As Christianity has grown dramatically in South Korea over the past few decades (Christians have comprised about 30% of the South Korean population today), the Korean Christian community attributes this expansion to Robert Jermain Thomas (1839-1866), who was considered the first Protestant missionary and martyr in Korea.
Thomas was born in Rhayadar South Wales (UK) in 1839. At the age of 15, he began to preach in his church where his father was a minister. At 24, he was ordained to be a missionary with the London Missionary Society. After having mastered nearly all the European languages and studied medicine for 18 months and spent five years at London University, Thomas, accompanied by his young bride Caroline, embarked for China, and they arrived in Shanghai in December 1863.
Sadly, after four months his bride died. With grief, Thomas resigned from the Mission Society, and went to Peking and became a lecturer in English and Chinese. Later he became an agent for the National Bible Society of Scotland and exported Bibles to Korea.
In 1866, Thomas was killed along with other General Sherman crew during the Sherman-Korean Collision when he was hired as the interpreter for the crew. Some witnesses of that conflict later gave accounts about Thomas’s “heroic deed” to spread the Gospel before his death. His image as the first Protestant martyr for Korea was stronger and stronger as Christianity grew in Korea. On the initiative of some Presbyterian ministers, a church was dedicated in Pyong Yang in September 1931 to remember the contribution and death of this young British missionary. This church was closed down later by the Communist regime and damaged.
However, Thomas’s martyrdom is not without controversy. “The General Sherman Incident of 1866 and Rev. Thomas' Martyrdom” by Professor Han Gyu Mu challenges Thomas's image as the first Christian martyr for Korea. There are also articles back that image.