Today’s Most Effective North Korean Missionary: A 19th Century Scot

Today’s Most Effective North Korean Missionary: A 19th Century Scot

Here’s a piece I wrote with Release International’s Scotland Area Representative James Fraser following Dr. Foley’s and my recent visit.

Every year, hundreds of South Korean and Chinese tourists flock to Scotland. They come for the customary reasons: to see the beauty, the history, and the castles of this blessed land.

But a steady stream of South Korean and Chinese Christians also come annually on a more unique pilgrimage. They come to pay their respects to the 19th Century Scottish missionary John Ross, whom they consider to be one of the fathers of Christianity in their respective countries.

Ross was born in the small north Scotland town of Nigg. He was the minister of a church on Skye before being called to Northeast China in 1872 by the Scottish Union Presbyterian Mission. While serving as a pioneering missionary there, Ross was intrigued by the “hermit kingdom” of Korea, completely closed to foreigners but accessible to trade through the so-called “Corean Gate”. In the midst of vigorous daily engagement with sceptical, interested, and sometimes hostile Chinese residents, Ross also learned Korean from unsuccessful Korean traders. He evangelized these traders by enlisting their help in the creation of the first ever Korean translation of the New Testament, in 1887. A burgeoning “Three-Self” (government registered) church located in Shenyang, China remains the most visible fruit of his considerable efforts in China, the country to which he was officially sent.

After a quiet and uneventful return from China in 1910, he served as a church elder in Edinburgh until passing away in 1915. It is to this church and nearby cemetery that Chinese and South Korean pilgrims are drawn, many dropping in to pray, take photos, and shed moving tears of genuine thanksgiving. John Ross may be remembered (or, more likely, completely forgotten) in his own country as just another 19th century Scottish missionary, but this father of the churches of Korean and Northeast China won’t soon be forgotten by the descendants of those to whom he was sent.

An analysis of John Ross’ missionary methods reveals him to have been a man far ahead of his 19th century time—so far ahead, in fact, that he remains a man yet ahead of his time in the 21st. His missionary methods did not rely on converting sinners, establishing churches, or discipling new believers. His method was simply to present Christ clothed only in the vernacular language of the people—that is, to co-labour with working class non-believers to bring the words of Christ to life in their own everyday speech, and then to get the results into the hands of other working class people, for them to debate, discuss together, and ultimately be transformed by.

That was the stunning result of his completely serendipitous turn to Korea. Facing the barrier of stigma and risk that prevented Korean merchants from associating with foreigners, he eventually developed relationships with several down-on-their-luck traders. These men were of questionable character and were certainly not Christian, let alone admirable adherents of any religion. But Ross put himself in a position of dependence upon them, regarding them as cultural-linguistic experts in whose hands he sought to entrust a sacred task.  In the process, this most unlikely group of Bible translators brought the words of Christ to life in the marketplace dialect of northwest Korea. And then they were mesmerized by these same words and came to personally know the Lord who first spoke them. At a time when Chinese was the official language of literature and commerce and respectable books in Korean were scarce to non-existent, Ross’s cohort of reprobate evangelists smuggled more than fifteen thousand of these Korean New Testaments from China back into Korea. And thus the Korean church was born. When Appenzeller and Underwood, the first “official” missionaries to Korea, entered the country in 1885, they were beset by hundreds of requests from Koreans for baptism. Perplexed how a country without a missionary could come to know Christ, Appenzeller and Underwood found that Christ had been there before them, in the form of the Ross New Testament. Small covert groups of readers had huddled together around each copy, listening to this marketplace Jesus sharing the words of life in the dialect of a northwest Korean commoner. As more and more Koreans came to know this Jesus, they sought to follow his instruction—”Believe and be baptized”—and this prompted them to beat a path to Appenzeller and Underwood’s doors. Nothing like it had ever happened in the history of Christian mission, before or since.

Today, more than 130 years later, other linguistically superior translations have supplanted the original Ross New Testament, but no missionary method has succeeded or even survived in North Korea other than his. Pitilessly persecuted first by Japanese occupiers and then by the anti-Christian Kim family dynasty of North Korea to whom they gave way, the underground North Korean church still does not have ecclesiastical structures, church buildings, or discipleship programs. Instead, it continues to cling to Christ clothed only in the North Korean vernacular of his word. This is the missionary method of John Ross: Small groups huddled around dog-eared pages (and now digital audio on SD card-loaded smartphones) hearing Jesus speak like a 21st century North Korean black market trader. Through this simple missionary method, sent in the form of 15,000 homely Bibles by a 19th century Scottish missionary who never once lived there, North Korea continues to boast one of the fastest-growing churches in the world despite also boasting arguably the worst sustained persecution in human history.

Ross would be aghast at the thought of a steady stream of pilgrims trekking halfway around the world to pay homage to him at his grave. The closing words of his sadly underappreciated but masterful book, Mission Methods in Manchuria, are as true today as when he first wrote them in 1910: “The greatest and most urgent work now claiming the energy of the Church of Christ is the renovation of China” (and, for that matter, North Korea). Now is not the time for homage to the dead. It is the time for Jesus to speak again, for new ne’er-do-wells to bring the word of life into every nook and cranny vernacular of the Communist-crushed lands of Northeast Asia and beyond. Now is still the time for all of them—and all of us—to huddle together in small groups around dog-eared pages and then respond to the summons to believe and be baptized. It is the only mission method that endures, as the Apostles themselves would attest.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea, the sister mission of Release International, friend of the persecuted church, recently translated John Ross’ Mission Methods in Manchuria into Chinese and Korean for the first time (in the modern vernacular of both countries, of course). After more than a hundred years, Korean and Chinese Christians can study and learn the profoundly simple, profoundly powerful method of the missionary who is yet ahead of his time, whose method is as successful when it is put into practice today as it was when he first put it into practice centuries ago. Sadly, it is a method that is a victim of its own success, having fallen into disuse as churches gain the wherewithal to build the buildings, ecclesiastical structures, and discipleship programs John Ross was convinced (rightly, it turns out) would produce little to no fruit. We have committed to provide free copies of Ross’ masterwork to the Scottish churches along the John Ross pilgrimage road so that when the tearful, grateful pilgrims pause for selfies with their camera phones, their Scottish church hosts can say, “Yes, he was a father and a great man, but have you actually read what he wrote? Here is a free copy of his book, in your own language and vernacular. Perhaps you can carry on his method in your own country today.”

The greatest irony is that Ross’ book is no longer in print in English, not available to be pressed into the hands of this current generation of Scottish Christians who could benefit so greatly from its contents. John Ross might suggest that Nigg, Skye, and Edinburgh of the 21st century are not so very different than China and Korea of the 19th century: Both need to hear Christ speak in our brogue. Perhaps today in North Korea a young man is being raised up who will one day come and visit John Ross’ old haunts, bringing the Scottish speaking Christ with him.