Korea’s First Protestant Martyr
“Jesus, Jesus!” shouted the man who became known as Korea’s first protestant martyr as he stood on the deck of a burning merchant ship and desperately opened the cases of Bibles he had smuggled aboard, flinging as many copies as he could to Korean villagers and soldiers who lined the shore. Finally, with his clothes on fire, the 27-year-old missionary leapt overboard with his few remaining Bibles and swam to shore – continuing to put Bibles into any open hand until he was finally captured and dragged away to be executed with the entirety of his crew. Some accounts say that Robert Jermain Thomas of Wales was beheaded, while others say he was lanced through the heart. Whatever the case, they all agree that his last Bible was offered to his executioner.
Thomas’ martyrdom in 1866 occurred on a sandbank outside of Pyongyang, the present-day capital of North Korea. It was preceded and succeeded by two major waves of persecution against the Catholics who first brought literature into the country in 1770. Forty years after Thomas’ death, missionaries provoked by revival in India and encouraged by local revivals began to fast and pray daily for revival in Pyongyang.
Finally, on the evening of January 14th, 1907, the Father poured out His Spirit on the people on whom Robert Thomas had spent his last breath. As a missionary who was leading an evening meeting called for prayer, the entire audience of about 1500 men burst in unison into powerful prayer that has been described in numerous accounts as the sound of falling waters. William Blair, one of two Western missionaries present at the revival, gave us a window into this revival in his book, “The Korean Pentecost and the Sufferings Which Followed.”
Blair describes the scene on the first day of the meeting:
“After a short sermon…man after man would rise, confess his sin, break down and weep, and then throw himself on the floor and beat the floor with his fists in perfect agony of conviction. …Sometimes, after a confession, the whole audience would break out into audible prayer, and the effect of that audience of hundreds of men praying together in audible prayer was something indescribable – not confusion, but a vast harmony of sound and spirit, a mingling together of souls moved by an irresistible impulse of prayer. The prayer sounded to me like the falling of many waters, an ocean of prayer beating against God’s throne. It was not many, but one, born of One Spirit, lifted to one Father above.”
The public confession of the people was said to include their hatred against the Japanese who were oppressing them, against foreign missionaries, and one who even confessed his hatred of Reverend Blair, who described this phenomena during the second day:
“Then began a meeting the like of which I had never seen before, nor wish to see again unless in God’s sight it is absolutely necessary. Every sin a human being can commit was publicly confessed that night. Pale and trembling with emotion, in agony of mind and body… looking up to heaven, to Jesus whom they had betrayed, they smote themselves and cried out with bitter wailing: “Lord, Lord, cast us not away forever!” Everything else was forgotten, nothing else mattered. The scorn of men, the penalty of the law, even death itself seemed of small consequences if only God forgave. We have our theories of desirability or undesirability of public confession of sin. I have had mine; but I know now that when the Spirit of God falls upon guilty souls, there will be confession, and no power on earth can stop it.”
The great revival, which spread as swiftly among children as it did among adults, took the Korean Church from deep repentance to total transformation. Repentant hearts forsook their sin and vices, forgave one another, and went knocking on doors to plead for peace with any they had wronged. The Church was also consumed with a zeal for evangelism that helped the fire of revival spread by missionaries and nationals and resulted in explosive growth of the Church.
Fortunately, the deep and purifying work wrought in the Korean people by the Holy Spirit in those times prepared them for the suffering that would follow. The Japanese perceived the revitalized Church as an organization that would be capable of resisting their rule and as a political agent of the Western powers, therefore churches were burned, hundreds of Christians were killed, and thousands who refused to abandon Christ were subjected to imprisonment and torture. Today, North Korea’s persecution of Christians has continued to be the worst in the world. Please remember to pray for our brothers and sisters in North Korea as they risk their lives to follow the one true God and spread His Gospel. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”