Rites Controversy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Shortly after the introduction of Roman Catholicism to Korea, the government cracked down when Catholics refused to practice traditional Confucian religious rituals. Many of those who persisted in practicing the banned Catholic faith became martyrs.

Summary of Event

After the introduction of Roman Catholicism in China, some Korean tributary envoys, who were regularly sent to Beijing four times a year or on special occasions, visited Catholic churches and met Jesuit Jesuits;China priests. The priests gave Catholic books to the Korean diplomats, who in turn brought them back to Korea. Some Korean scholars became so interested in the books that in 1779 Choŏng Yak-jong formed a study group at Ganghakdang to compare the new religion with Neo-Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism[NeoConfucianism] which was the state religion in Korea; the group included Yi Byŏk, Kwŏ Ilsin, Yi Gahwan, and two of Chŏng Yak-jong’s brothers. Chŏng Yak-jong was interested in reforming governance in Korea, notably by a system of land distribution based on egalitarian principles and by the placement of people in professions in accordance with their ability, and he drew philosophical strength for his ideas from the Christian faith. [kw]Rites Controversy (1785) [kw]Controversy, Rites (1785) Rites controversy (1785) Catholic Church;Korea Confucianism Korea;religion [g]Korea;1785: Rites Controversy[2600] [c]Religion and theology;1785: Rites Controversy[2600] [c]Government and politics;1785: Rites Controversy[2600] [c]Social issues and reform;1785: Rites Controversy[2600] Ch{obreve}ng Yak-jong Yi S{ubreve}nghun, Peter Yi By{obreve}k, John-Baptist Kw{obreve} Ilsin, Francis Xavier Kim Bomu, Thomas Ch{obreve}ngjo

The reigning monarch, Chŏngjo, was open to Western ideas, which offered new ways of thinking. However, there was factional rivalry among the political elites. Study group member Yi Byŏk, an aristocrat who belonged to the faction out of favor, found much wisdom in the high moral standards of the Christian philosophy that he encountered in the Jesuit missionary books. Accordingly, some of the scholars decided in principle to convert to Christianity, though they knew that they first needed to learn more about the faith.

One of Yi Byŏk’s friends was the twenty-seven-year-old Yi Sąnghun. In December, 1783, Yi Sŭnghun’s father, Yi Tonguk, was scheduled to go to Beijing as a chancellor of Korea’s winter solstice delegation. Yi Byŏk decided to encourage Yi Sŭnghun to accompany his father so that he could obtain more books about Roman Catholicism. Yi Sŭnghun then went along on the trip, accepted the Catholic faith while in Beijing, and was baptized by a French priest in early 1784, taking the Christian name Peter.

Upon returning to Seoul, Peter Yi Sŭnghun announced that he was a Christian. He carried out the first baptism in Korea when he performed the ritual on Yi Byŏk, who took the Christian name John-Baptist; later, he baptized Kwŏ Ilsin with the Christian name Francis-Xavier. Known as the “three apostles” of the Korean Catholic Church, Peter Yi Sŭnghun, John-Baptist Yi Byŏk, and Francis-Xavier Kwŏ Ilsin spread Catholicism among intellectuals of the noble class as well as the middle and lower classes, including women. As a result, there were more conversions, so recent convert Thomas Kim Bomu allowed Catholic services to be conducted each Sunday at his residence in the Myongdong district of Seoul, now the site of the Catholic Cathedral. The Christian community developed rapidly, with some four thousand adherents by 1794, and scholars continued to translate books on Catholic doctrine from Chinese into Korean. Under the lay leadership, they chose their own priests and began to celebrate mass and administer the sacraments.

Catholic missionaries were quite eager to spread Christianity in Asia. On encountering local religious practices, some Jesuit priests pragmatically decided to respect the rituals of other faiths. In 1742, when the pope was aware that Christians were performing Chinese and Indian rites, which he deemed idolatrous, he recalled three thousand errant Jesuit priests and missionaries and issued a directive banning Christians from celebrating non-Catholic rituals. Chinese Catholics were thus prohibited from carrying out offerings to their ancestors, and the newly converted Korean Catholics followed suit.

Henceforth, the Catholic faith was in conflict with Korean traditional culture. In March, 1785, Korean police and government officials learned that the Catholic community was meeting at Thomas Kim Bomu’s residence. Catholic doctrine prohibited the ancestral rites that Confucian custom considered as important expressions of filial piety to parents, so the government viewed Catholicism as “profane.” Catholics believed that politics should be separate from religion, but the rulers considered Catholic beliefs as a direct challenge to the authority of the king. The Catholics also rejected the social hierarchical system and the gender discrimination that placed women in subordinate roles. Christians of all classes were also openly in contact with the Church in China and French missionaries there, whereas the government prohibited or controlled strictly any contacts of the common people with foreigners.

Accordingly, Kim Bomu was arrested in 1785 for his role in providing a place for Catholics to congregate; after being tortured, he was exiled, and he died abroad in 1787. All Catholics were termed criminals by the state for practicing an immoral religion that did not perform Confucian mourning rituals and memorial services for parents. Indeed, most Koreans were shocked that the Catholics even burned ancestral tablets. The persecution of 1785 involved the royal court in banning not only the practice of Catholicism but also the importation of Christian literature from China.


Korea is the only country in the world where the Catholic Church was formed by laity: No priest came until 1794, when the early Christians learned from the bishop of Beijing that only members of the clergy could perform the sacraments. The Chinese priest who was then sent secretly to Korea was caught up in the persecution of 1801 and beheaded. The second priest to be smuggled into Korea arrived in 1836, and two followed in 1839, but all three were arrested, tortured, and executed. Consequently, there is a strong democratic tradition within the Korean Catholic Church, as many of the earliest leaders and members included commoners, notably pottery makers, and women seeking their own salvation; nobles who refused to renounce their Catholic faith were stripped of their privileges and titles. Ironically, Korean Christians are now allowed to practice Confucian ancestral rituals.

The crackdown of 1785 was relatively light, but it opened the way for the authorities to up the ante. In waves of persecution during 1791, 1801, 1839, 1846, and 1866, the government arrested and executed about ten thousand Christians, including one Chinese and twelve French missionaries. Governmental hostility to Christianity prevented Protestant missionaries from spreading the faith as well. In 1984, Pope John Paul II visited Korea and canonized 103 of the martyrs as saints for preferring to die as Christians rather than recanting their faith. Among countries in the world, Korea holds the distinction of having the fourth largest number of canonized saints. Today, Christians outnumber adherents of all other religions in Korea, accounting for nearly one-fourth of the population, though Protestants outnumber Catholics.

The persecution of the early Catholics has had a profound influence on Korean history. In 1882, the Korean-American treaty of trade and amity had a clause ending the persecution of Christians, so the churches began to flourish as never before. However, Christians who rejected Shinto rituals during the era of Japanese occupation (1910-1945) were also persecuted. Because of their history of persecution, Christians have been in the forefront of the struggle for Korean democracy and human rights, and some have sought refuge from political repression inside Myongdong Cathedral.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chung, David. Syncretism: The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Asks why Christianity was accepted successfully in a society previously exposed to Buddhism and Confucianism, the latter of which was the state religion when the first Koreans converted to Catholicism; answers that all foreign religious beliefs were assimilated into Korea’s indigenous shamanism, though Roman Catholicism soon opposed other religions and thus brought about a sharp conflict over ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grayson, James Huntley. Korea: A Religious History. New York: Routledge, 2002. Chronological description of Korean religions, from shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam, to Korean New Religions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yu, Chai-Shin, ed. The Founding of Catholic Tradition in Korea. Mississauga, Ont.: Korean and Related Studies Press, 1996. Essays pointing out that Catholicism entered Korea from the laity, rather than the clergy or church administration, and has grown despite or perhaps because of conflict with secular authorities.

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