Saturday, October 01, 2011

How John Ross Transformed Korea

How John Ross Transformed Korea

When I lived in Taiwan, I felt some local Christians saw me as a sub-standard missionary.  Perhaps this is because I asked too many questions, and spent too little time preaching.  The standard, obviously, was Hudson Taylor, the great founder of the China Inland Mission, whose autobiography many zealous Christians had read. 

It is a comfort, therefore, to read about the life and works of John Ross (1842-1915). 

Ross was a Scottish Presbyterian who served in Manchuria.  He founded the still-thriving Dongguan Church in Mukden (Shenyang). Many of his activities – founding schools, distributing scriptures, itinerate evangelism – were typical of Protestant missionaries.  But his mission committee felt that he spent too much time reading and writing books, instead of this meat-and-potatoes of itineration.  "Why can't you be like Hudson Taylor?" They may have asked. 

Ross did like to write.  He authored histories of the Qing Dynasty (with an emphasis on its Manchurian origins), Korea, and early Chinese religion, filled with lively accounts of battles and accounts of the culture.  

Read carefully, though, and these books shed light on why there some nine million Protestant Korean Christians today.  For although he lived and worked in China, John Ross helped found modern Korean Christianity.  And it was when Ross had his nose stuck in old Chinese texts (especially, the Classics translated by his fellow Scottish missionary, James Legge), that he was most productive. 

In introductory remarks to his history of Korea, Ross recommends ‘Dr. Legge’s noble work’ on the Chinese Classics. He notes the important role those works played in the education of Korean boys.  Children studying at the school Ross founded in China were required to study the Classics. 

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. 

It turned out there was some disagreement among missionaries in Korea over whether Hananim was the best name for God or not.  In general, though, Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries there seemed to get along unusually well, and further study convinced one of the recalcitrant scholars that ancient Korean theism was, in fact, the right place to start. 

Many modern scholars recognize how important a Korean name for God was to the birth of Protestant Christianity.  The Koreans were, and are, a patriotic people, trying to maintain their independence in the face of larger and stronger neighbors.  Aside from the many good works missionaries did in what was then a poor country, the strategic link Christianity seemed to give Korea with a helpful ally (the United States), and of course the life-changing and intellectual power of the Gospel itself, early Koreans could believe in Jesus and not just preserve, but more fully realize, the partial awareness of God that had already long been found within Korean culture. 


Crude said...

Thanks for this. You're the only blogger I know who brings this kind of eastern perspective to the conversation about cultures and Christianity. It's fascinating to read.

David B Marshall said...

Crude: You're welcome. I came across the Legge connection while writing one of the last chapters in my dissertation. I don't know if anyone else has remarked on this influence; James Legge was a fascinating and important scholar, and I'll probably introduce him more, later. (I'm also planning to visit some places in China I haven't been to in the next month or so; we'll see if I can post from there.)

If any of the posts here seem interesting to you, please do pass the word along -- the blog is not that well-known, yet. Or if there are items you come across that you think readers here would be interested in, feel free to post a link from time to time.

Crude said...

I'll pass the name of your blog on to a few other bloggers I know. Mind you, I'm pretty much a comment box punk, but I still appreciate what you have here.

As for articles, I have no suggestions - just keep doing what you're doing, and keep visiting other blogs in the process, I say. In fact, have you ever considered organizing a friendly... not debate, but discussion with fellow Christians (or religious non-Christians) about the knowledge of God outside of the western world?

I think there's a bad internet habit where formal interaction between bloggers is limited to "debates" almost exclusively. I wonder how, say... Tom Gilson over at would interact with your ideas. In a positive way, I hope, and he's a very civil and even-handed sort.

Oh, and by the way - what about taking part in those Christian Carnivals I see offered up?

David B Marshall said...

Thanks. I'm actually pretty ignorant about blogs. I spend most of my time debunking atheists, and getting cursed for my troubles -- probably a bad habit. I don't know what a "Christian Carnival" is; on-line, I spend much more time interacting with non-Christians. My main rule for blogging is, not to repeat arguments made elsewhere.

Crude said...

Sure, it depends on what your interests and objectives are. For my part, I suppose I've seen so much of what the Cult of Gnu has to offer (well, seeing how little it offers) that I'm more interested in inter-theistic dialogue. But then, my interests aren't everyone's.

That said,: Basically, it's a kind of roving collection of Christian blog entries for a given week. I've seen it pop up among Christian bloggers, and I think you'd be a great addition to it. Is another good site to check out if you're not aware of it, principally because it functions as a very active site for drawing attention to various apologetic undertakings - I think your site would be relevant.

But there you go. Just doing what I can to help out - hopefully I've provided something relevant you can act on.

Joshua said...

I had never heard of Ross. Another fantastic blog post!

While I am thankful for Hudson Taylor and get a lot from his diary, it is limiting to make him the standard for missionaries and their activities. And street preaching is difficult to do in Taiwan since Mormons have already ruined the Name of Jesus through their "preaching" of a different gospel. (You know exactly what I'm talking about, I'm sure.)

The amount of time that James Legge's scholarship has saved all us professional and amateur sinologists can't be calculated. His booklet, "The notions of the Chinese concerning God and spirits" and "The religions of China : Confucianism and Tâoism described and compared with Christianity" (both available on should be required reading to Christians heading eastward. He along with Walter Medhurst have contributed to my own learning and tiny missionary activities. And it's great to have a contemporary (you) who is in that same sort of mindset.

The Far Eastern religious world needs more people like them and you. Your approach to apologetics is thoughtful and intentional. Even how you interact with the opposition is sincere and genuine. You can stick a point to them nicely (as seen in your interviews and your book, "The Truth Behind the New Atheism").

Keep it up!