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  • A History of Korean Christianity by Sebastian C.H. Kim and Kirsteen Kim
  • Sean C. Kim
A History of Korean Christianity. By Sebastian C.H. Kim and Kirsteen Kim, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, 361pp.

The biggest lacuna in the study of Korean Christianity has been the need for a good general history. The long wait is now over with the publication of Sebastian C.H. Kim and Kirsteen Kim’s A History of Christianity. A superb one-volume history of Korean Christianity, the book provides not only a comprehensive overview but also rigorous historical and theological analysis. Its ecumenical scope covers Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and new religious movements, while its geographic focus extends beyond the Korean peninsula to the overseas missionary movements [End Page 266] and the diaspora communities. In spite of the challenges of such an ambitious project, the work succeeds in constructing a lucid, coherent narrative rich in detail and insight.

The book traces the dramatic sweep of Korean Christian history, with all its vitality and energy, from its beginnings to the present. Chapter 1 describes the Korean religious and cultural landscape before the advent of Christianity, namely Confucian ethics and social norms, and Buddhist and shamanistic beliefs and practices. Chapter 2 looks at the first phase of the Korean encounter with Christianity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Roman Catholic faith clashed with the official Confucian ideology of the Chosŏn state (1392–1910) over such issues as ancestor veneration and the association of Catholicism with foreign powers. The waves of persecutions that followed produced a tragic history of martyrs. Chapter 3 introduces the Protestants, who launched their missions in the late nineteenth century amidst the national crisis that confronted Korea in the age of imperialism. Establishing the first Western-style schools and hospitals, the Protestant missionaries helped lay the foundations of modernization. At the same time, native evangelists and revivalists carried out a process of indigenizing the imported faith and produced a distinctively Korean version of Protestantism. Chapter 4 examines the Korean Christian responses to Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945), ranging from Protestant nationalism and resistance to the millennial movements that envisioned a new, divine order. Chapter 5 deals with the post-World War II or Liberation period, when the churches struggled through national division and the Korean War (1950–1953). During these turbulent times, the center of Christianity shifted from the north to the south. The North Korean communist regime cracked down on religion, and a massive migration of the faithful to the south took place. Chapter 6 discusses the spectacular growth of Christianity in South Korea in the latter half of the twentieth century and the role that church leaders played in democratization and other social and political movements. Chapter 7 concludes with an exploration of the major issues in contemporary Korean Christianity, such as reunification, the environment, and religious pluralism.

Christianity has taken deep root in Korea; a third of the South Korean population claims the faith, making it the country’s largest organized religion. [End Page 267] Christians occupy a prominent place in all areas of national life. Another couple of million Korean Christians live in the diaspora. Moreover, a vibrant missionary movement has made South Korea second only to the United States in the number of its overseas missionaries. Korea has become a major force in global Christianity.

Although A History of Korean Christianity displays the broad title and the chronological structure characteristic of a general history, it does much more than just offer a basic survey. For one, Kim and Kim have exhaustively combed the scholarly literature on Korean Christianity and have synthesized both classic and contemporary works on the subject. The list of citations reads like a who’s who of the field. Equally impressive is their integration of the historiography on modern Korea, drawing on the best in historical research. The co-authors skillfully weave the story of Korean Christianity with the political, socioeconomic, and cultural context. In other words, the book is good history—and it is also good theology. Kim and Kim have published extensively on Christian theology, and their expertise shows in the...