If you grew up as a second-generation Korean American Christian, you might find these items in your grandmother’s household: a framed picture of Jesus Christ, calligraphic artwork of Korean sayings, and taeguk1 ribbons representing the three deities of Korean folk religion. Although you may not have noticed these items when you were younger, they symbolize how both Christian and cultural beliefs may have shaped your upbringing. It may even be that these cultural beliefs are so deeply ingrained in Koreans that they pervade the individual’s understanding of the gospel. One of these cultural beliefs is called han, which has its roots in Korean shamanism.2 For the average Korean Christian, han plays a deep yet subtle role in the Christian faith because of its cultural pervasiveness in the family and community.
To show the impact its own cultural heritage has had on the modern Korean church, this article will first describe the role of shamanism in Korea before Protestant missionaries reached the shores of this peninsula. Second, this article will survey the development of Christianity in Korea and address how shamanism influenced its development. Finally, this article will discuss how the modern Korean church has been shaped by shamanism but also highlight how God uses shamanism as a general revelatory means to prepare Koreans for special revelation.
Korean Shamanism and Han Collectivism
Before Christianity came to the shores of Korea, one prominent religious belief in the nation was shamanism. In practice, Korean shamanism is “a family-centered religion that conserves the welfare of the family by exorcising the evil spirits, healing the sick in the family and taking care of the ancestor spirits and the deceased.”3 In this system, a family member would seek out the local mudang, who acts as the female spiritual intermediary between the spiritual and earthly realms. As the family member describes to the mudang the issues surrounding the household, the mudang is paid to restore the balance between the spirits and the household and to promote the well-being of the family members.4 The mudang accomplishes this task by releasing the pent-up han that lies in the hearts of the family members. Now you may be wondering, what exactly is han and how does the mudang release it?
Han is more than just an emotion or a feeling that an individual experiences; it is deeply rooted in the character of Koreans as an entire community. Though there is no English equivalent to han, it can be described as a “mixed feeling of sorrow and regret which is unique to Koreans.”5 Furthermore, han focuses on the community and emphasizes the shared suffering of the people. Han does not, however, exclusively refer to communal persecution. It also invokes a sense of collective hope because of deep sorrow and resentment. This hope results from the community’s belief that suffering will finally end, calling Koreans to be resilient in the midst of hardship.6 Along with the collective feeling of suffering, this hopeful character of resilience also unites Koreans together to one day conquer communal persecution.
Han is released by the mudang through performing rituals and rites to appease the spirits who are burdening the community. When too much han is accumulated, Koreans believe that the intervention of a mudang is necessary to loosen up the community from han. So for a small service fee, the mudang will release the accumulated han through a shamanic ritual. This ritual consists of the mudang crying out to the spirits and dancing in ecstasy to quell the angry spirits who are causing turmoil within the customer’s household.7 But just in case one mudang is unable to fix the family’s problems, the customer might seek out the services of a more spiritually in-tune mudang and pay a higher service fee.
The Development of Christianity in Korea
The tale of missions in Korea begins with one Protestant missionary by the name of Horace Newton Allen. He was an American doctor and the first missionary to Korea who served the emperor of the Chosun Dynasty toward the end of 1884.8 After him, two Protestant ministers were appointed to Korea as missionaries: Horace Grant Underwood and Henry Gerhard Appenzeller.9 Through the medical work of Allen and the ministerial work of Underwood and Appenzeller, Protestantism thrived within this tiny peninsula. In the short time that these men were in Korea, they established schools and hospitals run by the church. So instead of paying a mudang to heal people through rituals, Koreans went to these hospitals to be healed of their illnesses for free.
Unfortunately, as tensions between Japan and Russia led to war (1904–05), the United States gradually began to pull its diplomats and missionaries out of the peninsula. The United States “turned a blind eye, having reached an understanding that Japan could colonize Korea.”10 While this may have been the best political decision, it ignited a nationalist drive within the Korean population who felt agonizing levels of humiliation. By August 1910, Japan annexed Korea and considered the church to be a threat to the government.11 In the face of collective humiliation and oppression, the Korean people began to accumulate han. However, instead of going to the mudang to loosen up the han, people turned to the churches to confess their sins and pray for national liberation. As people filled the pews, Korean ministers preached a type of liberation theology, calling on the congregation to repent and pray to end their oppression. For example:
In Pyongyang, Gil Seon-ju called for repentance of personal sin as the first step towards national recovery. He likened Korea to Israel and, like the Old Testament prophets, preached that the country’s sufferings were the result of its own sin and disobedience against God and he called for prayer meetings for the nation. In Seoul, Jeon Deok-gi led thousands of Christians at Sangdong Church in a week of prayer. A “Prayer for the Nation” (Wiguk Gidomun) was to be prayed between 2:00 PM and 4:00 PM each day.12
Though there is nothing wrong with repenting sin and praying for the nation, Koreans truly believed that performing these acts would liberate them from their Japanese oppressors. The systems placed by the church to have specific times of prayer promoted a reward-system Christianity, where prayer and repentance were the necessary means to reap desired rewards. Ultimately, they believed that their liberation from their miserable circumstances was dependent on their actions.
Now, assuming that this phenomenon is not what the Protestant missionaries intended, you may wonder how the Christian faith manifested in this way. One scholar reasons that “if shamanism performs the priestly function of comforting the han-ridden minjung,13 it should be the role of Christianity to comfort han-ridden people and release their han.”14 In this sense, Christianity took root as the new spiritual reward system, but it did not necessarily encourage a relationship with Jesus Christ. Instead, Christianity became the new shamanism, a pastor became the new mudang, sin became equated to han, and the only way to receive God’s blessings was by going to church, constantly praying, and repenting of sin. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with these actions, the Koreans in this context so desperately sought liberation that they were wrongly motivated to do these things.
Shamanism: Did It Muddle or Pave the Way?
Given the historical and cultural background of the modern Korean church, there is no doubt that shamanic influences transferred overseas and across generations. Some may even argue that these shamanic influences and cultural beliefs are currently ruining the Korean church. But because shamanism entered the history of Korean beliefs, Christianity was able to take root in the fertile soils of Korea.15 One might even consider that shamanism was a part of God’s foreordained will and providence for this nation to receive special revelation found in Scripture alone.
Nonetheless, there are disadvantages of having a shamanic background because of its focus on spiritual and material prosperity. The gospel message as presented to these Koreans does assure them of salvation through Jesus Christ. However, many believe that on receiving Christ a pure relationship with God must be maintained to live a successful life. To reap the benefits that God has to offer, you must be committed to a church, to prayer, and to giving an offering. Otherwise, God will not bless you or your family.
You will find this sentiment among the elderly first-generation Korean Christians living in America when you ask them about their faith and the church. When first-generation Korean Christians were asked why they believe the Korean church was not thriving, their answers were simple: not enough prayer, not enough repentance, and not enough committed people.16 Some even claimed that God is withholding the bok17 from this generation because they have been unfaithful, unprayerful, and unrepentant. Most notably, each affirmed that the current generation accumulated too much sin and that more prayer and repentance was needed to remove these sins. They spoke about sin as if it were like han, and the acts of prayer, repentance, and church attendance as the necessary rituals to appease God. It is important to note their beliefs because it is they who are raising up the next generation of Koreans in America, exposing them to these old Korean folklore beliefs along with a Korean shamanic form of Christianity. So now the new generation is faced with either accepting this misunderstood and syncretized form of Christianity or rejecting the seemingly outdated belief, only to leave the church—a phenomenon known as the “silent exodus.”18
But despite these disadvantages, there are also many advantages to having shamanism as a precursor to Christianity. As Calvin explains, all of humanity has a sensus divinitatis, which is the general revelation of God’s existence and attributes.19 The Korean population’s expression of their sensus divinitatis, which in this case is shamanism, highlights how they have a “tacit awareness of God”20 through general revelation. Just as Paul the apostle stood in the Areopagus and saw that the Areopagites were very religious (Acts 17:22–31), so the missionaries who came from America could no doubt see that the Koreans were very religious as well. They undoubtedly saw how these Koreans sought the services of the local mudang when someone in the community was feeling ill, getting married or buried, or even when their failing crops needed a supernatural boost. The fact that these Koreans believed in greater forces shows how God used shamanism to plow the hearts of this nation for missionaries to plant the seeds of the gospel.
When shamanism fails to save people from their sin and suffering, however, the word of God becomes that much sweeter. As Article II of the Belgic Confession states, “He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word; that is to say as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.”21 As shamanism presented the problem of appeasing greater spiritual forces and failed to correct the problem, the Korean people turned to the churches to hear the word of God. Essentially, shamanism primed the Koreans to hear the good news of Christ revealed through Scripture. Thus the general revelatory values found in shamanism complement the special revelation of Scripture.
Although many may conclude that a shamanic background has ruined the Korean population’s understanding of the gospel, one should consider how shamanism paved the way for the gospel to be received by this hermit nation. By grasping even a broken understanding of the vast goodness and greatness of God, one can come to realize one’s need to be reconciled before him.22 Ultimately, if God is the One who provides all things through creation and in accordance with his will, it is appropriate to see shamanism as a God-ordained general revelatory means for the Korean population to understand the gospel.
However, for this population to truly enjoy both the riches and the richness of the gospel, they must see beyond the culture in which God has placed them. Although han as a cultural platform may aid Koreans to relate to Christ and his suffering, they must fix their focus on Scripture rather than their own experiences of han. As opposed to just being han-centered Korean Christians, they must become Christ-centered Christians who happen to be Korean. Whether a person is a first- or second-generation Korean, understanding that their own suffering pales in comparison to Christ’s suffering is crucial toward a brighter and spiritually healthier Korean church. When they truly find peace in knowing that Christ’s suffering is perfect and complete and that rewards have already been earned on their behalf, Korean Christians will find greater unity in Christ as opposed to the unity found in their cultural heritage.
Tony Chang is currently pursuing his Master of Divinity at Westminster Seminary California. He is under care of the Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC) and serves as a chaplain candidate for the 314th Military Intelligence Battalion, U.S. Army Reserve.
- The word taeguk means “supreme ultimate,” and each color represents a deity within the supreme god. Yellow represents humanity, red represents the earth, and blue represents the skies or the heavens. These three deities make up the supreme god, the one who makes up all that is in the universe and is the universe. Sang-il Kim and Young-chan Ro, Hanism as Korean Mind: Interpretation of Han Philosophy (Los Angeles: Eastern Academy of Human Sciences, 1984), 66.
- David Suh, “Liberating Spirituality in the Korean Minjung Tradition: Shamanism and Minjung Liberation,” Asian Christian Spirituality: Reclaiming Traditions (Ossining, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 33–34.
- Suh, 32.
- Sebastian C. H. Kim and Kirsteen Kim, A History of Korean Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 9.
- Chi-Mo Hong, “The Matter of Han in Minjung Theology,” Presbyterian Theological Quarterly 57 (1990): 136.
- John M. Glionna, “A Complex Feeling Tugs at Koreans,” Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2011, accessed April 10, 2018.
- Roy E. Shearer, Wildfire: Church Growth in Korea (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 30.
- Kim and Kim, 62.
- Kim and Kim, 63.
- Kim and Kim, 89.
- Sun-gil Hur, The Church Preserved through Fires: A History of the Presbyterian Church in Korea (Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada: Inheritance Publications, 2006), 66.
- Kim and Kim, 89.
- The word minjung means “people” in the Communist sense of the word. Volker Küster, A Protestant Theology of Passion: Korean Minjung Theology Revisited (Leiden: Brill, 2010). It is made up of those who are oppressed by an elite upper class. A. Sung Park, “Minjung Theology: A Korean Contextual Theology,” Indian Journal of Theology 33, no. 4 (October 1984): 1.
- Suh, 33.
- Shearer, 31.
- The first-generation Koreans whom the author has interviewed are from his family as well as from the church he attends. All of those who were interviewed come from a denominational background of Presbyterianism and are all above the age of eighty.
- The word bok in this context means “blessing.” In other contexts, this word can also mean “reward,” “good fortune,” or even in an idiomatic sense, “permission.” In the Korean mind, to receive bok is crucial to having happiness and success.
- By the mid-1990s, a number of studies revealed that a large number (70–80 percent) of second-generation Korean-American young adults had left or were leaving their parents’ churches. Some sociologists have even given this startling statistic a name: “the silent exodus.” Julius J. Kim, “Reflections of a Korean-American Presbyterian,” Westminster Seminary California, July 26, 2010, accessed April 10, 2018.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 35–47.
- Eric Charles Rust, Religion, Revelation, and Reason (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1981), 18.
- The Belgic Confession of Faith (1561), Article 2.
- Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 143.