Faith and Power: New Religious Movements, Authoritarianism, and Democracy in Modern South Korea

New Religious movements, which are usually conceived distinct from traditional, mainstream religions, have a long history in Korea starting with Tonghak (1860), the first Korean new religion. Emphasis will be given to Tonghak in this essay, along with “New Age” religious groups, which have been expanding since the middle of the 1980s in South Korea. These groups differentiate themselves from the existing ‘new religions’ by their non- or less-hierarchical organisational structure. Among other characteristics, the increasing popularity of the programs which these groups offer reflects the changing religious needs in modern South Korean society; in particular, the pursuit of individualism and the subjective objectives of religiosity.

The end of colonial rule in 1945 and the following occupation of Korea changed the country’s religious landscape. The American occupation force issued a decree of religious freedom, freeing religious organisations from state control and encouraging free competition between them. Simultaneously, under the United States occupation a pro-American and anti-Communist standpoint developed as the dominant ideology in the country, and religious groups that supported that ideology obtained influence in society. Accordingly, Catholic and Protestant churches, which were openly hostile to Communism, gained both numbers and influence. In these circumstances, a group of new religions like the Unification Church (founded 1954), the Olive Tree Church (founded 1954), and the Mount Yongmun Retreat (founded 1955) emerged and prospered. These reinterpreted Christian teaching by integrating Eastern ideas and autochthonous beliefs, while stressing a leading role for Korean people in the history of salvation.  

Conversely, original, more deeply established new religions such as Ch’ŏndo-gyo and Taejong-gyo, which maintained traditional values and nationalist ideas and above all favored re-unification, became increasingly marginalised. In the 1960s the South Korean government proceeded with authoritarian state economic development, and in the 1970s industrialisation and urbanisation accelerated. The result was that the traditional social network based on local and kinship ties was largely dissolved, and groups alienated from the process of industrialisation increased in number. During the period a group of new religions came into being which foregrounded Christian eschatology along with the mysticism of traditional Korean folk religions. Additionally, reform movement within old indigenous new religions formed new religions like Chŭngsan-do (founded 1972) and Taesun Jinri-hwoe (founded 1978), which as splinter groups of Chŭngsan-gyo later consolidated as an influential Korean new religion.

Economic growth experienced in South Korea from the 1960s was supported by traditional values and institutions of Confucianism. Focusing on control, harmony, and worker subordination led to national development and increased loyalty to employers. However, this sustained poor working conditions and injustices by drawing upon values of responsibility, service, and cooperation. Religion’s capacity for affecting social change and modernisation can be demonstrated through the profound influence of Protestant Christianity from the nineteenth century. Between 1952 and 1962, more than 32% of the Korean political leadership was comprised of Protestant Christians, which is astonishing given the fact that only about 4% of the Korean population was Protestant Christian during the same period.

Nonetheless, the Catholic Church became more influential in the democratisation movement from the 1960s – principally through the management of post-war relief aid, which was channeled through missionary agencies. Aid included not only modern goods distributed to those in need, but also technologies which were subsequently utilised by the state in the process of modernisation under the authoritarian developmentalist regime of Park Sung-hee. Religion, thus, became inextricable from prosperity and social advancement for Koreans. Accordingly, each regime courted the favor of religious organisations to develop political legitimization. For instance, through the granting of tax privileges, liberty to pursue all kinds of commercial enterprises, and exemption from government scrutiny of financial transactions and status. In so doing, nullifying the potential for anti-authoritarian opposition as a result. This period of such amicable, almost placating, relationships between the state and religion corresponds with the period of rapid and continuous expansion of religion in South Korea.

Here, attention to the political economy of church growth can be examined, raising important questions concerning urban studies of religion. Case studies of megachurch construction projects such as the controversial Sa-Rang project reveal the contested terrain of church finance, resource allocation, and public policy. Critical church leaders advocated for self-consciously small local churches as an oppositional antigrowth movement to counter the megachurch model. This is demonstrated by the localism related to the Minjung church, or Korean liberation theology, of the 1970s and 1980s. While ‘microchurches’ in South Korea, including churchless churches without their own buildings, “organic churches” that eschew formal bureaucratic structure, and underground house churches, sought to defy government regulation and state registry, small churches faced significant challenges in high-stakes redevelopment and precarious urban property regimes in places like Seoul. They also highlight how the gospel of prosperity espoused by megachurch leaders not only operates in rhetoric but also shapes the built environment.

The rapid growth of these religions is due to the reevaluation of traditional Korean culture in the 1970s and 1980s as a part of a protest movement against the rigorous modernisation policy of the dictatorial regime of that period. It is noteworthy that college campuses were hotbeds of both the pro-democracy movement and of these religions, which were critical toward modern materialised society and offered alternative world views that have an affinity with traditional Korean religious culture. The new religions that appeared during that time have in common that they are urban-centered and emphasise individual salvation. Since the 1980s the tendency to seek “salvation” at the individual level has been strengthened. This tendency relates to material abundance as well as to the advanced fragmentation of society brought about by the evidence of industrialisation or modernisation within South Korea. Consequently, old ‘new religions’ which propagate collective salvation together with a concern for the good of the community have declined.

At the same time, a totally new type of religious group surfaced. These differentiate themselves from the existing new religions by their non-hierarchical, loose organisational structure and the fact that they gather paying clients instead of committed believers. The appearance of these groups reflects changed modern religious interests in Korea, simultaneously seeking individual well-being and the maximisation of rapid socio-economic and political change. Accordingly, these new religious groups offer techniques that promise to produce a perfect harmony between body and mind, while activating previously latent human abilities. Certainly, the spread of this kind of self-centered and this-worldly religious activity outside of established religions is not confined to South Korean society but is a global phenomenon, observed especially in post-capitalist societies and generally named “New Age” or “new spirituality.”

Focusing on Ch’ondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way) as Korea’s oldest indigenous organised religion, dating back to 1860, the new religious movement is clearly a product of pluralism – providing a unique alternative experiential theology. In addressing the needs of the oppressed through a language of egalitarianism, Ch’ondogyo challenged Neo-Confucianism and advocated its dissolution. Factionalised after 1945, between North and South, as well as between Old and New factions in the South from May 1946, along with divisions over social and political organisation, the division of the peninsula and the Korean War severely affected Ch’ŏndogyo’s organisation and membership. Under the regime of Syngman Rhee the new religious movement was repressed due to connections with North Korea, facilitating its decline and dissolution in the South. Southern Ch’ŏngudang members who had taken refuge in the North were put on trial, as well as the religious leaders connected with Ch’ŏndogyo’s Bureau of Religious Affairs. Ch’ŏndogyo’s worship halls were closed in 1952, although there were limited rituals that continued within the Ch’ŏngudang until 1954. By 1959, Ch’ŏndogyo was a shell of its former self.

To respond to the humanitarian concerns in North Korea, South Korean evangelicals have established or used previously existing humanitarian organisations and carried out holistic missions in North Korea, with both responding to the perceived needs of the mission field while respecting the socio-political conditions imposed by the South and North Korean governments. However, evangelicals are also willing to challenge South Korean governments through advocating for the transformation of North Korean society and the state of division. Their aim is to work for the reconstruction and reunification of an imagined Christian nation. Meanwhile, some evangelicals reflect on mission strategies to North Korea and seek to understand the North Korean worldview better, attempting to implement cross-cultural missiological principles to pursue their mission successfully. Evangelicals have been shaped by and have engaged with their context: they are not apolitical, but in fact are driven by Christian nationalism, while also engaging with issues of poverty and injustice.   

The development of unification talks from the 1970s saw a revival of Ch’ŏndogyo’s fortunes as the North found that the Ch’ŏngudang might be useful in opening contact with the South. However, despite attempts throughout the 1950s and 1960s to reorganise, the division, chaos, and disorganisation caused by the Korean War, as well as persecution in the North where it had the most members, had taken its toll on the religious organisation. Because of this, Ch’ŏndogyo proved less able than other religions in South Korea to adjust to a rapidly industrialising society, and make itself appealing to new adherents in a radically changed society. Persecution of Ch’ŏndogyo in the North improved its image in the South, but Ch’ŏndogyo chose to maintain a low profile politically and socially and this was further accentuated by a lack of human and economic resources. Ch’ŏndogyo continued to struggle with a lack of conversion, economic regression and poor retention.

Ultimately, the emergence and development of New Religious Movements in modern Korea began following the Korean War, as the turning point where the native Christian groups emerged. Then, the ensuing period of authoritarian statism and rapid industrialisation during the 1960s and 1970s provided the climate in which new religious leaders established unique teachings and practices. Eventually, when the traditional churches were rapidly growing in the post-1980s democratisation process, the generation who personally experienced the previous prophetic and mystical groups challenged the urban society with the alternative theology. Interestingly, the eschatological focus of many new religious movements – rooted in the Korean Protestant end-of-the-world-doctrine – can be explained through the persistence of national upheavals in Korea’s modern history, from colonialism, war, division and growing socio-economic inequality and poverty, events which have deepened their sense of immediateness of the end of the end of the world.  There exists a flourishing pluralism within modern Korean religious culture, with a balance between tradition and new movements. Religion continues to expand its influence, through the increasing presence of religious organisations and enterprises – both charitable and commercial, into all spheres of Korean everyday life.

Written by Jack Bennett


Kim, Andrew Eungi. “Characteristics of Religious Life in South Korea: A Sociological Survey,” Review of Religious Research 43, no. 4 (2002): 291-310.

Han, Ju Hui Judy. “Urban megachurches and Contentious Religious Politics in Seoul.” In Handbook of Religion and the Asian City, edited by Peter van der Veer, 133-151.Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: