Academic journal article International Review of Mission

"Noxious Weed": Persecution in the Development of Korean Christianity

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

"Noxious Weed": Persecution in the Development of Korean Christianity

Article excerpt

Even creatures as stupid as swine and fish, even beasts as vicious as the legendary bird that eats its own mother and the legendary wildcat that eats its own father would have been moved by such leniency. But these Catholics, devoid of all conscience, did not repent of their misdeed. On the contrary, they continued on as before, not even thinking of abandoning their evil ways. (1) 

With this venomous tirade, King Heonjong (r. 1834-1849) vented his anger at the stub-born presence of Catholicism during Korea's Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). (2) Heonjong's vitriol was a prelude to another state-wide campaign to stamp out Catholicism. (3) The king's condemnation also indicated a sense of bewilderment and frustration with Korean Catholics who held to their faith in spite of previous bloody persecutions. Despite prior attempts to eliminate Catholicism, Heongjong wrote, "[T] hat evil religion is raising its ugly head again. Like poisonous snakes, Catholics have been hiding in the shadows. Like noxious weeds, they have been spreading their seeds underfoot." (4)

Heonjong's frustrations partly stemmed from the fact that his father, King Sunjo (r. 1800-1834), also attempted but failed to eliminate Catholicism. Defending his approval to start a brutal campaign executing Catholics in 1801, Sunjo called Catholicism an "utter blasphemy against Heaven." (5) Sunjo argued that Catholicism contradicted fundamental Confucian rituals and principles such as filial piety, sacrifice to ancestors, and honouring memorial tablets. (6)

The experience for Korean Catholics during the late Joseon period is not unusual for many Christian communities, including our contemporary period. For example, many Christians in the global South today experience living as a minority faith within a hostile context. This means that these Christian communities have to embrace the stark reality that openly professing Christianity courts social and legal persecution, incarceration, and even death. As the discourse on missiology shifts to the global South, many Christian communities are linked by tenuous, existential bonds of fervent devotion amid antagonism toward Christianity not unlike the conditions facing early Christians when writers of epistle letters in the New Testament wrote to nascent Christian communities that were perceived as threats to the authorities. For many parts of Africa and Asia, professing oneself as Christian also communicated that one was willing to suffer for one's faith and that one's personal security was at stake in the end.

This article explores how conversion and maintaining Christian faith in a society hostile to Christianity shaped believers' self-understanding of the breadth of faith and acceptance of its mortal implications. Focusing on the Catholic and Protestant experience in Korea, I show how Christian believers rigorously tested the country's attitudes against Christianity. Their experience provokes a critical reflection on the profoundness of the missionary mandate and illuminates the complexity with which their faith is forged as they must confront the brutal reality that they may be, at the very least, arrested. For many Korean Christians during Joseon Dynasty and the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), conversion to Christianity was part of the process that transformed for believers a religious identity that was understood to be potentially detrimental to their relationship with the state.

Persecution of Catholics

During the Joseon dynasty, Korea's royal court dispatched bi-annual diplomatic trips to China that provided opportunities for Korean diplomats, envoys, and the accompanying entourage to visit Beijing and tour the "outside world" for over a month. (7) In 1784, a "brilliant young intellectual," Seung-hun Yi (1756-1801), accompanied his father, who was the third secretary of the Korean winter solstice mission, on a diplomatic trip to Beijing. (8) While touring the city, Yi visited European Jesuit priests and learned about the Catholic faith. …

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