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THE MAKING OF KOREAN PROTESTANTISM IN POSTLIBERATION KOREA (1945–1979) : FOCUSING ON THE ROLE OF THE KOREAN CHRISTIAN ELITE AND THE INFLUENCE OF THE UNITED STATES

Wartenbee, Mi-Ae (Sogang University, Graduate School of International Studies)

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The astounding growth of Protestantism during Korea’s era of nation-building and modernization (1945–1979) is historic and unparalleled in modern history. The rate of growth in Protestant church membership in South Korea in the three decades following liberation far exceeded Protestant church growth...
The astounding growth of Protestantism during Korea’s era of nation-building and modernization (1945–1979) is historic and unparalleled in modern history. The rate of growth in Protestant church membership in South Korea in the three decades following liberation far exceeded Protestant church growth rates during any other time in Korean history. In 1945, Protestant church members numbered only 300,000 in the entire peninsula (North and South Korea). The number of Protestant church members in South Korea grew to 623,072 in 1960; to 3,192,621 in 1970; and to 7,180,627 in 1980, a phenomenal rate of growth in Protestant church membership compared to the growth of Protestantism during those decades in other East Asian countries with a similar Confucian cultural heritage. This study set out to determine if a factor unique to Korean Confucian culture (the dominance of power elites) contributed to the extraordinary growth of Protestantism in the postliberation era and specifically investigated the following question: Did the dominance of Korean Christian power elites, a legacy of Korea’s hierarchical, elite-centered Confucian culture, contribute to the extraordinary growth of Christianity, especially Protestantism, in South Korea from 1945 to 1979 during American occupation and the subsequent era of American influence and dramatic Korean economic development? To answer the research question, this study explored the role of Christian power elites, especially Protestant power elites, in shaping the religious orientation of the masses during Korea’s era of nation-building; modernization; and political, social, and economic development. In particular, the study examined the large percentage of Protestant elites in high-level positions in politics, the government, the military, and the media during the USAMGIK and the first four republics to determine if these elites influenced attitudes toward Protestant Christianity and the spread of that religion in South Korea. The findings of this research reveal that the Korean elites, who were the first Korean converts to Protestantism, used their status, influence, and dominant positions to change the religious behavior and worldview of their fellow Koreans. In a Confucian-inspired hierarchical society, the masses often tend to identify with the religious orientation of their leaders, especially during times of political and economic development, such as Korea’s transition from an occupied territory to a developing republic. Thus, the Protestant elites in the USAMGIK and the first four republics leveraged their power and influence and shaped the religious orientation of many Koreans from the “top down,” from the government and military elites to the middle and lower classes. Korean Christian elites also had the authority, positions, networks, and resources to establish government policies, institutions, organizations, and movements to advance Protestant Christianity in South Korea after liberation.