and together translated and published the first Korean Bible. At that time, there was a marked tendency to discard doctrinal principles.
It was the Presbyterians who were destined to win the majority of the new converts. The Word of God was proclaimed boldly and the work was not without the fruit of the Spirit. The number of converts increased steadily and in the year 1904 the number of converts increased on a scale comparable to the converts to the Jerusalem Church following Pentecost. Even as the establishment of the Church and the preaching of the Word brought severe persecution to the saints of the early Christian Church, so also the Korean Christians were often called upon to make great sacrifices. The Koreans have a practice of worshipping their ancestors and the introduction of Christianity caused many violent family disruptions because the converts would no longer indulge in ancestor worship.
The methods used by the pioneer missionaries were very good and very much in harmony with Scripture. First of all, they themselves were faithful, evangelical gentlemen. They were imbued with a spirit of sacrifice and a circumspect walk of life. This, of course, did much to impress the hearers of the Word with the seriousness of the Truth. Secondly, the missionaries emphasized the necessity of the newly established churches to be self-governed and self-supporting. The result has been that the Korean Church has developed its own spiritual leaders. All the churches established by various Presbyterian mission societies have united into one organization which is officially known as the Presbyterian Church of Korea. This church has its own theological seminary having 120 students who are preparing themselves for the ministry of the Word. In spite of the large number of students, there is a great dearth of ministers. The growth of the churches has far out-stripped the ability to produce pastors. There are now almost 3,500 Presbyterian Churches and they outnumber all the other Protestant Churches combined in the proportion of two to one. The largest single church includes some 3500 individual members.
The doctrinal basis of these churches is very similar to that of our churches. Their creeds are the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Catechism. These standards are generally acknowledged as being one of the best expressions of the truths taught by John Calvin. Due to the fact that the Korean churches are all very young, they have not had sufficient time as yet to develop in the field of Reformed truth. Notwithstanding, they are keenly aware that sound doctrine is needed now to combat the forces of Modernism, Barthianism and Arminianism. In many ways, the Korean leaders are instructing the new converts in the warfare which the children of light must wage in behalf of the truth of the Word of God.
The churches of Korea are facing a crisis at the present time. Since 1910, Korea has been under Japanese rule. The Japanese government considers its emperor to be divine and they have erected shrines throughout the land at which they have decreed the Koreans must worship the emperor. Quite naturally, this decree finds strong opposition in the Korean church. As a whole, the Christian Koreans are convinced that worship of the emperor is nothing less than blasphemy and idolatry and consequently they refuse to heed the demands of the Japanese authorities. The government has taken strong measures to curb this opposition. For one thing, the theological seminary mentioned above has been closed now for two years. In addition, those who openly oppose this shrine-worship in sermons or otherwise are cruelly persecuted and placed in jeopardy of their lives. Many Korean pastors have been forced to the shrine-worship by the Japanese. Those who refuse to bow the knee are placed in prison and prohibited from doing their customary pastoral work. The situation is very similar to the Nazi oppression of the Netherlands.
This persecution however has not been without a good effect. When churches enjoy such a rapid growth as that of the Korean churches in the past thirty years, there is always some chaff mixed with the wheat. The Lord is using the Japanese shrine-worship crisis as a fan to purge His floor. But we should not forget that we have a very definite responsibility in this matter. We must include these matters in our prayers. We must pray for the Korean brethren that they remain steadfast and unmovable, that they shall receive the grace necessary to persevere unto the end, knowing that no one can take their crown. This in brief is the history of the people who walked in darkness but now have seen a great light.