Celebrating a faith over a half centuryOn weekend evenings, the subway stations around Olympic Gymnasium No. 1 in southeastern Seoul are bustling with sweaty sports fans in their favorite jerseys heading home from a day of play. But at sunset last Saturday, Koreans and foreigners dressed in what looked like a uniform ― white shirts and black trousers ― began arriving at the site for a big event.
Nearly 6,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church, gathered to celebrate the church’s 50th anniversary in Korea. Among the enthusiastic followers were around 400 foreigners, ranging in age from the early 20s to late 70s, mostly from the United States. They proudly marched on the main floor of the gymnasium behind one of 34 signs that bore the names of the Korean cities in which they had served as missionaries.
To commemorate the church’s presence in Korea for the last 50 years as well as the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, Korean members organized a grand reunion for more than 1,200 former missionaries. The two-day event on Saturday and Sunday included a conference and cultural performances by the members of the church at Olympic Park in Jamsil, southern Seoul.
Gordon B. Hinckley, the world leader of the church, visited Korea from Salt Lake City, Utah, to attend this regional conference on Sunday.
Don Powell was the first Mormon missionary in Korea, arriving in 1956, and he was visiting the country again for the first time in nearly 50 years. “I couldn’t recognize the city at all because it has completely changed,” he gasped. The most unforgettable memory of his six-month stay in Korea then, he said, was “the poor people and beggars on the street.”
More than 5,000 Mormon missionaries, mostly men from the United States, have served in Korea since 1956; around 900 of those missionaries were native Koreans.
Mark Peterson, one of the returning former missionaries, is a professor of Korean studies at Brigham Young University, a private university in the United States owned and operated by the Mormon church. “I served in Korea between 1965 and 1968. From these experiences, I decided to major in Korean studies, especially related to Korean family pedigrees,” he said.
Family is a central aspect of the church, and it operates the world’s largest genealogy library in Salt Lake City, Utah, where its headquarters are located.
Founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 in the United States, the Mormon church is now the fourth largest denomination there. One of the fastest growing churches in the world, it has over 11 million members in 160 countries. In Korea, there are 80,000 members and 130 chapels.
The church believes in the teachings of Joseph Smith as articulated in the Book of Mormon. Tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea are strictly prohibited. Missionaries of the Mormon church voluntarily spend two years, often between the ages of 19 and 23, proselytizing around the world at their own expense. With their short, trimmed hair, white shirts, black pants and black bags, they are easily recognizable on the streets anywhere in the world.
The history of the Mormon church in Korea dates back to the Korean War in 1950, when the members of the church in the U.S. Army held religious meetings with local people. The early local members of the church were mostly students who were interested in Western culture and in learning English from American missionaries. The church was officially established in Korea in 1955.
Presently, the Korean congregation is the third largest in Asia, after the Philippines and Japan, according to Choi Suk-ku, the director of public affairs of the church in Korea. And the church here keeps its calendar filled with events for members.
Musical performances by students of Brigham Young University were held in May as one of the events commemorating the church’s 50th anniversary here. The performances in Jeonju, Daegu and Seoul drew more than 1,000 spectators each, including foreign families, missionaries, Korean families and young students.
The performances, featuring famous songs from Broadway musicals, expressed Americanized values of family and love. “I want our community and family to come and have a good time. That’s what this event is all about,” commented Richard Farnsworth, an American who works as the public affairs missionary of the church here.
Despite its growth, the Mormon church is dismissed by mainstream Christianity in Korea. Kim Hyung-kuk, the minister of the Interchange Sarang Community Church, is one of the Christians who view Mormonism as a heretical sect. “Mormons regard the Book of Mormon as the final orthodoxy. But the Book of Mormon was made in addition to the Old and New Testaments,” he said.
According to Park Hyun-tak, the vice president of the Heresy Counterplan Council of the Christian Council of Korea, Mormons believe that God still gives his message to a living prophet, which goes counter to the Bible. “And polygamy is another issue,” Mr. Park noted.
When asked about the popular perception that Mormons are polygamists, Ko Won-yong, the president of the Mormon church in Korea, said, “Early members of the Mormon church practiced polygamy because many male members lost their lives during their migration to the West in 1846. But by 1896, the church discontinued polygamy, and now polygamists are excommunicated from the church. In Korea, there’s no such thing as polygamy now.”
In the United States, polygamy is illegal, although some people engage in the practice surreptitiously, primarily in the American West. In 2002, Tom Green, an outspoken polygamist in Utah, was sent to prison. According to news reports at the time, there are an estimated 30,000 polygamists, mostly in Utah, who call themselves “fundamentalists.”
Negative images and controversies surrounding the religion didn’t stop Mr. Ko from becoming a devout Mormon. He became a member in 1962, and last year, after retiring as chief executive officer of Hansin Information Systems & Telecommunications, Mr. Ko became the unsalaried president of the church.
To Mr. Ko and his followers in Korea, the religion means finding peace and happiness within the family. Mr. Ko remains firm in his belief: “The Book of Mormon is the word of God given to a group of people in America, just as the Old and New Testaments were given to the people in Israel. God gave his message to prophets, and I believe God can give his message to our living prophets.”
by Kim Soe-jung