He had a burning desire to take the gospel to Korea. A gifted linguist, he had already mastered the rudiments of the Korean tongue.
Having secured passage as an interpreter on an American armed trading ship, the General Sherman, he set out for Pyongyang, the capital. As the ship sailed along the Taedong River, he distributed Chinese Bibles, portions of Scripture and tracts to people standing on the banks.
There are differing accounts of what happened next, but they all convey increasing tension. Trade between Koreans and foreigners (with the exception of the Chinese) was forbidden. The ship’s crew may also have been looking for opportunities to engage in robbery or smuggling.
Near Pyongyang they kidnapped the local chief of police, presumably with the aim of holding him hostage in return for a safe passage, if necessary. The result, however, was violent confrontation. The ship began firing at those on the banks of the river, and the Koreans attacked it. He and the others on board were captured and killed.
One account says that he offered Bibles and other pieces of Christian literature to the Koreans standing there, but was beaten to death on the spot. Another records that he was taken to the local governor and formally executed, having first given his last Bible to his executioner.
It was around 31 August 1866, 150 years ago, and Robert Jermain Thomas was not quite 27 years old. And that, so it seemed, was that. A biographical sketch published in Welsh in 1871 ends with his death, because at the time there was nothing more to be said. In fact, however, that was very far from being that!
Back to the beginning
But let’s begin at the beginning. He was born in 1839 at Rhaeadr Gwy (Rhayader in English) in the old county of Radnorshire, now in Powys. His father, Robert Thomas, was a Congregationalist minister there, and in the early 1840s his church experienced a time of remarkable spiritual revival.
In 1848 his father became minister of Hanover Chapel at Llanofer, not far from Abergavenny. Robert Jermain Thomas was accepted into membership of the chapel when he was only 15 years old. It was here that he preached his first sermon, on the text ‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever’.
After receiving an early education at Llandovery College, he taught for a short time at Oundle and then studied theology at New College, London.
In July 1863, he and his young wife Caroline set sail on the long and arduous journey to China under the auspices of the London Missionary Society. In December, they settled at Shanghai and began to learn Chinese.
Within a few months, however, Thomas experienced a devastating loss. While he was away at Hankow investigating the possibilities of moving there, his wife suffered a miscarriage and died. Her last recorded words were, ‘Jesus is very precious to me’.
Thomas expressed his feelings in a letter to the LMS: ‘My heart is well nigh broken … I trust to give myself more than ever to the noble work on which I have just entered, but at present I feel weighed down by deep grief’.
It would have been easy just to return to Wales, but, after coming to terms with his loss, Thomas sought out new opportunities to preach the gospel in China. Believing that the LMS’s policy locally was not sufficiently directed towards direct evangelism, he resigned from the society.
He moved to Chefoo and then to Beijing, where he came across some Koreans. Realising that there were similarities between the Chinese and Korean languages, he began to consider whether it would be possible for him to take the gospel to Korea.
For many centuries Korea had been a closed land, avoiding all contact with other nations with the exception of China. Catholic missionaries had ventured there from the 1790s, but the Korean authorities were hostile to Western influences and the Catholics suffered violent persecution.
Despite the dangers, in 1865 he made an exploratory journey to Korea under the auspices of the National Bible Society of Scotland. While there, he improved his grasp of the language, distributed Christian literature and investigated the possibilities of further evangelistic work.
Encouraged by what he saw, he resolved to venture into Korea with the gospel. The LMS, with which he had renewed his association, felt unable to support him. It has to be said that there was something rather headstrong about him, but there is no doubting his determination to see the cause of Christ flourish.
It was this commitment that led him to embark on the American trading ship. And it was this commitment that led to his death.
In the gracious providence of God, however, that was very far from being that. Again there are differing accounts, but it appears that some of the Koreans began to read the copies of the Bible and the tracts he had managed to distribute, and were converted.
It is recorded that, in one house, pages of the Bible were used as wallpaper and that those living there came to believe in Christ as a result. When missionaries eventually gained access to Korea, they found groups of believers along the banks of the river. Remarkably, the man who killed Thomas eventually became a Christian, and some of his descendants were to be preachers of the gospel.
In 1932 the Robert Thomas Memorial Church was opened in Pyongyang, on the bank of the river where he died. One of its first deacons recalled that as a young boy he saw Thomas killed and kept some of the Bibles thrown onto the shore.
The church’s cornerstone was inscribed with the words ‘The blood of the martyr’, the initial part of Tertullian’s famous saying, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’.
The building has since been destroyed by the Communist regime of North Korea, but it indicates the honour in which Thomas’s name was held by Korean believers. There is no sign of that honour fading.
Christianity has flourished in Korea for over a century, and large numbers of Korean believers visit Hanover Chapel every year to pay their respects to the man who died to bring the gospel to their country.
The chapel is, in fact, now in the care of a Korean minister who delights in welcoming visitors. Union School of Theology (formerly Wales Evangelical School of Theology) has also benefited from the link with Korea — a Korean church has expressed its gratitude for Thomas’s sacrifice by donating a large sum of money, to erect a meeting hall and lecture rooms on the School’s Bridgend campus.
‘The darkness has not overcome it’
Following Thomas’s death, the American ambassador in Beijing wrote to his parents as follows: ‘Your son was most favourably known at the legations and by the missionaries of the East. He was a remarkable scholar. When he died, a great light went out’.
But the light of the gospel certainly did not go out with his death. He had little direct opportunity to witness to Christ in Korea before he was struck down. And yet, in the sovereign purposes of God, he was the means of bringing the gospel to that land. And, in the last 100 years, Korea has seen perhaps a greater proportion of believers than any other on the face of the earth, not to mention large numbers of missionaries sent to other countries. Like Abel, ‘though he died, he still speaks’.
Now retired, Dr Davies was a lecturer in church history at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology