May 23, 2024

Moon Jun Kyung: From Confucian Noblewoman to Martyr

A guest post by Ranmi Bae, part I

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At two in the morning on October 5, 1950, a group of North Korean Communists brought a woman to a sandy beach. Standing by her were village elders and Baek Jeong-hee, whom she cherished as her own daughter. The Communists started assaulting the woman, calling her “a hen that laid too many eggs.” They jabbed her with spears, swung rifle butts, and slashed mercilessly with knives. As the frail woman collapsed, she pleaded desperately, “Please, spare the others. I am ready to die, but please save that woman and the others!” The more she pleaded, the more savagely they beat her. Eventually, she called out, “Heavenly Father, receive my soul!” and breathed her last. In the pitch darkness, her red blood stained the white sand.

This is the story of Moon Jun Kyung, the first female martyr of the Korean Protestant Church. Male-centric Christian history has rarely mentioned her. Her story has been preserved mostly through her disciples’ oral accounts.

Confucian womanhood

Moon was born on February 2, 1891, on Amtae island in Jeollanam-do province of Korea. At this time, Japan was already showing signs of preparing to invade Korea, and this caused great national instability. Several voices rose to overcome this crisis: King Gojong emphasized women’s role in nurturing future generations, declaring an education decree of 1895 that allowed women to receive the same education as men; progressive nobles advocated for the introduction of Christianity, likening it to fresh blood being transfused into the stagnant Confucian traditions; and conservative nobles vowed to strengthen Confucianism, the nation’s prevailing philosophy and religion. Moon’s father, a nobleman from a small island far from Seoul, the capital of Korea, staunchly and conservatively took the last stance. He therefore forbade her from learning the Korean alphabet, but taught her the principles of Confucian womanhood—respecting her parents-in-law, serving her husband well, and properly raising her children.

In 1908, the year she turned seventeen, Moon married a very rich nobleman and did her best to perform the gender norm of being a Confucian noblewoman. Her in-laws, particularly her father-in-law and elder brother-in-law, cherished her greatly as a result. Yet, her relationship with her husband was an issue. There are two different views of their marriage. Her disciple Baek testified that Moon’s husband had a lover—who later became his concubine—before their marriage and had rejected Moon on their wedding night. Conversely, the descendants of the husband and of his concubine, along with local villagers, claim that Moon and her husband had a happy marriage. Furthermore, these descendants argue that Moon, facing her own infertility, was the one who suggested that her husband take a concubine. According to them, her husband initially refused multiple times but reluctantly took a concubine fourteen years after her marriage in 1922 to fulfill the norm of that time—continuing the family lineage.

Whatever the truth, that Moon experienced inner turmoil after her husband took a concubine is well documented in her affidavit of 1943, which was received under the charge of refusing to worship at a Shinto Shrine from the Japanese authorities:

"Because I was infertile, my husband took another wife... he began to reject me. Since then, I have been living a lonely and sad life. At thirty-seven, a Christian among my siblings encouraged me to find cultivation and solace in Christianity, so I embraced the faith."

Changing tides

Her father-in-law taught her the Korean alphabet, likely in 1916, to comfort her as she was unable to have children. From this we can infer that her in-laws were more progressive than her own highly conservative family. Her father-in-law was positive about the social discourse on women’s education, her elder brother-in-law embraced Christianity later, and her husband actively engaged with new cultures as a businessman traveling between Japan and Korea. Considering that Moon spent more time with her in-laws (nineteen years) than with her own family (seventeen years), we cannot overlook the impact of her in-laws' environment on her.

When her father-in-law passed away in 1918, and her husband lived with his concubine since 1922 due to her infertility, she lost her roles as a daughter-in-law, wife, and mother. So, in 1927, she moved to Mokpo, a large port city where her brother lived, and began living alone. She supported herself as a seamstress, the typical kind of work available to women at the time. Meeting women evangelists from Mokpo Church marked a turning point in her life. Their teaching—God is your father, Jesus is your bridegroom, and church members are your family—captivated the lonely Moon. She started attending the church that week and received assurance of her salvation in November of that year. This prompted her to attend many revival/holiness meetings, and by the next year, she was baptized and appointed as a deaconess.

Comfort in Christ

Hers was a Korean Evangelical Holiness Church, rooted in the traditions of John Wesley and the radical nineteenth-century American Holiness movement, which centered the fourfold gospel: regeneration, sanctification, divine healing, and the Second Coming. Church members believed that people could be reborn through Jesus (“regeneration”), cleansed from sin by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and lead a moral and holy life through the fullness of the Holy Spirit (“sanctification”). Such teachings emphasizing a moral life found fertile ground in the Confucian ethics and morality-based context. 

Members also believed in “divine healing” of both the soul and body through faith, which emphasized exorcism in the Korean context. In Confucianism, spirits were seen not as transcendental beings but as mobile phenomena of energy, with illness viewed as spirits entering a person and recovery as them leaving. Koreans believed that illness could be resolved through spiritual acts like rituals like exorcism, and prayers. Finally, the belief in the imminent “second coming” of Christ, the true King, gave powerful hope to Moon Jung Kyung and her fellow believers amid the dark days of Japanese rule.

See part II to read more about Moon Jung Kyung’s ministry, later life, and martyrdom.

Ranmi Bae is a PhD student in the Department of Religion at Baylor University.

To learn more about twentieth-century martyrs, see issue #109, Eyewitnesses to the Modern Age of Persecution. 

Tags martyrs • Korean Christians • female martyrs • Eastern Christianity

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