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Robert Thomas Begins Mission Work in Korea

Thomas perished on an ill-advised expedition into Korea.

CHRISTIANITY FIRST CAME to Korea, the “Hermit Kingdom,” in the 1730s through Roman Catholic missionaries. However, the suspicious Koreans massacred Catholic converts on several occasions. One of the worst incidents was in 1863 when Korea put eight thousand Christians to death. 

Shortly thereafter Robert Jermain Thomas, a Protestant theological student and gifted linguist, sailed to China with his wife Caroline. She soon died. Dissatisfied with mission policies, Thomas resigned and went to work as a customs agent in Chefoo. There he met a pair of Korean traders who had been secretly converted to Christianity by Catholic missionaries. They taught him a little Korean, and with their help he planned to sneak into the closed country dressed as a Korean. He obtained Chinese language Bibles, no Korean translation being available.

On this day, 13 September 1865, Thomas landed on Paik Yon Island off the coast of southern Korea and began to distribute the Bibles. During his two and a half months there, he observed the Koreans and improved his knowledge of their language. Because of this short residence in Korea, Thomas is often described as the first Protestant missionary to live in Korea. 

Impatient to spread the gospel, Thomas accepted a place on a heavily armed private American ship, the General Sherman. The Americans hoped to entice the Koreans to trade and possibly intended to do some looting, too. Thomas accompanied them as interpreter. As the General Sherman sailed toward Pyongyang, he distributed Christian literature. 

But Korean officials ordered the Americans to leave. The Americans defied the order but paid for their arrogance when their schooner ran aground. The crew took a Korean policeman hostage and shot other Koreans. Exasperated, the Koreans launched fireboats, setting the General Sherman afire, and killing the Americans as they fled the flames. 

Thomas threw his Bibles onto the river bank, shouting “Jesus, Jesus!” Clothes afire, he plunged into the water and waded ashore, carrying more Bibles. He gave one to the soldier who captured him and his final Bible to his executioner.

A government official named Pak Yong-Sik plastered his walls with pages from several of the Bibles. A later missionary was eyewitness to this unusual wallpaper. The home became a house church. Choe Ch’i-rang, a boy of eleven in 1866, kept one of the Bibles until a missionary explained it to him. He, too, became a Christian.

The church began to grow in the 1880s when more missionaries gained entrance into Korea. In a revival meeting, an old man named Chu Won Park confessed that he was the killer of Thomas.

 Korea is today a divided nation. In the north, Christianity remains illegal and Christians are imprisoned, tortured, and killed. However, close to half of South Koreans consider themselves Christians. The country has some of the largest, most active churches in the world.

Dan Graves

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