Robert Jermain Thomas - from Wales to martyrdom in Korea 1866
When he was 15 years of age Robert joined the Hanover Church and by the time he was 17 he preached his first sermon on Hebrew 13:8, “Jesus, the same, yesterday, today and forever”. Robert studied for five years at London University where he leaned most of the European languages as well as studying medicine for 18 months with Doctor Waterman.
At age 24 he was ordained in his father’s church. Soon after his ordination he said good-bye to his family and departed with his new bride, Carolyn Godfrey, also skilled in languages, on a four month voyage to China to serve with London Missionary Society. Arriving in Shanghai in extremely cold weather they were invited to share a home with the head of the London Missionary Society in China – a man named William Muirhead. Sadly, it did not take long before Robert and William found that they disagreed greatly over mission practices.
A much greater crisis than disagreement was to follow. Robert left to travel to Hankow to find better living conditions for Carolyn, who was now pregnant. While all seemed well when he left, his young wife suddenly died from a miscarriage.
He poured out his grief in a letter to the London Missionary society, “My heart is well-nigh broken. I must seek somewhere a complete change. All that could be done for a sufferer was done for my dear wife. I trust to give myself more completely than ever to the noble work on which I have just entered but, at present, I feed weighed down by grief.” He followed this letter by taking up a position in Chefoo as a customs officer.
While In Chefoo he was introduced by Alexander Williamson of the National Bible Society of Scotland to two Korean men wearing Catholic crosses and possessing rosaries but having no Bibles. Motivated by their lack of the Scriptures he asked the Bible Society of Scotland for help to distribute Bibles in Korea. In 1865, aboard a small Chinese junk, he arrived on the mainland of Korea, becoming the first Protestant missionary to that land. Over the two and a half months there he picked up enough of the language to share some of the basics of the gospel and to pass out Bibles even though he knew it was at the risk of decapitation, or imprisonment and fines.
Catholicism had been in Korea since the late 1700s but in 1866 some 8,000 Catholic converts and a number of priests were massacred. In spite of this slaughter by those who feared foreign influence Robert was determined to bring the gospel into Korea. In the same year of the Catholic Massacre Robert learned that an American boat named the GENERAL SHERMAN was planning to sail to Korea to try to develop a relationship for trading. He offered to become an interpreter as he saw this as a chance to again bring the gospel.
While the boat sailed along the coast they received many warnings to turn back. As the ship sailed near the bank of the Taedong River Robert flung gospel literature onto the river banks. The authorities were angered by the arrival of the boat and demanded again that the boat leave at once. However, the Americans refused to head the order. When the little boat ran aground and stuck in the mud the Koreans tried to board the boat and the Americans fired upon them. For two weeks the Americans were successful in holding the Koreans off, killing 20 people with an unknown number wounded. Finally in desperation the Koreans sent several boats loaded with burning brush which set the stranded boat on fire. Those on board had to either try to swim ashore or burn to death.
The Koreans took the opportunity to kill the fleeing sailors, Robert being among them. It is said that he leaped from the boat with a Bible in hand to offer them. Reports vary, some saying that he was decapitated with the blade of a machete and others say he had opportunity to plead for his life but was beaten to death. There were no survivors and later Thomas and the other men murdered were buried on the island of Sook Syum (now in North Korea).
All was not in vain. One of the men involved in killing the sailors became convinced that they had
“killed a good man.” He kept a Bible that had been found and using the leaves of the Bible wallpapered his house with it. Curious people came and began reading this unusual wallpaper. In time many began to put their trust in the Saviour whom Robert served so faithfully though only for a short time. Twenty four years later the first fulltime missionary to Korea, Samuel Moffett, came and met people who had known Robert J. Thomas – some of them being the children of those who had executed him.
In 1932 the members of the Thomas Memorial Association which had been established by Rev. Samuel Austin Moffet built the Thomas Memorial Church. Under the communist regime the memorial church was destroyed in 1946 and it is now the site of a university.
The memorial in North Korea may no long exist but for Korean Christians Robert J Thomas continues to be honoured. The church where Robert grew up, and where his father was Pastor, in Llandor is visited by at least 800 Korean Christians a year and the manse where he lived has been turned into a place of memorial to him.
by Barbara Cross