Presbyterian Worship in Post War Korea

My grandfather describes worship service in post-Korean war mission churches in rural South Korea.

When all was ready we held the worship service. Everyone was seated on the floor, men on one side and women on the other. Mothers often brought several small children with them who ran in and out during the service. If their babies required feeding or any other attention this was cared for without embarrassment wherever they happened to be sitting. Many babies were tied to the backs of their mothers who sometimes stood at the back of the little church jiggling them up and down to keep them quiet or put them to sleep. Often the crowd had been gathering for hours beforehand and occupied themselves with singing hymns while waiting for the service to begin.

I carefully prepared the Communion set with the cloth covers, while the assembled multitude watched with great interest because it seemed to represent something mysterious to people accustomed to all kinds of elaborate shamanistic rituals. The evangelist in charge of the church (or an elder or deacon when there was no evangelist) usually presided, in much the same way services are held here in the United States. Hymns were sung with great enthusiasm, and often off-key as might be expected. There was seldom an instrument, although sometimes the church had acquired a small pump organ played in such a way that it was more hindrance than help.

Prayers were long, and many times (I once counted five) in the same service I heard the same petition, “Oh Lord, thank you for sending your honorable right-hand servant, the missionary, to be with us today!” It always seemed like the Lord did not need to be reminded of this quite so often, and the idea of an honorable servant struck me as somewhat self-contradictory. Then I preached a simple Gospel message, and tried to relate my words to a congregation to whom most of this was new. Perhaps the congregation paid closer attention because my foreign accent (and frequent linguistic boo- boos) was amusing. I suppose I used Luke 19:1-10 more than any other single passage because the story of Jesus and Zaccheus is so understandable and has such an appropriate conclusion with the words, “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

After the sermon came the reception of new members.The names of those received as catechumens were read, and they replied and stood up. I propounded some simple vows to which they responded. Afterwards I announced that they were now catechumens. Then those to be baptized were called forward. Although told to line up in the order called, they always seemed to get mixed up and this caused considerable confusion. Holding the list of names in one hand I baptized with the other, while my assistant held the water and prompted me when I mispronounced the names (which was easy to do). On the first visit to a church it was not unusual for the administering of this sacrament to elicit loud comments from those in the congregation … perhaps a know-it-all member of the church explaining to someone who had never witnessed it what this was all about. If it was a row of little girls, and one of them started to giggle, soon all of them would join in and a stern reprimand would be required. Occasionally an old grandmother would weep with emotion. Once in a small church where all were lepers, an elderly woman whom I baptized did a strange little dance with her feet moving in a circle while the rest of her body stayed still. Another time on a bitterly cold January day in an unheated church, I once watched the water for the baptism in the little bowl freeze over while I was preaching (it wasn’t a very long sermon either) and had to tap and break it before the ceremony!

There were very few infant baptisms, simply because in a new church there were seldom any Christian families. But when infants were presented for baptism, it afforded an opportunity to briefly extol the values of a Christian home. As happens anywhere, we never knew how a baby would behave. It was not my practice to try to hold the child to whom a large foreigner might appear frightening. Besides, in those days diapers were not normally used!

At this point in the service it was customary to announce the appointment of unordained deacons, “kwun-chals,” and Sunday School teachers. The list was usually prepared by the local evangelist ahead of time, and I would approve it, although I seldom knew the people well enough to know who was qualified and simply had to take his word for it. The congregation was always quiet and waited with bated breath for this announcement because to become an officer and therefore entitled to be addressed as “Deacon” so-and-so was a much coveted honor.

Finally all baptized members were asked to sit at the front of the church. Often there were very few (perhaps only a dozen) eligible to partake of Communion and the rest were simply onlookers. Many times, the windows of the little meeting place were wide open but filled with the faces of curious villagers who had never seen such a service before. Here I realized our Savior’s wisdom in giving us the sacraments where, by visible symbols, such deep truths could be taught and remembered by sight and hearing. With both sacraments, my lengthy explanation of their meaning was intended not just for those participating but for all the curious witnesses both inside and outside the church. The climax came as, while thinking of these spectators, I repeated the words of the Savior, “As often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, you do show forth the Lords death until he comes.”

If this was a morning service, we ate dinner wherever it had been prepared for us (usually in the home ofthe most prosperous church member) and moved on afterwards to the next church. While waiting to eat, as many as could crowded into the little room where we talked over local church affairs, answered questions about the Bible and the Christian faith, and discussed everything else from local farming conditions to world affairs. All this was time consuming but provided cultural and physical (literally) close contact with my Korean friends. In the early days when the rice had to be cooked over a wood-fire, several hours wait was often involved. The fires had to be started, the water boiled, and the rice cooked … and that takes time. Often we would hear the “old red hen” give her final squawk before being put into the pot and boiled for the missionary’s dinner. She would then be brought to the table in lordly splendor, with head, feet, and everything else all in one piece. Rarely was a knife provided, so the hostess would come and pull the delectable fowl apart with her fingers.

Evening services usually ran very late, often well past my usual bedtime. I longed to open up my cot, spread out my sleeping bag, and go to sleep. But no! That was not to be. Again, as many church folks as possible crowded into the little room, almost sitting on one another, for more of the inevitable refreshments and continued socializing for what seemed endless hours while I tried to keep my eyes open. Finally they would leave, and we could settle down for the night… usually with my assistant and perhaps several other men in the same room. The fire which heated the floor had been stoked for the night, making the room uncomfortably warm. There were no windows and usually only one door which was made of a wooden lattice work covered over with white Korean paper. This door was always shut tight. As a result in a few minutes with heat in the floor, and several men snoring about me, and no ventilation at all, the situation became unbearably hot and stuffy so far as I was concerned.

(Joe B. Hopper, Mission to Korea, pp. 229-232)