The Korean Revival and Following Persecution

The Korean Revival and Following Persecution

            The Japanese victory in the 1904-1904 Russo-Japanese War and the consequent annexation of Korea to Japan caused a flurry of patriotic sentiments among Koreans.

            By that time, Christianity had made great strides into the country, and its leaders were known and respected. It was only natural for Koreans to look to them for guidance and relief. If they had organized, in less than a century, a strong network of churches, couldn’t they organize or at least support a resistance?

A Path of Non-Resistance

            William Blair, first-time missionary for PCUSA, could easily foresee the results. ”Had [the church] departed even a little from the strict principle of non-interference in politics,” he wrote, “thousands would have welcomed her leadership and flocked to her banner. We might have again witnessed the cross of Constantine leading a great army. I believe Korea, like the Roman empire, would have adopted Christianity in a day, and I believe, too, we would have had another Roman church.”[1]

            In that potential scenario, the church would have succumbed to the age-old temptation to reduce Jesus to a savior against an earthly oppressor, and forget that he had come to save his people from the much worse condition of enmity against God. It took courage for the Korean church to preach love, patience, and forgiveness instead of anger and rebellion.

            This unwillingness to fight back made Christianity unpopular. It didn’t help that the US decided to back Japan. Even within the churches, many Koreans started to have divided loyalties. “When men get terribly confused in their minds, when they get deadly hatred in their hearts towards those whom they regard as oppressors, when they grow cold toward their leaders and find the message of love and forgiveness unwelcome, then a condition of things is brought about that the devil knows well hot to use,”[2] Blair wrote.

            All this happened just when the PCUSA missionaries in Pyenyang, Korea, were about to turn the leadership of the church into the hands of Koreans in order to establish the self-supported, self-governing, and self-propagating church they had come to form. Could they continue with their plans in light of the current animosity and disunity?

Revival

            After a week of meetings, prayer, and Bible study, they decided to keep the word they had given to their Korean brethren. “Before the meetings closed, the Spirit showed us plainly that the way of victory for us would be a way of confession, of broken hearts, and bitter tears,” Blair wrote. “We felt that the Korean church needed not only to repent of hating the Japanese, but of a clearer vision of all sin against God.”[3]

            The Korean church had already established a tradition of taking a week out of the year where everyone would put aside their work and devote their time to prayer and the study of God’s word. “Let the American church follow Korea’s example in this one thing and the revival problem would take care of itself,”[4] Blair continued.

            The meetings were characterized by a sense of humility and an eagerness to pray. At one point, so many people began to pray at once that the elder in charge allowed it to happen. Everyone prayed softly and earnestly at the same time. Many began to weep.

Persecution

            These meetings prepared the church both for the shift of leadership and for renewed waves of persecution. As it often happened, the Japanese feared that the foreign missionaries in Korea had ulterior, political motives. Acting on those fears, the government arrested and imprisoned over 100 Christians (some of them high-school students) just in 1912. In prison, these people suffered horrible tortures. They were finally acquitted at the trial, thanks to the defense of a Japanese Christian lawyer. Only six were kept in prison for a few years.

            A second wave of persecution came in 1919, when the end of World War I gave Korea an opportunity to declare its independence. A declaration was drafted. This time, many Christian leaders agreed to sign it on condition that the acquisition of independence would not require violence. The Japanese government reacted ruthlessly. Peaceful demonstrations were put down with extreme brutality.

            The fact that 15 out of 33 signers of the declaration were Christians caused the Japanese government to turn its fury against the churches. One church was burned to the ground with the people still gathered inside. Many Christians were imprisoned, and others fled to Siberia or Manchuria.

            Since a new Japanese law demanded that all schools be registered with the government and adhere to a state-mandated curriculum (with no teaching of religion), many Christian schools decided to close, while others reasoned that an education given by Christian teachers, even under strict restrictions, could still provide a positive influence and a balance to the state’s indoctrination.

            A line was drawn when the government began to interpret the law’s mandate that schools should produce “loyal, good students” as an order to teach students to consider the emperor a deity and to observe Shinto ceremonies, such as bowing before shrines and calling on spirits. Children who refused to do it were beaten, expelled from schools, and even imprisoned.

            Soon, the rules extended to the whole population. Many Christians who refused to obey were arrested, imprisoned under terrible conditions, and often tortured and killed. Bruce Hunt, a missionary for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), recounts the story of a young woman who was unrecognizable after a year of imprisonment, and died about a month after her release.

            Under pressure, some Christians made compromises. They submitted to the government’s inspections and agreed to bow before the emperor and shrines. In their eyes, it was like saluting a flag. They thought it was fine, as long as they didn’t worship them.

            In 1941, Hunt was also arrested and imprisoned. To keep his mind occupied in the grim prison, he took the metal tip off one of his shoelaces and used it to scratch Bible verses into the walls. Then, pacing back and forth, he began to compose a song of praise and to scratch it into the walls. When the guard took his tool, he kept pacing and singing, committing the verses of his newly-composed song to mind.[5] He was released, but re-arrested after the American attack on Pearl Harbour. He and his family were finally deported back to the States in 1942.

            The persecution ended in 1945, with the defeat of Japan in World War II. At that point, pastors had to work hard to comfort those who had been suffering. They also had to clarify that Christians could not worship Christ and idols at the same time.

            But Korea’s troubles were not over. Three days before the Japanese left the country, the Soviet Union invaded from the north. When the Americans, who entered Korea from the south, set a line the Soviets were not meant to cross, the country divided into North Korea and South Korea. The dictatorial leader of North Korea, Kim II Sung (1912-1994), banned Christianity as a western religion, forcing many Christians to worship in secret or flee the country. Those who stayed and proclaimed their faith were imprisoned and often killed.

            In spite of all these challenges, the church in South Korea has continued to grow faster than in any western nations. For example, the number of Christians there has grown from the first believer in 1886 to 600,000 in 1950 to 7.2 million in 1980.

            Bruce Hunt, who returned to Korea in 1946, wrote a book about his experience, and finished a book written by William Blair on the Korean Revival and Persecution. He ended the second book with this reminder: “It is important that, however devilish Communism may be, we should not forget that the people through which it works are human beings, some of whom may even prove to be the subjects of God’s electing grace and regenerating power. God’s Word assures us that Satan and his forces will not prevail, for the saints ‘overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony and they loved not their life even unto death’ (Rev. 15:11).”[6]



[1] William N. Blair and Bruce Hunt, The Korean Pentecost and the Sufferings Which Followed, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, 73-74

[2] Ibid., 75

[3] Ibid., 78

[4] Ibid., 78

[5] For the text of Hunt’s song, see “The Bruce Hunt Story,” Leben Magazine, Dec. 16, 2016, https://leben.us/bruce-hunt-story/

[6] Blair and Hunt, The Korean Pentecost, 191