How John Ross Transformed Korea
Ross points out, ‘The Coreans have one native name, and one borrowed from the Chinese, for the Supreme Being,’ ‘Hannonim.’ He thought this derived from hanul or heaven, and ‘Shangde," which is a slight change from the ancient Chinese Shang Di (上帝), the name of the Supreme God.
The other popular ancient term for God in China was Tian (天), or "Heaven." This term was no longer used directly for God, having come to mean "sky" or "day" in common usage, but it still held theistic connotations. The Catholics still use the word as part of their name for God, "Lord of Heaven" (天主).
For the Koreans, Ross believed, God was also associated with the sky: ‘The name Hannonim is so distinctive and so universally used,’ he claimed,’ that there will be no fear, in future translations and preachings, of the unseemly squabbles which occurred long ago among Chinese missionaries on this subject.'
So it proved.
Ross befriended some Korean businessmen traveling in North China. With their help, he began to translate the New Testament into Korean. Some of them converted, and this was the start of the Korean Church -- in China!
Legge had long argued with his fellow missionaries that the ancient Chinese name for God, Shang Di, was "exactly the same" as "God" in English. At first, at a famous missionary conference, almost all his fellow missionaries not only voted a paper he wrote defending Shang Di as the proper synonym down, but voted his paper excluded from conference records. (Hudson Taylor helped lead the opposition.)
Slowly, though, the idea of relating Christianity to East Asian theism gained ground among Protestant missionaries.
Late in his career, Ross described Legge as ‘virtually the only student of Chinese lore who was alive to the great importance of the oldest form of Chinese Religion.' Ross’ Original Religion of China embraced Legge’s warm-hearted approach to Chinese tradition, though he gave much less detail, and added a few dubious speculations. While I have not yet discovered when exactly Ross began reading Legge, Ross clearly
followed Ricci and Legge in their approach to Asian monotheism.
As early as 1876, Ross began learning Korean: three years later, a Korean church had already formed in China. Soon thousands of Korean believers were reading a Korean New Testament (Ross compared the translation he facilitated to Wycliffe’s translation into the vernacular) on both sides of the Yalu River. Ross’ emphasis on self-support (also affirmed later by John Nevius) has been credited for the strength of the Korean and Manchurian churches.