|Home > East Asia >
The early Korean Christians
A Brief History of the US-Korea Relations Prior to 1945
Kim Young-Sik, Ph.D.
[Note: This is an excerpt from "A Brief History of the US-Korea Relations Prior to 1945.]
The Early Korean Christians
Today, South Korea is one of the most Christianized nations of the world. Of the 50 million people of South Korea, more than ten million are Protestants and three million are Roman Catholics. This is remarkable in light of the fact that there were no known Christians in Korea before 1770, when Chon Du-won, a Chosun diplomat in China, brought back a copy of Father Matteo Ricci's book - The True Doctrine of the Lord of Heaven. A small group of Korean reformists, calling themselves Shilhak, found the Catholic theology attractive and wanted to learn more about it. They believed that the Catholic theology might be the way to break out of the suffocating feudalism of the Chosun Kingdom. (Andrew Kim, 2000)
In 1794, the Roman Catholic Church of China sent a Chinese priest, Ju Un-mo, to Korea. He entered Korea illegally on December 23 and reached a hiding place in Seoul. He was guided and sheltered by Korean Catholics. The 'native' Korean Catholic church under Father Ju grew rapidly to more than ten thousands by the end of 1801. However, the phenomenal growth of this white-man's religion in the land of Confucius came to a sudden bloody end. King Chongjo, who was tolerant of the Catholics, died in 1800, and King Sunjo inherited the throne. Since he was a minor at the time, his mother became the Queen Regent and ran the country on his behalf. She was dead against any foreign religion and declared that the Korean Catholics were traitors and should be punished as such.
1. Chosun is economically bankrupt and powerless, and we wish to accept the Gospel with the help of the Western nations and obtain funds to rescue our people.
The 1839 Pogrom and French Reprisals
In 1831, another Chinese priest, Father Liu Fangchi, entered Korea secretly. Five years later, M. Maubant, a French Catholic, smuggled himself into Korea from Manchuria. Father Chastan and a French bishop who called himself “Lord de Capse” followed him. Two Korean Catholics were officially ordained priests by the French bishop. All these activities were done covertly because the Catholic Church was still forbidden in Chosun. In 1839, the Korean King got wind of the covert activities and ordered the extermination of the Catholic Church in Korea once for all. Consequently, over two hundred Catholics, including the French bishop, two French priests, and numerous Korean church leaders, were executed. (Andrew Kim, 2000; Speer, 1872)
On March 11, 1866, Father Simon Francois Berneux, a French missionary who had been preaching the Gospel in Korea illegally, was arrested. He and about 8,000 of his Korean converts were put to death. Three French missionaries, including Father Felix-Clair Ridel, managed to escape to China and told a French diplomat, Henri de Bellonet, about the "massacre" going on in Corea. On July 13, 1866, M. Bellonet sent an urgent dispatch to Admiral Roze: "In receiving the news of the general massacre of Christians and missionaries in Corea, you have no doubt thought like myself that the slightest delay in the punishment of this bloody outrage could result in serious endangerment to the 500 missionaries preaching in China." (Sterner, 2003)
Two decades later in 1867, the French Catholic Church made another attempt to revenge the Korean King for the murder of the nine Frenchmen in Korea. Father Feron heard from his Korean converts that the grave of the current Korean king’s grandfather contained much gold and gems. In addition to the treasures, Feron thought that he could dig up the royal remains and hold them to exact redress from the Korean king for the murder of the Frenchmen. Feron enlisted Earnest Oppert, a German adventurer, and F. H. Jenkins, an American businessman. Jenkins financed the adventure for a lion's share of the treasures expected. The grave robbers charted the armed steamer China and hired 8 Europeans, 100 Chinese and 21 Malay pirates in addition to the ship's regular crew.
On April 30. 1867, the steamer China with Father Feron and his 'Army of God' left Shanghai for Nagasaki, where arms were purchased for the 'army', and on May 9th, Feron's army arrived at the Han River estuary, where they were met by Korean Catholics, who guided the grave robbers to the royal burial ground. They dug down deep and reached a massive sarcophagus, but they were unable to lift the heavy stone lid. By this time, a large crowd of local residents gathered around them and began to attack, and the 'Army of God' was forced to retreat without taking any 'loots'. They returned to Shanghai empty-handed. Jenkins and his American investors lost their venture money.
The Occidental community of Shanghai was deeply upset by this grotesque barbaric act. Oppert left for Germany, where he was jailed for one year. A trial court presided over by George F. Seward, the American Consul-General of Shanghai, cleared Jenkins of any wrongdoing. The French refused to prosecute Father Feron and the Catholic Church of Rome claimed it did not know any 'Father Feron', who went on "spreading the Gospel" in China. (Lee Wha Rang, 2000; Williams, 1880)
Enraged by the French invasion and Father Feron's grave robbery in the name of God, the Chosun court retaliated by killing more Catholics. During the next three years, more than ten thousands Catholics and anyone related to the Church were executed. Tens of thousands more fled to the mountains, many of whom died from exposure and hunger. The King's determination to keep out foreign devils and their Korean supporters was redoubled. (Hulber, 1898) The persecution of the Catholics continued unabated until the 1882 US-Chosun Chemulpo Treaty that allowed American missionaries to work in Korea.
* Kim Young-Sik is editor of Korea WebWeekly.
|© Copyright 2002-2007 AFAR|