The First Protestant Missionary to Korea: Robert Jermain Thomas

In the face of death, Robert Jermain Thomas remained faithful in his mission to share the Good News with people of Korea even though it was not open to the Gospel.

Many Koreans visit the church Robert Jermain grew up in. Source: Robin Drayton

Life as a Student

As Robert grew up, his relationship with the Lord thrived, being the son of a preacher. At the age of 17, Robert preached his first sermon, which he titled “Jesus Christ, The Same Yesterday, Today, Forever (Hebrews 13:8).” In addition to preaching, Robert also picked up foreign languages quickly, which would prove to be useful when he became a missionary.

Challenges Before the Mission Field

In 1863, Robert set sail for China with his newly wedded wife, Caroline Godfrey, as missionaries with the London Missionary Society. Five months after reaching China, however, Caroline died of a sudden miscarriage.

Devastated, Robert decided to move from Shanghai, where he had been a missionary, to Chefoo to work as a customs officer. During this time, he confided in Joseph Edkins of the London Missionary Society and Alexander Williamson of the National Bible Society about his difficulties and emotions after the death of his wife. Williamson encouraged Robert by telling him about the need for missionaries in Korea, which was not divided in that era. Williamson introduced Robert to two Korean Catholic fisherman who were eager for their own copy of God’s Word. Hearing about the need for Bibles in Korea, Robert eagerly began planning to take God’s Word, to the people living in Korea—even though it was only available to them in the Chinese language.

Called to Go to the Hermit Kingdom

In Robert’s time, Korea was not without danger. Locals feared Western influence infiltrating their country and viewed foreigners with suspicion. The people were forbidden to trade with foreigners, and if anyone was caught, they could be arrested or killed. Knowing these risks, Robert still took residence in Korea for a few months to distribute Bibles.

Throughout his time, Robert picked up the Korean language and could communicate the Good News with them in a way they could understand. He also wore a Korean hat to make his Welsh heritage a little less noticeable. After some time, Robert departed from Korea because it was getting too dangerous for foreigners to be in the country.

Becoming the First Protestant Martyr in Korea

Robert eventually returned to Korea a second time, boarding a trade ship called The General Sherman that waved the American flag. It was 1866, and tensions between Koreans and foreigners were at an all-time high, so much so that at various times, crowds of Koreans would demand the foreigners to be put to death.

Throughout his journey on The General Sherman, Robert distributed Bibles. When the ship made it to the Korean city of Pyongyang, locals attacked. Legend has it that Robert jumped overboard with his Bibles and made it to shore, all the while giving out Bibles to the angry crowds and shouting “Jesus, Jesus.” He handed his last Bible to the man who murdered him.

Orders to destroy the Bibles went out, and pages of these Bibles Robert had given away became wallpaper in some people’s homes.

Forty years after Robert’s martyrdom, the Church started to grow in Korea and there was revival. It is said that many of the early Korean Christians have their origins from the Bibles brought to them by Robert Jermain Thomas.

South Korea is now the second largest missionary-sending country after the United States.

What moved Robert to risk his life for the sake of bringing the Good News to Korea? It was simply duty and love that brought him to Korea. He loved the Korean people and wanted to embrace them.

Servant of Christ: Robert Jermain Thomas

Gordon College ARTICLE| New Life from a Martyr’s Death

New World Encyclopedia: Christianity in Korea

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