S. F. Moore, E.T. Bethell, and J.S. Gale are not the names of trivia questions in the history of world Christianity game board. And yet their ordinary well-manicured graves, along with 145 other foreign missionaries nestled at Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery in Seoul, South Korea, were the genesis of explosive evangelism in the late 19th and early 20th century. These men and women turned a once-hermited country into one of the leading producers of some of the largest churches in the world and a huge missionary movement.
Sponsored by Resonate Global Mission, eighteen ethnic leaders from North American churches traveled to learn about Christianity on the Korean peninsula. The first place we visited were these 148 missionary graves. Missionaries, according to one brochure, “abandoned promising careers ... profoundly influenced Korean society not only by establishing hospitals and schools, but by affecting the intangible values, thus contributing to the abolition of the class hierarchy in old Korea.” These missionaries began by addressing issues of social justice along with evangelism.
This struck me as new information. It reminded me of the history of social justice in the U.S., especially in my own African American community. Social justice in the United States was clearly connected to the church’s evangelism efforts, from the abolition of slavery and Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. I was surprised and excited to see that the missionaries to Korea also kept justice and evangelism together — and that this approach laid the groundwork for missional expansion.
S.F. Moore (1860-1906), a Presbyterian medical doctor, helped build the first hospital in Korea to use Western medical practices. Moore saw a butcher, a member of the class that was considered lowest class in Korea at that time, afflicted with typhoid fever, and was moved to help him. He made decision to preach the Gospel to the butchers, along with assisting them medically. Moore’s fight against the common discrimination against butchers earned him the title “the helper of the butcher’s freedom movement.”
Koreans were suffering under Japanese rule in the 19th century, when E.T. Bethell (1872-1909) came to Korea as a newspaper reporter. He started Daehan Mail Shinbo, which in English was called the Greater Korean Daily News. The goal of his paper was to hire writers and reporters to lead an independence movement against Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. The articles sparked widespread defiance and courage to rise up against tyranny. Sadly, Bethell did not live long to see the fruit of his advocacy and agitation.
Author John Bunyan’s Pilgrim's Progress was a best seller in the world except Korea. J.S. Gale (1863-1937), a Canadian Presbyterian, came to Korea in 1888. He translated the book into Korean, which became the second most read book behind the Bible. As the first pastor of his church, he chose members from the lowest social classes to be his elders. He based qualifications on spiritual maturity, not social status. In addition, he fought to contextualize the Gospel in Korean culture, rather than replicating the Christianity of the Western world.
I attended one of the seven services at Yoido Full-Gospel Church, which has 800,000 members, in Seoul. It is the largest church in the world. The church provided translation in eight languages and broadcasted around the world. Korea sends more missionaries around the world than any other country, with Nigeria a close second.
Our team also attended a small migrant church service in the working class side of Seoul where eight languages were translated without headphones. It was beautiful. This church provided free shelter to migrant members working in nearby factories. They came from Cameroon, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Dr. Myunghee Lee, an ambitious Korean woman with disabilities who attended Calvin Seminary, started the church. She too had a vision for holding social justice and evangelism together. I think she followed the footsteps of those missionaries before her who knew justice and evangelism are not opposed to each other, but are rather two parts of bringing a holistic gospel that changes lives, social conditions, and entire nations.
“Churches that get involved in social justice decline in membership.” It’s said so often in the U.S. that this statement is often accepted as if it were a truism. But the story of Korea, and the story of the African-American community in the U.S., tells a very different story.