In the early 1600s, a Korean diplomat, Yi Gwang-jeong, returned from China with several theological books written by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci – the first western literature to arrive in Korea. These books were a sensation among Confucian scholars, and there was dislike of views different from their own. But among the Confucianists were dissenters who formed a movement called Silhak, Practical Learning. Into the 1700s they advocated more empiricism in the formation of ideas and less of the metaphysics, formalism and rituals of the reigning old guard Confucian scholars. They favored a study of science and favored a move away from the traditional Confucian belief in hierarchy and submissiveness that was a part of old guard thought. Silhak scholars also tended to favor land reforms as relief for common people – poor farmers. They were more nationalistic, against the old guard's submissive attitude toward China, the fatherland of Confucianism. And among these rebel scholars was some sympathy toward Christianity for what they viewed as its egalitarian values – as in all people being equal before God and in Christ.
Largely as a result of the influence of the Silhak school, Christianity in Korea began as an indigenous lay movement – rather than as a work of foreigners. The first Catholic prayer-house was founded in 1784 at Pyongyang by Yi Sung-hun, a diplomat who had been baptized in Beijing. Yi established a hierarchy of lay-priests. As a grass-roots movement, this helped gather converts.
Trouble arose in the 1800s with fears of foreign intrusions. Korean authorities viewed with distaste and fear Britain defeating China in the First Opium War, which ended in 1842. In 1846 the French sailed to Korea to order the release of a 25-year-old imprisoned Korean Catholic priest, André Kim. The monarchy had Kim beheaded for practicing what it called a foreign religion. Persecution increased in 1866 when Russia tried to expand into Korean territory, and France that same year appeared off the Korean coast with a fleet of ships. French missionaries were in the country illegally, and Korean authorities had them massacred. And there was the usual blurring of lines between groups, the authorities having Korean Christians butchered also – but not enough to kill the movement altogether. And a large Korean force drove a French military expedition off Korea's coastal Ganghwa Island, 80 kilometers west of the capital – Seoul.
In 1871, the United States Navy arrived in these same waters to support an American delegation sent to establish trade and diplomatic relations with Korea, to ascertain the fate of a merchant ship, and to establish a treaty assuring aid for shipwrecked sailors. The Koreans responded militarily. The U. S. won a minor military victory but left without having achieved its goals.
In 1882, Korea saw advantages in establishing treaties, and it negotiated a treaty with the United States, a treaty of mutual friendship and defense in case of attack. The U.S. accepted Korean immigration and Korea gave the U.S. extraterritorial rights for American citizens in Korea, and the Koreans promised not to interfere with Christian missionaries proselytizing in Korea.
In 1883 Protestant missionaries arrived. They established a network of schools. John Ross, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary in Manchuria, completed his translation of the Bible into Korean. The Presbyterian school for boys was founded in 1885, and a Methodist Ewha school for girls was founded the following year.
The Protestants contributed to the spread of literacy in Korea, and Christianity in general brought new values to Korea. Christians favored the social emancipation of women and children. Christians favored allowing widows to remarry. Christians were opposed to concubinage and polygamy, and forbade cruelty by husbands to their wives. Christians opposed arranged child marriages and also opposed the prevailing view that daughters were lesser persons than sons. These views by Christians impressed many who were not Christians, which helped Christianity spread. By 1900 in Korea, the population was close to 10 million. This included over 40,000 Christians, 52 priests and 41 Catholic churches. By 1910, Protestants are said to have numbered around 200,000.
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