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Reviewed by:
  • Born Again: Evangelicalism in Korea
  • Hee An Choi, Clinical Assistant Professor of Practical Theology, Director of the Anna Howard Shaw (Research) Center
Born Again: Evangelicalism in Korea. By Timothy S. Lee, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2010, xvi, 228 p.

From 1885 to the present, Christianity has shown extraordinary growth as one of the most influential religions in South Korea. It was rapidly indigenized and transformed through its encounter with Korean culture. Because of the unparalleled success of Christianity and its influence upon Korean society, especially in contrast with other religions, there are numerous theories concerning the nature and causes of its extraordinary growth. Throughout this book, Timothy S. Lee brings a new perspective to this issue and gives special attention to the role of evangelical Protestantism, providing critical and in-depth [End Page 194] analysis of the political, socio-cultural and theological factors involved in the growth of Christianity in Korea. By focusing on specific periods of time in the history of Korean Christianity, he offers three sub-theses in each chapter that he uses to explain the success of Korean evangelicalism: 1) "it appealed powerfully to multitudes of Koreans as a religion of salvation" (xiv); 2) "it interacted sympathetically with Korean nationalism and South Korean anti-communism" (xiv); and 3) it involved unrelenting "proselytization efforts" (xv). This provocative framework brings readers to a broader and more multidimensional understanding of Korean evangelism, its role in the growth of Korean Christianity, and its impact on Korean society.

In the first chapter, Lee explores the early history of Christianity in Korea by focusing on a specific historical event, the March First Independence Movement, as well as on the spiritual revivals taking place in the period from the 1880s to the end of the 1910s. He considers this period as a "breakthrough for a new moral order." Because of the social and political turmoil of the latter years of Chosŏn, many national leaders as well as ordinary people sought out new ideologies. Because of this trend, the Catholic Church, for example, persevered, survived, and even grew during this period, even though Catholics were at this time being persecuted and tortured. When Protestant missionaries arrived in Korea during this time of complex national and international upheaval, they promoted the Christian faith as a way of saving the "souls of Koreans." To thwart the Korean independence movement, Protestant missionaries attempted to turn the people's attention to revivals and urged Korean Christians to stay away from political movements. Lee uses the Million Movement and the great revival to illustrate how the missionaries' efforts to save the souls of Koreans also deflected them from involvement in the fight for Korean independence. While missionaries tried to show the superiority of Christianity over Koreanized indigenous religions and culture, they were also caught in a dilemma over whether to support Korean independence or be silent about Japanese colonial violence. However, it was inevitable that Korean Christians would become involved in the political fight for Korean independence, despite the missionaries' efforts to prevent them. Lee illustrates how Korean church leaders actively participated in the Korean political movement and how missionaries were finally compelled to become involved in supporting Korean [End Page 195] nationalism, pointing to the March First Independence Movement as a turning point.

In the second chapter, Lee seeks to explain Korean Christianity and its conflicts with other religions and communism during the period from 1920 to 1953. He points to the lives of three spiritual leaders (Kil Sŏnju, Kim Iktu, and Yi Yongdo) as examples of how evangelical thought influenced Korean Christianity during this period. As Korean evangelicalism became involved in conflicts among missionaries, Koreans, and Japanese, it also became a force in the struggle between evangelicals and communists in North Korea. While North Korea persecuted Christians and denounced American imperialism through Christianity, evangelicalism continued to grow in South Korea, with evangelical revivals being used as a major tool for promoting Christianity. In describing these revivals, Lee introduces the three spiritual leaders, Kil Sŏnju, Kim Iktu, and Yi Yongdo. He characterizes Kil Sŏnju as propagating the millenarian belief in the second coming of Christ, Kim Iktu as primarily a faith...