I returned on Sunday from a trip to Korea. My wife and I joined her mother, three younger brothers, and 15 others from the boys’ Taekwondo school in New Jersey on a two-week guided tour of South Korea. I came back with a scruffy beard, an intense longing for an American cheeseburger, and a head full of random thoughts on all things religious in Korea. I thought JI readers might be interested in a few of those thoughts, and that the blog might be a good place to get feedback to some of my rambling reflections. I should disclose here that this was my first visit to anywhere in Asia, and that my experience and understanding of Eastern religions (and Mormonism & Christianity in Asia) is limited to brief readings in academic books and journals, as well as Heidi’s fascinating research on Mormon perceptions of Asian race. I should probably also ask for your indulgence in this slightly more personal and less academic post. Thanks.
Observation and Related Question(s) #1: On the 14-hour plane ride to Incheon, my mother-in-law asked me if Korea had a Mormon temple. I hadn’t even considered it until that point, and replied that there was a temple in Seoul that I was sure had been around for (relatively speaking) a long time. We decided that if time permitted (we were with a tour group, and free time was severely limited), we would visit the Seoul Temple. Unfortunately, the hotel at which we stayed for our four days in Seoul ended up being about an hour-long cab ride from the Temple (or so we were told), and we were not able to make it there. I found myself disappointed, but to a greater degree than I had anticipated feeling. I wondered that night why I wanted to visit the Mormon sacred site so desperately. Was it a simple desire to find something familiar in a very foreign place? A longing to visit one of my own sacred sites after a week of being in awe at those of other groups? If so, does this make the Seoul Temple (and other international Mormon temples) official places of pilgrimage for Saints visiting from other countries, like I was? Have any readers set aside time on a vacation, business trip, etc. to visit a Mormon temple?
Observation and Related Question(s) #2: While visiting one of the many Buddhist temples we saw in Korea, an individual in our tour group queried our Korean tour guide if he was Buddhist. He replied that he was not, but mentioned his grandfather had been. Later on that week, when I had a more private setting to ask him further about his own religious identity, he explained that he was a Christian, “but not a very good one.” He had taken an interest in my academic training as a student of religious history, and seemed open to sharing more. When I asked what his comment meant, he explained that he smoked, occasionally drank, and attended church only sporadically. I didn’t press further, but his comment makes sense in light of recent research by Korean religious scholar Dae Young Ryu on Evangelical Protestantism in Korea. Ryu’s work reveals that the first American missionaries to Korea (in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) carried with them “reverberating hostility against tobacco,” along with other “paternalistic . . . demands” of their Korean converts, including “most important[ly]” the requirement that candidates for baptism “maintain an impeccable Sabbath observance record.” Ryu concluded by explaining that “the legacies of American missionaries and the early Korean church remain powerful in the ‘Puritan’ ethical standards . . . of the Korean Protestant churches” today.  Another point Ryu raises and that was evident during my short stay in Korea was the emphasis on respect for scholars and teachers of any stripe, as well as (compared to Western cultures) a heightened respect for the elderly (who often are the scholars and teachers). Ryu suggests this was crucial in Christianity’s early success there because Korean culture demanded that Koreans respect the American missionaries’ status as teachers and scriptural scholars. All of this makes me presents a number of fascinating avenues for research on Mormonism in Korea. How is Mormonism’s health code, often considered so burdensome in Western society, viewed by Korean Latter-day Saints and by competing missionaries in that country? It also appears that Mormon missionaries, as ordained ministers that are nevertheless quite youthful, present an interesting paradox to Korean cultural custom of respecting and listening to elderly teachers. Anyone have any insight on either of these (or related) questions?
Observation and Related Question #3: On our second-to-last day in Korea, we briefly stopped in at a local souvenir shop and restaurant. The middle-aged woman behind the counter recognized my brother-in-law’s BYU hat, and lit up as she exclaimed, “Mor-Mone! Mor-Mone!” while pointing to herself. When we responded that we too were Mormons, she got teary-eyed, and through our Korean tour guide acting as translator, explained that she had joined the Church 33 years ago and that her daughter was currently serving a mission at Temple Square. She insisted that my bros-in-law, wife, and I all receive a free Ice Cream and/or drink, and lovingly embraced each one of us as we left, using all of the relevant English she apparently knew to say, “Brothers and Sisters! Church Members!” It was, to be sure, a touching and wonderful moment. In that instant I felt more at home and comfortable than I had anytime else during those two weeks. The feeling of kinship and commonality expressed and felt struck me like it hasn’t in a long time. However, as our tour bus left the parking lot, my thoughts were interrupted by my academic training and critical thinking. Though it didn’t lessen the experience at all, I found myself wondering just how much that woman and I had in common. What does the Church mean to her, and how does that compare to what it means to me? Is there more commonality than a belief in a modern prophet, restored priesthood authority, and eternal families (all broadly defined)? Was there a wider divide than was apparent in our short encounter because of our divergent cultures and lifestyles outside of a shared religious identity (again, broadly defined)? I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I am convinced more than ever that they are crucial to the continually expanding of Mormonism into new countries and cultures.
There’s a host of other things I could comment on and share . . . the contrasting architecture of Christian meetinghouses and Buddhist temples in Korea, and how these contrasting approaches serve to define sacred space there, deserve more attention than I feel qualified to offer here. The utter lack of repect shown by Westerners visiting the sacred Buddhist sites was both sad and unsurprising, and left me wondering how Mormons specifically view and treat others’ religious space. My brothers-in-law (ages 6, 9, and 12) not understanding that the sites we visited were as sacred to Buddhists as Mormon temples are to Latter-day Saints is one thing, but the frustration expressed by another Latter-day Saint on the trip that Buddhist monks preferred not to pose for pictures suggests that the answer to my question is not encouraging.
In all, the trip was enlightening and as I hope this post suggests, thought-provoking. Academically-speaking, it appears that studies focusing on Mormonism in Korea specifically, and Mormonism in Asia more generally, is rich with possibilities. Heidi’s informative research and Reid Neilson’s excellent work on the subject have laid a solid groundwork on which there is room for other scholars to expand for years to come. Personally speaking, I was confronted in my limited interaction with Korean religion with questions that I’d read about, researched, and formed opinions on, but for the first time, was forced to address (at least in my own mind) in a way that is now much more real.
 Dae Yound Ryu, “The Origin and Characteristics of Evangelical Protestantism in Korea at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” Church History 77 (June 2008), 380-81, 398.