Religion Meets Politics: The Korean Royal Family and American Protestant Missionaries in Late Joseon Korea
Ryu, Dae Young, Journal of Church and State
The American missionary enterprise in Korea at the turn of the twentieth century emerged as one of the most decorated success stories in modern missions. The success was brought about by a number of factors, including Korea's sociopolitical situation, the Korean people's innate religiosity, and the commitment and resources of American missionaries. Interestingly, Korea was, until its demise under Japanese imperialism, the only country in East Asia that never officially permitted missionaries to proselytize. Nevertheless, American missionaries discovered that the Korean government had no intention to reactivate dormant anti-Christianity laws or hinder missionary activities, including proselytizing.
There were many reasons behind this tacit approval of missionary activities. One significant factor was that as citizens of a Western power, American missionaries enjoyed extraterritorial privileges-the Korean government had no practical means to prevent missionary activities.1 Another noteworthy, albeit less known, reason was the amicable and personal relationship between the royal family and leaders of the American missionary community. As the ancient kingdom underwent a tragic downfall, Korea's last royal family desperately tried to hold on to whatever straw they could grasp. The Korean royals found American missionaries to be some of the most sympathetic and dependable outsiders. They then built a relationship that characteristically became more intimate and clandestine whenever the royal family faced more troubles. This article is about the last and most intimate phase of their relationship, which began with the tragic death of Queen Min and ended with an even greater tragedy, namely, the demise of the Korean kingdom itself.
It is a complicated story involving many individuals and their conflicting interests in the context of competing national interests in and around the Korean peninsula at the turn of the twentieth century. Here, religion meets politics, religious commitments confront humanitarian imperatives, and the intersection of different personalities greatly influences the course of history. This complex narrative will show how deeply the American missionaries were involved in the last stage of Joseon Korea. In so doing, it will disclose political underpinnings of the successful American missionary work in Korea. Furthermore, American missionaries' behavior, as detailed in this account, will reveal some quintessential elements in their true identity and the nature of their religious mission. This article will add new dimensions and information to existing works on Korea missions and the history of Christianity in Korea by revealing the complexities of missionary-political encounters. This account portrays a complex history in a coherent and detailed fashion that has been fragmented by historians who focused only on single strands of the whole.
The Queen's Death
Queen Min (1851-1895) was universally known among foreigners as a woman of exceptional intellect, great charm, shrewd political skills, and strong character. The queen's character had often been described in comparison with her gentle but vacillating husband, King Gojong (emperor from October 1897). To many of her missionary friends, Queen Min was "a superior woman" and "a perfect lady."2 According to Lillias H. Underwood, who was particularly close to the queen, she was also "a subtle and able diplomatist" who usually outmaneuvered her skillful opponents.3 Little surprise, then, that she wielded power in politics to a much greater extent than would traditionally be expected of a Korean queen.
Shrewd and diplomatic, Queen Min knew how to deal with American missionaries, and she gave them the impression that she favored a progressive policy. Female members of the Western community in Korea during this period were mostly missionaries; nonmissionary Western residents were bachelors, except for one or two diplomats. Women missionaries from other countries were still few at this time. …