We tend to think that Christianity entered foreign lands only due to missionary work. Not so in Korea. Until the late 19th century, the mountainous Korean Peninsula was governed tightly by a Confucian tradition and closed off to most foreigners. Missionaries found it difficult to penetrate the reclusive nation, focusing instead on Korea’s larger neighbors, China and Japan. Consequently, Koreans themselves played a more significant role in importing and later spreading Christianity to Korea. Three hundred years later, Christians make up more than a quarter of South Koreans and the country is responsible for one of the world’s largest missionary movements. What first caused Christianity to take hold in Korea?
The spread of Christianity in China in the late 1700s made an impression on the Korean elite. Jesuit missionaries distributed philosophical and scientific literature, material that caught the attention of scholars looking to innovate and reform the Confucian system. The application of the teachings of the Chinese sage Confucius (551–479 BC), which centered on wisdom and right social relations, had resulted in a remarkably stable society with a highly developed culture. However, it also produced an elitist culture, resistant to the innovations of the modern world and to possibilities of Christianity, which scholars saw as driving Western development.
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