Having lived as a Korean-American immigrant for the last two decades, married, and had all three children born in the United States, I traveled back to Korea with my family last year. On a murky summer day in Seoul, Korea, I was driving a rental car with my family to make a visit for the first time to the Yanghwajin cemetery, where hundreds of missionaries to Korea and their children are buried. We were struck by the number of precious lives, young and old, lost for spreading the gospel of our Lord to the people in a country called a “Hermit kingdom” in the Far East. On the way back to our lodging, my wife and I were explaining in tears to our three heirs of the faith that their mom and dad found eternal life and the precious jewel in Christ through the sacrifices of these lives.
Tertullian of Carthage said, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” Once a spiritually barren land and a poor country all around, today South Korea stands as a bastion of Protestant Christianity in Asia, with approximately 20 percent of its population identifying as Protestants. It is home to some of the world’s largest churches and major evangelical organizations. Once the destination for countless missionaries, Korea is now one of the most active missionary-sending bases in the world.
Upbringing and Education
The first blood of martyrs was dropped on the soil of Korea in the death of Robert Jermain Thomas (1839–1866), a Welsh Protestant Christian missionary to Korea. He was born on November 15, 1839, in the village of Rhayader in mid-Wales. His father, Rev. Robert Thomas, Sr., was a beneficiary of the nineteenth century’s great spiritual awakenings in Wales. Reverend Thomas and his family experienced the movement of the Holy Spirit in their church at Rhayader when, in 1841, it grew exponentially. The ministries of such men as Christmas Evans, John Elias, and William Williams of Wern would indeed have played a significant role in influencing the father and, of course, the son—Robert Jermain Thomas—who would glean from his predecessors that the gospel of Jesus Christ needs to be spread both at home and abroad and that missions work was the duty and a high calling of every man.
The young Robert would receive an excellent education. From ages twelve to fifteen, he studied at Llandovery College; at sixteen, he attended Principal Academy in London; at seventeen, he taught at Alfred Newth’s school in Oundle, Northamptonshire; at eighteen, he gained a provisional acceptance at New College, London, to study theology for five years. Before completing his New College degree, Thomas earned a B.A. from the University of London. At Llandovery College and New College, he distinguished himself as a linguist in his studies of Greek, Latin, and French. At the end of his college career, the University of London honored him with both the Mills and the Selwyn Fund scholarships.
Call to Ministry
Having sensed God’s calling to ministry early on, Thomas delivered his first sermon at the age of seventeen. He was a highly motivated and gifted young man who believed that the linguistic gifts given him from God should be used to spread the gospel. This Welsh young man’s sense of urgency to do his Father’s will made him somewhat impatiently request the New College Council to allow him to preach God’s Word in Wrexham for some time. And, before he completed his study at New College, he left his studies midway. He spent about six months working with a physician under the conviction that missionaries needed some medical knowledge. Soon after returning to the college, Thomas asked the college council for an early graduation because he earnestly believed it was his duty to go to China. He married just before the end of his college life, which was unusual in his day. He was ordained as a minister on June 4, 1863, at age twenty-three, in his hometown of Hanover.
Influenced by two fellow students, J.R. Carmichael and Robert Wilson, who had already gone to China with the London Missionary Society, Robert Thomas applied to the Society to join as a missionary to China. Soon, he was commissioned to China. Robert graduated from college, was ordained, was married, and sailed to China in the same year in 1863.
Following their four-month voyage, Robert and his wife, Caroline, arrived in Shanghai in the first week of December. However, within three months, his wife died from a sudden miscarriage of their first baby. Devastated by his wife’s death, missionary Thomas wrote his first missionary letter with tears in his eyes:
I did not expect that the first letter I write here from England would be of such sad news. My dear wife, Caroline, died on the 24th of March last, and this has left me utterly helpless; I cannot write anymore. My sorrow bursts forth afresh as I go over the details . . . I trust to give myself more completely than ever to the noble work on which I have just entered, but at present, I feel weighed down by deep grief. I am sure I have your sympathy and prayers that no trial, however grievous, should separate me from this glorious cause, but rather thank God for her peaceful, painless end and say, “The Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” (April 5, 1864)1
In the midst of an utterly devastating time, God arranged an unexpected thing for Thomas. He resigned his mission in December 1864 and moved his base from Shanghai to Chefoo (now known as Yantai), which was about 450 miles from Beijing and one of the closest ports to the Korean peninsula. There Thomas met with Kim Ja-pyeong, a Korean who had fled persecution in China, and his companions. His encounter with the Koreans reoriented his ministry and passion for Korea. Thomas began studying the Korean language and made plans to visit the country.
In September 1865, after long anticipation and prayer, Thomas finally traveled with a large number of Chinese Bibles in a small wooden boat to visit the small islands in the Yellow Sea region off the west coast of Korea, which connects China and Choson (Korea). His first stop was Baengnyeong Island, and he later traveled to Changlin Island, where he stayed for about two and a half months, distributing Bibles to the islanders, learning Korean, and evangelizing before returning to China. In 1866 because he was fluent in Korean and well aware of Korean culture, Thomas accepted an offer to become an interpreter for the French Navy, which was embarking on a mission to rescue the remaining two French missionaries out of the initial eleven who had faced execution by the Korean state court. This led Thomas to the General Sherman, which provided him with the opportunity he was looking for.
Death and Impact
Despite news of a recent massacre called the Byeongin Persecution, he was resolved to go to Korea, thinking that someone had to open the door to the gospel. So, in August of that year, Thomas boarded the General Sherman. As Thomas sailed toward Pyongyang on the Taedong River, he scattered Bibles at every port stop along the way. Docked at Yeoulmok, Hansajeong, on the Daedong River in Pyongyang, General Sherman was attacked by Korean government troops. Although the ship was much larger and more fortified than any of the local boats, the Koreans filled their boats with rubble, set them on fire, and floated them next to the American ship. Being full of gunpowder, the ship exploded. The sinking ship forced those on board to swim to the shore. Waiting for them, however, were government troops. Under the banner of the Shogunate policy, the troops sought out and beheaded anyone who brought or followed Western culture. Sailors who demanded the opening of the port were beheaded on the spot.
Thomas couldn’t stay on the boat any longer, so he jumped into the river and swam out with a few Bibles in his bosom. Along the banks of the river, Thomas scattered the last of his Bibles. In his final moments, Thomas prayed for the soldier who had pointed a sword at him, and gave him a Bible. Thomas was stabbed to death by Park Chun-Kwon, and his body was burned on the riverbank. According to the accounts, Park Chun-Kwon picked up one of the scattered Bibles and took it home with him. After studying it, he is said to have accepted Jesus Christ, become a devout believer, and become an elder in the Anju Episcopal Church.
Also in the crowd was a twelve-year-old boy named Choi Chi-Liang, who picked up three of the Bibles that Thomas had scattered, kept them, and gave one to Park Young-Sik who tore the Bible apart and used it as wallpaper. Later, people read the Bible and became Christians and even founded the Nuldarigol Chapel, the first church in Pyongyang.
Though it seemed that Thomas died meaninglessly, the gospel he shared became a cornerstone of the Korean church. Many of the people of Pyongyang came to faith in Jesus after drinking from the waters of the Daedong River, where he was martyred. Not only did Pyongyang become the center of the Korean church, but it was nicknamed the “Jerusalem of the East” until the liberation of the Japanese colony. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The fruit of that life-giving work of Robert Thomas has given birth to the Pyongyang Great Revival, to millions of Korean saints today, and to more than twenty thousand missionaries sent from Korea to the ends of the earth.
This article is part of the Missionary Biographies collection.
- Stella Price, Chosen for Choson (Korea): Robert Jermain Thomas: Choe Nam Hun, (Emmaus Road Ministries, 2007).↩