What began as a brief visit to a small church in Wales led Stella Price to a living, dynamic relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ in both China and Korea. In researching and entering into the life of Robert Jermain Thomas, she also came to understand the adage "In the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."
I first "met" Robert Jermain Thomas at Hanover Chapel in Llanover, South Wales. On the inside walls of this tiny church, an old, water-stained photograph hung to the left of the pulpit. Underneath were the words "Robert Jermain Thomas, First Protestant Martyr to Korea, Died in 1866." Blue and red silk tassels decorated the pulpit; a guest book filled with Korean signatures lay on top of a small rectangular table. Many had come specifically to honor this man who had died almost 150 years before. Even if his wasn't a household name in Wales, Thomas was certainly esteemed by Koreans.
Within yards of the church was a small cottage, the parsonage where Robert grew up with his brothers and sisters. I imagined him catching a toad or playing cricket in the fields. As a boy he studied at Llandovery College, Wales; at 16 he attended Principal Academy in London; at 17 he preached his first sermon at Hanover Church, entitled "Jesus Christ, the Same, Yesterday, Today, Forever" (Hebrews 13:8), and at 18 he gained provisional acceptance at New College, London, England. There he distinguished himself as a linguist in his studies of Greek, Latin and French.
I began to think of him not as my stereotype of a missionary but as the rich young ruler whom Jesus loved: content with his status but longing for more. In researching his story I learned he had fallen out with several of his professors at New College. In a letter to the governing board he wrote, "Ill health prevents my return to college this session. But though it will not allow continuous study, I am glad to say I can preach with little inconvenience." These few lines puzzled the New College Council as much as they did me. Thomas was apparently well enough to preach at Wrexham, a church that his father had pastored, but not well enough to resume his studies. But it was this independent and rebellious spirit, combined with his ability to excel in languages, that would later on prove useful on both the Chinese and Korean mission fields.
Passage to China
In 1863, at age 24, he left London for China. With his new wife, Caroline Godfrey, Thomas traveled on the Polmaise, a 753-ton ship. He'd been ordained and commissioned for missionary work in Shanghai, China, and the four-month voyage on the steamer meant the couple had to be not only hopeful but hearty. To travel in 1863 meant risking much, including diseases like smallpox. In his first letter home to his parents after arriving in Shanghai, Thomas described a fellow traveler who was "recovering nicely from having caught the smallpox" as if he had a common cold. In this same letter he included a note for his sister, promising to "send . . . a fan or something pretty that would arrive in the next five months," and hopefully not infected with smallpox.
Within five months of their arrival in Shanghai, though, Thomas' wife died from a miscarriage. He was not present at her death; he had gone to Hankow to find housing during the hot and sticky summer. He resigned soon after from the London Missionary Society and accepted a position as customs officer in Chefoo (Yentai). Was he walking away from missionary work, unable to meet the challenge-just as the rich young ruler did? Or did his move to Chefoo reflect something greater?
At the very least he needed time to grieve and rethink his calling to the mission field. Two significant friends, Joseph Edkins of the London Missionary Society and Alexander Williamson of the National Bible Society, lived close to Thomas' future residence, and their support would prove crucial. It was an incident in Williamson's home, in fact, that motivated Thomas to travel again. Williamson introduced Thomas to two Catholic Koreans who were eager to read Bibles but did not yet possess any. Thomas was gripped by their plight, and through Williamson began negotiating with the Scottish Bible Society to take Chinese-print Bibles to Korea. Eventually Thomas took two missionary journeys along the coast of what we now know as North Korea. Called the Hermit Kingdom by foreigners, the region was notoriously hostile to visitors and wanted nothing to do with Westerners. In fact, if locals purchased Bibles or literature prohibited by the Taewong'un or Prince Regent, they were punished by death or imprisonment. Foreigners who spoke to or traded with Koreans were subject to the same peril.
A Passion for the Word
What spurred this 27-year-old to risk his life to take the Scriptures to a people he hardly knew? I found the answer in one of his letters; it was simple but passionate: "I feel a strong desire for mission work to China . . . it is my duty to go [to] China." I remembered the tales Welsh grandfathers had told--of generations of coal miners who had risked their lives as they were lowered down in the iron cages into the mines day after day; or the firemen who risked their lives at the World Trade Center. All were doing their "duty"--doing what was expected because they loved their families and extended this love to their communities.
And so a privileged Welshman risked his life for a people who were dying without the knowledge of Christ. Why? It was his "duty," a word synonymous with "love" in the Wales I once knew.
In 1866 Thomas' duty and love took him on his second missionary journey to Pyongyang, Korea, where 10,000 Korean Catholics had been murdered. He was well aware of the threats of the French and Russian advancement that caused Koreans to shout the slogans "Death to the Western Barbarians! Death to all Christians!"
The sounds must have been loud and clear on the streets of Korea during a highly dangerous time, but the young Thomas, dressed in Korean clothes, was daring and unconventional in his approach. He was determined to advance the gospel, undeterred by the obstacles, and once again took hundreds of Bibles to thousands of people along the coast. Many would reciprocate as they risked their lives to regain their liberty of conscience.
Aboard a merchant ship called The General Sherman, Thomas traveled into Pyongyang. On several occasions he was asked by Korean officials to leave. Some believed The Sherman was a spy ship; others called it a raider of tombs. Merchant ship or not, it was clear that Thomas' purpose was to take Bibles to anyone willing to read them.
But on September 3, 1866, the Taewong'un commanded the destruction of The Sherman along with all passengers and crew. Despite the inequality between the strength of The Sherman and local boats, the Koreans used their ingenuity and floated several burning boats (turtle boats or scows) loaded with brush sprinkled with sulfur to the schooner. There were no survivors.
Despite his brief contact, Thomas became legendary in both North and South Korea; in the North he was considered an enemy of the empire, and in the South the first martyred Protestant missionary to Korea.
This Welsh man, this son of a minister, had been a "spiritual miner" who gleaned from his predecessors that missionary work was the duty of every man. In only three years the work of this young man, who left London for China with his bride, had been reduced to nothing. What was God doing? Some of his colleagues at the London Missionary Society considered his final missionary journey a failure and an embarrassment, but the Korean Church--to this day--believes otherwise. I do too.
While in her native Wales, Stella Price, M.S., instructor of English at Gordon, pieced together the story of this martyr through handwritten letters, a Ph.D. thesis, and many conversations. Her book, Chosen for Choson, was published in 2007 by Emmaus Road Ministries (ERM) www.roadmin.org, a humanitarian and missionary organization begun by Stella and her husband, Dr. Stephen Price, in 1997 following a short-term medical mission in war-torn Congo, Africa. Since then ERM has been actively involved through medical service, missions, conference, workshops and drama productions in numerous countries of the world. Their current focus of medical missions to North Korea and China is a direct result of learning of Thomas' work in Asia.