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Korea is the only Asian nation with a significant Protestant presence. One in five South Koreans professes the faith. With more than eight and a half million believers, Protestantism as an organized religion ranks second numerically, not far behind Buddhism, but in terms of power and influence, it is unrivalled. Protestants occupy a central position in the country’s politics, society, and culture. Western missionaries, mostly Americans, introduced Protestantism in the late 19th century. As bearers of Anglo-American civilization, the missionaries built not only churches but also modern hospitals and schools. Korean converts, however, quickly assumed leadership under a policy of self-propagation, self-government, and self-support. In the 1920s and 1930s, the church came of age under popular revivalists who commanded national audiences. The process of indigenization also involved the adaptation to local beliefs and practices, producing a distinctive Korean Protestant tradition. Moreover, because of Japanese colonization, Protestantism did not suffer the stigma of Western imperialism common in other mission fields. Many Protestants, in fact, became nationalist leaders. Following World War II, Korea suffered the division of the country and the Korean War. Protestantism was extinguished in the communist north, leading to a mass exodus to the south, but in South Korea, it thrived. Industrialization and urbanization provided opportunities for the churches to create a sense of community, but it was primarily the aggressive one-on-one proselytization and mass evangelistic campaigns that fueled the dramatic expansion. From the 1960s to 1980s, South Korea became the fastest-growing Christian population in the world. The growth stalled in the 1990s because of the church’s support for previous dictatorial regimes as well as scandals involving Protestant political and corporate leaders. Yet Protestantism today remains a vibrant force in South Korea, home to the largest churches in the world and the base for thousands of Korean missionaries.

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During the 518 years of Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), many things changed and many things stayed the same. After the Yi family established the Chosŏn dynasty, Confucianism became the dominant philosophy. Although Confucianism’s grip on Chosŏn weakened somewhat at the end of the 19th century, it nevertheless continued to provide the basic framework for how government officials and most of the educated elite conceptualized ethics, religion, nature, and technology. This changed when the Chosŏn dynasty was absorbed into the Japanese empire in 1910. Chosŏn-era science, technology, and religion operated within a Confucian framework. This affected astronomical, geographical, mathematical, and medicinal thought and practice. It also affected the role of technology in Chosŏn life and society. Moreover, when Buddhism, folk religion and, from the end of the 18th century even Christianity, were practiced in Korea, it was necessary to maneuver within constraints imposed by a Confucian state and society. Korea’s Confucianism was imported from China. Koreans, however “Koreanized” what they adopted from China to make it their own. When dealing with religion, Chosŏn-era Koreans adopted a much harsher attitude toward non-Confucian religions. When dealing with science and technology, Koreans sometimes made improvements on Chinese models. For example, in the 15th century, Koreans built astronomical instruments that were better than those they had learned about from Chinese astronomers. And, in the 17th century, Koreans produced the most comprehensive encyclopedia of traditional East Asian medicine of pre-modern times. However, none of those changes threatened the hegemony of Confucianism. Chosŏn Korea remained Confucian in its science, technology, and religiosity for over five centuries.