Missions Launch

Helping those who help the world

Famous Missionary: Robert Jermain Thomas

by Carol Grace |

Famous Missionaries, Korea

 Man on Fire

Photo by Focal Intent

I was looking up famous missionaries yesterday and ran across someone I had never heard of before: Robert Jermain Thomas. After reading his biography, I was amazed. Why haven’t I heard of this man before?  His story is extremely powerful.

Why haven’t I heard of this man before?

Robert Jermain Thomas went to China in the 1800’s to be a missionary with his wife. However, Robert’s most famous story actually occurs in Korea. After a 5 month boat trip to get to China, he lost his young wife who died shortly after arrival. Robert stayed in China, but resigned from his missionary post. About a year later, he met 2 Korean Catholics who would change his destiny forever.

north korean billboardAt that time, all of Korea was called the Hermit Kingdom. It was known for its hostility to outsiders, similar to North Korea today, but possibly even more extreme.  There had been several priests in Korea since 1785, and those few priests were meeting in small house type churches with thousands of believers who had no Bibles or scriptures. The authorities were very hostile to Christianity and massacred almost 10,000 at one point around the same time Robert was in China.

Robert was very moved about the plight of the Koreans and begin making secret trips on trading ships to distribute Bibles under heavy disguise and serious threat of death if caught. His last trip was in 1866 on an American merchant trading ship as a translator. Upon entering Pyongyang, the current capital of North Korea, a battle ensued. The Koreans did not want the foreign traders there, and the captain of the American ship reportedly started shooting. This caused the Koreans to retaliate. During the battle the ship got stuck on a sand bar and the Koreans caught the ship on fire. Those who escaped and swam to shore were quickly killed by the soldiers on the banks.

On the deck of the burning ship, Robert flung open his cases of Bibles and began flinging them to the villagers on the shore watching and to the soldiers themselves shouting “Jesus!”  Finally, Robert himself caught on fire, still throwing the Bibles and jumped into the river. As he swam to shore he begged the awaiting soldier to take a Bible from him. Witnesses say the soldier was reluctant to kill him, but did his duty. Robert was only 27.

small handsMeanwhile, the scene of this passionate man so caring about the Bibles touched those on the shores who witnessed it. Some felt bad about destroying the Bibles he had so passionately tried to give away and took them home, using them as wallpaper.  Eventually, out of curiosity, they started reading the pages.

About 5o years later a huge revival broke out in Pyongyang. in 1904 10,000 became Christian. In 1906, 30,000…In 1907, 50,000 more. Finally, in 1931 a memorial church was built on the spot to honor Robert Jermain Thomas, who had died so passionately trying to give away Bibles with his last breath.

The soldier who had killed Robert, did end up taking the Bible. Choon Kwon Park later played an important role in establishment of the Pyongany Church. Today, many Koreans still visit the home of Robert Jermain Thomas in Wales to pay their respects and to remember.

To read more articles on Robert Jermain Thomas you can click here or here.

To purchase an autobiography of Robert’s life, you can visit Emmaus Road to find a copy of Stella Price’s book, Chosen for Choson.

Billboard photo by Mark Scott Johnson
Begging photo by Photos8.com

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