A programme was broadcast last night on S4C on Robert Jermain Thomas, one of the first Protestant missionaries to Korea. The programme follows acclaimed writer and journalist Jon Gower as he goes on a journey, which is spiritual as well as historical, to Korea today and compares the rise of Christianity with Wales. The programme also shows missionaries today who are coming from Korea to serve in Wales.
The programme can be watched on http://www.s4c.co.uk/clic/e_level2.shtml?programme_id=523144673
English subtitles are available by pressing ‘S’.
“This is a story about the central role of a Welsh missionary; a story which isn’t well known in Wales, but Robert Jermain Thomas brought Christianity to an Asian country and sacrificed his life in the process,” says Jon Gower.
In 1865 Robert Jermain Thomas ventured to Korea to help introduce Protestantism to the country. Today, 150 years later, the missionary’s influence is still clearly felt in South Korea. About a third of the South Korean population are Christian, and a number of Koreans are worried that the Welsh are losing their faith.
“South Korean churches are huge buildings; in Seoul the Sarang Church looks more like the headquarters of an oil company in Houston,” explains Jon, who travelled to visit this sacred site. “If you go to the church you see hundreds of people being baptised, around 40,000 worshippers, there is a full orchestra there, and also a choir which is larger than the Eisteddfod choir. And then you turn a corner, and you come across a chapel, exactly like those in Wales, and an exhibition about Wales, with a portrait of the leader of the 1904 revival in Wales, Evan Roberts, and Welsh books on display.”
Jon admits that he too has lost his faith. “The Koreans realise that Wales is moving from being one of the world’s most religious countries to a secular one, and they want a new revival. They are sending missionaries to be trained in Llanelli in an old foundry near the sea front, in the Robert Jermain Thomas Centre.”
Jon spoke to one of the missionaries in Llanelli who started to cry when Jon mentioned Robert Jermain Thomas, such was his admiration for the Welsh missionary.
Robert Jermain Thomas succeeded in introducing Christianity to South Korea, but what would he think about the state of Christianity on Wales now?
“There is a feeling of excitement in Seoul; it’s almost an echo of how Wales was during the revival of 1904,” Jon explains. “I went to a Buddhist monastery in the mountains of South Korea, and for me it was a more sacred place than the huge church in the city. For me, the Church in Korea is more like a machine, and Christianity is being expressed in a capitalistic way. I’m not comfortable with capitalism, and the service in one of the new churches was too much of a show for someone like me, who’s used to the simplicity of the Welsh Chapel.”