Tonghak, or Eastern Learning, was the first major new religion in modern Korean history. Founded in 1860, it combined aspects of a variety of Korean religious traditions. Because of its appeal to the poor and marginalized, it became best known for its prominent role in the largest peasant rebellion in Korean history in 1894, which set the stage for a wider regional conflict, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Although the rebellion failed, it caused immense changes in Korean society and played a part in the war that ended in Japan's victory and its eventual rise as an imperial power.
It was in this context of social change and an increasingly perilous international situation that Tonghak rebuilt itself, emerging as Ch’ŏndogyo (Teaching of the Heavenly Way) in 1906. During the years before Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, Ch’ŏndogyo continued to evolve by engaging with new currents in social and political thought, strengthening its institutions, and using new communication technologies to spread its religious and political message.
The story of Tonghak and Ch’ŏndogyo is an example of how new religions interact with their surrounding societies and how they consolidate and institutionalize themselves as they become more established.