The people who brought Protestantism to KoreaProtestant Christianity arrived in Korea a mere 120 years ago, yet more than a quarter of South Koreans now consider themselves Protestants. Of the Protestant missionaries who established a lasting legacy in Korea, none were more influential and prominent than the Underwood family.
The first such missionary to settle here was Horace Grant Underwood, who arrived in 1885 to establish the Joseon Dynasty’s first Presbyterian church, as well as Presbyterian schools. His great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Underwood, recently published a book reflecting on the experiences of Korea’s first generation of missionaries.
“Challenged Identities: North American Missionaries in Korea, 1884-1934,” published by the Korea branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, examines the first 50 years of the missionaries’ presence in Korea, by the end of which time there were 300,000 Protestants in the country.
In academia, missionaries have often been portrayed as ethnocentric, as cultural imperialists and even as racists. In Korea, historians often assert that Christianity led to the fading of traditional customs and Confucianism.
But Ms. Underwood, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, argues that if anything, her ancestors and the other early missionaries were criticized in Korea for being too respectful of local tradition.
More so than their counterparts in China and Japan, she writes, the early missionaries here considered their mission to be centered more on personal evangelism than on establishing schools and medical facilities, though they did that as well. In an email interview, Ms. Underwood writes that they “saw the shamanistic elements of Korean society as providing an opening to the Christian message.”
“There were those missionaries, in fact, who said that Koreans were better able to understand Bible stories than they were, because Koreans, like people in the Bible, lived in a cultural world that dealt with spiritual elements in a more literal fashion than the Western world of the early 20th century,” she added.
In fact, Ms. Underwood says, the early missionaries were eventually criticized by some Koreans for being too accomodating to traditional culture.
“In the 1920 and 1930s,” Ms. Underwood writes, “those Koreans who were vocal critics of missionaries and Korean Christianity were concerned with the image of Korea in the world ― not surprising, given the active Japanese efforts to portray Koreans in a negative light.
“Rather than seeing Christianity, then, as destroying traditional culture, these critics felt that it was maintaining certain aspects of traditional culture rather than moving Korea towards modernity,” she writes.
Still, the missionaries’ contribution to that modernization process is indisputable. Western missionaries established Korea’s first medical school and its first women’s school. Horace G. Underwood founded Chosun Christian College, which became Yonhi College, the predecessor to Yonsei University.
Lee Man-yeol, chairman of the National History Compilation Committee and a historian of Korean Christianity, said in an interview, “If anything, missionaries contributed greatly to the modernization of Korea, in that they compiled a Korean dictionary in the process of translating the Bible, and wrote many books that compiled the culture and society of Korea at the time, thus enabling Koreans to become more enlightened.”
This, he says, is despite the fact that “in the doctrinal sense, the missionaries’ preaching conflicted with traditional Korean customs, in that they discouraged activities deemed as worshiping idols, such as paying homage to ancestors.”
Because of the missionaries’ contribution to modernization, Ms. Underwood writes, Koreans in general tended to view them in a positive light. “The growing desire among Koreans for modernization, reform and enlightenment was so widespread that even some among the Confucian scholar-official class looked towards Christianity for the route to political, material and social reform,” she writes.
Another reason Koreans were receptive to the first missionaries, Ms. Underwood writes, is that there was no “Western colonial or active American economic intrusion” at the time.
Ms. Underwood also argues that the missionaries helped prepare the ground for the Korean independence movement, although they didn’t participate in the movement personally.
One way they did this, she says, was by introducing modern ways of looking at the world. But she also points out that in introducing Koreans to the Bible, the missionaries were exposing them to the Old Testament stories of the Israelites’ struggle for freedom and a country of their own.
“The missionaries’ teaching of the Bible opened the eyes of intellectuals in Korea, who became drawn to the nationalistic ideas portrayed in the Old Testament in the stories of Moses, Daniel and David,” she writes. “Thus, this naturally allowed Christian converts to become nationalistic.”
Key figures in the independence movement, such as Syngman Rhee and Suh Jae-phil, were Protestant, Ms. Underwood notes.
Protestant missionaries were required to learn the Korean language and to establish a “real love” for Koreans through close contact with the people, she writes. Horace G. Underwood took to traveling the country extensively with his wife, Lillias, who was Queen Min’s personal physician.
Not all of the missionaries were able to form personal bonds with Korean people, Ms. Underwood writes.
“While some missionaries were able to overcome social and cultural barriers in order to identify with Korea and the Korean people, many never achieved a sense of closeness with or liking of Koreans,” she writes.
Obviously, life in Korea provided many challenges for the Western missionaries. “Single missionaries created a particular stir in a society where marriage was universal and coterminous with adulthood,” Ms. Underwood writes.
Hence, singles resigned at much higher rates than married missionaries did. Missionaries also had concerns about their health care, their children’s education and their living conditions in general.
Ms. Underwood, daughter of Horace G. Underwood’s grandson Richard, grew up on Yonsei University’s campus, where her family’s home was. Her mother, also a daughter of missionaries, was born in Pyeongyang.
“One lesson my father, in particular, drilled into our heads as children was that we were guests in a country that was not our own, and that we were to act accordingly,” she wrote in the email interview. “We were always taught to be respectful of Korean custom and culture even if it was different from what we might do at school or with our foreign friends.”
Ms. Underwood moved to the United States in 1979. She says she has visited Korea six times since moving away. Still, she said, “After all this time, I feel more comfortable in Korea than in the United States.”
by Choi Jie-ho