Historical and Modern Religions of Korea

Praying with lanterns (lets.book/Flickr)

Unlike some cultures where a single religion is dominant, Korean culture includes a wide variety of religious elements that have shaped the people's way of thinking and behavior. In the early stages of history in Korea, religious and political functions were combined but later became distinct.

Historically, Koreans lived under the influences of shamanism, Buddhism, Daoism or Confucianism and in modern times, the Christian faith has made strong in roads into the country, bringing forth yet another important factor that may change the spiritual landscape of the people. The rapid pace of industrialization which occurred within a couple of decades compared to a couple of centuries in the West, has brought about considerable anxiety and alienation while disrupting the peace of mind of Koreans, encouraging their pursuit of solace in religious activities. As a result, the population of religious believers has expanded markedly with religious institutions emerging asian influential social organizations.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution in Korea. According to a 1995 social statistics survey, 50.7 percent of Koreans follow a specific religious faith. Buddhists account for some 46 percent followed by Protestants at 39 percent and Catholics at 13 percent of the religious population.


Shamanism is a primitive religion which does not have a systematic structure but permeates into the daily lives of the people through folklore and customs. Neolithic man in Korea had animistic beliefs that every object in the world possessed a soul.

Man was also believed to have a soul that never dies. So a corpse was laid with its head toward the east in the direction of the sunrise. Neolithic man believed that while good spirits like the sun would bring good luck to human beings, evil spirits would bring misfortune.

Shamanism gradually gave way to Confucianism or Buddhism as a tool for governing the people but its influence lingered on. The shaman, mudang* in Korean, is an intermediary who can link the living with the spiritual world where the dead reside. The shaman is considered capable of averting bad luck, curing sickness and assuring a propitious passage from this world to the next. The shaman is also believed to resolve conflicts and tensions that might exist between the living and the dead.

Korean shamanism includes the worship of thousands of spirits and demons that are believed to dwell in every object in the natural world,including rocks, trees, mountains and streams as well as celestial bodies.

Shamanism in ancient Korea was a religion of fear and superstition, but for modern generations, it remains a colorful and artistic ingredient of their culture. A shamanistic ritual, rich with exorcist elements,presents theatrical elements with music and dance.

The introduction of more sophisticated religions like Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism did not result in the abandonment of shamanistic beliefs and practices. They assimilated elements of shamanistic faith and coexisted peacefully. Shamanism has remained an underlying religion of the Korean people as well as a vital aspect of their culture.


Buddhism is a highly disciplined philosophical religion which emphasizes personal salvation through rebirth in an endless cycle of reincarnation.

Buddhism was introduced into Korea in 372 CE during the Koguryo Kingdom period by a monk named Sundo who came from Qian Qin Dynasty China. In 384,monk Malananda brought Buddhism to Paekche from the Eastern Jin State of China. In Silla, Buddhism was disseminated by monk Ado of Koguryo by the mid-fifth century. Buddhism seems to have been well supported by the ruling people of the Three Kingdoms because it was suitable as a spiritual prop for the governing structure, with Buddha as the single object of worship like the king as the single object of authority.

Under royal patronage, many temples and monasteries were constructed and believers grew steadily. By the sixth century monks and artisans were migrating to Japan with scriptures and religious artifacts to form the basis of early Buddhist culture there.

By the time Silla unified the peninsula in 668, it had embraced Buddhism as the state religion, though the government systems were along Confucian lines. Royal preference for Buddhism in this period produced a magnificent flowering for Buddhist arts and temple architecture including Pulguk-sa temple and other relics in Kyngju, the capital of Silla. The state cult of Buddhism began to deteriorate as the nobility indulged in a luxurious lifestyle. Buddhism then established the Son sect (Chinese Chan; Japanese Zen) to concentrate on finding universal truth through a life of frugality.

The rulers of the succeeding Koryo Dynasty were even more enthusiastic in their support of the religion. During Koryo, Buddhist arts and architecture continued to flourish with unreserved support from the aristocracy. The Tripitaka Koreana was produced during this period. When Yi Song-gye, founder of the Choson Dynasty, staged a revolt and had himself proclaimed king in 1392, he tried to remove all influences of Buddhism from the government and adopted Confucianism as the guiding principles for state management and moral decorum. Throughout the five-century reign of Choson, any effort to revive Buddhism was met with strong opposition from Confucian scholars and officials.

When Japan forcibly took over Choson as a colonial ruler in 1910, it made attempts to assimilate Korean Buddhist sects with those of Japan.These attempts however failed and even resulted in a revival of interest in native Buddhism among Koreans. The past few decades have seen Buddhism undergo a sort of renaissance involving efforts to adapt to the changes of modern society. While the majority of monks remain in mountainous areas, absorbed in self-discipline and meditation, some come down to the cities to spread their religion. There are a large number of monks indulging in scholastic research in religion at universities in and outside Korea. Son (meditation)-oriented Korean Buddhism has been growing noticeably with many foreigners following in the footsteps of revered Korean monks through training at Songgwang-sa temple in South Cholla province and Son centers in Seoul and provincial cities.


Confucianism was the moral and religious belief founded by Confucius in the 6th century B.C. Basically it is a system of ethical percepts—benevolent love, righteousness, decorum, and wise leadership—designed to inspire and preserve the good management of family and society.

Confucianism was a religion without a god like early Buddhism, but ages passed and the sage and principal disciplines were canonized by late followers.

Confucianism was introduced along with the earliest specimens of Chinese written materials around the beginning of the Christian era. The Three Kingdoms of Kogury, Paekche and Silla all left records that indicate the early existence of Confucian influence. In Koguryo, a state university called T’aehak-kam was established in 372 and private Confucian academies were founded in the province. Paekche set up such institutions even earlier.

The Unified Silla sent delegations of scholars to Tang China to observe the workings of the Confucian institutions first hand and to bring back voluminous writings on the subjects. For Kory Dynasty in the 10th century, Buddhism was the state religion, and Confucianism formed the philosophical and structural backbone of the state. The civil service examination of kwag adopted after the Chinese system in the late 10th century, greatly encouraged studies in the Confucian classics and deeply implanted Confucian values in Korean minds.

The Choson Dynasty, which was established in 1392, accepted Confucianism as the official ideology and developed a Confucian system of education, ceremony and civil administration. When Korea was invaded by many West European countries including Japan in the late 19th century, the Confucianists raised "righteous armies" to fight against the aggressor. Efforts were also made to reform Confucianism to adapt it to the changing conditions of the times.

These reformists accepted the new Western civilization and endeavored to establish a Modern Independence government. Also, during Japan's colonial rule of Korea, these reformists joined many independence movements to fight against imperial Japan. Today, Confucian ancestral worship is still prevalent and filial piety highly revered as a virtue in Korean society.


The tide of Christian mission activity reached Korea in the 17th century, when copies of Catholic missionary Matteo Ricci's works in Chinese were brought from Beijing by the annual tributary mission to the Chinese Emperor. Along with religious doctrine, these books included aspects of Western learning such as the solar calendar and other matters that attracted the attention of the Choson scholars of Sirhakp’a, or the School of Practical Learning.

By the 18th century, there were several converts among these scholars and their families. No priests entered Korea until 1794, when a Chinese priest James Chu Munmo visited Korea. The number of converts continued to increase, although the propagation of foreign religion on Korean soil was still technically against the law and there were sporadic persecutions. By the year 1865, a dozen priests presided over a community of some 23,000 believers.

With the coming to power in 1863 of Taewon’gun, a xenophobic prince regent, persecution began in earnest and continued until 1873. In 1925,79 Koreans who had been martyred during the Choson Dynasty persecutions were beatified at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and in 1968 an additional 24 were honored in the same way.

During and after the Korean War (1950-53), the number of Catholic belief organizations and missionaries increased. The Korean Catholic Church grew quickly and its hierarchy was established in 1962. TheRoman Catholic Church in Korea celebrated its bicentennial with a visit to Seoul by Pope John Paul II and the canonization of 93 Korean and 10 French missionary martyrs in 1984. It was the first time that a canonization ceremony was held outside the Vatican. This gave Korea the fourth-largest number of Catholic saints in the world, although quantitative growth has been slow for Catholicism.


In 1884, Horace N. Allen, an American medical doctor and Presbyterian missionary, arrived in Korea. Horace G. Underwood of the same denomination and Methodist Episcopal missionary, Henry G. Appenzeller, came from the United States the next year. They were followed by representatives of other Protestant denominations. The missionaries contributed to Korean society by rendering medical service and education as a means of disseminating their credo. Korean Protestants like Dr. So Chae’pil, Yi Sang-chae and Yun Ch’i-ho, all independence leaders, committed themselves to political causes.

The Protestant private schools, such as Yonhi and Ewha schools functioned to enhance nationalist thought among the public. The Seoul Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in 1903 along with other such Christian organizations. The organizations carried out socio-political programs actively, encouraging the inauguration of similar groupings of young Koreans. These groups pursued not only political and educational causes but also awakened social consciousness against superstitious practices and bad habits, while promoting the equality of men and women, elimination of the concubine system, and simplification of ceremonial observances.

The ever-growing vitality of the Protestant Churches in Korea saw the inauguration of large-scale Bible study conferences in 1905. Four years later, "A Million Souls for Christ" campaign was kicked off to encourage massive new conversions to the Protestant faith. Protestantism was warmly received not only as a religious credo but also for its political, social, educational and cultural aspects.


Ch’ondogyo was initiated as a social and technological movement against rampant competition and foreign encroachment in the 1860s. At that time, it was called Tonghak (Eastern learning) in contrast to Sohak(Western learning). The principle of Ch’ondogyo is Innaech’on, which means that man is identical with "Hanulnim," the God of Ch’ondogyo, but man is not the same as God. Every man, bears "Hanulnim," the God of Ch’ondogyo in their mind and this serves as the source of his dignity,while spiritual training makes him one with the divine.


The first Koreans to be introduced to Islam were those who moved to northeastern China in the early 20th century under Japan's colonial policy.

A handful of converts returned home after World War II, but they had no place to worship until Turkish troops came with the United Nations forces during the Korean War (1950-53) and allowed them to join their services.

Korean Islam's inaugural service was held in September 1955, followed by the election of the first Korean Imam (chaplain). The Korean Islamic Society was expanded and reorganized as the Korean Muslim Federation in 1967, and a central mosque was dedicated in Seoul in 1976.

*Editor's note: Romanization of Korean words has been modified to match the McCune-Reischauer system used in this guide.

© 2001 Korean Information Service (KOIS). Reprinted by permission. www.korea.net.

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