Welsh martyr who brought the Scriptures to the shores of Korea

This article was first published in the Times on 16 August 2014.


Today Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass in Seoul in memory of Korea’s early Catholic martyrs. He will declare 124 of them to be “Blessed”, the step below sainthood. Many of them were beheaded near by, outside the city’s west gate, during a persecution that lasted from 1791 to 1888. Authorities regarded them as deviants “infected by error”, capable of leading Confucian society to ruin. In all more than 10,000 Korean Catholics were killed.

It might be assumed that Britain played little part in this first chapter of Korean Christianity. But among those celebrated as martyrs today is a Non-conformist Welsh minister, Robert Jermain Thomas. Every year hundreds of Koreans travel to Monmouthshire to visit Hanover Chapel in Llanover, near Abergavenny, where Thomas’s father was minister.

Thomas’s story, documented most recently in Stella Price’s book Chosen for Choson (Korea), is not without controversy. His time as a missionary in Asia was brief and was plagued with misfortune. He and his wife, Caroline, arrived in Shanghai as newlyweds in December 1863. Four months later Caroline died after a miscarriage. Thomas, grief-stricken, moved farther north to Chefoo (now Yantai), where he offered to help two Korean Catholics to smuggle Bibles back to their homeland. He spent two and a half months on the Korean coast, handing out Bibles and trying to learn the language. In a letter to a colleague he admitted that the Koreans were “very hostile to foreigners”, but said that after a chat some of them accepted books on Christianity. “As these books are taken at the risk of decapitation, or at least fines and imprisonment,” he wrote, “it is quite fair to conclude that the possessors wish to read them.”

Once he returned to China the Korean kingdom began to crack down brutally on Catholics. Many thousands were killed. Astonishingly, Thomas went back, agreeing to act as interpreter for an armed English merchant ship, the General Sherman, which sought to open up Korea to trade. It was a misguided mission. The ship, after reaching Korea’s coast, travelled up the river to Pyongyang despite repeated warnings from officials that this was forbidden. At each stop Thomas handed out Bibles and cakes. But relations with Koreans soon soured — the crew took a police chief hostage and demanded rice, gold and silver in exchange for setting him free. A two-day battle ensued in which all those onboard were killed.

It is hard, in this light, to see how Thomas could be cherished by Koreans, but by the 1930s his life was being celebrated. A memorial was put up on Ssuk Island where he was killed, and a church built by the river in his name.

In the decades after his death Korea changed radically. Under pressure from Japan it agreed to foreign trade and in the 1880s signed treaties with Britain and the US. Protestant missionaries poured in, building schools and hospitals. By 1910 144,000 Koreans had become Protestant Christians. Among those early missionaries was an American, the Rev Samuel Moffett. He claimed that eyewitnesses of the General Sherman battle saw “a white man in the smoke on the burning deck shouting ‘Jesus’ and throwing books to the people lining the shore”. Koreans who had accepted books from Thomas or even just picked them up from the shore later converted to Christianity, Moffett claimed. A government official, meanwhile, used one of the Bibles to wallpaper his house, which by the 1900s had become a place of pilgrimage.

Today nearly a third of South Koreans are Christian, of which nine million are Protestant and about five million Catholic. More missionaries from South Korea are sent abroad than in any other country apart from the US. One such missionary is the Rev Daniel Yoo, minister at Hanover Chapel. He says that between 1,500 and 2,000 Koreans visit the Thomas family’s chapel every year.

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