1866 was a busy year for many around the world. In America, President Andrew Johnson formally declared the War Between the States to be over. The North was victorious; the South was temporarily defeated. It was decimated, and we were picking up the pieces of our old lives and finding a niche to fit into in this “new” South that was created. We were in the middle of the Reconstruction Era, a nightmare for the beloved southland.
Up North the bureaucrats were busy passing amendments — the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, to be precise. The Civil Rights amendments.
In Tennessee, Fisk University opened it’s doors. This is the university that would train the Jubilee Singers that would soon cause the title “Music City” to be bestowed upon Nashville, after they sang for Queen Victoria in England.
Internationally, the Royal Aeronautical Society was formed in London, becoming the oldest aeronautical society in the world. Johann Strauss, the ‘Waltz King’ of Austria was born.
And in the midst of all this excitement and change, a man would change the course of a nation. Very quietly, behind the scenes, without a lot of fanfare. He would end up giving his life for his Master, in fulfilling the dream he had held for a long while.
A welsh missionary to China, Robert J. Thomas was a man who was in love with Korea. But Korea had closed its doors to foreigners. It wanted none of them, after seeing what had happened in Korea. But this man couldn’t just leave this country in its ignorance — it had been engraved upon his heart and he knew Christ would have him to do something.
Now, Mr. Thomas didn’t speak Korean. September 13, 1865, he ‘slipped’ onto the coast of Korea, to learn all he could about the unfriendly neighbor of the country he had been living in. He passed out tracts and materials written in Chinese, since he didn’t have access to ones in the Korean language, praying that they would be beneficial to those who would receive them. He studied the Korean language until he could understand it enough to create material in these peoples language. He was, in effect, the fist protestant missionary in that land of darkness. He couldn’t stay over there forever, and he soon slipped away and back into China. Soon after arriving there his wife died, and he was plunged into a state of mourning for several months.
In August of 1866, Robert Thomas heard of a ship, the General Sherman that was going to attempt to establish trade relations with Korea. Having no wife, he decided to be a part of this mission, offering to go as an interpreter for the ship. As the ship headed toward Pyongyang he tossed out tracts on the river banks, for the natives to find later.
The government of Korea soon heard of the boat coming up the Taedong River throwing out paper, and ordered it to leave. The American traders defied the warning. We don’t know if Robert Thomas agreed or disagreed with their decision to continue, but we know that the traders paid for their decision with their lives.
The ship ran aground and stuck in the muddy bottom. Pak Kyu Su, the governor of the province, decided this would be an opportune time to take a stand. He rallied the inhabitants and attacked the ship. For two weeks the Americans held them back, killing twenty people and injuring several others.
On September 3, 1866, the Koreans had more than enough. The ship had continued to defy their orders, the traders had killed their people, and they were getting no where. So they made a decision to take decisive action, and prepared a boat to be burned. They set it afire and sent it floating towards the General Sherman. Now the traders had a decision — stay on the boat and be burned, or flee for their lives. As they fled, the Koreans cut them down with machetes.
Robert J. Thomas, the man in love with Korea, fled the boat with the rest. He saw the others die. And, true to the mission God had given him to the last, he ran towards the attackers, a Bible printed in Korean in his outstretched hand. He called out to them “Jesus! Jesus!” in their language…but it was seemingly in vain. Here the account gets muddy — he either had his head removed by a machete, or was beaten to death. However he did, it is clear that he died for the God he served, the country he loved, and the Lord he wanted them to know.
One of the men who killed Mr. Thomas believed that he had killed a good man because he had a nice face. A face that remained nice in the face of death. He kept the Bible that had been offered to them. He saw it was important to this white man, and he brought it home. He used its pages to wall paper his home.
The strangely wall papered home became the center of the work Christ was doing in Korea. People came from all over to read the walls, copy the walls, and memorize the walls. A house church was established there, and the nephew of the man who killed Mr. Thomas became a pastor.
Today 40% of South Koreans are followers of Christ, even through intense persecution. While North Korea is mostly closed to the gospel, many large congregations are scattered all over South Korea. Truly God did a work in the nation when the Robert J. Thomas died with an outstretched Bible in his hand.
“We have heard the joyful sound:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Spread the tidings all around:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Bear the news to every land,
Climb the mountains, cross the waves;
Onward! ’tis our Lord’s command;
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!”
Learn more about Robert Thomas by reading
Jesus Freaks by Voice of the Martyrs