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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Ted Vial

Reformed and Presbyterian churches have participated in the exploration, expansion, and imperial conquests of the European and American nations where they are rooted.  They played a role in all of the positive and negative aspects of colonialism, building schools and hospitals but also uprooting indigenous cultures and extracting resources for the benefit of the west. 

Awareness of some of the negative aspects of mission and expansion has shifted the emphasis in recent years, from a predominant self-understanding that the goal was to win souls away from damnation and for Christ, to a self-understanding that the goal is to minister to developing parts of the world.  To take just one example, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) currently has 452 full time missionaries around the world (in South America, Asia, Africa, India, and other places).  Of these, the vast majority sees its role as development, education, and peace and justice; only 88 have as their primary job description "evangelism."  What follows are some examples of Reformed expansion into non-western areas.

Presbyterians have been particularly successful in Korea.  The first Presbyterian missionary, Horace Allen, began medical work in Korea in 1884.  The next year Horace Underwood, an ordained minister, joined him.  Presbyterian missionaries soon arrived from Canada and Australia.

Korea underwent a revival movement beginning in 1907.  The Japanese colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945.  During this period they forced churches to accept Shinto shrines, and coerced Koreans to bow to these shrines.  Those who did not were persecuted.  Following World War II, there were several schisms in the Korean church, one occasioned by the question of whether or not to re-admit Christians who had bowed to the Shinto shrines.  A further division occurred (as it did in the U.S.A.) because some Christians accepted modern historical-critical methods of reading the Bible, while others resisted.  North Korea dissolved all Christian churches after the war.

There are over 100 Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in South Korea, and over 28% of the population identifies itself as Christian.  Korean Presbyterians now send missionaries to Europe and the United States.  An interesting question is why Christianity spread so rapidly in Korea.  Several answers have been proposed:  the specific method of Presbyterian missionaries to Korea (called the Nevius method) was to train and encourage converts to convert others.  Following a period of brutal Japanese colonization and rapid industrialization, traditional Korean religion and culture was under stress and open to rapid change.  Some people propose that conversion to Christianity is a way to forge a modern westernized self in the Korean context.

The Presbyterian Mission Society sent missionaries to Singapore in 1838, and from Singapore the first Presbyterian missionary, D. B. McCartee, arrived in China in 1844.  Missionaries played a role in attempting to open China as a market for western manufactured cotton goods, and to extract coal and ore from China.  The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was a backlash against western influences.  During this rebellion 185 Protestant missionaries and 32,000 Chinese Christians were killed.  All missionaries had to leave China after the People's Republic of China was established in 1949.  China is officially atheist, but allows Christianity (along with Buddhism, Daoism, and Islam) to exist with strict regulations.  While there is a state-authorized Christian community, some estimate that there are as many as 70 million members of underground churches (this number includes Protestants and Catholics).

 

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