God’s Providence and the Non-spiritual Influences on Korean Revivals

[Read the introductory post here.]

Any revival movement faces the danger of being spiritualized. Though a revival is a movement of the Spirit of God, the work of God in a revival is not limited to the spiritual realm. Other social, political, methodological, human factors are necessarily involved. Since God is active through governance, sustenance, and concurrence in His providence, other non-spiritual factors do not preclude the spiritual activity of God in revival. Histories of revival that a priori preclude the possibility of God’s divine activity either have a faulty understanding of God’s providence, or have an unscholarly, atheistic secular approach that precludes certain evidence before it is investigated. Albeit other studies may ignore non-spiritual factors, only seeing the “mighty work of God,” a balanced approach recognizes that factors external to the church influence the growth and spread of revival, all the while recognizing that God directs the course of history and that He is “at work unto this day”. In other words, a revival is more than an activity of God in bringing souls unto repentance; it is God directing the course of history for a church, a people, a nation or a world. God is as active in directing the hearts of kings as he is in melting the hearts of people.

When it came to the Kingdom of Korea, turmoil characterized the socio-political landscape. A dynasty was coming to an undignified end, while neighboring states were rising in power. Korea was not uncivilized, but society was stagnating. Confucian feudalism was dying, corruption in the government was unbearable, class barriers were being questioned, and everyone was looking for a change. Nationalistic rebellions arose in the late nineteenth century, but were squashed by the King. The government attempted to reform itself, as well. In other words, the old paradigm was failing.

Geopolitically, Korea had staved Western colonialism only to become increasingly dependent on their hated neighbor—Japan. In 1905, Japan became the protectorate of Korea; five years later, Korea was annexed. Koreans coveted Chinese culture, but Japan had defeated all of Korea’s neighbors, including the Chinese and Russians, thus pulverizing the pedestal on which China had been placed in the eyes of Korea’s literati. Reflecting on the turn of events, missionaries later would say that the revival may have never been realized had Japan been defeated by the Chinese. To them, China represented the old Confucian lifestyle, thus reinforcing a corrupt, feudalistic way of life, while Japan represented progress. Whereas China was anti-Western encroachment, Japan was pro-Western progress. Thus, indirectly, Japan opened Korea to Christianity.

For centuries, the Yi Dynasty had remained closed to Western advance. Even when the Catholics gained entry into the country, it was through the influence Catholicism had on China that impressed the Emperor to allow missionaries entry. The Catholics, though, faced intense persecution by the people and by the government. From the entrance of Catholicism till the early 20th century, laws against the spread of Christianity were on the books and enforced harshly until the surprising entry of the Protestants. However closed Korea may have been, in 1883, things changed.

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