The introduction of Christianity in Korea has had a profound impact in the history and development of South Korea, not only in terms of the country’s religious faith and composition but also with respect to its socio-economic and educational foundations. In 2014, Pew Research Center reported that approximately 29% of the South Korean population call themselves Christians (approx. 8.6 million as Protestants and 5.3 million as Catholics - a decline since 2000 estimates), with roughly 23% of the population being Buddhists and 46% with no religious affiliation. (NOTE: Pew also reported that approx. 71% of Korean-Americans identify themselves as Christians (61% Protestant and 10% Catholic) - refer to the following webpage for more details: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/08/12/6-facts-about-christianity-in-south-korea/).
This current circumstance has deep roots, starting with the introduction of Catholicism to Korea reportedly as early as the late 1500s. It has been reported that Roman Catholics did ultimately make inroads in converting Koreans starting in the late 1700s, which resulted in government persecution of these early Korean Christians since it feared the spread of foreign influence.
In 1866, a young Welsh Protestant missionary, Robert Jermain Thomas (approximately 27 years old), traveled to Pyongyang from China in an armed American trading ship, the General Sherman, to spread the Gospel and to share the Bible in Korea, which forbid such uninvited foreigners. Thomas, armed only with Gospel tracts translated to Chinese (which, fortunately for him, happened to be the predominant written language for the educated Koreans), reportedly tossed these Gospel tracts onto the riverbank as the ship sailed. Ultimately, a highly disputed armed conflict erupted between the nearby Koreans and those on the ship (the General Sherman incident), during which Thomas died. However, Thomas’ Chinese Bible pages were purportedly taken by a local Korean who used the Chinese Bible pages to wallpaper his house. As the local, persecuted Christian community later became aware of this house, it became the foundation of the Korean Protestant church, with Pyongyang eventually becoming a strong Christian center with approximately hundred churches at one point.
Then in the 1880s, American Protestant missions to Korea started with Dr. Horace Newton Allen (a medical missionary) and Horace Grant Underwood (an English-American educator and translator, who, for instance, helped to translate the Bible into Korean and was involved in the creation of the Seoul YMCA). The overall societal impact from these missions has been the eventual creation of churches, hospitals, schools/colleges, orphanages and other institutions offering religious/societal aid and human services. As Japan’s colonization of Korea officially began in 1910, these Christian missionaries and institutions also aided Koreans during the Korean Independence Movement against Japanese oppression, while also often providing the only source of relief and hope to those early Korean Christians. Please refer to the historical summary and educational lesson packet on this topic provided by the Korea Society in New York City:
It is noted that the introduction of Christianity certainly has had a lasting impact in South Korea, as symbolized, among other things, by some of South Korea’s most prestigious universities, including Ewha Womans University and Yonsei University (one of Korea's "SKY" Universities, with its school motto "The truth will set you free" - John 8:32), as well as the Severance Hospital.
NOTE: South Korea's "SKY" Universities are akin to the United States' Ivy League schools. SKY is the acronym representing Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University.
NOTE: The Pew Reseach Center is a U.S. non-partisan think tank which conducts public opinion polling and demographic research.
Christianity Introduced to Korea