“Encounter: The Korean Mind and the Gospel,” Ensign, Aug. 1975, 47
Area Conference in the Far East
The Korean Mind and the Gospel
The Republic of Korea, Land of the Morning Calm.
This little mountainous peninsula in Far East Asia, approximately 600 miles long, shelters nearly 35 million people in the Republic of Korea. Despite its four distinct seasons, its climate, like its people, is rather gentle.
Koreans are an ancient and homogeneous race, distinct from both Chinese and Japanese. They have endured many trials and oppressions in the past, but are optimistic and patient, idealistic and reserved rather than outgoing.
Two cultural traditions make the gospel “good news” to the Koreans: their religious beliefs and their great family love.
Korea has a popular religion, established in 1909, called Dae jong. The beliefs, theologies, and teachings of this religion are very similar to those of Christianity. For example, Dae jong teaches that there are many gods, but one is most high and glorious. His son (Dan koon) acting as his mediator, is the spiritual source of help to the people. These ideas remind us of our Christian concept of Deity.
Most of the religions in Korea outside of Dae jong have always reflected foreign influences. Shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism were the main bodies of religious and ethical thought in Korea until the introduction of Christianity in the nineteenth century. Buddhism entered Korea in the fourth century A.D. and flourished from the sixth century until the end of the Koryo dynasty (A.D. 918–1392). But the social patterns of modern Korea have been determined mainly by the influence of Confucianism, which entered Korea in the first century A.D. and became the state religion around the fifteenth century. Based on an ethic of consideration, it defines the proper relationship that should exist in the five great types of relationships: sovereign and subject, father and son, elder brother and younger, man and woman, and friend and friend.
Part of these Confucian teachings are the ideas that men are superior to women and that a patriarch rules in the affairs of his household.
The law of chastity has been greatly emphasized by all Koreans. Many have chosen to die rather than to live in the disgrace brought through immorality.
“A boy and a girl should not even sit together after they reach the age of seven.” This social teaching concerning the law of chastity was another influence of religion in Korea.
Respect and honor for ancestors in Korea have been strongly emphasized. Genealogical records have been kept by every respectable family throughout the history of Korea because that is one way to honor the ancestors.
Traditionally, the teachings of most Christian churches concerning salvation for the dead have been regarded as shallow theologies by Koreans, who see profound riches in their own ancestor worship.
Consequently, the restored gospel, with its message that our ancestors (and all the dead) can be saved through our efforts in genealogy, is of great interest to Koreans.
I was once invited by a national radio station to give a talk concerning our religion. In my presentation I happened to mention the genealogy work of the Church. That created a great interest, which led to three more opportunities for me to talk about the Church on the radio. We as Korean members feel very strongly that our ancestors were instructed by the Lord to prepare and keep the family genealogical records for his purposes.
Brother Kim San, a member of the high council in the Seoul Korea Stake, has traced back 70 generations in his genealogy work. He is now deeply interested in the problems of making connections with biblical lineages. Sister Kim Do Pil, one of our earliest converts, traced back 40 generations in her genealogy work despite her old age and weakness. Such genealogical achievements are possible because of the practice of keeping family records in most Korean families.
It is always necessary for people to have something that they can associate themselves with before they can become interested in a subject. Without common interests or similarities on a personal level, generally men cannot easily step into that realm of ideology. The first Korean converts had a vital personal interest in the message they heard from those blond-haired blue-eyed foreign missionaries. The missionaries were talking about programs such as family unity, genealogy, and temple work for the living and the dead. Even the concept of Deity that the missionaries were explaining was very similar to some concepts that Koreans already knew.
Koreans in general think of Americans and other Westerners as being excessively individualistic. The teachings of the Church concerning the family helped us overcome alien feelings toward the newly introduced “culture” because of the similar beliefs in family unity.
The family is a very special unit all over the world, but this is especially true in Korea. For example, Korean families who follow traditions live together as a large family, with sometimes two or three generations living together at any one time. This practice is now changing very rapidly, though, due to the introduction of the Western culture; but the family relationship in Korea is still very strong. The family home evening program of the Church strongly appeals to Korean instincts for this reason.
Another characteristic of Koreans is that they take seriously the statement, “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.” (D&C 131:6.) The industriousness of the Korean people in gaining knowledge was noted by President Spencer J. Palmer, the second mission president in Korea, in his book, The Church Encounters Asia:
“Racially they are one of the most homogeneous people in the world. And a more highly educated membership can be found in few other places in the Church. The Korean people’s thirst for knowledge and their study of the scriptures are proverbial and come from a long and rich tradition. Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Council of the Twelve, among others of the General Authorities, gave notice of this fact in his personal diary after a visit to Seoul on February 27, 1968:
“‘We find the Koreans are ravenous in their appetite for knowledge and many of them have degrees and some of them doctor’s degrees. They are a well groomed and attractive people.’
“Following an official tour of the missions of the Church in Asia in 1969, Elder Ezra Taft Benson made a similar observation:
“‘The missions of Asia are getting high-type, devoted converts. One little branch of 50 members in Kwangju, Korea, has five college professors.’” (The Church Encounters Asia, Deseret Book Company, 1970, p. 92.)
Although Korea was under the domination of the Mongols for almost three centuries, and although she acknowledged the sovereignty of the Manchu dynasty of China during another two centuries, by far the greater part of her history has taken place under a policy of strict isolationism that lasted until the 1880s. As a consequence, Korea’s rich national heritage of culture and tradition continued unbroken into the twentieth century.
Another influence from the outside was the Christian missionaries who first came in 1883. They made valued contributions to Korea’s social welfare, resulting in modern hospitals and schools that taught up-to-date information on attaining better living conditions.
Many Koreans accepted Christianity, not as a means to earn eternal life, but as a means to survive social confusion. As a religion, there were too many unclear spots in the teachings of those Christian missionaries. They were talking about a God without flesh and bones, about predestination, and about the original sin of Adam. Respect and honor for the ancestors were overlooked. Most of the customary “how to’s” of Korean people were ignored. In some sense, the beliefs of this early Christianity made Koreans uncomfortable about Christianity because there wasn’t much similarity between it and Korean beliefs.
In contrast, I have felt many times, very strongly, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the “native” church. It teaches us things about ourselves that we already feel to be true.
One of these truths, in addition to those we have already discussed, is the desire we all have to find happiness and joy in living. But there is a very serious reason why finding happiness and joy is urgent for the Korean people. Most of the first generation of Latter-day Saints were young boys and girls when the Korean War broke out, so it was wartime when the restored gospel was first introduced to the Korean people. My story is like that of many Koreans. I was a young boy in the seventh grade, young enough to be wayward, and still enjoying daily life when the war broke out in Korea. It was almost too much for me to face. The communists walked right into my home and took everything we had. They even killed some of our close family members. This happened to many Koreans. Life was filled with sudden disaster, fear, hopelessness, and tragedy. Life was a meaningless, forced, and involuntary burden for all of us. There was nothing to look for, hope for, or dream of.
That was the general condition of my whole generation when we first heard about the restored gospel. Imagine, our daring to think of the future in the midst of destroyed homes and gunfire when we were too physically hungry to even recognize our critical spiritual hunger. We were in need of discovering the meaning of life. Then came the Mormon missionaries, along with young and kind servicemen to convince us that life was much too precious to regard cruelly.
We learned the value of eternal life. We learned that peace and joy can come to anyone who understands and accepts the gospel. We learned that we will meet again in the presence of our Lord with our loved ones who left us so tragically. There we would be a happy and eternal family unit. Wouldn’t you say that Koreans needed this restored message more than anybody else at that time?
Koreans are people of Oriental dignity. When they are determined, they can accomplish anything. There have been many things that Koreans had not been able to do in the past because of their poor financial condition, dominating international influence, or outside military power. Now, the work of the Lord can be done and will be done very successfully in this Land of the Morning Calm, because of the belief of the Korean people in their own worth.
I know that this people will not lose the given opportunity to become like our Father in heaven through the gospel.