Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, Voice of the Martyrs Korea President, authors this special 8-part series on Kim Kyo Shin, one of the greatest martyrs in Korean Christian history whose voice needs to be heard today more than ever, by Korea and the world.
We Koreans are proud of saying that we are the most Christian country in Asia, with 25% of the population as Christian. But that means that 75% of our population is not Christian, and even some of the most devout Korean Christians (who come to morning prayer every day and tithe and volunteer at church) do not seem to have a deep effect on Korean society. Is that acceptable?
Kim Kyo Shin was one of the most respected early Korean Christians who said no. If we are willing to read again his writings with an open mind, we can see that he is not focused on attacking or rejecting the Korean church but instead on calling Korean Christians to broaden their focus from church and denomination to bringing all of the Bible to all of Chosun. He had a much greater vision than planting many churches or evangelizing many Koreans. He had in mind nothing less than “to construct a new Chosun based on the Bible” (Suh, 2005, 456). He was concerned that focusing on church planting and denominational growth could actually detract from that goal even though it appeared to be the main way to achieve it. He explained it this way:
The Korean church used to be the salt of the earth and a light to the world, they say, because it didn’t just talk about going to Heaven after death but promoted temperance movements, the removal of prohibition on widow remarriage, and reform of social life, gave clear support for the one-man-one-wife principle, threw itself into rural industry, showed the way ahead for the nation, taught han’gul at Sunday schools and night classes, eradicating illiteracy and raising national consciousness. Whatever big enterprise was under way, the Church of Christ was at the centre. Now it has forgotten this and talks about going to Heaven. One cannot deny what Christians have done or withhold any praise for their achievements. Nevertheless, my objective in believing in the Church of Christ is only to go to Heaven. All those other things can be done better by other organizations such as enlightenment clubs, the [Tonga ilbo] newspaper’s “Narod” movement, and so on, and as for raising national consciousness, Poch’on’gyo and Ch’ondogyo do it better. But the church of Jesus is the only thing that can save a sinner and lead him to Heaven (Kim Kyo Shin, in Wells, 2009, 71).
This did not mean, however, that Kim Kyo Shin was withdrawn from national affairs. As Wells explains it, “‘Korea’ and the ‘Bible’ were to be identiﬁed as Two Persons in One Body; national history was the expression of the nation’s soul and the key to its development was providence” (2009, 71). Kim Kyo Shin had in mind more than church growth. He aimed for the spiritual and ethical reconstruction of the Korean nation. Pyung-goo No, who later gathered all 158 issues of the Sungsuh Chosun magazine and bound them into the seven-volume collected works of Kim Kyo Shin, wrote, “His patriotism is unique, which is based on Christian faith, aiming for spiritual and ethical reconstruction of Korean people; namely, founding a nation through religion or ethics” (Kim, 2012, 178). Actually, his vision went even beyond Korea, to the whole world:
Kim aligned Korea’s virtues of chi 知, chŏng 淸 and ŭi 意 with the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity, and taught that it was Korea’s mission to spread this throughout the world… [A]t the same time as he refused to accept any input from outside Korea and argued for the total fusion of Korea with the Bible, he exhorted Koreans to deliver this Korean form to the world” (Wells, 2009, 71-72).
The idea of Korea having a destiny that extended to the rest of the world did not sit well with the Japanese, who, according to Suh (2005, 457), “feared the Kim Kyo-shin style of faith movement more than any other independence movements or nationalism.” Even if the Korean church could not see it, the Japanese understood that what Kim Kyo Shin was aiming for was far greater than the Korean church’s own vision. The Japanese ultimately jailed him for an article published in his magazine, even though the magazine had just 350 subscribers (Wells, 2001, 155). The Korean church rejected Kim Kyo Shin as well, mainly because they believed that through his vision he had rejected them (Suh, 2005, 456).
In order to understand why Kim Kyo Shin was such a threat to everyone—the Japanese government and Korean churches alike—it is helpful to understand the theological and historical roots of his thought. That means understanding the originator of the Non Church Movement itself: Kim Kyo Shin’s teacher in Japan, Uchimura Kanzo.
Next in Part IV of this special series on Kim Kyo Shin: Discipled by Uchimura Kanzo.
Suh, J.M. 2005. An understanding of orthodoxy and heresy in Korean church history. The Ecumenical Review, 57(4), 451–462.
Wells, K.M. 2001. Providence and power: Korean Protestant responses to Japanese imperialism. In Reading Asia: New research in Asian studies, ed. F.H. Huskin and D. van der Meij. London: Routledge Curzon, 154-172.
Wells, K.M. 2009. The failings of success: The problem of religious meaning in modern Korean historiography. Korean Histories, 1(1): 60-80.
He remains a controversial figure among Korean churches. Because many Koreans do not read his original writings, they believe what they are told about him, and often they are told things that are incorrect or out of context. There are a group of academics who study his writings and say academic things about him. And there are young people who are rediscovering him. But no, there would not be churches that have the Sungsuh Chosun in their library, drawing on it as a resource.