“Other” Temples, Mormonism in Asia, and Korean Saints: My First Trip to Asia

By July 8, 2008

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. [1] 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.


[1] 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.


  1. Great travelogue, Christopher. Thanks. Did you happen to see this while over there?

    Comment by Steve Evans — July 8, 2008 @ 11:25 am

  2. Thanks for this, Chris; Good to have you back.

    Comment by Ben — July 8, 2008 @ 11:39 am

  3. Thanks, Chris. Maybe some future scholar will find your travel-writing here and will analyze how a Mormon Westerner constructed images of Korea. Very nice.

    Comment by David G. — July 8, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  4. On your first point, my dad came to pick me up from Japan at the end of my mission, and we spent 10 days touring around. Even though I served nowhere near the Tokyo temple and had never gone inside, we went out of our way to stop by and take a picture. A few years later, I took my wife to Japan for a few weeks and we spent a significant amount of time getting to the temple just to take a picture of the outside. I have no explanation for why other than it seemed like the natural thing to do.

    Comment by DCL — July 8, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  5. Steve, unfortunately I missed that. Great link, thanks.

    Ben, David: Its good to be back. Thanks.

    DCL, thanks for sharing. Your suggestion that “it seemed like the natural thing to do” makes sense to me, though I still don’t understand why that is the case.

    Comment by Christopher — July 8, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

  6. Question #1

    As a missionary I attended the ground breaking for the Seoul temple. Attending a session a decade later among the Korean saints was a powerful experience.

    I’ve taken time during business trips to attend the temple in Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei.

    Question #2

    It was at times an akward fit — young missionaries with the title of ‘Elder’ coupled with a language where the status/relationship determine which level of apeech and honorifics are used.

    Comment #1
    Steve’s link may explain why my Korean companion always turned off the fan after I fell asleep. I guess that showed he cared. 🙂

    Comment by KEN — July 8, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

  7. Ditto to Ben’s comment, good to have you back, and great reflections.

    Comment by Jared T — July 8, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

  8. Welcome back!

    I go out of the way to visit temples while traveling. I think some part of the reason is non-rationalistic: I like temples in a basic, Pavlovian sort of way (other ways also); things we like, we tend to move toward; when we can’t, we feel disappointed.

    Comment by Edje — July 8, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  9. KEN, thanks for weighing in, esp. in regard to #2. That’s what I suspected.

    Jared and Edje, thanks for the welcome back. And interesting thoughts, Edje. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — July 8, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

  10. 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.

    I have never been to Korea, but have visited several Buddhist sites in China. They are often “touristized”–you must buy an admission ticket, there is often a gift shop, and so on. Despite the fact that the temples are sacred sites, I often felt that this tourism-oriented approach invited the irreverent behavior of tourists (Chinese and Western alike). Is there a similar phenomenon in Korea?

    Comment by Steve M — July 9, 2008 @ 12:59 am

  11. The Korea temple was built a couple of years after my mission there. One interesting story of its construction is that at the same time the temple was being built, another denomination was building a new church in the same area. The other church was carefully watching how tall the steeple was, making sure that theirs was taller. They thought they had won, until the Angel Moroni was put on the temple. By then it was too late for them to catch up.

    One of the most interesting p-days for me there happened by chance. We would often take a bus line out to the country and ride it to the end of the line. Once there, we would hike around and see what we could find. On this day, it happened that we found a Buddhist temple that was celebrating its 2500th anniversary (or some other huge number). They thought we were American Buddhists visiting our Korean cousins to join in the celebration, and we didn’t tell them otherwise. Even though the feast was over, they sat us down and brought out the leftovers. I don’t know what they started with, but it was still a great spread by the time we got there. We visited each of the shrines at the site, and they encouraged us to take pictures. When our visit was over, they gave us small commemoration pendants to remember the day. I still have it, nearly 30 years later.

    Comment by CS Eric — July 9, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

  12. As an American resident in Seoul for over 20 years and a returned missionary I may be able to add a little to your understanding.

    We often have visitors from the US (and, more rarely, from other English speaking countries) attend our meetings with the local military branch and almost all of them ask for directions to and information about the temple. There does seem to be something that draws members to the temple – maybe it is nothing more than the desire to be able to tell people “back home” that they did it, maybe it is something more. I suppose it very much depends on the individual. The temple, by the way, was dedicated in 1984.

    As for Christianity in Korea, Korea is one of the most Christian nations in Asia (we usually consider Russia to be a European nation rather than Asian even though is spans both continents). Much of this is due, I believe, to history. For most of Asia Christianity was the religion of the Imperialists invaders and, while that helped spread the religion in some cases it likely was a sticking point for many locals. In Korea the invading imperialist power was Japan – certainly not a “Christian nation” – and Christian missionaries from the west (the US in particular) and converted Koreans were among the strongest supporters of the Korean independence movement. Prior to the Japanese annexation of Korea Christianity was not popularly received especially because of the Christian opposition to Confucian rituals considered to be ancestor ?worship?.

    While the early Protestant missionaries may have railed against the evil of tobacco it was apparently a fruitless effort. Only recently, as the negative health effects of tobacco are becoming too obvious to be denied, have Korean males begun to cut down on smoking. Smoking and heavy drinking are extremely important in most social settings for Korean men. At the same time, smoking among women is a recent phenomenon. My mission years were 1978 to 1980 and I never saw a woman under the age of 60 smoking (old ?grandmothers? who had passed 60 were allowed to do pretty much anything they liked and they quite often took up smoking with their cronies). Now, while many younger women smoke, it is still a small percentage of the population and not very common in public situations.

    Compliance with the requirements of the Word of Wisdom is one of the greatest problems for the church in Korea. Smoking and drinking with co-workers is pretty much a pre-requisite for success (or even continued employment) in the work-a-day world for men. It takes a strong man to resist the pressure and many Korean male members of the church stop attending and participating because the succumb to the pressure. They feel guilty about doing so and, though many that I have talked with retain a firm testimony of the gospel, they give up church activity. My impression is that the priesthood burden falls heavily on the shoulders of a relatively small number of extremely dedicated men and it is not uncommon to see cases of burn-out among them.

    As for the respect for the aged and learned issue ? yes it is true that Koreans generally show great respect to the elderly and have a great regard for scholarship. As a missionary, however, my experience was that I was always treated with respect and honored for that role (far more than most of us deserved). Within a year of the end of my missionary service I returned to attend a local university to continue my language studies and was amazed at how much less respect and deference shown. It was not quite the difference between night and day but close to it. Bear in mind that this too is changing as Korea modernizes and there is less of it today than 30 years ago.

    As for members of the church, I think that because of the difficulty of maintaining church standards those who are active members are truly thrilled when they meet foreign members. It validates their sacrifice and tells them that, despite the derision of society, there are others who have gone through the conversion experience and received a testimony. That said, there is not a lot of interaction between the foreign branches and the local Wards and Stakes even though we share buildings. My impression is that this is due mostly to the language/culture barrier.

    I have seen many American saints move in who are anxious to do things with the Koreans and frequently when we have moved into a new building with a different ward there is an initial excitement on the part of the Koreans to get to know the Americans and do things together. But it doesn?t last much beyond the first joint activity. People on both sides realize how hard it is to form close relationships when you can?t communicate (I saw the same problem in the US in a ward I was in that shared the building with a deaf branch ? great intentions that are not able to overcome the communication barriers).

    Koreans, for the most part, are a very spiritual people and I have heard first-hand remarkable stories of dreams and visions. With the strong Confucian emphasis on family relationships (and Confucianism is probably and stronger force in Korea life and society than Buddhism) the church?s family focus is a great draw.

    The LDS church, in contrast with other Christians, has not forbidden members to take part in Confucian rituals, seeing them as showing respect and gratitude to ancestors rather than worship. Genealogy is very important in Confucianism and, hence, to Koreans. Many family groups have published genealogies (those these follow only the male line; father to father to father). The churches teachings regarding genealogy work and Temple ordinances falls right in line with these long-held Korean practices and Korean saints have responded quite well to this part of the church.

    I could go on and on but I?m sure you gotten more than you were expecting already. I love living in Korea. Once you get beyond the language it can be a wonderful experience. I?m glad you enjoyed your visit. Come again and stay a while.

    Comment by Lee — July 10, 2008 @ 7:54 pm


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