American Evangelicals’ Global Vision Began in Korea

Guest Post by Miles S. Mullin, II, J. Dalton Havard School for Theological Studies, Southwestern Seminary

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:27[1]

The global vision of American evangelicalism began in an improbable place, 1950s South Korea, as Americans encountered people like Pun Hui Pak.  The youngest of four children, Pun Hui Pak was born in a small town outside Taegu, South Korea, in 1949.  In an agricultural economy, the Paks were better off than many: her family owned farmland and her father served as mayor of the small town.  But that changed quickly during the summer of 1950.  Supported by Mao, and given the green-light by Stalin, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) swept across the 38th parallel aiming to unite all Koreans under the communist government of Kim Il-Sung. A hastily assembled coalition of South Korean (ROK) and American-led U.N. forces attempted to stall the NKPA advance, but their efforts seemed doomed.  Victory upon victory punctuated the Soviet-armed NPKA’s advance towards Pusan.

Taegu, the headquarters of Lt. General Walton Walker’s Eighth Army and communications hub for what remained of the defensive forces, soon became the target of the NKPA.  Provoking his troops, Walker issued his “Stand or Die” order, and somehow managed to defend the Pusan Perimeter in a brilliant tactical effort.  However, casualties were high, not only for military personnel, but also for South Korean civilians.  While the NKPA overran the smaller cities outside Taegu, city officials from Pun’s hometown hid in a nearby cave outside of the village.  For several days, family and friends clandestinely brought them food.  They were eventually discovered by the NKPA and none of them, including Pun’s father, were heard from again.

Already a poor country, the war ravished Korea.  As for most South Korean families, life forever changed for the Paks.  Left without a father, they were forced to sell their land to care for Pun’s ailing older brother.  A couple years after the Korean Armistice Agreement, when Pun was six, the family moved to the city.  A hard worker, Pun excelled in school in Taegu.  She also first encountered the gospel there.

The history of evangelical Christianity in Korea begins in earnest at the end of the nineteenth century.  Caught between Japan and China, the Korean royal family reluctantly ended its isolationist policies and signed a treaty with the U.S. in 1882.  As usual, missionary activity followed trade, and, even as most evangelical groups remained focused on evangelizing China, some began ministry in earnest in the former “hermit kingdom.”  Japanese imperial rule (beginning in 1910) and the burdens of World War II disturbed these efforts, but when China “fell” to the communists in 1949, many groups, such as the Oriental Missionary Society, pivoted towards Korea.  At the onset of the Korean War, missionary personnel were vacated from the peninsula, but U.N. military successes and the eventual armistice brought a new era in the evangelization of South Korea.

In the aftermath of the fighting, life was completely different.  Utter destruction characterized the South Korean topography, while widows and orphans made up a disproportionate percentage of its population.  As they observed these new realities, the burden of James 1:27 began to weigh upon evangelicals both in Korea and at home.  As missionary personnel and Christian soldiers reported the humanitarian crisis to their constituencies in America, concern for the physical well-being of downtrodden Koreans began to percolate through the evangelical subculture.  As a direct result, the newly renamed World (née War) Relief Commission of the National Association of Evangelicals turned its attention to Korea, the inimitable Bob Pierce founded World Vision (f. 1950), and an unheard of Swedish Baptist evangelist named Everett Swanson returned from a trip to Korea determined to “do something.”  The organization he founded is now known as Compassion International.

Although these new efforts resembled the medical missions in some regards, they demonstrated a marked concern with the deleterious effects of poverty itself, not just medical conditions.  They sought to provide basic necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, and education.  All the while, they maintained an evangelical commitment to share the good news, urging those they helped to be born again.

In Taegu, Pun Hui came in contact with just such an American evangelical group.  As a small girl, the Presbyterian church in the midst of the city intentionally provided a safe place to play, off the streets.  Each year Americans concerned with the physical well-being of little Korean girls and boys like her, sent clothes, Christmas cards, and toys that were distributed through the church.  Although sized by age, the clothes were big and sweaters sometimes looked more like dresses, but they were warm and clean, and warm clean clothes were in short supply.  Along the way, Pun memorized Bible verses and heard the good news about Jesus.  In this way, her first encounter with the gospel came at the hands of American evangelicals who cared for her physical needs.  Years later, after immigrating to the United States, the pastor of a small Baptist church in Patrick County, Virginia, shared the gospel with her again.  This time she believed.  Six months later, her husband also believed and both were baptized.

Following World War II, America’s role in the world was changing.  Confronted with the communist advance across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, the experience of the Korean War jump-started a containment policy that had been articulated in NSC-68 less than two months before.  Likewise, the experience of Korea catalyzed a change taking place within American evangelicalism.  Increasingly concerned about the problems of society, culture, and the world, the Korean War and its aftermath provided both the stimulus and the opportunity for this “new evangelicalism” to express itself in action.

What emerged was a host of cooperative, pan-denominational, evangelical groups that aggressively sought to improve the lives of impoverished Koreans as they communicated the gospel message.  Quickly, this would develop into a global vision for improving the lives of impoverished children throughout Asia, then Africa, and then rest of the world.  Eventually, it developed into the sort of vision that typified many evangelical groups in the late twentieth-century as they moved beyond addressing individual needs to address communal issues as well.  But it all began in Korea.

References:

Cumings, Bruce.  The Korean War: A History.  New York: Modern Library, 2010

Foley, Pun Hui Pak.  Interview with author.  November 27, 2012.  Patrick County, Virginia.

Halberstam, David.  The Coldest Winter: Americans and the Korean War.  New York: Hyperion, 2007.

Hastings, Max. The Korean War.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Mullin, Miles.  “Postwar Evangelical Social Concern: Evangelical Identity and the Modes and Limits of Social Engagement, 1945-1960.”  Ph.D. dissertation. Vanderbilt University, 2009.

Noll, Mark A. and Carolyn Nystrom. “Sun Chu Kil.”  Chapter in Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011.

[1] New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Very interesting! Thanks.

  • Criss Mitchell

    Interesting but the post fails to mention the Pyongyang Revival in 19007 and the rapid period of growth during the Japanese occupation. Most Christians lived in the Pyongyang area were displaced in the North/South division and subsequent war. That large population of Christians were displaced by the Communist North, made them quite open to the West.

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