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Reviewed by:
  • Protestantism and Politics in Korea
  • Timothy S. Lee (bio)
Protestantism and Politics in Korea, by Chung-Shin Park. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003. 320 pp. Tables, bibliography, index. $50.00 cloth.

Though not entirely devoid of merits, this book is full of flaws, not the least of which are the questions Professor Park poses and the answers he proffers. Park poses his main question this way: "Protestant Christianity went through a very interesting metamorphosis [in (South) Korea], moving from a religion defiant toward both Confucianism and the colonial regime to an established religion. Its leaders were now [i.e., after 1919] conservative in tenor and sought comfort and security within the establishment. How can one explain this metamorphosis? Was it due to the church's conservative fundamentalist theology and doctrine, as some historians agree? Or was it a result of the transformation of Protestant Christian belief within its social and political context?" (pp. 5-6).

The last sentence implies Park's answer and main argument. Fleshed out, his argument entails the following: Up to the end of the March First Independence Movement in 1919, the Protestant church, which he characterizes as "fundamentalist," was the institution for promoting social reform and nationalist politics in Korea. In this period, "Undoubtedly, the Korean Christians identified 'the time' of the Messiah's coming with national independence" (p. 133). And such preoccupation on the part of the church, Park asserts, was the "the primary cause of the rapid growth of Protestantism during the early colonial period" (p. 35). But after the March First Movement, the church disengaged from politics because by then "the religious community became institutionalized, [and] there appeared a very different class of preachers and other professionals who had little enthusiasm for social and political activity outside the religious community" (p. 154). In their hands, "the same theology [that previously had inspired nationalistic patriotism] became in fact a type of religious escapism and lost its strong political coloration" (p. 66). "They [church leaders] made good use of this otherworldly theology not only for psychological consolation, but also for justifying their moderate political stand during the late colonial period" (p. 67). Moreover, "The pietist fundamentalists in the post-Liberation era addressed themselves to the middle and upper-class segments of society. Their aloofness from controversial social and political issues in fact had a political impact—by making their followers ignore social and political [End Page 153] affairs, by teaching them to be satisfied with reality, and even by supporting dictatorial regimes" (p. 60).

One problem with this argument is that it is at best simplistic and largely false to assume, as his question does, that before 1919 the Protestant church was a hotbed of Korean nationalist politics. One might barely make such an argument for the period up to the establishment of the Japanese protectorate in 1905, but hardly for the period from then till 1945. For in this latter period, the Protestant church self-consciously espoused an apolitical posture because the missionaries, who controlled the church, believed such a tack was the only way the church could carry on its religious mission under the ever-watchful eyes of the governor-general. Efforts, therefore, were made to sublimate Koreans' sense of political frustration into religious fervor, as attested by the great revival of 1907. Such efforts, to be sure, failed completely to depoliticize Korean Protestants, as evidenced by their prominent leadership in the March First Movement. The Protestant participation in this movement, however, is not so much evidence that the church had been nationalistic in spite of the missionaries, as Park claims, but that the Korean Protestants—like the rest of their countrymen—could not help but resent the harsh Japanese rule and respond to the instigation of their overseas compatriots, who, in turn, had been instigated to plan mass demonstrations by Woodrow Wilson's famous Fourteen-point declaration.

Another error in Park's argument is his contention that the number of Korean Protestants grew between 1911 and 1919. The number actually decreased; Alfred W. Wasson shows this to be the case in his well-known 1934 study, Church Growth in Korea, where he titles the section covering the period between...


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pp. 153-157
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